San Antonio-based artist Bill FitzGibbons – renowned for creating public works of art featuring lighting – sits down with lighting designer Mike Brannon to discuss his process & what’s next.
Predominantly known as a sculptor of light, Bill FitzGibbons might be better labeled as a sculptor of space as well. Both aspects are the “materials” of his work, both public and private. Having mounted installations all over the world, the former director of the Blue Star Contemporary Arts Space now spends most of his time working in his home state of Texas in the public arts realm.
Originally a painter and neon artist, FitzGibbons’ palette now consists of computer-controlled LED systems in conjunction with metal sculpture to revive and reclaim public spaces for contemporary usage. From Alaska to Reykjavik, Memphis and Providence, plus Birmingham, Houston, and San Antonio, his event-like projects light up and revitalize under-used spaces in new, creative, interactive, and unexpected ways that inspire.
Mike Brannon: How did you get involved with light art?
Bill FitzGibbons: I started out as a painting major in undergraduate school, and a friend of mine introduced me to a guy who had a neon shop. He had surplus units and there were some straight ones — and I decided this would be cool.
I was doing geometric, horizon-line things and put one of these neon strips in my paintings, and went “Wow, that’s cool.” I got hooked on neon, and from that I started incorporating it into sculpture.
The University of Tennessee in Knoxville is where Rohm & Haas is located and they make polyester resin (we were able to get polyester resin by the 50-gallon barrel). The old Art building used to house the Engineering/Architecture department; the engineers had moved out and we used to sneak up in the attic, where they had all these old Pyrex® tubes that were used in fluid dynamics. I started putting polyester resin in them with too much hardener so it would fracture. Then I would build a form where I would put lights in the base and when [the light] went through, it brought out different colors of the spectrum.
As I got more and more neon units, I did a few public art pieces. Neon is a beautiful light source, but there are some inherent problems. You have only about 12 or 15 colors to choose from and once you choose a color, that’s it. Plus it’s very fragile. There’s no way you can put neon on a traffic underpass with all the vibration that would occur.
Back in 2004, I was short-listed for the Houston Airport installations and met another artist there who was interested in using LEDs. I didn’t know that much about them, but met with a Color Kinetics rep. He took this fixture out – an early color blast – and he dropped it by accident, then picked it up and said “No problem.”
I said, “Now, if that were a neon unit…” and he added, “I know.” That Houston Airport installation became my very first time working with LED.
I just think “light sculpture” is creating three-dimensional space with light and it’s always been intriguing to me. I’ve done a series of architectural interventions that were ephemeral pieces that [would last] anywhere from a day to six months. I’m intrigued by doing these interventions with architecture that has become nearly invisible [by the people who see it every day], even something like the Alamo.
When you do one of these installations, suddenly people see [the building] transformed in a different light. I really enjoy working with infrastructure that is not thought of as an important space – such as a traffic underpass – and by the use of a light system, it can become transformative and a destination in and of itself.
MB: There’s a piece called Light Rails you did that went viral.
BF: I was asked to do a piece in Birmingham, Ala., a city that’s trying to rebuild itself because the city center was abandoned. There’s a group called “Rev-Birmingham” that was instrumental in rebuilding the city center. They got developers to buy these wonderful old loft buildings and turn them into condominiums. They also created a “Railroad Park” out of a derelict property adjacent to the railroad tracks and filled it with gazebos and paths and a lake where they could hold outdoor concerts.
The railroad tracks had a great 1930s Art Deco underpass [that separated the park from the condos]. People did not feel safe walking from their condos to the park, so the group invited me to do a piece called “Light Rails.” For this project, you’re taking an industrial-type place and turning it into a destination. To me, that’s what the power of Art is! Consequently, the electrician has since told me that he doesn’t know anyone in Birmingham who doesn’t have a photo of it.
Since then, I have even had photos sent to me of couples who have their wedding photos taken there. So you’re taking a gutter kind of place and turning it into a destination. To me, that’s the power of public art. I would rather do that type of work than [install] something in front of a fancy office building or a lobby. It’s a way to use public art in a civic approach that improves the quality of life of an urban center. The Light Rails project led to several others around the country because it had gone viral on the Internet.
MB: How did you transition from running Blue Star Galleries to doing art full-time?
BF: Well, as my art load started to increase, it became real apparent that I could not be the director of Blue Star [Contemporary Art Museum] and have a full-time art practice. We had about 100,000 people a year going through Blue Star, but in a city of 1.9 million that’s a small percentage. So how do you engage the city with contemporary art if they’re not going to be coming into the gallery? You can only do that by going public.
MB: What are your current projects?
BF: We’re working on the Westside Transit Center in San Antonio; the Transit Authority wanted to have a modal interface between the buses and street cars. On the Westside is a former train station – it’s beautiful, with a big dome and a sculpture on top – and they wanted to have some sort of a way-finding device. We’re doing that tower. It’s 85 feet, and I wanted something for the pedestrians so there will be these viewer-interactive photocells. If you go up to it and you [make a] motion, it casts a shadow and then it [light/shadow] dissipates back in a few seconds. It’s using a type of tile called “Sensitile” [an optical Plexiglas product line].
I’ve never used it before and hopefully it’ll be successful. You can do it up to 7 inches away from the surface, so they’re meant to be flat. This is curved, so we’re going to do these segments of two feet at a time as kind of a hexagonal thing. Then in the front, I’m going to put this cast tempered glass ½-inch thick.
MB: Is there any infrastructure or tech that you want to use, but haven’t yet?
BF: I want to steer back to sculptural objects instead of just using light as the sculpture itself, incorporating sculptural elements into the infrastructure with lighting as a component, for a couple of reasons. One, light has a certain magic at night and not in the daytime. I want these public sculptures to work 24/7 so that in the daytime in the middle of the summer, it has a statement and in the evening it transforms into something else.
I also want to become more involved with interactivity with the public. Some of my very early pieces were viewer-activated with proximity switches. So how do you make a piece more interactive? This is going to be an experiment for me. We’ll see how these Sensitiles go as to whether it’s a novelty that wears off right away for the public or if it’s something that has an ongoing attraction. And if it does, where do you go from dancing in front of it and where will that lead? I think it’s going to be a hit with kids as well as adults. These people may not even think it’s sculpture.