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Sacred Darkness
Sculptural Fabrications of Story and Place
by John Watrous, January, 2001
Exhibition: Feb 1st to Mar 15, 2001
Santa Rosa Junior College Art Gallery
The First Show of the 3rd Millennium

About the Work

Narrative has never been a significant inspiration for my work prior to this show. However, having been a gallery director made me realize how important knowing the person (the narrative) was to understanding the work. I often remember seeing notes, sketches and photos in artists studios which added context to the work. For this reason I feel compelled to relate the stories around my work. Taken as a whole they might shed some light on the show and me. Some titles are more geographic and some relate to my continuing interest in the invisible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Several are inspired by technical, collaborative projects with a friend who is an engineer.

The Rowing Scull Kinetic Installation
I've always liked to row. Once on the American River I took over for the guide just because I couldn't just sit when I could row. My time is limited on real rowing sculls, but I learned how delicate they are and learned how difficult it is to get back in after falling out. There was something about the rhythm, like a heartbeat that connected human to machine. And the oars--how they do all the work including balance and how the grips move inward together and apart. I like the whole thing--the interface, the rhythm and being on the water.

I enjoy the process of making a mechanical analogy for rowing. The gearmotor and the vee belts and pulleys remind me of the motorized prayer wheels I saw at Odiyan, the Bhuddist retreat in Sonoma county. There is something about making mechanical interpretations of inherently non-mechanical objects and even spritual experiences I find both interesting and indicative of this era. I love combining art-making with solving engineering problems which are necessary to see the art. And I loved working with my friend and fellow artist-engineer Michael McGinnis without whom I would have had no one to share my mechanical frustrations.

The installation around the scull is a collaboration with my wife, Greer Upton. We created a theatrical sense of space and drama for the scull to be seen on water.

Ball Rock
Ball Rock lies just West of Corning about an hour from Interstate 5. It sticks out into the Sacramento Valley so you can see farther South towards Bakersfield than from any other point in the Yolla Bolly Wilderness area. It's a great site for ham radio and that's why I ended up there on a September weekend with my friend Glenn Elmore. He had used the properties of this site to set a world record using etremely high and little known parts of the spectrum years earlier. And it was a nice place to look at the stars. On the way to Ball Rock we had an event memorialized in my piece.

The trailer we were pulling got away from us. By the time we assessed the damage we were almost instantly saved by a stranger who pulled up, after illegally driving across I-5 and asked if he could help. We had lost our hitch pin and to our amazement, he had one and gave it to us. Before he drove off I got his name: Troy, the "hitch pin angel." The weekend was spent searching the ether doing ham radio using frequencies little used by anyone, especially Californians. We used 3 very high frequencies, thus the 3 section of the piece. The shale in the piece comes from an incredible pile used as the base of of 1930's radio tower at the site.

Uncle Albert, not an uncle at all but a good friend who treats us royally like an great uncle, invites my wife and I to upper Wisconsin in the late summers. The geography is so different from what I am used to. Birch bark everywhere--the inner is tree dead and the bark lives on. Thousands of lakes each bordered with forests and another lake beyond, completely introspective and without any visibile, high altitude landmarks. I get lost without landmarks but always know there is a lake just beyond. Albert loves the area and takes us on hikes so we won't go home without sensing his special relationship of the place. With so much water everywhere, I spend time canoeing and attempting to row his single scull. Butternut Lake completely freezes over in the winter so that the life around it when I visit seems even more fragile and transient.

Dr. John Kraus is a retired electrical engineering professor from Ohio State, he also wrote 'the' book on antennas. Kraus also wrote a book about his life called The Big Ear, for one of his loves was listening for intelligent life in the cosmos with 'big ear' radio astronomy antennas. His childhood had parallels to my own. But the story he told about inventing the helical antenna (the kind now used on satellites) became the most important for me. When he was a young teacher he asked his senior colleagues if they thought the helix might be used as an antenna. They quickly told him that they had tried and it didn't work. Unconvinced, but not wanting to upset them, he started working on the idea at home. When he had made it work and got it patented he said that if his seniors hadn't been so sure it wouldn't work, he might not have even tried. After making some helical antennas for a project I built this homage to John Kraus and as a reminder to me about the grist often needed for creative research. I wrote Dr. Kraus and got his permission to use his story as an creative illustration for my students.

Al Gearhart is a Sonoma county rancher, working a few head of cattle right in my backyard so to speak just 4 miles from where I live. If you look due West from the Santa Rosa Plain you will see the square-topped trees, a small group of redwoods just West of Al's ranch. Al kindly let me and use a hill on his property for an experimental radio site related to a project combining the internet with radio. The site is unique since from it you can see both downtown Santa Rosa and deep into the Atascadero valley where I live. I used it to listen to the cows on his hill from home, send data at high speeds and generally play in the 'ether,' the invisible part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Many treks carrying radio equipment up to 'Gearhart Ridge' have given me good memories about the place, the changes seasons bring, from young alfalfa grass to hay bales and how tramping around the high places in Sonoma county gives me a better sense of place.

Monte Alban
High above the Oaxaca plateau sits this ancient Mixtec/Zapotec site. I like the slow drive up the switchbacks to the hill, separating it from the town below. I've been there twice and each time I am drawn to the Observatorio, a large structure at one end of the grand open area facing Southwest. Locals can't say why the Observatorio faced the Southwest or what stars the ancients were drawn to and that mystery is another part of the fascination for me. I stood beside it and took a Global Positioning Satellite waypoint so if you need to know exactly where the Observatorio is: (it's 17.04241 degrees North, 96.76811 degrees West). Attempts by earlier people to understand this Planet and our place in the larger Cosmos intrigue me. Farther South, the columns of Mitla, another of the many archeological sites in this area, influenced me even with the tourist stuff almost hiding the site. Mitla is the farthest South into the state of Oaxaca I've been. The last time I visited Monte Alban I overheard a Mixtec guide speak his language. What a kick to hear Mixtec spoken here which sounds like birds chirping.

