Choice in Engagement: Sculpture and Kinetic Art by Darcy Meeker Studio
By: Sarah Muehlbauer for CODAworx
Art for the outdoors is art for everyone. It takes the environment we share with other humans, animals, and nature, making aesthetic offerings out of this relativity. Indoors, we control our environment. Outdoors, we are at the whim of the elements, crafting strategies for durability and to make meaning of the changeable atmosphere that includes weather patterns and the variable uses of space. Not only is the medium the medium [i.e. works in glass, stone, metal, ceramic, etc], but the medium extends to its nearby surroundings. What a frame is to a painting, or a pedestal is to a sculpture, becomes the trees, buildings, and green space surrounding outdoor art. In the work of Darcy Meeker, we see a diverse and changeable body of work that reflects a primary consideration of the viewer’s sense of choice in engagement, motivating curiosity, learning, and to see one’s own position in context with the space around them.
Meeker has the kind of prolific and diverse body of work that any artist would aspire to. Beginning her artistic career at 44, Meeker left an established presence as a science writer working for the University of Florida, pivoting toward the skilled craft of stone carving. She became a full time artist in 1990. Even in her early work, she shows a reverence for the will of the material, allowing stone to become fluid, positive and negative spaces to dance. Shadows mark differences in texture, swaths of highlight and recession. The forms are both classical and unique.
Image: Leda’s Daughter
This sensitivity to what a material might inherently want to become is a through-line that now guides a full creative team working with sculpture, light, and outdoor environments, adapting to the possibilities of place. Since her beginnings in stone work, Meeker has also created works in clay, silk, encaustic, airbrush, photography, aluminum and copper, creating art from nearly anything she finds. She demonstrates a malleability across concepts and media, creating work for festivals, municipalities, corporate building enhancement, churches, and private homes.
In 2007, Meeker’s work took an important turn when she was introduced to the work of Carlos Cruz-Diez, a Venezuelan artist whose concept of color theory brought an indigenous perspective to traditional prismatic color theory. Called “chromointerference” (coined in 1964), Diez’s observations and techniques focused on light rather than pigment.
Up until this point, much of art history exhibited color through additive methods, using pigment to create an illusion of reality on canvas or other supports. Meeker says, “Joseph Albers noticed red-cyan makes black, back in the Bauhaus days before TV. I noticed TV and printer colors, and noticed we needed a whole new color wheel in light not pigment.” From this idea, Meeker determined a fundamental set of 6 shades and 15 set color combinations that would become the basis of her work today. Meeker originally used light additively, playing off shiny surfaces as seen in her metal work. Inspired by Diez’s methods, Meeker’s sculpture moved from 3D to 4D, extending to the world around it, incorporating the environment.
Meeker’s first project inspired by Diez’s work was a collaboration with the town of Blacksburg to cover street lights with theater gels, a one-night installation to see combinations working on a larger scale. This inaugural project produced unexpected results, including observations about increased safety in color-lit areas. Compared to the standard white light used worldwide, colors like yellow and blue, green and magenta provide an enhanced 3D effect, increasing visibility. This opens up a doorway for using sculpture by way of light as a means to generate public gathering spaces, to serve as hazard warnings, and to make areas safer. Light can also extend art to places where other art can’t go, and as they say, “shady things don’t happen in the light”. This project set in motion the work that Meeker’s studio creates today, work that plays with color, light, and reflectivity, the angle and position of both viewers and objects. It’s a combination of science and art, research and experimentation, known as "The Color Project".
Image: Blacksburg City Lights project
Although it is only more recently being studied by science, humans have experimented with the healing properties of colored light, otherwise known as chromatherapy, since antiquity. The ancient Egyptians were known to use color baths for healing. Solariums, glass-enclosed rooms made for sunbathing, have long been used for medical and therapeutic effects. And it was NASA who in 1956 began using a combination of nearly-infrared light with a broad spectrum colored light, to promote cell regeneration in its astronauts returning from space.
Capturing the therapeutic potential of light and a childlike sense of play, Meeker’s “Chromilluminator” interactive photo booth uses the human face as a canvas, working with light to create compositions and connection with each other. The piece, developed by Meeker’s design team with the help of Chris Angileri, begins with an enclosed structure that reduces outside sensory and perceptual stimuli. Within the environment, participants pose for photos, lit by cycles of nine color combinations, using the participants skin as the reflective surface for projected light. The outside audience is given access to watch the process on live video, and participants receive a print of the captured image. It takes the everyday instinct to create photos in our lives, turning it into an opportunity to become artists and scientists. In the process, viewers learn more about light and reflection while engaging in easy, accessible, structured play. The piece is popular in museums, schools, and festivals, for youth and adults alike.
Image: Lollipops, Courtesy of Arts Council of Lake Oswego, and Solarium
Along with Chromilluminator, “The Color Project” produces a variety of indoor and outdoor sculpture and kinetic art experiences, including the Lollipop series and Solarium. The Lollipops are a collection of convex mirrors installed 4 feet apart in the shape of a triangle or square. The spirited objects stand at varying levels, accommodating strollers and wheelchairs, and people of any height. They can be turned, manipulated, and played with, appropriate for libraries and parks, creating a gallery without walls. These whimsical objects draw viewers in close to understand unexpected plays on color and the distortion of reflection, while revealing more detail in the environment surrounding them in the image created by the convex mirror. Meeker says, “When people can choose, they learn. If there are colors to choose from, a direction to turn, it helps people to engage, to learn through experience.” Like all of Meeker’s work, the piece incorporates embodiment, interaction, and reciprocity. Even her earliest stone carvings were designed to be touched. That’s what makes them suitable for public art, and this principle is the driver behind her body of research, design, and fabrication.
Meeker’s most recent project in development is a series of undulating, colored screens that jump off the wall. Using color patterns found in TV and print media, when hit with light, patterns change and colors combine to create new shades. Cast images on the ground resemble stained glass. It is the emergent properties of art that are the most surprising. The Color Project will install a version of the screens called “The Jewel in the Lotus” as a 15’ x 40’ backdrop, suspended at the main stage at Yoga Jam Bloom 2021, a yoga, music & arts festival held in the Blue Ridge Mountains Labor Day Weekend. Yoga Jam is one of several festival clients that looks to The Color Project for innovative large-scale public art that is durable and versatile, that compliments other forms like lighting design and music.
Image: Screens. Top photo by Jerry Mathiason, bottom courtesy of The Color Project
What draws Meeker’s works together is an attention to intricate detail and dramatic impact. She says, “the viewer gets awareness with a glance and an appreciation more profound from careful consideration”. A common phrase around the studio is, “it couldn’t be helped”, meaning the work that evolves is a natural outcome of curiosity and experimentation, destined to be made, if not by them, then some other human. Meeker is not afraid to take risks. Having been diagnosed with myotonic muscular dystrophy at the start of her artistic path, she has continually adapted her art making methods to her body’s changing abilities. Weathering a stroke a decade ago has not slowed her down. Her collaborative mindset sparked the growth of her design and fabrication team, shifting toward kinetic public art installation. With a true focus on engagement, Meeker’s mission has always been to empower others.
The Color Project is: JC Stallings partner and lead fabricator, Liz Stallings partner and artistic director, Jim Pease partner, and Darcy Meeker founder, partner and creative director "aka Queen Bee".
Image: Functional Public Art For All
Where to find Darcy Meeker and The Color Project:
Southwest Virginia Culture Center and Marketplace