Guiding light

Entertainment People The Arts

December 2, 2019

Local artist Meredith Connelly’s illuminated works are on display at the Whitewater Center. 

by Caroline Portillo

Meredith Connelly calls it her “pinch me” project. 

The U.S. National Whitewater Center — which wanted to keep people active and on their trails in the winter months — was exploring the idea of an outdoor art installation. Connelly, a Cornelius-based artist known for using light and technology to create illuminated forms in galleries, was the perfect fit. 

Their first meeting was in February. Nine months and 17,000 zip ties later, in mid-November she and her team were putting the finishing touches on an immersive experience unlike anything Charlotte has seen before.  

This fall and winter, visitors to the Whitewater Center can stroll along a half-mile walking path and experience “Lights,” Connelly’s art installation with nearly 200 illuminated forms across 15 sites. Each work is inspired by the natural environment, such as giant mushrooms made from cast fiberglass and massive honeycombs created with PVC thermoplastic tubing and repurposed rope lighting.

Some works are on the ground — at one site, 17,000 pounds of photo-reactive gravel glows like a phosphorescent riverbed — while others are installed overhead. One artwork called “Butterfly Eggs” consists of 25 clusters of globe lighting mounted in trees. The recipe: more than 3,000 feet of lighting, 600 ball-pit balls, globe lights and silicone glue. 

Connelly’s inspiration came from the trail itself. Before designing the installations, she walked the trail for hours, taking pictures of bees, butterflies and fungi, and absorbing the sounds of the environment, from the chirping of crickets to water trickling over rocks after a rain.   

“All of these works were sketched on the trail,” Connelly says. “All of the concepts came to life while I was walking. And I hope visitors have that sense of connection as they stumble upon things they find along the way.”

“Lights” is one of a bevy of new offerings the Whitewater Center rolled out in November to show that the expansive facility housing the world’s largest man-made whitewater river also could cater to the fall and winter crowds. One of the most notable seasonal additions: a 17,000-square-foot skating surface with a skate-up area where guests can order hot chocolate, coffee or beer from an adaptive-reuse Airstream trailer. The current raft pavilion has also been transformed into a new beer garden with fire pits, indoor heating and panoramic views of skating. 

“Lights” is the perfect complement: a sensory, intimate experience that brings guests out from the bustle and into the beauty of nature and mystery of light — a foundational material for Connelly’s artistic journey.

Connelly, now 35, made her first metal sculpture when she was 16 years old: a textural fountain made out of pounded copper.  She then played around with painting and mixed media. A few years later, she took an art-appreciation class in college and learned more about Eva Hesse, a minimalist sculptor who often used translucent, nontraditional materials. 

During her senior year at UNC Wilmington, Connelly created her first piece that started her down the path to the Whitewater Center exhibition. The work was called “Setting Light,” and her sculpture — made from 300 feet of lighting and 10,000 coffee filters — filled an entire gallery. 

“The bug bit me at that point,” she says. “It was ‘How big can I make it? How far can I push my materials?’”

More than a decade later, Connelly is still testing those limits, this time on the biggest installation of her career. Not only are the “Lights” installations enormous and time-consuming to create, she also needed the Whitewater Center’s logistics team to help install each piece, often wielding power tools on ladders 20 feet in the air. 

The project involved an enormous amount of research. As Connelly walked the trail and made sketches, she jotted down exact GPS coordinates. She had to calculate wattage and worked with the Whitewater Center to calculate the amperage each site would pull. And while she often uses paper for her in-gallery installations, this outdoor project required researching plastic that could withstand the winter elements, UV rays and wind. But for the detail-oriented, spreadsheet-loving Connelly, the search for the perfect materials was just part of the fun.  

Connelly hired two employees and an intern for the project. Her eldest daughter, 16-year-old Ava, also helped with the fabrication. Connelly says those hours spent hovered over ripstop fabric and rope lighting reminded her of her early days as an artist, when Ava was just a baby, cuddled next to her at a pottery wheel during a college ceramics class. 

When Connelly debuted her first light sculpture, a professor asked her, “Well, what if it wasn’t lit? What if you used different materials, and it wasn’t about the light?” 

Connelly thought for a moment. 

“That’s when I knew it was my medium,” she says. “Light is sometimes overlooked and taken for granted. But it’s how we see color. It moves so fast that we can’t see it move. And when you’re standing next to one of my works, the light is reaching out and touching the viewers. It’s so relational. It doesn’t matter your culture, your age — it’s innate and primal. 

“We’re drawn to it,” Connelly says. “And I’m obsessed with it.” SP

Want to go? “Lights” is open daily from 6-10 p.m. and is free of charge. (Note: The exhibition is not wheelchair accessible.) Ice skating can also be accessed through an annual pass, day pass or a single activity pass, starting at $20, including skate rentals. Parking costs $6 a day.

Photographs courtesy of the U.S. National Whitewater Center

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