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Artist brings a little firefly light to downtown

Artist brings a little firefly light to downtown

Installation will look like fireflies on downtown facade


James Woodfill isn’t bothered if people don’t consider what he’s doing at the corner of Third Street and Detroit Avenue as “art.”

What Woodfill, an artist and professor at the Kansas City Art Institute, is doing is affixing about 100 high-intensity LED lights, and the solar panels that will power them, on and around the old Pierce Building at 233 S. Detroit Ave.

The lights will flash in random patterns over the surface of the building, somewhat in the manner of fireflies — hence, the installation’s title, “Tulsa Patterns (Firefly Reference).”

“I just want people to experience this,” Woodfill said. “I’m one of those people who love to watch the strobe lights on towers. I know that they’re there to alert airplanes. But these lights are also alerting me, informing me of their presence.

“I want this installation to have that sort of effect,” he said. “I want people to ask themselves questions about what it is they’re looking at because that may prompt them to look more closely at other things. If my work can provoke that kind of intense reaction, then maybe I’m doing something right.”

Woodfill’s installation is the first effort of the Urban Core Art Project, a group organized in 2012 to develop and present site-specific temporary public art exhibits.

The “Tulsa Patterns (Firefly Reference)” installation will be in place for one year, starting Thursday.

Woodfill said he originally envisioned a larger installation, one that would involve attaching large lighting instruments to the facade of the building.

“But I decided I really didn’t want to go about drilling all these holes in the building,” he said. “I thought it would be more of a challenge to create something that would still create the effect I wanted, but that would, so to speak, land on the surface of the building with a minimal touch.”

So Woodfill switched to smaller LED lights that could be affixed to the walls with special tape and found ways to clamp the solar panels to the building’s roof.

“When the installation is over, it will be as if it were never there,” he said. “We shouldn’t be leaving any sort of scar on the building itself.”

The lights themselves, he said, are turn-signal lights from Mini Cooper automobiles.

And the display they will produce is “about as random as I can make it,” Woodfill said.

“The idea wasn’t to be a representation of fireflies but to evoke those feelings that fireflies produce in us,” he said. “There’s a kind of magic to fireflies — this little glow of light that just seems to occur out of nowhere. This is a way to try to create that sort of occurrence, those little moments of magic.

“It’s easy to create a spectacle, something that people can’t help but watch because it’s so obvious,” Woodfill said. “I was wanting to see how subtle I could make something in a public setting without it vanishing.”

Woodfill has created a number of public art projects, most of them in the Kansas City area.

His interest in using light as a medium goes back to his childhood, when he would construct lamps out of all sorts of cast-off materials.

“I started getting interested in kinetic things, moving things, when I was about 30,” Woodfill said. “I had this mechanical arm in my studio, and I put a clamp light on it for some reason, and when the arm began moving, I was really taken by it. And I start investigating a lot of ways of using light in my work.”

Bob Sober, one of the four founders of the Urban Core Art Project, said one of the things he appreciates about “Tulsa Patterns (Firefly Reference)” is how it truly fulfills the organization’s wish to create site-specific installations.

“James did a great deal of planning and preparation before he began installing, but he’s been adapting the piece to the site and the environment as it’s been going up,” Sober said. “And I really like that. I like the fact that it’s going to be a little bit different every day, that if we have a long stretch of really cloudy days, the lights won’t be lighting up. It means the piece is responding to the site and the environment.”

James D. Watts Jr. 918-581-8478

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