See the Light: James Turrell, Erin Shirreff, & Amy Friend

This class was all about light and the artists who use it as canvas, tool, and medium. Our artists this week harness something ephemeral and make it into something that lasts. The projects this week are all simple but so effective in making the students think about making art out of something they encounter constantly.

Our first artist is James Turrell, who was born in Los Angeles, California in 1943. He received his pilots license when he was 16 and flew humanitarian missions in China and Tibet. Turrell loved observing the earth and the sky without the constrictions of roads and other people. He received a degree in perceptual psychology which informs his art based around the limits and wonder of human perception.

In his first studio he cut holes in the walls and window coverings to let beams of light in from the sun or passing cars. When he was evicted from he studio he flew from the rockies to the pacific ocean to find a place where he could study and display light the way he wanted to. This is how he found the Roden Crater — a project that he would work on for the next 40 years.

Inside the crater Turrell built a series of tunnels and rooms; some with openings to the outside so you can view the sky at different times of day some that are dark so your eyes have to adjust to see what is there. One 854 foot long tunnel leads you to a room with a hole cut out of the ceiling. As you walk toward the hole it changes from a perfect circle to it’s true shape, an ellipse.

There are lights all through the crater whether it comes naturally from the outside or from artificial sources, light is always the focal point of Turrell’s art.

Turrell doesn’t make light into anything he just surrounds his audience with light and allows it to be experienced. He also has a series of light rooms called Ganzfelds — a German word to describe the phenomenon of the total loss of depth perception as in the experience of a white-out.

Breathing Light, 2013
Apani, 2011

For our James Turrell artwork we used a black light and fluorescent paint to make a glow in the dark paint room! The students had so much fun with it!

They would have stayed in there painting for an hour if we had let them! Since we know not everyone has space to make a black light room or get paint everywhere you could also make a Turrell light room using flashlights or a projector and colored plastic to make different colored lights.

Our next artist is Erin Shirreff, a Canadian artist who now works in New York. She does many different kinds of art including sculpture, photography, and video, but for this class we focused on a series of pieces she did using Cyanotypes.

Cyanotype is a photographic process that uses two chemicals (ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide) and sunlight to make a blue print. Shirreff uses cyanotype collages to show the effects of natural light, as well as the passage of time since a lot of waiting and patience are necessary to make each piece.

She also makes cyanotypes and then cuts them into strips and rearranges them to make something new.

For our artwork we made our own cyanotypes! You can get the chemicals at your local craft or art store. It will come with two bottles which you add water to and then mix some in a bowl to the ratio it tells you to. With this liquid, in a dark place away from sunlight paint your paper (or fabric, it doesn’t work as well in our experience but it does work!) and then cover it to keep it dark until it dries (it will be aa greenish-yellow). While you are waiting for it to dry cut out all sorts of shapes from thick paper like cardstock. You can also use leaves or flowers, plastic toys, household objects — pretty much anything you can think of. We used simple paper shapes to more mirror what Sherriff does in her art. Uncover your coated paper and arrange the shapes however you want to while still in a darker space away from sunlight. Then bring it outside, it helps to have a tray.

As soon as the paper gets hit by UV rays it will start to turn dark greenish blue. The day we did it on was a little overcast so keep that in mind when figuring out timing based on the weather when you are doing it as when it is sunnier the paper is exposed to more UV rays and makes a faster print.

About 2 minutes after bringing the trays outside we had the students move some of their shapes. They shouldn’t move all of them since the collage effect of some of the shapes being more developed and some being more shadowy comes from shapes staying longer in one place and shapes moving around respectively. Then we waited 2 more minutes and made some changes to the papers.

We did this for about 15 minutes total and then brought them back inside. You will then remove all the shapes and rinse the paper under water until the greenish-yellow tinge is gone and your paper is all blue and white.

The shapes that stayed in place the longest are white and the places where the shapes moved around go from light blue to dark blue. The darkest blue is the space where the sun was the entire time.

You can also cut up your cyanotypes and rearrange them like Shirreff if you want to. The process is a little long and may take some tweaking and a few tries to get right but the end result is so fun!

Our final artist is Amy Friend, is a Canadian artist who’s art explores the entwined past and present. In her series Dare alla Luce, “to bring to light” in Italian, she collects vintage photographs and punches holes in them and then photographs them again with a light shining behind to illuminate the holes. She “re-uses” light by letting it shine through photographs that were originally taken using light from decades ago. She says about the series:

I aim to comment on the fragile quality of the photographic object but also on the fragility of our lives, our history. All are lost so easily.

Friend takes old memories, old captures of light, and turns them new light. We also talked about how purposeful Friend is about the placement of her dots. She doesn’t just stab the photograph randomly, especially since the ones she uses are all one of a kind. We asked the students to think about the composition of their piece while they were poking the holes so they could be thoughtful and purposeful about their use of light.

We Are Reflections

For our activity we made out own pinhole photographs. We took pictures from old National Geographics and had the students glue the ones they wanted to a piece of black cardstock so they could stand up to the hole punching. Then the students sat on a rug so they could stab through their picture into something soft and not be in danger of stabbing themselves.

We had a light box for them to check their progress on but holding it up to the light works as well. Almost all of them did multiple pictures and they spent a long time on composition and making art they were proud of.

This is such an easy project with so few tools needed to make a great piece of art. This could also be done using your own photographs — you could even print copies of old family photos to make art out of.

This class was so much fun! We harnessed an ephemeral medium to make so many different kinds of art. Light isn’t something we usually think of as a medium. However, learning about it as art that just exists gave the students new ways to think about and inerpret the light they encounter light every day and how they can harness it in so many different ways.

We are a 501c3 non-profit in Provo, Utah. Our goal is to make art accessible and inspire a lifelong love of art and creativity for children in our community.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store