In Pursuit of Light Art & James Turrell

Several years ago I was given an opportunity to travel throughout Europe and Scandinavia in pursuit of art, specifically the work of James Turrell and other light artists. I can’t even begin to say what a dream this experience was. This trip was a result of a travel grant I received after writing a short paper entitled: A Study of James Turrell Through a Lens of Design, Transformative Space and Innovation. For this trip I traveled to 5 countries- Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.

As I look back on my journey – each incredible and unique aspect of it – I keep coming back to Turrell’s design choices. Each installation I went into, I was able to enter a liminal space, through the specific entrance he created. While preparing for this trip, it was a detail that escaped me. We are constantly entering spaces via a door and think nothing of it. To have the time to think deeply about each threshold I crossed is what truly allowed my journey to become more than just a vacation. I would love to have a discussion with Turrell about how he consciously thought and planned each entrance, and exactly what he took into account during this process. 

In Skyspace Piz Uter, the entrance frames the shape of the mountain peak, Piz Uter, including a marked seat on the bench allowing the viewer to frame the mountain within the entrance. These opportunities to engage with the installation allows the viewer to internalize the experience in a more personal and meaningful way. I didn’t immediately discover this on my initial visit to the Skyspace, but it wasn’t until night time where I made the connection to Turrell’s design. I found myself unable to sit anywhere else in the Skyspace after. Wanting to see the mountain disappear and reappear as the sunset program evolved. Visitors came and went in the installation as I sat and experienced sunset. Seeing their level of engagement was part of the program. Seeing others’ attention as rapt as mine own while some found themselves sleeping as the colors slowly changed from white, blue and green. 

My favorite entrance was to the piece Celestial Vault in The Hague. To reach the piece, one has to climb up a stairs to enter a cylindrical tunnel made out of concrete. The length of the tunnel was just long enough to feel as if you are becoming part of something greater than yourself. At the other end of the tunnel, the grassy ellipse was awaiting. The bench set aside for the optical illusion to be experienced sat like more a statue rather than a piece to engage with. I found myself interacting with this piece of land art in every possible way. I used the stairs to look out for the Atlantic Ocean. I ran down the grassy slopes to get back to see where the sun was in relation to the tunnel. The sunset was coming and I wanted to be everywhere to experience it. Watching how the sun’s colors reflected on the white the tunnel was astonishing. Turrell thought of everything, even allowing the setting sun move towards the mouth of the tunnel, so it could find itself perfectly centered inside of it at a moment in time. 

I had never travelled alone for as long as I did for my Turrell journey. When planning a 21 day trip I feared I would get homesick, tired of schlepping around a suitcase endlessly or find the loneliness inescapable. It wasn’t until it was day 16 and I was in Oslo for me to feel the fatigue of being alone. Then I realized it can’t be a journey unless there’s a moment of personal struggle. I couldn’t figure out if it was the city, not being in Brooklyn for a close friend’s birthday or the repercussions of a break up. I leaned into those feelings knowing it was important to not avoid them as much as it made me uncomfortable. 

Had I travelled with another person, my interpretation and interaction with all of these art pieces would have been quite different. The discourse was created in my mind, allowing it to percolate and make interpersonal connections. Being on my own allowed me to never have to compromise how I entered into each of these spaces. I could come and go as I pleased, testing my thoughts and the perspectives offered up by the light. The only time I had a conversation with another person was while I was in Oslo in the Double Vision installation. The happenstance of running into another Turrell traveler was everything I wanted it to be. I thought I would only get 30 minutes inside of this underground Ganzfeld/Skyspace but I was given 3 hours. After two weeks of solo journeying it felt like a period of beautiful reflection with a complete stranger. The conversation we had was as soul enriching as the installation itself. We touched upon Turrell along with other light-based artists, life, philosophy, and the power of art. He had recently been in the Inside Outsight Skyspace where I would be travelling the following day. Hearing his tips, such as taking a time-lapse of the light programs were taken to heart. His description of wearing the key to the skyspace around his neck for days was everything I needed to hear to get me ready for the final Turrell of my journey. 

