Monthly Archives: July 2014

When Cities Play with Light: A study in public art displays

A few weeks ago we visited a friend in Philadelphia. Our friend planned out an extensive walking tour that kept us exploring until well after the sun went down. As the evening grew darker we strolled back toward downtown on Broad street. Referring to the numerous enormous murals we passed along the way, our friend informed us that Philadelphia was known as a city of murals and that the downtown area was full of them. While stopped at a traffic light I looked up and was suddenly struck with awe. There on the other side of the street we marveled at a magnificent mural covering the entire side of a multistory building. The building’s wall crenelated in and out and every surface was covered in faces. The painting was made all the more impressive by the lights shining on its surface.  The lights changed color every few seconds and each change illuminated faces you couldn’t see before. Different colors brought out different faces and the overall effect was mesmerizing. Walking closer, we learned it was called “The Evolving Face of Nursing.” See this video to see it in action.

For the most part, public art makes me happy. Beautifying common spaces benefits us all. I like to think of it as an extension of the “Broken Window Theory” tested by the New York City Police in the 1980’s. Just like how fixing broken windows sets a positive precedent, public art likewise gives positive signals: This is a community…we all live here…we all want it to be beautiful and meaningful…let’s beautify it together. In the case of this Philadelphia mural, the subject, the style, and the intriguing light illusions worked together to be meaningful for that community. Downtown Philadelphia is home to several medical schools so the subject of nursing is significant and personal. The faces depicted displayed an ethnic and age diversity which reflects the eclectic makeup of the city. And the light trick was just, well, cool. Like the Bean in Chicago, I think this mural is worth a stop on any Philadelphia tour.

Like I said, for the most part, public art makes me happy….when it works. Now, I realize this might be a touchy subject. Art is largely subjective. Preferences range widely and wildly. What one person appreciates as a beautiful or fun addition to their city others might find tacky or overly abstract or just a flat-out waste of money. It is also near impossible to outguess what people would like.

This was my dad’s favorite cow in 2000. He could see it from his office.

For instance, who would have thought that the CowParade would become such an international phenomenon? As a kid, that was the best summer to visit the New York City; there was a different hilarious cow on every other block. But if I had come up with this idea, and told you that we were going to put hundreds of cow statues throughout Manhattan, you’d think I was nuts. In short, it is hard to tell what will create widespread meaning and appreciate in a population.

That said, I do believe the most popular pieces have a few things in common. The murals, the cows, the Bean…all of these are personal to the city and accessible to the average onlooker. This Evolving Face of Nursing achieves both of these.

By contrast, as I thought about the illuminated faces of that Philadelphia mural I remembered two new Chicago installations which also play with light.

Lightscapes of State Street

In 2011, Chicago installed Lightscapes: A Multi-Sensory Experience on State Street. Then in 2013, Wabash and Congress Streets were lined with light towers that glow different colors at night. On the one hand, the Lightscapes project had good intentions. The Loop association wanted to avoid all of the waste involved in holiday light displays so they instead created a semi-permanent light display that could be customized for holiday activities. The light poles are designed to look like prairie grass and are topped with energy-efficient LED lights which blink in choreographed patterns along to music coming from hidden speakers. In theory, it sounds like a really interesting idea. The problem is execution. The light sticks look rather cheap up close. They certainly do not look like prairie grass and, even if they did, I doubt there are many people on State Street wishing they were out on the prairie, especially since so many them are tourists come to see the big city. Supposedly, the lights dance to recognizable songs, but every time I’ve passed by, the lights just fade in and out and the music (barely audible) just sounds like experimental, electronic tones strung together…beep boom bleeb bum beep beep. Ironically, this display is best viewed at night, but almost everything on State Street closes at 8PM. Overall, this display has little to do with Chicago or the people in it, so it is not personal, and the execution creates more confusion than engagement, indicating it is not accessible. The same can be said for the lights on Congress. To add insult to injury, there is the issue of the price tag. Now, argue all you want that you can’t put a price on art, but this first display cost $1 million, a sum which, in addition to being FAR more than what the traditional holiday lights cost, was funded largely by property taxes, i.e. monies that could have been spent easing the financial crisis threatening the city. And the Congress lights display? $3.4 million. Take that as you will.

