By Sean Sullivan
“If you don’t stop and look around once in a while,” the saying goes of life, “you could miss it.”
Although fictional Ferris Bueller didn’t coin the quote, he must be the most famous character to have spoken and most popularized it. The Bueller from his classic, eponymous 80s film was legendary for stylish cool and missing school, but was no slacker. He seemed capable of cramming a year’s worth of highlights and hijinks into a single weekday.
Missing out was not on the menu, and Bueller’s advice is sage.
Drivers passing south through Natick Center are nightly given a pop-quiz on this philosophy, a kind of pass-or-fail exam on paying attention. For the past few years, the southern end of Clark’s Block Building becomes an illuminated billboard as darkness falls.
Have you thus far missed it? But billboard is too ungainly a word to describe the illuminated art installation that’s been featured there for many months. A drive-in movie screen would be closer to the spirit of the project, at least in its vividness and square footage, yet even that comparison seems to fall short of the mark.
The scenes being cast on the red-bricked shoulder of the three-story building stream above and across Summer Street. Like an unseen clothesline, the images connect the two tall brick facades that stare at one another across the chasm.
“Art in Lights” is the name given to the effort, a program brought to life by the Natick Center Cultural District.
Housed behind a high window in the building where the Debsan paint company has done business for decades, a projector whirrs to life when daylight wanes. Set to a timer geared to the seasonal sunset, the device activates at an appointed hour, painting the opposite building with light.
The images bring the inside, outside. They are a slideshow of sorts, depicting the antique architecture of the cavernous old concert hall that still dominates Clark’s Block Building. Rendered are snapshots of the painted ceiling and ornate fixtures of the third-floor hall, dating back to 1874, the building’s crowning centerpiece.
The light show is an apt tribute to the craftsmanship of that bygone era, and it’s fitting that images of it are worn on the sleeve of the old building’s flank. It’s a slideshow with a smooth and elegant segue between scenes, each piece bleeding into the next as if by the silent turning of a page.
The current collection of images from the concert hall’s interior could best be described as an exhibit, which would make Art in Lights its gallery. And as the projector is portable, and virtually any surface can serve as a canvas, the program presents vast potential as a literal moveable feast of artistic expression.
The project was an unanticipated upshot of a lighting study aimed at enhancing the atmosphere of the downtown area. That, and a state grant gift to the Natick Center Cultural District, made the installation possible.
“What would make it a better-lit center?” said Athena Pandolf. “We decided to go a more creative route.” She is executive director of the NCCD.
“I think it adds a lot to Natick as an arts center.”
The NCCD partnered with projection design artist Pamela Hersch and the company LuminArtz to produce Art in Lights. Casting artistic images onto irregular canvases is Hersch’s specialty, and the brick facade above Two Summer Street was no exception.
Colors and patterns of pigments rendered in photons had to be carefully chosen to avoid being washed out by rusty-hued brick, and to navigate around windows placed ostensibly as obstacles to the artist’s vision. Yet to a creative like Hersch, these quirks can more aptly be seen as expressions of the canvas’s character - part of what makes such installations so unique and compelling.
“It just works,” said Pandolf. “It’s just so innovative and cool.”
Powerful projection technology is becoming ever more prevalent as cost continues to fall. And its ephemeral quality has conjured somewhat of a conundrum for some municipalities. Whereas the graffiti artist mars surfaces with cans of spray pigment, the projectionist “paints” a chosen surface with light, creating an image that appears at the push of a button and vanishes just as readily.
But that doesn’t mean there’ll be no objection to a particular projection. That virtually any surface can instantly become a temporary billboard creates questions about who has the access to project what, when and where.
Projection technology has of late become a powerful tool for cultural and civic advocacy. Presidents and political parties have learned this lesson, sometimes finding themselves on the receiving end of messages projected by adversaries. Projected light leaves no physical residue, but it’s the message, not the medium, that stakeholders may take issue with.
On the cusp of New Year’s Eve weeks ago, one high-rise building overlooking the Boston Common was awash with evolving images in honor of the occasion. The projected light show dominated the scene and captured the attention of the many thousands on the green below, until fireworks began and shook the Common from above.
In the same spirit but on a smaller canvas, Natick’s Art in Lights has been a case study in how the technology can be used with elegance for the betterment and beautification of public spaces. Debsan and the Walnut Hill School for the Arts also continue to play a pivotal role in the art installation.
The latter uses spaces in the Debsan building to host its dance programs, and agreed to set aside a small window spot where the projector resides. Artwork by the school’s students has also been cast onto the brick canvas in months past.
“Both groups have been unbelievably generous,” said Katie Love. She has worked as project manager for Art in Lights since the project’s inception.
Solving and creating systems for technical challenges has been part of the process. Keeping the timer in sync with the seasons has been among them, in addition to all the potential glitches that come with using technology.
These aren’t your standard home entertainment or company meeting projectors. The tech used for such large-scale installations are far more pricey and powerful. They must generate enough lumens to saturate stubborn surfaces with high resolution images and video.
Natick’s cluster of high and historic facades seems ready-made for the Art in Lights gallery. The Summer Street installation has been a trial run of sorts, a chance for users and artists to grow comfortable and competent with the gear.
“There’s so much vast potential to what can be projected and how it can be projected,” said Love. “I was just so intrigued by it. There’s kind of no end to the creative options.”
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