Some skyspaces have doors, like when I was able to lock myself into Outside Insight in Jarna, Sweden. For a single night I was the only person who had the key to enter this space. It was mine, allowing it to be more than an installation but also a piece of me. What intention was behind that choice? The door allowed the immersion to be such a deeper connection to the light as well as the sky. Opening the door at intervals to experience the outside atmosphere was jarring and also reassuring. The Swedish sun was always lurking in the horizon, not ever thinking about vanishing in the July night. Turrell’s lighting design would trick me into thinking the night had come, bringing blackness over the countryside, but it was merely a designed illusion. 

I initially thought I would spend the night inside of Outside Insight but the bugs overwhelmed as the sunset program ended and they flocked to light on my phone as I checked the time. As much as I was disappointed in my inability to sleep in the skyspace, the 15 minute walk back to Hotell Ytterjarna was filled with discovery. From how the night refused to completely come and the sleeping cows in the pasture. Once inside my room, I took a few hour nap so I would be ready for the sunrise program. Though I could barely get myself back to sleep, I woke up at 2:30am and went back to the Skyspace. I spent the sunset program filled with excitement, and even spent a solid hour dancing through the lights as they changed. I had to yet to interact with a Turrell in that capacity where I wasn’t just sitting and watching, but allowed the adrenaline to course through my with passionate expression. For sunrise I made sure to keep my eyes focused on the oculus as my body fought off exhaustion. For all I know, it was the last time I would ever have the opportunity to be alone in a James Turrell skyspace. 

The patience inherently needed in each of Turrell’s pieces is in stark contrast to how everyday life can be. Turrell found ways to use new LED technologies to his advantage as he added the light programs into his skyspaces. Meanwhile new technologies like Apple Watches, iPhones and Snapchat allow our patience to be avoided and ignored with instant gratification. My journey began in Berlin and I was to attend to Luther’s Light with three of my other friends. Attending this installation was so different from the others because I wasn’t alone with the experience and shared it. I hadn’t been in a piece of Turrell’s like this ever and the slow change of the lights against the silence of the participants was unnerving, I loved every second of it but found myself thinking of my friends and whether or not they were enjoying themselves. Were they able to be as patient as myself? Even after it was over and we talked about the piece, it’s so hard to truly verbalize a personal connection to something. 

Design Thinking using Tinkercad

This year I’ve engaged with Tinkercad in a new light which has been fun for both myself and my students. 5th graders are so good at being flexible in their thinking so we delved into Design Thinking to help them develop empathy as designers.

To get them started I adapted the 5 Chair Challenge from the Stanford Design School. I’ve tried to do this activity on using physical materials in years past but found it to be much more successful using Tinkercad, especially since I’m teaching students on Zoom. I would drop the design prompt into the chat and then give them 10 minutes to make a design. Once the time was up, they would go around the Zoom room and share. They LOVE sharing their designs and it is a highlight of the experience.

For example, here’s one of the prompts:

Grandpa is an old man who is achy and sometimes a bit grouchy. He
has trouble getting around, so he walks with a cane. He also has difficulty
getting into and out of his chair, though he sits in his chair most of the day.

I always end the activity with highlighting how they all had the same prompt but all problem solve and use their imaginations uniquely from each other. When I come into class and tell them we’re doing a design challenge together, they get quite excited. The classrooms also get very quiet because they’re focusing so deeply!

Iterating with Illustration

To shake up my curriculum this year with all of the Covid constraints and not having a makerspace to utilize, I’ve been leaning pretty heavily on using Illustrator for my 6th – 8th grade classes. I’ve always struggled with getting my students to get playful with the iterative process and using Google Slides as a digital workbook has been a real boon to the process.

To kick off my Illustration Unit with my 7th graders, we watched the Netflix Abstract episode featuring Christoph Niemann. Since my students are all native New Yorkers it was fun experience their reactions to the sections on his love of the city and how he’s used it as inspiration for his work. I rarely watch hour long pieces with students but as I stopped the episode throughout to ask questions, it was amazing to see how engaged they were on how he played with his illustrations and was constantly experimenting.

