An interview with Light Rails artist Bill FitzGibbons

Tomorrow, June 27, a 1931 Birmingham railroad underpass will be transformed when the Community Foundation, REV Birmingham and the City of Birmingham flip the switch on Light Rails!  We recently had a chance to chat with Bill FitzGibbons, the artist behind the 18th Street light installation, which is the first of a series of lighting projects in Birmingham’s city center.  Bill’s enthusiasm for this project –and for Birmingham — came through loud and clear!

CFGB: Why is Birmingham such a good fit for this light-art installation?

FitzGibbons: “I hadn’t been to Birmingham in many years … [I] was absolutely thrilled to see the vibrancy and the energy that was expressed by the both the people that I met and the projects that are happening.  Railroad Park is a first-class urban park on the par of Millennium Park in Chicago without the public art, and the new baseball stadium, and all of those warehouse buildings that are being turned into mixed use and residential properties is very forward-thinking.  Birmingham is really a city in the midst of a huge transformation.”

This connection between the Parks District and the city center – we see a lot of potential once the underpass is lit and the areas connected.  What’s your take?

I think of public art as a place-making tool.  For example, a similar underpass in San Antonio was not a physical barrier, it was a psychological barrier.  So the Mayor and business owners wanted to turn it into a gateway, so we lit two underpasses.  It not only transformed the underpass as something that you were hesitant to walk through, but it made the underpass a destination in and of itself — we have had rock bands shoot videos under there, we’ve had Porsche ads shot there.  Projects [like this], across many cities, demonstrate that the creative economy which produces things such as public art has a direct influence on how citizens feel about those urban areas.  When you do this, you see boarded up buildings that are turned into condominiums, and when you start attracting residential activity, that attracts restaurants and retail, and then the urban center becomes an exciting vibrant place where people want to live. 

A sneak peek of the 1931 underpass lit by Bill FitzGibbons

A sneak peek of the 1931 underpass lit by Bill FitzGibbons

How did the underpass’s Art Deco design factor into your design?

First, it’s a beautiful art deco underpass. One of the things that’s a big challenge with most modern-day interstate underpasses is you have all these beams and it’s a real challenge to properly light a lot of those.  What you basically want for maximum results in lighting is a flat, white surface.  So when I got under these underpasses, those ceilings are like ceilings in a house, perfectly flat.  Plus, the architecture is fantastic, with the arches that pedestrians walk through … I think the clean lines of deco with the lights and the changing patterns will really complement each other.

Can you tell us a little more about the actual lights and how they will become art? 

You’re looking at about 250 units that I can program seperately, but when you look at how many LED’s there are thousands.  Those get connected to a computing map, which is a layout of all the lights.  I can tell each light to do a specific color and a specific time, so the computer program ends up being variations on color and speed.  There are 16 million color options in the light fixtures, so you’re only limited by your imagination.

Bill certainly has our attention – and we hope yours as well!  You’re invited to join us when we flip the switch on Light Rails tomorrow, June 27, for the lighting ceremony and street party.

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