SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Passengers arriving at Sacramento International Airport's new terminal will have an easy time finding the baggage claim: Just look for the giant red rabbit leaping over the carousels.
The 56-foot-long, 10,000-pound aluminum rabbit conceived by Denver artist Lawrence Argent is the centerpiece of the $1 billion terminal. Even though the terminal has been open only since Oct. 6, its distinctive resident has already inspired a nickname: The Hare-port.
The Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission wanted something iconic to mark the gateway to Sacramento, a city that is known as the center of politics in the nation's most populous state but often lurks in the shadows of more famous destinations in California, like San Francisco or Lake Tahoe.
They liked the idea that it wasn't a typical perspective of what people saw Sacramento as," said Shelly Willis, the commission's public art director. "It will be something that people think of when they think of Sacramento."
The $6 million budget for the rabbit and the terminal's other artwork came from the overall construction budget, which was funded by bond sales, airline fees and surcharges on passenger tickets, concessions, parking, and rental cars.
The $800,000 sculpture, titled "Leap," is suspended by seven cables affixed to steel girders. The rabbit appears to be bounding in from the fields that surround the airport north of downtown, leaping down to the baggage claim. To arriving passengers, it is diving toward a swirling vortex inside a granite suitcase, as if inviting them into an "Alice in Wonderland" adventure.
Argent said he chose the striking color because of its association with speed: "It needed to have the acceleration of a Ferrari, and that somehow stuck in my head."
Willis said members of the arts commission, which selected Argent's work, believed it would create buzz for Sacramento, a city of 466,000 that has been struggling since the recession with cutbacks to state government, a bust in construction spending and a high rate of home foreclosures.
"They immediately thought it would be iconic. It would be fun, it's whimsical, that it had lots of different meanings in different cultures," she said.
Argent is no stranger to creating new icons: He also designed the 40-foot tall, royal blue bear outside the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. But whether or not his rabbit will reach that status, it's already a magnet for photographers and the subject of much discussion.
Yuba City resident Jesse Magana, who saw the rabbit on his return flight from Las Vegas, saw a bit of himself in it: "I think it's cool because in the Chinese zodiac, I'm the year of the hare." And as it happens, the terminal opened in the year of the rabbit, according to the Chinese calendar.
Alice Smith, a Sacramento resident for nearly 50 years, said she felt the rabbit didn't accurately represent the city. Sacramento, which used to be a crossroads for fortune seekers headed to the Sierra Nevada gold fields, was a railroad hub and sits at the head of California's vast delta region.
"It's just not a warm thing, it's not welcoming," Smith said. "It's not natural for the area."
Argent said he chose the rabbit because many stories from different cultures are associated with the animal. Travelers are leaping into the unknown, he said, and they all bring their own stories on their journeys.
The design also was a way to integrate the art with the architecture of the new three-story-high terminal, with its soaring glass windows that provide views of the landscaped and agricultural fields outside.
"I wanted to play around with the idea that something has come from the outside and leapt into the building," Argent said. "Scale, position, all had something to do with becoming one with the architecture and not a separate entity."
Tim McNeil, a professor of design at the University of California, Davis, said place-markers like the rabbit create a sense of belonging that travelers can use as a landmark.
He said it's typical for large sculptures to draw lukewarm reactions initially, "but as they become entrenched or create an identity to the space, people start to feel connected to it."
"What starts off with some negativity becomes a positive thing because it rallies people and communities around it," he said.
Casey Chapman, who lives in the Sacramento suburb of Roseville, said she wasn't sure how she felt about the artwork. As she waited for family members to arrive from Denver, she at least acknowledged one of its talking points.
"It's really big, and you really can't miss it," she said. "That's the one thing they got across."