When Dianne Soffa and Tom Kovacich began creating an artwork for Olbrich Botanical Gardens’ first nighttime art exhibit — a show titled “GLEAM” — they took the name to heart.

The artists installed close to 200 rearview mirrors mounted on stakes in the gardens’ Prairie Dropseed Meadow — then worked with lighting designer Craig Kittleson to create an effect that will sparkle by day and ripple with changing colors at night.

That lighting, like the mirrors themselves, is essential to the installation they call “Rearview Stream.”

Bringing art, light — and people — to Olbrich Gardens is the goal of “GLEAM: Art in a New Light,” which opens Sept. 2. Six teams of regional artists and lighting designers created artworks placed throughout the gardens, each putting light to use in a different way to turn the landscape into an after-dark gallery.

“We were really looking for an event that was going to highlight the gardens in the fall,” said Olbrich spokeswoman Katy Plantenberg. “That is one of the most beautiful times in the gardens, and it’s one of the times where we do see our attendance drop.”

Free entry to Olbrich Gardens will continue during daylight hours in September and October, but visitors will be charged an admission fee to see an illuminated version of “GLEAM” each evening from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. through Oct. 30.

Olbrich Gardens, located at 3330 Atwood Ave., took a cue from several major botanical gardens in the Midwest that have experimented with combining light and the landscape in novel ways. The staff asked artist and curator David Wells, who oversaw a show of art installations at the city-owned gardens in 2004, to serve as GLEAM’s artistic director.

With the show, “We wanted to focus on and help our regional artists to be able to work in the public sector” and explore the potential of using light, Wells said.

Visitors will make their way down lit paths to witness “GLEAM,” which will change over the course of two months as the foliage changes color and leaves fall.

“Many artists are gardeners themselves, of course,” he said. “So I think it’s a real exciting way to share ideas in a different way.

“The pieces have to look good by day — they have to be engaging sculptures. But they have to have that little extra in the evening. I think it will be a fabulous opportunity for people to come out to a place that you normally don’t go to in the evening — and to appreciate it in a new way.”

Former Madison residents Kristin Thielking and Keven Brunett created their art installation for “GLEAM,” titled “Voices,” based on a previous work they had done: a field of bronze, tongue-shaped sculptures mounted on rods, each engraved with a term from the Dictionary of American Regional English.

For the Olbrich project, 100 more tongues were recreated in glass and sandblasted with words from the regional dictionary, which is published at UW-Madison. The terms on the glass will be lit in a way so that at night they glow.

“We thought it would be really exciting to bring this to the gardens, because the piece is about growth — growth of our country, growth of individuals,” said Thielking, a professor of sculpture at UW-Stevens Point. “It’s about memory, connections with our past — because many of the words were the words of our grandparents.”

Adding light to “Tongues” has been so exciting that she and Brunett hope to incorporate lighting into future projects, she said.

As sculptors, “We’re busy trying to cast properly, and to get everything to be weather safe and well crafted,” she said. “To learn all this lighting-specific technology is intimidating. So to be able to work with these professionals who have all this experience — they can bring things to our projects that we never would have even thought of.”

Light will create a river-like effect with the mirrors that make up Soffa and Kovacich‘s “Rearview Stream” installation. The mirrors came from an auto parts dealer.

“There’s that old tradition of taking ordinary objects and displaying them in a gallery setting to make people reconsider what the object really is and how we use it,” said Soffa, an artist with galleries in Madison and Milwaukee.

“We’re taking that idea and putting it in an outdoor setting. But we didn’t want to disrupt the gardens, because we think the gardens are spectacular just the way they are,” she said. “So we thought the use of the mirrors would be consistent with respecting what’s already there, but amplifying it a little bit and using this everyday object in a different context.”

The artists featured in “GLEAM” — who also include Aaron Laux, Karl Unnasch, Nadia Niggli and collaborators Laura Richards and Will Turnbull — were selected by a seven-member jury and given a $4,500 stipend to cover their costs. The project received a $10,000 grant from Madison Community Foundation; Olbrich’s existing infrastructure was able to support the additional lighting displays, Plantenberg said.

Lighting designers for “GLEAM” include Kittleson, Matt Hanna and Kevin Smits, Jon Hanauer, Jon Adams, Pat Blair and Pat Devereux.

“In our realm, we consider (lighting design) an art,” said Joel Reinders, who recruited the designers and is the lead lighting designer for “GLEAM.”

“We didn’t want to just light these sculptures,” he said, “but to have the lighting designers really collaborate with the sculptors to come up with ways to light these things internally, or use different methods of lighting such as LED and fiber optics — so that as a whole, they both grow together: The artists understand light a little bit better, and the lighting designers get to play with different kinds of light they don’t typically get to play with.”

“GLEAM” required the lighting designers — many of whom do landscape or architectural lighting for a living — to “get out of their comfort zones,” taking on challenging programming on a very limited budget, said Reinders, who also runs the lighting and water feature divisions of Wisconsin-based Reinders Inc.

“We don’t just want static lighting schemes, so we’re working with the color-changing LEDs,” he said. “Some of the artists are playing with wave looks, where the light dims and rises and dims, to sort of bring the sculptures to life.”

With GLEAM, “I hope the visitor will enjoy a little sense of play and adventure being in the gardens at night,” added Wells. “I think there will be some delight and joy — and hopefully wonder — in seeing these different sorts of projects as you just come upon them in the garden.”


Gayle Worland is an arts and features reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.