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James Turrell: Spirit and Light

Originally published in the March 1999 Friends Journal, this article is also included in the web edition of the February 2014 issue to coincide with two new features on the artist James Turrell and his latest Skyspace at Chestnut Hill Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa.

A plain people, old-time Friends considered the arts “self-intoxicating and untruthful, encouraging ‘vain imaginings,’ and distracting us both from ‘attending to the pure Life”’ and from doing God’s work.

James Turrell's "Meeting" (1986) at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, N.Y.

James Turrell’s “Meeting” (1986) at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, N.Y.

“As an artist, you seek to separate yourself to become inner directed,” says James T urrell, whose art is expressed in the medium of light. “Yet as a Quaker artist you also experience a conflict between the exclusive idea of ‘self’ and the Quaker concept of inclusivity.” He adds, “When you go to meeting, you leave a little bit of yourself at the door.”

Before he went to sleep at night, as a young boy James would cover his night light with blue tape, then, in that state between wakefulness and dreams, would stare up at the ceiling. Out of that darkness would emerge subtle modulations of color and light.

Night Light is the name he gave to a dark space in his recent exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. “This is my favorite piece,” he says, although some visitors have expressed preference for the blue or the red or the white “panels.” Those who view the dark piece are required to “submit” to the seemingly total darkness and wait, their vision adjusting. “If you do stay,” he says, “the Emperor’s clothes become visible.”

“I always knew I wanted to work with light,” he says.

Light as art was the one medium acceptable to Turrell’s conservative Quaker family in Pasadena, California, where he grew up. His dad, an aeronautical engineer and pilot, died when James was only nine years old. Both his feisty Quaker grandmother, and in lesser part his mother, were part of the tradition of women activists who rallied with the Christian Temperance Union against “demon rum.” Although his mother, a physician, never practiced her profession, she taught and was also active as a volunteer in the Peace Corps in Africa.

“But it was my Quaker grandmother, Frances Hodgeson, who raised me,” he says. Together they went to Villa Street Meeting in Pasadena where she would tell her young grandson, “Go inside to greet the Light.”

Their monthly meeting, which belonged to the Iowa Conservative Yearly Meeting, seceded at one point, because, according to Turrell, the yearly meeting was not conservative enough. “We often had three-hour-long meetings,” he recalls. “Our elders, both male and female, were recorded Friends ministers who preached to us at length. But we also had the unprogrammed, silent part of worship.”

From age six to twelve, James spent summers at his cousin Dan’s house in an intentional Quaker farming community near Tracy, California. There he did chores and marveled at his cousin’s ability to express his ideas through drawing cartoons.

Turrell later worked for the American Friends Service Committee, and in the early 1960s, instead of the military draft he chose alternative service. He served with the Civil Air Transport as a pilot in Asia, helping to deliver much needed food supplies and evacuating Tibetan refugees out of harm’s way. From 1966–67, he served time in prison for his activism against the Vietnam War. “I questioned authority until authority answered back,” he says. The memory of that prison experience remains especially painful.

He studied perceptual psychology­­—the “process of seeing”—at Pomona College and later attended the University of California at Irvine, where he studied art theory and history. He completed his graduate work at Claremont Graduate School.

Although Quaker meeting provided the idea of the Inner Light, Turrell’s experience as a pilot allowed him to explore outer light in many of its phenomena in the vast open spaces of the sky. His goal as an artist was to make light physically manifest using his “canvas” of “space and walls as containers of light.”

“In this culture, we have used light to illuminate things,” he says. “But I believe in the ‘thingness’ of light itself. Light, for me is a matter that exhibits phenomena and inhabits its own space.”

He describes himself as “a painter in three dimensions,” and uses phrases like the “resonance of light” and the “lucidity of light.” But for Turrell “the real important thing is the content of one’s experience in response to the light. How it affects me, rather than the building.”

Turrell’s art has “no object, no image, no focus.” He seeks to create “a pleasurable plumbing of vision, a clarity that clears out the dust.” He adds, “The price of admission is to enter the work and look at what is there.”

The Quaker influence on his work has to do with “simplicity and plainness being virtues … the notion of not making graven images.”

