Many Hands, Light Work: The Public Art of Bill FitzGibbons

Bill FitzGibbons has created dozens of public artworks in cities around the world, building-size masterpieces incorporating cutting-edge LED technology, color, and engineering that serve as civic wayfinders and icons of imagination. He’s developed temporary installations for public celebrations on sites ranging from the Alamo to Reykjavik’s City Hall. But his aim to incorporate others in the development and creation of his works has remained the same. “As a public artist, the people you meet who are the stakeholders for a project may not understand contemporary art or have the same understanding or appreciation for it that a curator does,” FitzGibbons notes. “So how do you make them part of the process without compromising your aesthetic vision?”

light sculpture
LightRails, a light installation located in downtown Birmingham, AL (2013)
Kinetic Skyline,, located in downtown San Antonio, TX 2015
Kinetic Skyline, located in downtown San Antonio, TX (2015)

Answering that question, says FitzGibbons, is one of the things that drew him to public art in the first place. “Sculptors are, by nature, social animals,” he says. “Creating public art is really more of a social practice because it’s not something you can do on your own. Entering into a dialog with stakeholders, going to neighborhood and city meetings, incorporating time capsules—it’s part of what I love about this work.” Collaboration extends to creation of the work, where he relies on the expertise and skill of subcontractors—engineers, electricians, fabricators, masons, architects, and contractors—to help create his vision and execute a successful project. “You can’t be a public artist working by yourself in your studio trying to move thirty-foot I-beams around,” he laughs. “The LED technology I use in my work today is constantly changing, and each site has its own unique characteristics. I develop a rendering and lay out the fixtures I want for a particular project, but not all fixtures work the same way. While I know all of the system requirements, I’m not an electrical engineer, so the project becomes a big collaboration between myself, the structural engineers, electrical engineers, and others.”

light sculpture
Öndvegissúlur; Poem of Light, a light sculpture located on the City Hall of Reykjavik, Iceland to celebrate the opening of Reykjavik’s Museum Night (2010)

Led to LED

While FitzGibbons makes no claims to electrical engineering, it doesn’t take long to realize that he’s as much a technician as he is an artist, a symbiotic career pairing that grew roots through an unexpected opportunity. “I was an undergraduate in college studying painting, and a friend of a friend was retiring from work at a neon shop and had a bunch of spare parts,” he says. “My friend asked if I’d be interested this collection of neon units and transformers that he was just going to throw out. I began installing neon onto the front of my paintings and had sort of this ‘ah-ha’ moment.” He went on to major in sculpture, then moved on to graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied with multimedia artist Howard Jones. He became the first curator of St. Louis’s Laumeier Sculpture Park before moving to Anchorage in 1985 to become Director of Sculpture at the Visual Art Center in Anchorage, where, thanks to the wealth spurred by the oil pipeline, he earned numerous commissions, both sculpture and neon—or a combination of the two. He later moved to Texas to take the position as Department Head of Sculpture at the San Antonio Art Institute before eventually becoming a full-time public artist. It was while FitzGibbons was working on a commission for Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport, that he was introduced to LED. “An engineer from Signify was at the airport working with an artist on another project. He really turned me on to LED, which is stronger than neon and has an unlimited color palette. And the LED fixtures we’re putting in now will last at least 10 years before they need to be replaced.”

light sculpture
Centro Chroma Tower, a light sculpture located in Centro Plaza, an intermodal transit center in San Antonio, TX (2016)
interactive LED light sculpture
Interactive LED window located on Centro Chroma Tower

FitzGibbons frequently works with Signify on the creation of his own public artworks, which tend to take one of two paths. The first are sculptures that incorporate LED light, such as Centro Chroma Tower, an 85′ perforated aluminum sculpture lit internally by computerized LED lights that respond to the movements of the pedestrians around it. Installed in San Antonio’s Centro Plaza Transit Center, the piece serves not only as a wayfinding device for commuters but also as a symbol of the transit center itself. The second path of work is what FitzGibbons describes as “LED only,” though that’s sort of an oversimplification of the dizzying array of fixtures, data lines, enablers, and programs required to successfully execute one of his public light projects, which often stretch hundreds of feet along buildings, tunnels, or roadways. His newly installed Kinetic Skyline, for example, extends in a rippling wash of changing color over the 28-story exterior of San Antonio’s Bank of America Plaza Building, lending vibrancy and movement to the city skyline. Other LED-only projects, such as his celebrated LightRails, illuminate the “more ubiquitous part of architecture,” in this case the Birmingham, Alabama, 18th Street underpass that was previously the dark and foreboding site of dubious activity. The now-luminous underpass is a point of public pride—and the second-most visited tourist attraction in the city. “That’s the power and magic of what well-executed, collaborative light sculpture can do,” FitzGibbons adds. “It’s transformative, and it provides an aesthetic and engaging experience. There’s just nothing else like it.”

light sculpture
El Paso Passage, an underpass light sculpture located at the entrance of the El Paso International Airport (2018)

FitzGibbons is becoming more involved in the interactive aspects of his light sculptures, currently exploring the use of downloadable apps that will allow viewers to interact with the work via their cell phones.