The Art of Transportation: Using Light and Sculpture to Traverse Hearts and Minds

By: Author (Sarah Muehlbauer) for CODAworx

To create public art is to focus on collective affect developed through carefully chosen aesthetics. Public art has the opportunity to influence how we move, how we relate, and how we ultimately engage with the places we live and experience community. While technology has multiplied the ways in which we create art, in the end, it’s work that reveals an essential human truth, need, or opportunity, that speaks directly to the heart of its audience. For over 30 years, Bill FitzGibbons, known widely for iconic light sculptures in cityscapes, has been doing just that. Working at the intersection of light, object, and infrastructure, his art calls out for us to engage and amplify our own presence, participation, and civic pride.


“Light Channels” (2007). Two underpasses varying in height from 7′-14′ and approx. 120′ in length, San Antonio, Texas. Perforated aluminum, concrete, and computer controlled LED lights.

A traditionally “unlikely” site for art, transportation pathways often serve as psychological barriers preventing pedestrians from entering nearby parts of a city. FitzGibbons’ rich, computerized LED light installations highlight spaces once considered dark and foreboding, or simply empty of content or character. In the highway underpasses he transforms into vibrant and well-used pedestrian pathways, works like “Light Rails” foster connection, access, and economic development, helping grow and enrich a sense of place. In so many examples of FitzGibbons work, what was once a non-site, becomes a call into presence and wonder, an invitation to the other side. 

In an unspoken way, FitzGibbons’ urban light projects tap into the meditative presence of walking and driving, creating a color narrative and micro-journey experience where thoughts and feelings coincide, suddenly more vibrant and in focus. Local residents come to associate color fields with mood, creating relationships between mind, body, and place. In the same way that humans find meaning in observing and reflecting on cycles in nature, this urban light work provides a mercurial mirror connecting us to the transcendent.

The 18th street underpass was lit with colorful lights with help from the Community Foundation Birmingham Thursday June 27,  2013 in Birmingham, Ala. (Photo/Hal Yeager)

“Light Rails” (2013). 60’ x 120’ x12’, Birmingham, Alabama.  Computerized LED Light System. Commissioned by REV Birmingham.

To know Bill FitzGibbons as “just” a light artist is to miss the concepts and aesthetic range that makes his work so poignant and iconic. At university, FitzGibbons studied painting, which we can imagine through the gestural way that light paints buildings, considered on the canvas of the larger city. Early in his studies, he gained access to neon units, which worked their way into paintings and sculptures, catching-fire a relationship with light and form that continues and occasionally even ignites in the form of pyrotechnics. If you were lucky enough to find yourself in St. Louis when FitzGibbons was in graduate school, you may have even been one of many to report a UFO sighting, sparked by his neon-filled, helium-flying aluminum grid sculpture. Even then, FitzGibbons engaged the fantasy and curiosity of the collective with his sense of experimentation and play. 

FitzGibbons says his attraction to light comes directly from those early paintings combined with neon, and the realization that three dimensions isn’t just “steel and wood.” “Light creates a shape and form. So does sound. That kind of opened my eyes,” he says. FitzGibbons maintains a complete wood and welding shop in his studio, and continues to focus on site-specific objects, incorporating LEDs in unique ways in both interior and exterior spaces.


“Sound Cross” (1987). 28’ x 28’ x 4’, Anchorage, Alaska.  Sod, plywood and auditory sound system. 

With over 30 major public art works and so many years of making, Fitzgibbon’s body of artistic accomplishment takes a wide variety of forms. Pieces like “Sound Cross” (1987) and “North Star Plaza” reveal strong influences from earth artists, site-specific sculptors, and landscape architects like Nancy Holt, Richard Serra, and Isamu Noguchi. We see him bending and curving parks and community spaces, shaping the living earth and flow of gathering. FitzGibbons emphasizes the value in working closely and early in the design process with architects and stakeholders, knowing the culture and community, its unique needs and opportunities.

Among the many public artists who qualify under the umbrella of abstraction, FitzGibbons stands apart with the tangible humanity his pieces evoke, constantly adapting, yet forming a strong signature. While color and light may offer a distilled formal relationship, layers of research, process, participation, and added media always reveal more. Take for example the pyro-sculpture performance “The Epiphany of 5 Rivers” commissioned by the River Pierce Foundation on the Rio Grande.


“The Epiphany of 5 Rivers” (1995). San Ygnacio, Texas. Pyro-sculpture performance commissioned by the River Pierce Foundation, performed on the banks of the Rio Grande.

At the time, the land and community was steeped in controversy over pollution of the 5 main rivers in south Texas. In a gesture of intention and healing, water was collected from all five rivers and poured into a single vase. As part of a communal performance, a procession was led to the edge of the Rio, where the mixture was poured in, pyrotechnic candles exploding as the rivers became one.

The fundamental gesture and performance of “Epiphany” holds a profound spiritual suggestion - that an artistic act, an intentional treatment of fire and water, holds space for the transformation of this site’s future. It’s not only concrete and direct, pointing to responsibility that can be taken by the community, but it’s also nuanced and poetic, invoking ceremony and fire as ancient, archetypal anchor points of gathering. 


“Passages” (2014). McAllen, Texas. Passages is an explorative journey of space and time with light, fire, and human encounters, and features an assortment of 2-D and 3-D pieces in a number of media including drawings, paintings, light, metal, and Plexiglas. Performers included Liliana Balberto (Tempo Danza), Jenny Brown, Meg Brooker (San Antonio Faculty Northwest Vista College), Bianca Chávez and Abraham Lezama (Tempo Danza).

Of a similar mind and commitment to community and environment, FitzGibbons’ 2014 collaborative work “Passages” brought dancers from both sides of the US/ Mexico border together to explore their common “divide”. Performed first at the International Museum of Art and Science, and later on the border wall itself, the piece is a resonant and perpetually timely consideration of the aggression, fear, risk, heartbreak, common love and humanity that connects communities on both sides.

Using dance, light, music, and sculpture, the piece investigates the meaning of a border and a path, symbols both common and specific. It represents a history of international relationships, and also the way alliances and boundaries are formed and enforced. Implied is the way we treat the land and people, how we separate self from other, and the implication that carries forward.

In much the way FitzGibbons’ underpass projects unify disparate areas, his work with objects, light, and experience transcend structural boundaries, making connections that are artful, nuanced and considered. What is transportation if not a way of traveling from place to place, from present to future, whether it be physically or in heart and mind.