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Dale Eldred
Earth and Sky Garden

College of Public Health
University of South Florida, Tampa

“The worship of light is woven through the whole of human existence. If the earth can be regarded as the body of the world…, then light is surely this world’s spirit.”

Dale Eldred spoke those words in 1990 in an effort to describe his passion for public art projects which examine the nature of sunlight. Eldred’s project, Earth and Sky Garden was commissioned for the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health in 1991. Eldred spent the next two years designing and constructing the project to take full advantage of the skylights built into the architectural design of the facility. He did not live to see the project to fruition, however. On July 26, 1993, Dale Eldred died in his studio in Kansas City as a result of an accident, which occurred while he was attempting to save elements of the USF project from the flooding of the Kaw River, adjacent to his studio.

The project was installed by Roberta Lord, his widow and collaborator, assisted by colleagues of Eldred from the Kansas City Art Institute. Lord, commenting on the project said, “It is literally documenting the passage of time.” The artwork functions to reveal the visual spectrum of light utilizing a diffraction plane created by inscribing 150 lines per square inch in a metal surface which is then sandwiched beneath a glass plane. This surface breaks light into the visual, spectrum of color. The stationary viewer finds that the color of the light striking a given plane shifts with the passage of time. A viewer in motion recreates this phenomenon by changing their perspective with the plane, thus greatly accelerating the affect of the passage of time, which marks the movement of the sun at a given plane.

Eldred’s plan called for a series of visual events to make up the total statement of his Earth and Sky Garden project. The artwork initially greets the viewer as they approach the College of Public Health. There are two diffraction planes mounted on painted aluminum poles on either side of the entrance. The diffraction planes are ignited, as the artist refers to the phenomenon, when sunlight strikes the surface. In this particular instance, a rainbow of color (the visible spectrum) is “pumped” against the building changing in rhythm with the sun’s movement. As the viewer enters the main lobby, a large pyramidal skylight caps the two-story open atrium. Four shelf ledges, filled with a series of diffraction planes that face upwards, form a rectangle at the base of the pyramid. As the sunlight strikes their surface, the bright hues of the rainbow are reflected back against the tinted glass, which in turn casts a subdued reflection of the rainbows on the surrounding walls and hallways. Passing through the lobby in the direction of the cafeteria, the viewer confronts a series of cone shapes encased in individual glass bonnets on gunmetal pedestals. Pure pigments cover each cone, vividly representing the visible spectrum. The artist recognized that the building would be used during the day and night. He therefore created elements representative of his dramatic statement on light that could be enjoyed even when sunlight was not available to ignite his artwork. Large glass planes of the lobby doorways and widows invite the viewer to explore the outdoor courtyard.

The final two elements of Eldred’s Earth and Sky Garden reinforce this invitation. The first of these elements stands on the upper deck of the exterior patio, which is partially covered by a glass pyramid. Eldred created a sculpture consisting bronze cone resting on top of a large granite stone, which is mounted on a stainless steel frame. This cone extends the visual conversation begun on the interior while to reinforcing Eldred’s metaphor of the earth as the body of the world. A stainless steel pendulum suspended from the skylight and extending to within inches of the tip of the cone, assumes the role of light in Eldred’s metaphor representing the spirit of the world. The spatial tension between the pendulum and the cone reference the Egyptian and Indian art with “their emphasis on spatial relationships” that influenced Eldred, according to Lord. The artwork reaches its crescendo in a series of diffraction planes mounted on the south wall of the atrium. When ignited, these planes reflect the intensity of pure sunlight. They are by far the most vibrant of the diffraction planes and function as a visual magnet to the viewer from the moment they approach the exterior entrance of the Public Health facility

Project Summary

Earth and Sky Garden uses a series of etched-metal diffraction planes, sandwiched between glass with steel fittings, to "ignite" the exterior entrance area, interior lobby, and interior courtyard with the colors of the spectrum: violet, indigo, blue, yellow, orange and red. As the sun's rays strike the piece, the diffraction planes glow with the colors of the spectrum; the colors constantly change as the sun moves across the sky. The colors are apparent on the planes themselves, as well as being reflected onto the surrounding walls and windows. The Visible Range element features the colors of the visible spectrum reproduced as cones surfaced in pure color pigments, protected by acrylic bonnets.



Earth and Sky Garden
made possible by Florida's Art in State Buildings Program