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Philly artist Kambel Smith, who has autism, opens an exhibit at Philadelphia International Airport

“He said to me that he’s glad the world will see his sculptures."

A traveler looks at Kambel Smith's cardboard sculptures, which are now on display in terminal A at Philadelphia International Airport.
A traveler looks at Kambel Smith's cardboard sculptures, which are now on display in terminal A at Philadelphia International Airport.Read morePhiladelphia International Airport

Germantown artist Kambel Smith — who builds large-scale, intricate sculptures of buildings out of cardboard — was excited to exhibit his work at Philadelphia International Airport this year, according to his dad, Lonnie Smith.

“He said to me that he’s glad the world will see his sculptures,” Smith said.

But when the Smith family went to the airport last week to help install the pieces, Kambel, 32, saw something else that excited him even more — scores of large, empty cardboard boxes.

“He saw some of them and he asked me to ask if he could have them,” Lonnie Smith said.

The folks at the airport, including Leah Douglas, director of guest experience, were more than happy to accommodate the request and even offered to drop off boxes at his home.

“Yes — we will deliver cardboard to Kambel once life gets normalized {post coronavirus] and likely will continue to do so rather than putting larger sections into our recycling stream,” Douglas said. “Win, win!”

For Kambel, who creates his sculptures freehand at lightening speeds, that connection will be invaluable.

“I told them if they deliver a box and come back a month later, there will be a building made out of it," Lonnie Smith said.

Originally an oil painter, Kambel turned to creating sculptures from cardboard he found in the trash when his dad ran out of money for canvases to paint on.

Both Kambel (who has never taken an art class) and his brother, Kantai (who is a gifted coder), have been diagnosed with autism, but instead of viewing autism as a disability, the Smith family has embraced it as a superpower. They’ve even created a narrative about the superhuman evolution of those with autism, whom they call Autisarians, and they are hard at work on an Autisarian nonprofit center in Fishtown, the opening of which has been delayed due to the coronavirus.

For years, Lonnie Smith tried to get Kambel’s work noticed, to no avail. It was only when a neighbor saw Kambel working on one of his sculptures on the family’s front lawn in September 2018 and posted photos of his work to social media that his career took off.

Last year, Kambel exhibited at the Outsider Art Fair in New York City, Marlborough gallery in London, and the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center in Georgia. His pieces have sold for upwards of $25,000 and have been purchased by the American Folk Art Museum, the West Collection, and various private investors — including one in Texas who bought his sculpture of Lincoln Financial Field for an undisclosed amount.

In November, Kambel had his first Philadelphia gallery show at the Fleisher/Ollman Gallery in Center City. That’s where Douglas — the director of guest experience at Philadelphia International — first saw his work.

Douglas said she was struck that so many of Kambel’s sculptures are of iconic Philadelphia buildings. Given that he’s a Philadelphia artist — and the airport only displays work by regional artists — she was excited to invite him to display a few of his pieces there.

Kambel’s sculptures of the the Guild House and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, as well as his sculptures of the Manhattan Bridge in New York City and the Westin Hotel in Atlanta, were installed last weekend in international terminal A, which is also accessible to domestic travelers, Douglas said.

Though foot and air traffic is down considerably at the airport as a result of the coronavirus, Kambel’s show will be on view through September 2020. Douglas said she hopes travelers — both local and from afar — will have a chance to take in the “monumental scale” of Kambel’s work.

“When they read the exhibition description the story will be revealed,” she said. “I just want them to be captivated by the work itself because of the scale and familiarity of the structures.”

Douglas said that often, art exhibits at the airport have a life of their own in the virtual world, thanks to travelers who snap photos and share them on social media.

“The amount of feedback artists get is truly pretty amazing,” she said.

Meanwhile, Kambel continues to create, filling his family’s living room to capacity with his sculptures.

“I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Lonnie Smith said.

This year alone, Kambel has sculpted the Sydney Opera House, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh, the New York Flatiron Building, and an 11-foot Chrysler Building.

“He’s moving a lot faster,” Lonnie Smith said.

For Douglas, Kambel’s work is yet another reason to love the Philadelphia art scene.

“Every time I turn around there’s something new,” she said. “I’m truly grateful to be working in the Philadelphia area because the talent is just nonstop.”