I've visited Lithia Park often (once as solace from work stress) and enjoy how it grows organically up the creek starting right at the Ashland, Oregon, Shakespeare Festival buildings. It was designed by John McLaren who also designed Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. It's mostly organic, but that Sycamore Grove! It's rigid grid of 8 trees across by 8 trees going up the hill--it's laid out like a Christmas tree farm in the middle of such a beautiful park. It draws me to it and I wonder why it's there and curiously I like viewing the park from within its rigid matrix altering visual alignments of the park. I've talked to people who work in the park and they say the Sycamores are dirty and die young. They too wonder about the grid and are replanting now with another variety, but keeping the grid. I wonder why such a mechanical form exists in this park and next to the Japanese garden to boot.

Checkerboard Prayer Wheel
I took the Odiyan tour, a Bhuddist retreat an hour North of my home. It was almost 20 years after they began construction, but what an unusual place here in Sonoma county. About 1200 prayer wheels, motorized with back up generators, running on pulleys and vee belts, some the size of 55 gallon drums (those with a mile of paper prayers rolled up inside). I likened the sound of the wheels purring and moving their prayers into the ether to radio--invisible energy on those wonderful bluffs overlooking the Pacific. I am attracted to the physical action in the act of prayer and the process of designing a prayer to be rolled up and hidden. I found websites where Buddhists geeks developed ways to use hard drives as prayer wheels.

Wood Flag
The American or rather United States of America flag can be seen as a simple handful of design elements: 2 rectangles some stripes and stars. I became aware of this while assigning a flag project in a class. A few rearrangeable elements encourages interpretation. I have enjoyed the tight limits and abstracting the flag from a 2 to 3 dimensions.

Heart Beat
Opens to a LED heart rhythm...interactive..just a little piece with a surprise. I am drawn to electronics but without having to be plugged into the wall.

Copper Collages
From a series of galvanized and copper collages using industrial materials. I became good at collage while in college and grew to distrust facility. I gave up on collage several times but keep coming back to it. For a time I replaced gluing for taping and in this series I use pop rivets and hardware. Starting with a format or size limit encourages me to develop permutations of an idea.

On April 10th, 1998 on a beach near Olympos, Turkey, I collected pebbles which had once been the marble from the ancient town of Olympos, at the foot of the Silk Road. Since then I have collected pebbles at various sites as a way to remember places.

Artist with one of his LED light fixtures

The amount of light is purposely low in the gallery to create a sacred space and to discourage casual viewing by keeping the viewer in the space longer. Hopefully the time required for eyes to adjust to the low light level, called dark adaptation time (see below), will reveal more and more information in the work over time. I am eliminating as much ambient light as possible and am only subtly marking the limits of the space.

I am using a new kind of lighting, possibly never before used for galleries. Light emitting diodes or LED's have become available fairly recently for projected, white lighting. The 20 fixtures and almost 200 bright, white LED's are prototypes for future gallery lighting and will hopefully be used in the future for all kinds of architectural applications. The total energy used by lighting in this show is far less than one, standard gallery lamp. Thanks to a friend for his skematic and briefing I now understand LED's better. I used Sloan SL905WC-13 bright white LED's powered by 5VDC switching power supplies through 90 Ohm series resistor networks which maintains about 16 mA through each diode. Estimated life for the LED's is over eleven years! The LED's emit 3700 millicandelas making the fixtures I designed using ten LED's put out about 37 candelas, a standard measurement for light output.

White LEDs generally appear at coordinates 310x by 320y on the standard CIE chromaticity chart, and have a color rendering index of 85 or greater. Color temperature can range from 5,500°K to as high as 8,000°K, with a few odd samples going even higher. Generally, a good white LED will have a color temperature of 6,500°K, which is approximately the same as noonday sun at the Earth's equator.

References: information, diagrams

Dark Adaptation Time

After the first 15 minutes in total darkness you might think you're night vision is fully developed, but no. Tests show that your eyes gain about another two magnitudes of sensitivity -- in other words, a factor of six in how faint you can see -- during the next 15 minutes. Thereafter, dark adaptation improves very slightly for 90 minutes more.

In practice, complete darkness is unattainable. Light pollution aside, you need some light to see what you're doing. Astronomers have long used a dim red flashlight because red light has less effect on night vision. The reason is that in near-darkness you see with the "rod" cells in your retina, and these are blind to the far red end of the spectrum. When you see red light your "cone" cells are at work; these are the receptors responsible for normal daytime color vision. (You have three types of cones -- red, green, and blue -- but only one type of rod, which is insensitive to red.) The idea is to use the red cones for reading charts and swapping eyepieces, while protecting the rods for the most delicate work at the telescope eyepiece.

References: factors: rods (light)and cones (color) ...astronomy relationships

sound graph of VLF whistler
The sounds heard in the gallery are generated by lightning, propagated through the Magnetoshpere and recorded with a special radio receiver. The radio is tuned to a very low frequency or VLF which is actually within the upper audio range, but not available to human audio hearing. These sounds are called natural radio sounds as they occur naturally, it is just that we can't hear them without technological assistance. I have a VLF receiver and have recorded some sounds, but most you hear have been recorded by the real expert, my friend Stephen McGreey, who now has CD's available. Steven has travelled the world recording VLF sounds and is listed on scientific websites as a contributor. He has written extensively on the subject and all his information can be found on his Natural Radio website.
Updated: 22 Jan 2003