Artist Adam Frelin brings Extended Sunset to Eisenhower Auditorium
During Penn State White Out weekend in October, a pop of color illuminated the windows of Eisenhower Auditorium for the first of many nights. As part of the University’s Campus Arts Initiative, artist Adam Frelin worked with the Center for the Performing Arts to conceptualize, design, and install this site-specific visual artwork.
Frelin’s work, Extended Sunset, is the first of eight commissioned art pieces installed at high-impact locations across Penn State campuses during the 2019–2020 academic year. Funded by Penn State’s Strategic Planning Seed Grant program, the Campus Arts Initiative seeks to engage communities and highlight the arts with these temporary pieces that will be on display for as long as one year.
Extended Sunset features a Pennsylvania sunset installed into the six large, vertical windows at the front of Eisenhower. The backlit image is evenly lighted by LED light strips surrounding the interior of the window frames. White vinyl placed behind the images functions as the back of a light box and as a light reflector. An astronomical timer controls the LED lights, illuminating the window as the actual sunset begins and continuing to shine throughout the night before fading into morning.
Frelin, an associate professor of art at the University at Albany, received his bachelor of fine arts degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and his master of fine arts from the University of California San Diego. He has been creating temporary outdoor public pieces for several years.
In an interview with the Center for the Performing Arts, Frelin shared that his early inspiration came from street art. He was a graffiti artist at a young age, and while he no longer creates graffiti, his works embrace many aspects of the art form. They are large in scale, outdoors, for general audiences, a little transgressive, and visually impactful.
One of Frelin’s previous projects, Breathing Lights, informed the artwork at Eisenhower. Breathing Lights involved creating a light effect in vacant buildings. It was Frelin’s first time doing a window installation.
“Doing a window installation was a new idea that worked out really well for that project based on what we were trying to achieve, which was to draw attention to these buildings and make them look like they were breathing,” Frelin says. “I realized that using windows and turning them into light boxes has a lot of potential. [Extended Sunset] was one of the first pieces I could do that proved that to be true. I’m happy with the result.”
Tamryn McDermott, an associate with the Campus Arts Initiative, participated in the installation and enjoyed seeing it come together.
“Adam’s project is a great fit for Eisenhower Auditorium as the building gets the most use evenings and after dark. There will be a built-in audience for the piece throughout the year,” McDermott says. “Even on nights where the theatre is dark, Adam’s piece will always rise as the sun sets, capturing the attention of passersby and adding beauty to their daily experience on campus.”
Recently having completed the installation of Extended Sunset, Frelin describes his inspiration for the piece, the work’s connection to the performing arts, and the importance of public artwork.
Question: Can you describe your creative process for Extended Sunset?
Frelin: When it became clear that the only area available was probably these windows, I knew something was going to happen there and that we were going to light them in some way, but I didn’t know what it was going to be. I had to think about what would be a logical choice, and this is where I very much split from the world of graffiti. In the case of graffiti, there’s really no logic to what’s being painted and where it exists. It’s rather arbitrary. And if my work has any strength, I have a way of finding a thematic or conceptual tie-in to what the thing is and where it lives. Is it related to this being a theatre? Is it related to this being a college campus?
What became the focus was this part of the country. I immediately remembered one of the things that was very hard about growing up in Pennsylvania was how overcast it was a lot of the time. It seems like such a minor thing, but it had such a huge impact on my happiness. I now live in upstate New York, and I would say it has half as many cloudy days as here. I’m generally happier because of it. So I started to think that maybe I’ll make this piece for people like me. Maybe they just need something that is visually pleasing in a way that is a relief from some of the overcast-ness. Maybe this whole day happened where sunset didn’t bring any color whatsoever, and this piece actually comes on as an antidote to that, offering it for the whole night.
Q: How did you go about narrowing down and selecting this specific sunset image? What were you looking for?
Frelin: It’s not hard to find images of beautiful sunsets, but I had to think about the light quality in this part of the world. The sunsets here aren’t like sunsets in the desert or Hawaii. They’re a little more muted in some ways. It was very important to me that I pick an image that was taken from this part of the world, so I went through a database of images, looking through hundreds from Pennsylvania. I narrowed it down to ten and then digitally mocked them all up in the windows. This one in particular wasn’t aesthetically more attractive in and of itself, but something happened compositionally. You’ll notice from the outside that there’s a radial effect, and when you’re standing at ground level, it actually feels perspectively correct. The other images didn’t come together like that in the location, so by digitally mocking it up, I knew that it just had to be this one.
Q: How would you say the piece supports/complements the mission of the Center for the Performing Arts?
Frelin: When I was making this, I had to think, where was the link? You rarely get a piece that links in more than one way, so I had to choose. It really became about this region of the country. Having said that, it’s hard not to look at this and see it in relation to what happens during theatrical performances. You have these grand backgrounds or sets, and this piece is on the scale and quality of that kind of set. Think about the way you do theatrical makeup—it’s ridiculous from up close, but from a distance, it works. You don’t get it both ways. You either make things that are meant to be viewed within twenty feet or from twenty feet out. For Extended Sunset, I took a photographic image and turned it into a vector file, and what a vector file does is it takes all that gradation of color and breaks it into chunks. You get these really strong chunks of color, and to look at it up close, it looks almost like some sort of stained glass. You can see what it’s supposed to be, but it looks crazy. When you stand back twenty feet or so, it pops into place, and in this way, it is related to how something for a set would be built.
Q: What do you believe is the importance of creating art for display in public spaces?
Frelin: The majority of things in our world are utilitarian. What’s interesting about art is that it’s not serving a utilitarian purpose. Art often opens up a space for other ways to think about purpose and why something is there and what it’s achieving—because it’s not as clear in some ways. That happens with many genres of work, whether it’s writing or music or theatre. It creates that space where now we’re not expecting that same utilitarian function and we can open it up to have other agendas. And sometimes that means that the purpose of art is to be a punching bag, a place where we battle over an idea, and I’ve done those types of works.
This is not that. This is really a gift, which does relate to graffiti. Most graffiti artists believe that what they’re doing is giving a gift. They’re using their own money and risking arrest to create this thing that they think is beautiful. This piece isn’t meant to be politically or socially complex or controversial, it’s meant to be a visual gift because I think this is what I would’ve wanted when I was going to school. I would’ve wanted to come by this at night, especially after a long gloomy day.
Q: What do you hope someone walking by will say or feel or think about the artwork that they’re seeing?
Frelin: In a lot of ways, you just have to base it off what you feel and whether it would resonate for you. There are different ways to be an artist, and one way is to be a little generous and think, “Based on my wants and needs, do they reflect what other people want and need, too?” To me, the ideal viewers would be people who, between their last class and where they live, walked by here every night, and it was always a kind of companion to them. Maybe for some people, it’ll change their year because they can rely on it always turning on every night and being there.
Jessica Sensenig, a recent Penn State graduate, is a feature writer for the Center for the Performing Arts.