At the beginning of the episode, he shows a little book that uses a flat iron image as a creative exercise. I then turned that exercise into a Google Workbook where my students had to drop in each iteration for all the images I was asking them to make a variety of iterations with.

It’s been so much fun checking their workbooks after class to see how they’ve transformed the flat iron, really quite delightful. Seeing their Illustrator skills progress and their ability to be fluid with their creativity and not as fixed on being finished is also a real win. They’ve transformed the flat iron into things like a blender, panini press, shoe and sewing machine all on their own.

After they utilized the flat iron image, I also gave them a lightening bolt, a bullseye and plus sign to experiment with. The lightening bolt was definitely the hardest. The Google Illustration Workbook is below for you to take a look!

If you want to take a look at the workbook, you can take a look here.

Branding Project in Illustrator

A logo I created while sharing how gradients work.

During distance learning, I reached into my bag of tricks to come up with a new unit on Branding for my 7th and 8th graders. I used this unit to also introduce students to the gradient tool, text on a path as well as how to create a scatter brush. After giving them a presentation where we looked at the evolution of logos for iconic brands such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, McDonald’s, and Apple, students were tasked to create their logos for a business I assigned them. Because I’m such a deep believer in iteration, I asked each student to create three versions of their logo to help with their experimentation and to mimic the work graphic designers do.

Another example for students.

I gave students businesses such as a fast casual Italian restaurant, coffee shop, travel story and garden store. It’s been fun to see how they’ve used the power of Illustrator to their advantage. I do think my students are getting sick me saying that sometimes our first idea helps to clear our brains out for the next idea which is generally stronger and more interesting. I also shared the font website, dafont.com with them to get them excited about fonts. I’ve definitely spent way too much searching for the perfect font and it was interesting to see which students also saw how important a font design can be while designing a logo.

Adapting a Makerspace Curriculum During a Pandemic

A representation of my Brooklyn brownstone.

When Distance Learning started it was hard to adjust mentally from teaching a space filled with tools and resources into teaching out of a studio apartment with not many materials. For my 5th and 6th graders who were learning Tinkercad, I realized I was given a huge gift by having it as a learning resource. I started thinking of it as a tool to design models and blueprints rather than as a way to 3D print designs.

The first project I created was to have students put on their architect hats to design buildings of their choosing either recreating something they love or using their imagination to build something new. They were thrilled to design on Tinkercad without size or detail constraints.

I’ve structured my classes so in the beginning we either look at a slideshow together to discuss the project at hand or I have them review the project requirements as a group. They then work on their projects while I screen share my version of the project they’ve been assigned. I also let them as questions and share their screens if they need my input on their design. Lastly I reserve the last 10-15 mins for each student to share their screen so the rest of the class can see their work be inspired and so I can hold them accountable for the class time.

We then moved on to thinking about Interior Design. The project my students are working on now is designing their Dream Spaces. They are required to have 5 pieces of furniture, a floor and walls and make sure it’s functional for the activities the space is designed around.

My Dream space. Who doesn’t want to slide to get downstairs!?

Distance Learning & iStopmotion

Throughout Distance Learning and the Covid-19 pandemic I’ve been pretty lucky to have technology at my finger tips thanks to the school I work at. My favorite engagement activity with students has been with a stop-motion animation workshop using the app iStopmotion. It’s sadly not free but costs $9.99 but is definitely worth it.

I love you can easily bring household objects, toys, food or any that’s inanimate to life in how the app provides onion skinning so you can see shadow images of the last picture you took. The most important thing to remember when doing anything with stop-motion is keeping your camera still. I used a can of beans to hold up my iPhone so the animation appears seamless. My demonstration animation utilizes items from my kitchen. You can also easily export your project and then bring it into iMovie on the iPhone or on a computer to add titles and sounds!

Illustrator for Self Portraiture

During these days of distance learning, maker educators are all having to be flexible with their curriculum. I live in about 200 square feet in Brooklyn and I definitely didn’t have even tape in my apartment when my school decided to close due to Covid-19. I am incredibly lucky that my students all have their own MacBooks as well as Adobe Creative Suite, giving me options on how to pivot my Digital Arts Class.

