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The “Lights” Are Still Bright at the Whitewater Centerby Tim Miner on January 15, 2020
The holiday lights have been packed up and put away for another year across the city, but there is still holiday magic alive in the air (and the woods) at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. “Lights,” an immersive light exhibit installed along a half-mile trail opened just before Thanksgiving and is still burning brightly every night from 6:00 – 10:00pm through mid-February. There’s still time to experience it and we’ve asked its creator, artist Meredith Connelly, about her inspiration and process for bringing “Lights” to life.
Did the idea for “Lights” come first or were you tasked with activating the area and you developed it from there?
Honestly, it all started with a cup of coffee and a conversation. The center was looking for opportunities to drive their mission of getting people active and outside during the colder months and began exploring a variety of new activity options.
The programmatic approach of “Lights” came together organically through early conversations with Jesse Hyde (USNWC Strategic Director) and his team. Then, I took that foundational concept and built the experience. The artistic concept truly came to life as I GPS-plotted the trail with my pencils and sketchbook in tow. Every step taken along the trail was planned. All the installations were designed especially for the spaces they inhabit.
What materials did you use?
I’m inspired by simple utilitarian, industrial materials that diffuse light, can be reused/re-defined texturally and — for this project — sustain the harsh natural elements.
I used 1,700 lbs. of photo-reactive gravel, recorded a water sound on-site that plays at two of the installations, fog, 20,000+ zip ties, 600+ plastic balls,
thermoplastic pellets that were melted, ripstop fabric, Vinyl duct tubing, Pex tubing, braided tubing, UVI stretch wrap, damaged rope light, cast resin, cast fiberglass, vines collected from the trail, etc. As for the lighting, I used:
- 2,500 feet globe lighting
- 5,100+ feet of rope lighting
- 50 up lights
- 55 RGB bulbs
How long did installation take & how many people were involved?
I began fabrication the stage on August 21 of this 2019 with my team of three on-site at USNWC (nearly 200 individual sculptures in the 15 installations) and we began installation on Nov. 1. It took two weeks of non-stop work. And, rain/cold didn’t stop us. Two core “Lights” Team members (Greg Hall and Jill Kowalski) and I, along with shifts of USNWC’s team skilled at suspension (four people, in rotation), 13 Salary/hourly whitewater staff members for specific tasks and roughly 10 volunteers/interns for special shifts.
What emotions were you hoping people would experience while encountering “Lights”?
At the core, my work is about connectivity and the intention is relatively pure — to interact and engage with the art, and with the natural environment.
It is my hope viewers will simultaneously experience a sense of otherworldly curiosity, child-like familiarity and comforting warmth. Almost like an inhale and exhale. From my perspective, I also love the parallel of my artistic process with how the installations are viewed. We all walk the same path. The path that I walked where it all began, is the path they walk to see the work actualized and brought home.
What reactions have you gotten from people who’ve experienced “Lights”?
I have been grateful, astonished and awed by the response to the project. And, I truly treasure the conversations and memories made on the trail. People thank me for making the art, which I find intriguing because I’m overwhelmed with gratitude to those that have taken the stroll and taken time to experience art in the woods
There have been several engagement proposals, which made me feel like a huge mushball!
I met a family who said they had been five times and that their kids always want to go through twice. The night I met them, I walked the trail with them. The children were full of wonder, asked glorious questions. At the end, their little boy said, “You’re funny, I like you.”
Other comments I’ve heard:
- “I feel like I’m in another world.”
- “This is magical.”
- “I have traveled the world and never seen anything like this.”
- “You made ALL of this!?!?!”
- “It’s comforting.” (That one hit me in my heart)
Another kiddo told me she wanted to make a nature monster and the little boy next to her said he was going to make a crystal spider. They also helped me add in some more sticks to the nest.
I met a 12-year-old girl who was timid about calling herself an artist. I told her that it took me until my senior year in college to call myself one and she should just own it! She is a total artist and I walked the trail with her and her family. I loved hearing about her projects.
I have received lots of great questions, but the most impactful question asked was “Are you able to enjoy your own work?”
That one really caused me to dig deep in a very introspective and honest way. I find that when I’m walking alone, I am enjoying the environment, but I am also viewing with critical/perfectionist eyes and from a place of adjustment, process assessment and improvement. However, when I am with others, it’s almost as if I am experiencing it through their eyes and can step back from “work mode” and absorb it.
Some might say (not The Biscuit, by the way) that the USNWC is an odd location for something like lights? Why do you think it’s ideal for just that?
To them, I would say “Why not?” There are no rules about how/when/and where art experiences should occur. I would even say, there may be greater impact and opportunity to place art in unexpected spaces and places. You don’t have to be quiet or sit still. You can bring your dog and carry a beer. It’s ok if your toddler runs ahead of you chattering. You can (with kindness) touch the art!
It’s authentic and real and that is why I was so honored to do this project at the Center. That’s the USNWC’s approach and it aligns flawlessly with the importance of art for all. Not only that, but they made it free to the public, which I think was a beautiful gift to our community.
Please tell us this isn’t the last installation like this!
I can’t speak for USNWC in terms of their future programming plans, but after designing and executing work at this scale in the vastness of the outdoors, my process has shifted in a very special way. I plan to work very hard to bring more installations to communities that will receive them — and hope this project is the beginning of that path. I already have a slew of concepts brewing and I want to continue creating and sharing as much as I am able to! I’m ready to work.