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The Light Fantastic: Local Professionals Reflect on Light 

In tandem with The Light Fantastic, free on view beginning January 29 in the Early American Art Gallery, Crystal Bridges asked community members from different professions how light shapes their lives and work. In the following Q&A, each professional offered a unique perspective on how light informs their understanding of the world.

The Light Professionals

  • Aaron Turner, artist/photographer 
  • Duncan Skiles, filmmaker
  • Lisa K. Skiles, architect
  • Scott Roberts, astronomer
  • Jennifer Ogle, botanist
  • Don Steinkraus, nature photographer/light microscopist
  • Allyson Mertins, optometrist
  • Jacob Hothan, architectural lighting designer
a man with headphones around his neck looks into a film camera
Duncan Skiles, filmmaker / realizador audiovisual

How has light shaped your work?

Aaron Turner: Light has profoundly shaped my work in practical and metaphorical ways. Light has always been my main interest from when I started with photography as a journalist to now as an artist working mainly within the studio space but also in the landscape of the Arkansas Delta. One of my main concerns with light is how our main light source is singular, the sun. I try to replicate this in the studio when I’m using lights and projectors, thinking about how light bends, morphs, and filters through man-made objects and natural landscapes.

Duncan Skiles: How a scene is lit communicates so much. Light someone from below, they look sinister. Light them from the back, they look angelic. Light them from the side, they look conflicted. That’s just one variable―the angle of light―to say nothing of intensity and color. There will always be more to learn and discover in the cinematic relationship between light and emotion. 

headshot of artist and photographer aaron turner
Aaron Turner, artist and photographer / artista y fotógrafo

Lisa K. Skiles: Light is a material. It is a tangible design element. If you excel at appreciating and treating light as a medium, your ability to create spaces that are a pleasure to occupy is enhanced.

Scott Roberts: It is the very foundation of my work―helping people explore the universe from their own backyard. 

Jennifer Ogle: My work as a botanist is entirely light-dependent. With few exceptions, the plants I interact with contain chloroplasts in their cells. The chloroplast is where photosynthesis takes place, which is the process of converting sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into sugars that plants use as their primary energy source. They use this fuel to grow and to produce the leaves, flowers, and fruits that I study and admire. Without sunlight, the process of photosynthesis could not happen and neither my job as a botanist nor life on Earth as we know it would be possible.

Don Steinkraus: I am a highly visual person, and the beauty of nature has been a major force in my life since I was a small boy. I started taking photographs of moths, flowers, toads, and ducks 65 years ago when my father loaned me an Exakta camera with extension tubes for close-ups. Later, I began serious work with light microscopes and was astounded by the beauty of the microscopic world. In all cases, light is what makes the world lovely as it is reflected off the wings of butterflies, the green head of a mallard drake, off the water, through the protozoa, pollen, and other microscopic things. I am fascinated by insects that generate light, such as fireflies (lightning bugs). Their use of light flashes to attract mates and identify their species is astounding.

Allyson Mertins: Light is the foundation of my work. I work in the visible light spectrum, helping patients optimize their vision by correcting refractive errors and ocular misalignment using lenses and prisms to bend light. In addition, I counsel patients on protecting their eyes from harmful light, ultraviolet (UV), and infrared.

Jacob Hothan: Light, essentially, is my work―designing, applying, measuring, harnessing, and shaping light within the world, deciding how we experience light within architecture, and discovering how architecture will respond to light. Materials, finishes, colors, textures, shapes, and details all rely on light for visibility, and yet there are countless ways to illuminate them. The beam, shape, and color of lighting can change an ordinary object or space into a visually spectacular one. And that’s saying nothing of the light source, itself. Although I am asked to design “artificial” lighting systems, filtering in natural sunlight is so incredibly important to our mood, psyche, and the connection to nature, I think, we all desire.

How has light informed the way you understand the world?

Aaron Turner: I always like to describe the way I see the world in photographs, from a literal and unconscious sense. On a practical level, I love seeing and looking for different qualities of light on a daily basis, even when it’s an overcast day in the middle of winter, there is still light to observe, it’s just a different quality. 

Duncan Skiles: I’m fair skinned, so I have to be vigilant about putting on sunscreen or I will suffer the next day. That has contributed to my view of the world as a hostile place that is trying to kill me. (Which is not to say I don’t enjoy a nice sunset like everyone else.)

Lisa K. Skiles: Light informs the way I understand the world as a part of cyclic processes. For me, this is about natural light and the sunlight’s pathway in a day and the way it changes seasonally. We are a part of an amazing natural world made possible by light. I appreciate how photosynthesis plays a role in the wonder of a tree and how sunshine can warm us on a crisp day.

Scott Roberts: It has led me to understand that our very existence is interdependent upon the resulting fusion process of the stars and their energy to create and sustain life. 

Jennifer Ogle: Light is the single most important and fundamental component of life on Earth. Sunlight makes so many cool and vital processes possible, from making plants grow to making the wind blow. But beyond those basic facts about sunlight we all learn as children, it also enables butterflies to fly and that makes me very happy.

Don Steinkraus: As a professional entomologist and microbiologist, light has taught me about everything in nature. I have spent many hours looking through my phase-contrast microscope at fungal spores and fine structures on insects as part of my research and teaching. I teach insect anatomy at the University of Arkansas, and I try to get my students to see the intricate and amazing beauty of insects through microscopes.  

a woman dressed in white sits on a desk with a dog
Allyson Mertins, optometrist / optometrista

Allyson Mertins: We place a huge importance on our sense of sight. People with poor vision, or vision that is not optimally corrected, at the minimum miss out on the beauty of this world, and at worst have difficulty navigating in space. Light has helped me understand the importance of my profession in optimizing and preserving the most precious sense of sight.

