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In a Botanical Light

Illuminating Sculpture with GLEAM
Each of the 100 glowing tongues of Voices carries a unique colloquial term. Photo by  Kai Stanecki.
Each of the 100 glowing tongues of Voices carries a unique colloquial term. Photo by Kai Stanecki.

This fall, regular visitors to Madison’s Olbrich Botanical Gardens may find themselves in an unfamiliar place. As the sky trades sun for moon, strange shapes glow among the sixteen acres of carefully tended landscapes.

On the path near the entrance, a massive and luminous dragonfly pulses with alternating hues: blue and green, red and gold. A light sculpture made from glass and metal, Alighting was created by Madison artists Laura Richards and Grant Turnbull and lighting designer Patrick Devereux to illustrate the luminous beauty of native dragonflies. 

Alighting is part of a collaborative sculpture installation at Olbrich Botanical Gardens called GLEAM, Art in a New Light that explores the intersection of light, sculpture, and nature.

Another of the six “GLEAM teams” of artists and lighting designers populating the gardens is comprised of University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point sculpture professors Kristin M. Thielking and Keven Brunett and Stoughton-based lighting designers Matt Hanna and Kevin Smits. Their Voices installation is a series of amber-colored cast-glass tongues along a semicircular path near Olbrich’s Golden Thai Pavillion. Mounted on long metal rods, the tongues glow from within, bringing attention to sandblasted words—flabbergasted, thing-a-ma-bob, diddly squat—and their definitions from the Dictionary of American Regional English. According to Thielking and Brunett the Voices installation “celebrates the unifying power of language across diverse cultures and ethnicities.”

Milwaukee artists Dianne Soffa and Tom Kovacich collected almost two hundred rearview mirrors and perched them on stakes along Olbrich’s Prairie Dropseed Meadow for Rearview Stream. Blue Mounds-based lighting designer Craig Kittleson worked with Soffa and Kovacich to create a ripple effect of light through the mirrors, not unlike moonlight reflecting upon a stream. 

GLEAM artistic director David Wells says the installation “provides an opportunity for the public to see exciting art works by local and regional artists, and ... engage[s] the imagination by seeing things through the magic of illumination.”

“The project is all about artists and designers growing together,” says Joel Reinders, GLEAM’s lead lighting designer. “We wanted to have the lighting designers really collaborate with the sculptors to come up with [interesting] ways to light these things internally.” 

Through GLEAM, sculptural artists and lighting designers benefit both from their exchange of expertise as well as the opportunity to work in a unique venue. Olbrich, in turn, finds a creative partner to complement the natural beauty of the space. 

“We were really looking for an event that was going to highlight the gardens in the fall,” says Olbrich spokesperson Katy Plantenberg, noting that “this is one of the most beautiful times in the gardens.”

While the illuminated sculptures offer various points of interest throughout the garden, the entire exhibition literally sheds light on a landmark Madison attraction, creating a fresh visual experience for new and returning visitors alike. When pink lights bounce off familiar trees and blue dots stack against visiting bodies as if they intend to stay, the landscape becomes surreal, evoking the feeling of discovering something new and exciting in a once-familiar place.

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Jacob Turner is a former editorial assistant for Wisconsin People & Ideas magazine. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in Communication Arts & International Studies.

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