For my 7th and 8th grade classes, I decided it was time to think about using Illustrator, but not with a focus on using it was a tool to design projects for the vinyl or laser cutter. I’m thinking this as a way to strengthen their connection to using Illustrator as an artistic vector based tool. My first prompt was to use Illustrator to design a portrait. I required them to use the different shapes tools and to not rely on the brush tool because there’s a loss of control when using it on a trackpad.

My school is using Zoom for distance learning and I’ve found it wonderful to start a lesson with a Google Slide presentation to set up the project. I started with this project with self portraits by Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Basquiat, Gustave Courbet and Picasso to show students they can portray themselves in more a more abstract setting if they preferred. I made a point to discuss backgrounds and how they can help with self-expression and hidden meaning. After the slideshow, students get to work while I also work on the project and if they have questions they are allowed to share their screen. The last 10 minutes of class has been students sharing their screens to share their progress. I like doing this because it holds them accountable for the 20 minutes of work time. So far the projects have been amazing!

Construct3D 2020 & Empowering Girls in the Digital Fabrication Process

Over President’s Day weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Construct3D Conference at the Rice University campus. I must say all the sessions I attended truly enlightened me and ignited my passion for 3D design and printing in the classroom. Hearing how 3D printing is involved in the films created by Laika Studios, medical schools, prosthetics and K12 classrooms illuminated how far this practice has come and how much is still possible in the future. I also loved how Gary Stager talked about using prompts in the classroom with project-based learning. Definitely going to be keeping that in mind as I introduce different projects!

While I was at the conference, I gave a 10 minute talk on Empowering Girls in the Digital Fabrication Process. It was fun to share my experience in the classroom with other educators, especially problem solving how to create a bridge between crafting and technology. The presentation I shared can be viewed below!

A Digital Fabrication Christmas

Finished star

For the first time ever, I got my own Christmas tree. It was a spur of the moment decision to make my apartment more festive. After picking up the tree on the way home the gym, I had to figure out how I was going to decorate it. I’m a huge fan of not buying ornaments and have truly avoided it over the years because it’s just more fun to make them yourself. With 3D printers at my disposal I realized I could have a lot of fun designing ornaments as well as a star to top my tree!

I first went to work on the star and decided I wanted to be a star but also use my trusty soldering iron to get it to light up. I wanted to make the star as hollow as possible so I could make the LED inside pop as much as possible. I decided to use my favorite color changing LED’s with a battery pack with a simple slide switch. I hot glued the battery pack to the back of the star as well as some of the loose wires. I’m so excited to add it to my tree!

Next was planning the ornaments. In the past year I’ve realized how deeply I’m drawn to geometric shapes. Luckily Tinkercad makes that need of mine quite easy to execute. Since my tree is on the smaller side, I made the ornaments a bit smaller. I chose to use white filament because I love the matte look it provides. But I also went crazy and decided to see how glitter looked on them. They look more crisp without the glitter and it’s fun having a blend of some with and without the glitter.

Empowering Girls in the Makerspace

Feminists Unite!

Next to sustainability, empowering girls in the Makerspace has been my focus for this school year. This initiative came after seeing how girls were using the makerspace during the first year of operation. They were building interesting creations but they generally chose to experiment with more traditional crafting materials. I’m totally for this but I wanted to find a way to create a bridge between crafting and digital fabrication.

First sketches

To get this initiative off the ground, a Feminist Maker club was created. Using the term ‘feminist’ was landed upon because it’s inclusive and I wanted anyone who was interested to join. The first task for this club was to create logos for our identity. They first sketched out the designs and then I showed them how to use Illustrator so the designs could get transferred to various digital fabrication software. Each member designed their own and in the end we organically ended up with two design options. Currently we’re using the vinyl cutter and the embroidery machine to show off the logos. The next step to start thinking about how we want to utilize them i.e. keychains, t-shirts, totes or even jewelry!