Conservatory light show has promoters glowing

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Photos by Florian Holzherr/courtesy of Pace Wildenstein

James Turrel near the site of the Roden Crater in Arizona, which he has turned into a celestial observatory.

"Massed Light," an installation in Leipzig, Germany, created by James Turrell in 1997 that reacts to changes in temperature, weather and light. Turrell will be designing a permanent light display for the Palm House at Franklin Park Conservatory, scheduled to be unveiled by autumn, 2008.

In recent years, Franklin Park Conservatory has engaged artists who work in glass, stone and even the branches of trees.

Now they have attracted a world-famous artist who paints with light.

"We will take a step to make the Palm House a work of art, and to bring the Palm House alive in the night sky," Conservatory Executive Director Brian Harkey said Nov. 1 in announcing the commissioning of James Turrell to create a permanent light display.

Turrell has mounted 140 solos shows since 1967, and has created exhibitions in Japan, France, Germany and Switzerland. He is also known for his 35-year effort to turn the Roden Crater, near his home in Flagstaff, Ariz., into a work of art that makes celestial phenomena visible to the naked eye.

"He does mind-blowing things with light," beamed Denny Griffith, president of Columbus College of Art and Design.

The display is scheduled to be completed by autumn, 2008, and is being funded by a $1 million gift from Limited Brands Foundation.

Visitors to the conservatory and the park will be able to sit on the lawn in the evening and watch the colors radiate and change within the Palm House, built in 1895, Harkey said.

Turrell said he would design his display to highlight the architectural features of the conservatory that he called "a little gem. We want it to be that at night."

Turrell’s inspiration with light and the sky dates from childhood, when his grandmother took him to Quaker meetings and urged him to "greet the light."

His encounters with light continued through a career as a pilot that included ferrying Buddhist monks over the Himalayas into Tibet.

His explorations with light have garnered him a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant.

The artist said he attempts to create a dream-like quality, "which is vision with our eyes closed."

He also acknowledges the entertainment aspect of what he does. His assistant, Ben Pearcy, has also designed lighting for Broadway shows.

While reaching for the skies, Turrell remains decidedly down-to-earth, and said he enjoys coming to communities such as Columbus "which are like where I come from."

He called his home in Arizona "the place where the sky meets the ground" and where a person gains a feeling that they "really are on a planet," a realization that can be easily lost.

Restoring this connection to nature is important to Turrell, and he believes light is important to our well-being spiritually and physically.

"We drink light as Vitamin D," he said.

Turrell is also designing his display to be environmentally friendly, with L.E.D. lights that will use about half the amount of energy consumed by the average house for the five hours a night they will be on.

The lights will also be chosen to be easy on the plants within the conservatory, he added.

Community advocates are confident that the Turrell installation will put the conservatory and the city in a more positive light.

The conservatory is tripling the size of the space available for private events such as weddings, Harkey noted, already a $1 million a year revenue stream.

With the Palm House glowing "inside and outside," Harkey envisioned it becoming one of the most unique venues available.

The additional revenue from rental events is slated to fund the conservatory’s master plan for more exhibition and educational space.

Paul Astleford, president and CEO of Experience Columbus, commented that such an exhibit will open many people’s eyes to everything that is offered here, and will boost an already $5 billion a year tourist industry.

"This will light the way to a stronger Columbus," Astleford said.

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