Light Totem becomes IU staple


A young girl was on a walk with her dad and saw something across the street going on outside the IU Art Museum.

It was October 2007 and ?Robert Shakespeare — the creator of the light totem that illuminates the 70-foot wall of the museum — was installing the structure. The big unveiling of Light Totem was in a few days.

The young girl dragged her dad across the street and asked Shakespeare what he was doing. Shakespeare explained and then turned on the totem. Different colors of light danced on the wall, and the girl was mesmerized.

“Daddy,” she said, “it’s magic.”

Light Totem was made in celebration of the IU Art Museum’s 25th anniversary. After everything was done, it cost about $125,000 to $130,000 to put up. Much of that funding came from donations, Shakespeare said.

When it was installed 7½ years ago, it was not supposed to be a permanent structure. It was supposed be taken down after two or three months. But Light Totem got so much attention that nobody could take it down.

“Foot traffic increased,” Shakespeare said. “The analogy I use is a bonfire. If you build a big bonfire, people are going to be attracted ?to it.”

And then, a tradition began.

People lie at the base of the wall and put their feet up against it. It became part of IU students’ bucket lists. Shakespeare doesn’t know how the tradition started. He would visit his totem and ask people, why are you putting your feet up on the wall? What are you seeing?

“That’s my mom’s key lime pie coming down the wall,” one young woman told him, watching the green lights dance across the concrete.

After a while, he understood what they were seeing. Light Totem has six “songs,” as Shakespeare puts it. Each song uses different colors. For example, the IU fight song has red and white lights that bounce off the wall rapidly. During a couple other songs, a color pours down the wall and creates an optical illusion.

Everybody experiences the totem differently. IU students Collin English and Jessica Huseman sat on the ground, with their feet on the wall. This wasn’t their first time experiencing the totem.

“To me,” English said, “it’s ?tradition.”

Both English and Huseman described the experience like a sidewalk. If you imagine that you’re looking ahead, it’s like the wall of the Art Museum is the ground, and you’re looking across ground that is illuminated by ?dozens of colors.

“It’s hard to imagine, but you have to believe,” Huseman said with a laugh.

Benedict Jones takes in the light totem in a different way. Jones is in a wheelchair, so he can’t put his feet up against the wall.

Instead, he stands by the wall and looks directly at the totem, with his eyes closed. The colors wash over his closed eyes, and when the lights start flashing rapidly, there’s a sensation for him of being on a roller coaster.

“It’s extremely emotive,” Jones said. “It causes you to feel really intense ?sensations.”

In April 2013, Light Totem came down. Water had gotten inside the structure, froze, then expanded. That compromised the totem’s structural integrity.

During the 15 months the totem was down, the Art Museum and Shakespeare were constantly peppered with questions.

“What happened to it?”

“Why is it gone?”

“When is it coming back?”

Light Totem was re-installed June 21, 2014. To anybody not familiar with light fixtures, Shakespeare said, Light Totem looks no different than before. The colors still bounce off the wall, and people still put their feet up against it.

Shakespeare worked in theater lighting and productions for 40 years. How he defines success for a piece of art is the effect it has on people who experience it. The same is true for Light Totem.

“If you have people inspired to propose in front of it, or to have it become a very special, magical place — I won,” Shakespeare said. “And it’s not an arrogant, ‘I won,’ it just makes me feel good. All the effort that went into it, it makes it all worthwhile.”

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