Compare these projects with the privately funded Bay Lights project that lights up the Bay Bridge which connects San Fransisco and Oakland. In this case, the art transforms an already familiar feature of the city landscape. The 25,000 lights that glimmer along the wires of the suspension bridge never make the same pattern, so every night is different and easily engages onlookers with its shimmering spectacle resembling a peaceful, fluttering firework. See what I mean:

The Bay Lights installation follows suit with being both personal and accessible. As an added bonus, this $8 million project is estimated to bring ~$100 million in tourism revenue to the Bay Area. So…personal, accessible, AND cost effective. Way to go, San Fran.

In sum, if you are an artist looking to make public art, consider the installations that have come before yours. What do the popular ones have in common? What make them meaningful to the people of that city? Know your audience. Know that they seem to like things that are personal and accessible. “Wow” factors, humor, and positive financial consequences also don’t hurt. If you think that these characteristics are too constraining, then you probably shouldn’t be making public art.


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Filed under Running Commentary on whatever tickles the fancy, Travel

Frozen Dads

Disclaimer: I don’t really get the hype over Disney’s Frozen.

I know, I know…keep your ear muffs on and let me explain.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the film both times I saw it. I’ve been singing along to the tunes like everyone else. “Let it Go” is frequently featured in my shower. The snowman Olaf still makes me laugh. But…it is now 8 months past the film’s release and people are still obsessed. Did you know people have waited for 5 hours to meet the two Frozen princesses at Disney World?

Why is this? Why is Frozen so different from other recent Disney films? For instance, Tangled’s adaptation of the classic Rapunzel story impresses me more each time I see it. The visual development of the New Orleans world of The Princess and the Frog is absolutely enchanting. Yet these films don’t seem to get due acclaim.

Additionally, the story in Frozen has many holes. For instance, why does Elsa’s power need to be kept secret from Anna? Why does Anna feel so trapped and alone when is seems like she is perfectly free to leave the castle? Why does Olaf claim to be constantly dreaming of summer when he only materialized, like, uh, 5 minutes ago? Why trolls? Why do they have knowledge of Elsa’s gift/curse?  Why is there no foreshadowing of **spoiler** Hans’ betrayal, especially after that cute love song? I could go on, but all this to say, I just don’t quite get it.

However, while I don’t understand the hype, that is not to say that I am not enjoying it. I’ve gotten a particular kick out of how these Dads have jumped into the flow, so watch and enjoy!

This one is both parents, and its already gone totally viral but I wanted to share it anyway. I love how their daughter couldn’t care less in the backseat.

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Filed under Questions, Running Commentary on whatever tickles the fancy

Top 4 Moments of our most Americantastic 4th of July

DSC_1150Call me a sucker, but man, do I love celebrating the 4th of July. I love the fireworks, the fatty food, the ridiculous ways we choose to sport our reds, whites, and blues. But these things are to Independence Day what Santa is to Christmas: fluff. Roll your cynical eyes all you want, but I advocate that the 4th is a time for thinking; we need to remember not to take for granted our glorious heritage and freedoms. Our Independence Day recalls one of the most momentous events in all of human history, a day in which a people proclaimed their God-given rights and declared that they would be ruled by laws and not men. As Jeff says in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, “Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books…Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: I’m free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn’t, I can, and my children will.”

And so it was that our trip to visit some East Coast friends turned into the most Americantastic 4th of July ever. See our itinerary to see what I mean:

Day 1: Shenandoah National Park; Watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington that evening in our cabin
Day 2: Naturalization Ceremony at Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson; drive to Washington DC and view the fireworks over the National Mall.
Day 3: Explore DC, including our first-time visit to Theodore Roosevelt Island
Day 4: Explore DC, travel with friends to Philadelphia
Day 5-6: Explore Philadelphia, including Independence Hall, Christ Church, grave of Benjamin Franklin; run up Art museum steps like Rocky; eat cheese steak and Amish donuts.

