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Seeing Light, Seeing Shadow

"Transmission Geist" by Alice Pixley Young
Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the Momentary, Image by Dero Sanford
"Transmission Geist" by Alice Pixley Young

We’re in the shortest days of the year. Twilight begins just after 5pm, and by 6 it’s dark. Throughout December, we experience only about 9 hours of daylight. Qualities of light become especially noticeable in winter when we experience more darkness. I invited two artists to share how they see light during this season. We met via Zoom to chat in the blue glow of our computer screens.

“I’ve always been attracted to the light that is generated in the Midwest.”

Julie Renee Jones teaches photography at the University of Dayton. Her portraiture series called “Umbra” places subjects in settings of powerful light.

“I prefer late summer and early fall light to any other light around the year," she says. "And specifically the Ohio late summer early fall light because of its balance like between the flatness you get in the summer and the little bit of intensity that you get as the days get shorter and the angle of the earth it becomes a little more intense. And so that really creates that spotlight effect for me, the moment when the light seems almost too bright to be real.”

Alice Pixley Young is an installation artist and teacher at the School for Creative and Performing Arts in Cincinnati.

“Trained as a painter and moving from Washington DC to Florida and then to western Pennsylvania and then Ohio, I was very very struck by the light difference,” she says.

In her work, Alice projects light through objects on rotating platforms to make what she calls “moving shadow drawings” of natural and industrial landscapes.

“I think that also in my work shadows are very important, and it’s very much about the light piercing voids, creating shadows. The length of shadows, and the way that things happen, especially at this time of year, because night is coming on so much earlier too, charges the space and charges the imagination with what can happen.“

“This time of year, because of the intensity of the light, the shadows, I think Alice you were kind of alluding to this, they become so much longer and so much deeper, so they do have this wonderful dramatic quality," says Julie Renee Jones. "I actually am very interested in actively trying to make a picture that is about the shortness of the days in the winter, it is about the impending shadow, that happens at like, what, 4:00? And how it really makes you feel disoriented.”

That disorientation is related to Circadian rhythms, our “body clock” that responds to light with feelings of wakeful energy or sleepiness. Some people even have feelings of depression, referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder. Both artists say the loss of light affects them, but they are also attracted to darkness.

“Alice mentioned how important shadow was in her work, as well as light. I see them is kind of married partners. There’s something really alluring about the way that a shadow falls on the human body and the human face and how that creates mystery and ambiguity and a sense of the unknown," says Jones.

“I would say I spend a lot of time making and creating the devices that are ultimately going to become the shadows," says Alice Pixley Young. "And often people come into the installations looking for what is causing the projections, where is it coming from, but it’s the shadow-making that is by far the most important element, and I think that’s, again, because of the way it creates a magical sense in the space, the space becomes much more memory-laden, much more psychological, it becomes no longer a space of sort of the moment of reality but a space that we all share universally I think, something that sort of really pulls us back, to childhood or beyond. I just think that idea of things going against the wall, sort of fading in fading out, changing its scale, it’s just so primal to us, as humans.”

The interplay between light and darkness, evokes an inherent physical response in us. It also fuels the human imagination. The arc of sun across the sky is perhaps the original narrative arc of the art of storytelling, practiced at night in the glow of firelight with a backdrop of flickering shadows.

Culture Couch is created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO and supported by WYSO Leaders Frank Scenna and Heather Bailey, who are proud to support storytelling that sparks curiosity, highlights creativity and builds community.

Copyright 2021 WYSO. To see more, visit WYSO.

"Sleeping Beauty" by Julie Renee Jones
courtesy of the artist /
"Sleeping Beauty" by Julie Renee Jones

Susan Byrnes