For the last several years, Turrell’s home meeting has been the unprogrammed meeting in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he goes inside “to greet the Light.” Turrell hopes that, through his work, “the light without reminds us of the Light Within.”

Crossing Boundaries: Getting There

So you’ re going to Ramallah?” Quaker artist James Turrell’s bearded face expanded into a smile. “Then please go see my work, Space That Sees, at the Israel Museum in West Jerusalem.”

Although Ramallah lies only ten miles north of Jerusalem it remains worlds apart. And despite my past connections to West Jerusalem the city has become foreign territory to me now. “Please go,” Turrell said, despite my trepidation. “It will give you an idea of the ‘skyspace’ I’m planning for your new meetinghouse in Houston.”

With less than two weeks in Rarnallah to visit family and friends, time began to run out. Besides, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur limited the hours the museum stayed open. And, since none of the car owners I met in Rarnallah would risk driving to West Jerusalem, I’d have to find my own way.

Two days before my flight back to Texas, my 22-year-old niece Rana agreed to come with me on my adventure. Together we would take a “service” taxi that carried six to eight passengers from Ramallah across political boundaries and checkpoints to East Jerusalem.

As Rana had no travel permit, I worried about her being stopped at the Israeli checkpoint and turned back. Luckily this time, the soldier who did stop our taxi at the checkpoint waved us through.

From East Jerusalem, we walked across what once was No Man’s Land to a West Jerusalem Israeli bus depot. The bus took us along narrow, bustling old Jaffa road, where once signs were in English, Arabic, and Hebrew. Now Hebrew was the language of choice. We were careful not to speak Arabic (our own language of choice) on the bus, commencing or asking questions only in English.

Not far from the Central bus station, we boarded another bus that took us down a modern highway, past the Knesset, and finally dropped us at the Israel Museum.

We made it! I gave in to a heady sense of elation. As Rana and I strolled across graveled pathways looking for clues, we came across a modest sign in English and Hebrew with Turrell’s name, pointing to a large cement block or cube, jutting out of earth. We walked around the formidable block that stood much higher than our heads, looking for openings.

Turrell's "Space That Sees" at the Israel Museum in West Jerusalem

Turrell’s “Space That Sees” at the Israel Museum in West Jerusalem

Nothing.

Half-hidden in a cedar bush, another sign pointed towards a circular path edged with densely clustered rosemary. As we wound our way down that path, we discovered a passageway built into a mound of stone bulging out of the hillside like a rough-hewn pyramid. Below us in the distance stood the newer buildings and apartments of West Jerusalem. And somewhere in that city of my birth, two Israeli families now lived in our Katamon home.

The scent of rosemary trailed after us as we walked through the doorway into a large room of Space and Light. Inside, we stood in awe, looking up and out, our eyes, and our spirits, adjusting.

A large square opening in the ceiling revealed wisps of clouds in a sky as deeply blue as a Texas sky. Swallows flew overhead. Light and shadow clung to the walls and the built-in stone bench around the periphery of this unexpected meetinghouse. As I sat in silence on the bench, I tried to absorb the reality of this magical place that words couldn’t fully define.

As the afternoon wore on, the color of the sky would change and deepen. The patterns of light clinging to walls and corners would wear their coats of many colors and dance their stately dance around the room.

This, then, was the meaning of the large cube protruding from pebbled earth—the cube with no openings, except one. Our eyes, our human bodies, bound to earth, could not see from a swallow’s view—or the perspective of God’s eyes.

In this place of Spirit and Light I am no longer the “other,” the biblical Hagar shut out from her birthplace, her home. I still belong to this Jerusalem that refuses to be owned by governments and politicians. Here, on the Hill of Tranquillity, as I experience Turrell’s Space That Sees, hope thrives, life renews itself, and love pulls me toward its Center.

Photo of “Meeting” (1986) courtesy flickr/musaeum (CC BY-NC 2.0). Photo of “Space That Sees” courtesy flickr/dnwinterburn (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Born in Jerusalem, May Mansoor Munn was once a member of Ramallah Meeting. She is now a member of Live Oak Meeting in Houston, Texas, as well as Fellowship of Quakers in the Arts.


Posted in: February 2014
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