Home & Design

Light Show

Richmond-based artist Janet Saad-Cook manipulates sunlight to create ever-changing color displays

Light Show

Janet Saad-Cook's Philosophic Mercury moves
across the façade of a Washington, DC, home.
In Janet Saad-Cook's sunny studio, colorful forms of light move through the space. Arcs of gold, helixes of pink and green and flowerlike bursts of red evolve and dissolve on the surrounding walls. The changing, shimmering images evoke a calming sense of connection to the natural world and to the silent rhythms of the earth and sun. They mark the hours, the days and the seasons. Saad-Cook's work is, quite simply, meditative art at its best—belying with its unpretentious beauty the complexities of astronomy, optics and physics that are intertwined in its creation.

Saad-Cook calls these ever-changing displays "Sun Drawings." They depict pure sunlight as it interacts with reflective elements made of optically coated glass and mirrored metals strategically positioned in a pre-selected path. Saad-Cook has exhibited her Sun Drawings at the Smithsonian Institution, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, The Dayton Art Institute and the National Academy of Sciences; they have been commissioned by corporations, architects, private collectors and universities.

After spending many years perfecting this rare art form, Saad-Cook is facing a new challenge: creating a world-encircling Global Sun Drawing. She is placing Sun Drawings at six geographically key locations around the earth. They are already in place at MIT's Haystack Observatory and at the Boston University Photonics Center, and other installations are planned for the Western United States, the South Pacific, the Far East and Europe.

To connect these Sun Drawings into a unified work of art, Saad-Cook is incorporating a signature arc of light into each individual Sun Drawing. As the hours pass, the arcs of light will appear sequentially from site to site like a relay prompted by the earth's rotation and the daily sweep of sunlight.

"I spent a year chasing the sunlight around my studio, experimenting with ways to use the film and light," says Janet Saad-Cook. Eventually she learned that if the reflective materials were left undisturbed, each image would appear exactly as before at the same moment in the sun's yearly cycle.

The Richmond-based sculptor created and refined her patented process through 25 years of ongoing experimentation and research. One day in 1981 while passing through a department store, she was stopped short by a crumpled piece of iridescent plastic in a cosmetic display. The highly sophisticated light interference film made of 230 layers of ultra-thin plastic split white light into the colors of the spectrum. Saad-Cook obtained a bolt of the film from a display company, went back to her studio and unrolled it in the sun. "The whole room burst into color," she recalls. "I spent a year chasing the sunlight around my studio, experimenting with ways to use the film and light." Eventually she learned that if the reflective materials were left undisturbed, each image would appear exactly as before at the same moment in the sun's yearly cycle.

The reflective materials she used quickly evolved. She worked briefly with Kapton, a glimmering gold polymide film used to line spacecraft and space suits, and metallized polyester, an industrial plastic film that casts a silvery white light. In 1985, her quest to devise a protective housing to make these materials permanent works of art led her to an optical coating lab outside Philadelphia. "Walking through the lab, I saw a shard of glass with a lot of color. I was told it was a beam splitter, a device used by astronomers to break light into certain wavelengths. I asked if I could bend a piece of glass like I was doing with plastic, and could they put the beam-splitter coating on this wavy glass? They told me, ‘Lady, if you pay for it, we're willing to try anything.' It was a huge breakthrough….Sometimes, you can only make these kinds of leaps when you are outside of more traditional thinking," says Saad-Cook. She had the glass formed into different shapes in a kiln to her specifications and found the application of the optical multi-layered interference coatings broke the light into its pure colors, affording not only a new permanence and greater control, but also more defined images.

At the same time she was experimenting with high-tech materials, Saad-Cook immersed herself in archeoastronomy, the study of the astronomical beliefs and practices of prehistoric and ancient cultures. Her research took her to such ancient sun-marking sites as the Anazasi observatories in Tsiping and Chaco Canyon, both in New Mexico; Hovenweep on the Colorado/Utah border; and the ancient pyramids at Teotihuacan in Mexico. During summer and winter solstices, she observed the sun-marking phenomena that tracked these celestial events, and signaled for these ancient cultures the time for planting, harvesting and performing sacred rituals.

"As an artist I'm trying to bring awareness of how we are all interconnected into a non-threatening arena," says Saad-Cook. "The most simple basic shared  life experience is the movement of the sun."

A viewer lends a sense of human scale to her new installation,
Athanor, at Boston University's Photonics Center.

While using light to interact with one's environment is an ancient tradition, Saad-Cook brings her modernist interpretation of this practice to homes as well as public buildings. One of her clients is art historian and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland Josephine Withers, who lives in a forested area in rural Maryland across the Potomac River from Mount Vernon. Her home was designed by Bethesda architect Mark McInturff in collaboration with Saad-Cook to create a central space in which Saad-Cook would create a large-scale light painting. Clerestory windows allow sunlight to reach reflective instruments suspended from a system of ceiling struts. For six months beginning in September and ending in March, the sun enters the windows inside this two-story loftlike space for up to four hours a day, creating carefully calculated images on the south wall that change, evolve, and dissolve with the beauty of the movement of the tides or the wind.

In Washington, one of Saad-Cook's Sun Drawings enlivens the exterior of a traditional colonial-style home. Beginning at the vernal equinox and ending just past the autumnal equinox, the Sun Drawing image appears and travels across the façade of the home for four hours daily. Saad-Cook crafted optical instruments from shaped, coated glass and stainless steel; in their surfaces, details of the environment are captured and transformed into intricate abstractions of shapes and light.
"As an artist I'm trying to bring awareness of how we are all interconnected into a non-threatening arena," says Saad-Cook. "The most simple basic shared life experience is the movement of the sun. The same sun that warms us and cheers us does this wherever we are in the world. Where I can make that common experience visible and felt by even one person has the promise of reaching millions of people, because it transforms the way that person looks at their world."

Freelance writer Judith Bell Turner-Yamamoto is based in Arlington, Virginia.

A work entitled Distillation embellishes Saad-Cook's own studio.

An installation in an Accokeek, Maryland, home designed
in conjunction with architect Mark McInturff incorporates
reflective instruments suspended from a system in the
ceiling struts.
Photo by Julia Heine
Light pouring through the home's clerestory windows
creates a parade of color on the opposite wall.
Ortus, an installation in a Richmond home, shows how the
light creations evolve and move with the sun's trajectory.

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