In case your holiday was not quite as Americantastic, here are some top moments for you to ponder:

#1: Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you…

DSC_1087On our first morning we woke to sunny skies peeking through the windows of our cabin. A short drive and a bagel later we arrived at the gates of Shendoah National Park. The familiar wide brimmed hat of the park ranger who admitted us was a welcome site. I have such deep admiration for the men and women who have protected the parks over the years, and I highly recommend Dayton Duncan’s book, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, as well as the accompanying Ken Burns documentary by the same title, for learning the stories behind these heroes of our American wilderness. Once inside the park, we drove a little ways to reach the trail head. The ensuing meandering pathway took us down to the base of a magnificent waterfall. We waded in the chilly water and cooled our selves in the misty spray. I remembered John Muir:

 “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”

America is awesome. We just need to get out and see it.


 #2: Huzzah for the new Americans!

DSC_1100Sometime during the planning for this trip we discovered that Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, hosts a naturalization ceremony every 4th of July. This event overlaps with an Open House and an ice cream social, a tradition that has been going on every Independence Day since Jefferson was alive. We arrived via shuttle and were ushered up to the top of the hill where hundreds of white chairs were assembled at the back of the big house across the great lawn. At 9 AM we listened as Thomas Jefferson’s gong rang to open the ceremonies, which was followed immediately by a reading of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. We heard from the president of the foundation, from the keynote speaker David Rubenstein (some billionaire), and from several judges before watching the candidates for citizenship take their oaths. Through all of this, I wondered whether we would hear any of the citizens’ stories. As many of us know, becoming a citizen of the US is an extremely difficult and lengthy process. I wondered what the roads were like that brought these people to Jefferson’s doorway on that sunny day. Much to my delight, the citizens were invited toward the end of the ceremony to share their thoughts on their new American identity. One by one, several of the new citizens shared their thanks and relief and hopes for the future. Then one man’s story blew us all away. He shared that he was originally from Kuwait but had lost everything when he fled the cDSC_1107ountry during the Gulf War. Most unfortunately, he had fled to Iraq, where a few years later he, once again, lost everything as a result of war. During that time he became a translator for the US military, a service which enabled him to move to the US. We listened intently and gratefully has he finished his story with a bold statement: “Today is the first day I am truly free.” He will now work tirelessly to bring his two daughters to the US to join him.

Also, Monticello has the most amazing gardens.


#3: John Adam’s pyrotechnic pride

John Adams once famously and prophetically wrote to his wife that Independence day “ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” Thus it was with great pride that we joined the thousands of other Americans on the National Mall in Washington DC to witness what I felt were the best fireworks I ever saw. DSC_1144DSC_1145

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#4: Bully for Teddy

DSC_1175Josh and I recently read biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and since then have been steeping in admiration for our country’s most vivacious president. I have even gone so far as to think of him as the ebullient grandfather I never had. We perked up, therefore, when the idea came up to visit Theodore Roosevelt Island and see the monument to his legacy. None of us had ever been there before and we were all pleasantly surprised by what we found. The island sits in the middle of the Patomac and is accessible by only one footbridge. Once across the bridge visitors have their choice of woodsy paths that wind themselves around the small island. Looking around, the place seemed a bit unkempt and overgrown, but we all agreed that this would have made Teddy like the spot even more. Wildness was one of the things Roosevelt treasured most. In the center of the island the paths open up to an elliptical glade where a massive statue of Teddy, posed emphatically mid-argument, welcomes visitors to ponder his metaphorical and literal bigness.  The statue was framed by enormous stone panels, two on each side, which displayed famous Teddy quotes espousing four of his notable virtues: Nature, Manhood, Youth, and State. I was particularly struck by one of the “Manhood” remarks: “No one is fit to live who fears to die; no one is fit to die who has shrunk from the joy of life and the duty of life.” Seriously–who talks like that anymore? He was so cool. I hope to meet him in heaven.

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I hope these reflections have fueled your patriotism. The 4th may be over, but we have so much to be thankful for.



Filed under Life is good and here's why, Travel, True Stories