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Twenty years ago Robert Calvo had a promising career going in commercial art. He held a degree from the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, one of the better commercial art schools in the country, and was fast proving himself to be a top-notch practitioner in the fields of graphic design and illustration.

Then along came sailboats.

"At some point I had become disenchanted with commercial art. In the late '70s I dropped out and began building sailboats," Calvo says by telephone from his home and studio in Portland, Ore.

Making boats led to making sculpture: "I think it was the working with the tools, the putting together of things, the engineering -- the whole process of building boats -- that influenced my move to sculpture."

Lucky for Buffalo. Calvo is the designer of the richly colored terrazzo floor for the new Buffalo Niagara International Airport terminal.

At 48, he makes his living entirely from his sculpture and prints, and has done so for eight years now. Three galleries handle his work, and his public art projects -- he's currently finishing up another important commission at the Miami International Airport -- are increasingly in demand.

After his stint with boat-building Calvo went back to school to study sculpture and printmaking, first at the University of Texas and then at the University of South Florida in Tampa. In Florida he came in contact with such big art-world guns as Robert Rauschenberg -- an artist famous for incorporating commonplace images within complex silkscreen paintings -- and billboard painter-turned-pop artist James Rosenquist.

"Rauschenberg especially has helped me because of his layering of imagery -- something I do a lot of," says Calvo. "He makes the mundane very beautiful."

While in Florida he also worked at Graphics Studio, a professional printmaking outfit run through the university and dedicated to the printing of the work of well-known fine artists. As part of the compensation for his work he came away with a print by another famed pop artist, Jim Dine.

"It was good experience working at Graphic Studio," he says. "And the Dine print turned out to be worth a lot of money. When I moved to Portland I put a down payment on my house and studio with it."

Place is important to Calvo. The Northwest beckoned when friends moved there just at a time when Calvo was looking for a change of scenery. With its dozen art galleries and active art community, Portland is strong on the arts. He lives in an older neighborhood with lots of trees and Mount Hood ever in sight. His studio is directly behind his house.

Ideas of community and its opposite, transience, are threaded through all his work, he says. Though quite different visually than his public work, his sculpture nonetheless refers to similar themes. The sculptures are small, craftlike pieces that resemble stripped-down domestic architecture -- barns, houses, churches and grain elevators.

"I hesitate to even say 'barn' and 'house,' " he explains. "They are more generalized forms than these words suggest. They are very minimal and the surfaces are rustic -- flaked paint and hammered copper."

Obviously, the experience of a Calvo terrazzo floor is of another order. You don't exactly look at the expansive work in the new terminal as you look at a self-contained piece of sculpture. The design stretches on through the concession link -- a tear-shaped area between the main lobby and the gate concourse -- for nearly 250 feet. At points it is 65 feet wide. You can never get it all in your sights. Rather, you pass over it as you might over a huge map, with visual events unfolding before you as you move.

Walking across this floor, you are taking a symbolic journey retracing the great movements of history in the Niagara Region. "There is a sense of history and mutability in this work, as there is in all the work," Calvo says.

And this isn't just the upper nub of our history, either. In his research Calvo marshaled an immense amount of information on many levels, beginning with the geological movements of the glacial epoch to the full spectrum of human history from that of the Native people to modern times.

"I found that many of these events took place over and through the landscape," Calvo says. "I focused on the isthmus of land between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, making it a passageway for these events."

He distills this colossal march through time to eight large themes: Natural History, Animal Migration, Native Habitation, European Exploration, Colonization, Immigration, Trade, and Transportation. Each theme is represented abstractly by a strand of colored terrazzo that traces, with as much cartographical accuracy as possible, the movement of the historical event over the land.

Then, to give these events a pictorial presence, Calvo represents each category with a symbolic figure set in a decorative medallion. Natural History, for example, is represented by New York State's official fossil, Eurypterid, a kind of crab that lived during the Paleozoic era; Native culture is represented by an Iroquois carved comb, and Immigration by that ever-serviceable symbol, the torch.

The culminating point for the entire design is the intertwining of the eight historical strains at the terminal's bank of arrival/departure monitors. At the very spot where each person thinks of other places, of mobility and of transience, Calvo brings the entire history of the area together in a single, dense tapestry.

"This weaving of ideas into a tapestry is the central idea of the piece for me," he says. "All things meet in central Niagara and become a collective symbol for community."

Initially more than 150 artists from the United States and Canada submitted proposals for the design of the terrazzo floor; 54 of these were reviewed. A nine-person panel headed by NFTA Commissioner Mary S. Martino selected Calvo by a unanimous vote. Panel members were Margot Glick, Stephen Biltikoff, Duncan Reid, Douglas Schultz, Walter Zmuda, Anthony Bannon, Mark Mendell, James Pappas and the chief architect of the terminal, William Pedersen.

The design, materials and cost of construction of the terrazzo floor was $350,000, an amount that encompassed the existing budget for standard floor construction. The artist's commission was $40,000. Calvo's floor is the sole artwork planned for the terminal.