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Seeing Art in a New Light with Shawn Irish

Art and Nature room in Crystal Bridges at 10

Have you ever considered how the lighting in a museum affects the way we see a work of art? While artists choose the colors, shading, and materials to use, the ways in which museums and galleries present artwork can leave a lasting impression on the viewer.

Crystal Bridges at 10 is an exhibition with 10 distinct, immersive art experiences. The Art + Nature section, developed with the museum’s Trails and Grounds team, combines Crystal Bridges’ offerings of art and nature by bringing the outdoors inside (minus the dirt and animals, of course). The immersive space features artworks from the Crystal Bridges collection as sounds of the forest play overhead. Live feeds from cameras set up on the museum’s grounds frame nature alongside landscape paintings, and the lights and colors overhead change from the soft, pink hues of an Arkansas dawn, to the brightness of a day in the Ozarks, and finally to a calming, nighttime blue in a lighting design normally reserved for a theatrical production. Luckily, that’s something Professor Shawn Irish knows all about.

Irish is the Head of Design and Technology in the Department of Theatre at the University of Arkansas and the lighting designer of the Art + Nature section of Crystal Bridges at 10. His professional design portfolio spans the gamut of theater productions at venues across the country and includes credits for over 25 shows at TheatreSquared in Fayetteville, but Crystal Bridges at 10 is Irish’s very first art exhibition credit. “In the lighting design field, we are always looking for new ways to apply what we know,” said Irish.

Irish and his students researched and developed a lighting concept that would take visitors through the different stages of light in a full day and night in Arkansas. “The lighting fixtures and colors are based on realistic examples of day into night in this region, but we amplified it with richer colors and faster movements through the cycle,” said Irish.

“Lighting design is about telling stories, whether it’s art or a theatrical production.” – Shawn Irish


While Irish did not take part in the curation of artworks that were selected for the section, his impression of each artwork informed its lighting concept. “How you light something reflects how you feel about it,” said Irish. “I did research on each artist and work in the room, and that research, paired with my own feelings about each piece, helped inform our decisions. Lighting design is about telling stories, whether it’s art or a theatrical production.”

Art and Nature room in Crystal Bridges at 10
The Art + Nature section features live feeds of the museum's grounds displayed alongside nature landscapes from the collection while Irish's lighting design changes the look of the room. Photo by Ironside Photography / Stephen Ironside.

While there is freedom in experimentation with lighting, Irish will be the first to explain that lighting an art exhibition comes with its own set of challenges. “In theater, you can play with full lighting intensity all you want, but you can’t shine just any light on a work of art,” said Irish. 

Each artwork in the Crystal Bridges collection has its own registered light level―the maximum light that can be placed directly on an artwork without damaging it. “And for most of them, the maximum was at a very low light level, around 18 percent intensity,” said Irish. “The light level informed the choices we made for each artwork.”


“You just don’t know for sure what’s going to happen until you get in the space and turn the light on.” – Shawn Irish

When asked what the experience might be like for folks who are color-blind or have low vision, Irish said this was a consideration in their design. In fact, one of Irish’s graduate students who worked on the installation is color-blind. “We talk about how the experience is different for everyone, and we sometimes use digital color-scheme tools that help us see how different colors may appear to folks with different forms of vision or color-blindness,” said Irish. “While it doesn’t guide all of our decisions, it helps to understand that changes in light and color can look very different to individual audience members.”

Spring Ceremonial by Seymour Lipton
Seymour Lipton, Spring Ceremonial, 1951. Seen in Crystal Bridges at 10. Photo by Ironside Photography / Stephen Ironside.

When it came time to move into the space, Irish and his team had their fair share of surprises and had to work quickly to make changes, such as the lighting on the bronze sculpture Spring Ceremonial (1951) by Seymour Lipton. “We couldn’t get exactly what I had envisioned, so we changed the concept. You just don’t know for sure what’s going to happen until you get in the space and turn the light on.”

But as they say in the theater world, the show must go on―and it did. Crystal Bridges at 10 opened on July 11 and will remain on view at the museum through September 27, 2021. Get your tickets here.