Jacob Hothan: What world is there without light? I filter my worldview through the application of lighting. In any space, in any situation, light affects us all whether we realize it or not. Light brings me comfort, it brings me warmth, it brings moods and emotions out of all of us. My career requires me to understand the science of it all, but really, it’s the beauty I desire. It’s the changing colors of the sunset―caused by the refraction of sunlight in our atmosphere―and the rainbows in the sky after a rainfall―caused similarly by refracting sunlight through water―that allow us to get that glimpse of the visible spectrum of light typically hidden before our eyes. I suppose understanding light helps me understand the world in a way that can make a little sense of it all, but also makes me desire beauty through light, in all things.

What do most people least appreciate about light from your perspective?

Aaron Turner: This is just an assumption because I believe there are a large group of people who do see things similar to myself, but maybe what people least appreciate about light is its medicinal qualities. Light can heal. It can change your mood. Being out in the sun is a good thing for our well-being.

Duncan Skiles: Small adjustments to interior lighting can make life much more enjoyable.

Lisa K. Skiles: The color and intensity of different types of light, natural and artificial, is often an overlooked element but one that designers and artists may be more aware of than most. We try to educate our clients on this part of their interior environments so that they, too, are appreciative of different light qualities and can be empowered to use that knowledge to enhance their own spaces. 

The color temperature of both natural light and electrical light creates an ambiance and mood. This can impact how color is perceived or even if we feel relaxed or energized. Is the light cool like a winter morning or the golden of sunset? Will you face your windows south for maximum daylighting of rooms or north for diffused “artist” light? Also, I am very aware of including dimmer controls on all electrical lights so you can control the intensity and mood in your spaces. It makes a difference in the perception and enjoyment of space.

Scott Roberts: That most people don’t appreciate the closest star to us, our own sun. 

Jennifer Ogle: Something that is quite underappreciated is just how vital light is for maintaining biodiversity.

[The region used to consist of] vast expanses of treeless prairies, savannas (grasslands with scattered trees), and woodlands (open-canopied forests). These types of open habitats allowed sunlight to reach the ground and, because of that, had thriving communities of native wildflowers and grasses in them. These plants, in turn, support not only the people but many species of insects, birds, mammals, and reptiles as well. Even large mammals like bison and elk once grazed the prairies and savannas of Northwest Arkansas!

But today, …our remaining open grasslands have been invaded by weedy trees and shrubs and most of our savannas and woodlands have developed such tight canopies that sunlight no longer reaches the ground. We now see very few native wildflowers and grasses growing in these areas, except along the edges where light can reach. In fact, many native wildflowers and grasses have been deprived of light for so long in these habitats that they have stopped growing altogether. We are losing biodiversity because we have taken light away from these places.

Don Steinkraus: Very few people have spent much time looking through low-power stereomicroscopes and higher-power phase-compound microscopes. This is a world of tiny but incredible scenes, illuminated by focused light. Similarly, while most people appreciate lightning bugs (fireflies), they are not aware of the ecological aspects that make it possible for fireflies to exist. Fireflies require dark skies in order to attract mates. Similarly, moths require dark skies to fly to host plants and find mates. Modern humans put artificial lights everywhere and this disrupts nature, harming the fireflies, moths, and other nocturnal creatures. Light pollution from artificial lights is a major problem for nature.

Allyson Mertins: Light can be harmful! I find most patients do not understand the importance of protecting their eyes from ultraviolet (UV) light. The biggest source of UV is sunlight, and exposure can cause premature aging of the eye and eye disease. Simply wearing sunglasses that block 100% UV when outdoors, even on overcast days, can prevent these problems, yet most people are ignorant as to the harmful effects of UV light.

Jacob Hothan: Shadow. The play of light would be nothing without the absence of it. They are two sides of the same coin and both need each other to exist.

a man with white hair looks into a microscope
Don Steinkraus, nature photographer and light microscopist / fotógrafo de la naturaleza y microscopista de la luz

Is there anything else you would like to share with us about your relationship to light? 

Aaron Turner: Light feels like an endless possibility to explore. There’s so much I haven’t explored yet.

headshot of architect lisa skiles
Lisa K. Skiles, architect / arquitecta

Lisa K. Skiles: The contrast of light and dark has the ability to deepen our experience of the world around us. Think about the drama of stargazing on a dark night, or the excitement of sitting in a theater when the lights are turned down and the story begins. I believe protecting natural dark skies is an important step we can take within our own local environments from health and aesthetic standpoints (Arkansas Natural Sky Association for more information). In this way, we can preserve and appreciate nature’s evening light show.

Don Steinkraus: The beauty of light reflecting off the wings of giant silkworm moths, such as the cecropia moth, were what got me first interested in nature, that was 65 years ago when I was five. I am still entranced by the beauty of the insect world: by iridescent wings of pipevine swallowtails, by the colorful compound eyes of some horse flies, by the colors of dragonflies, by the interactions between bees and flowers.  

Jacob Hothan: It’s a tired phrase, a worn-out metaphor, and something I wouldn’t repeat if it didn’t so easily explain my profession. A lighting designer uses light as their paintbrush and the world as their canvas. And while that is mostly true, the world is not always a masterpiece. But a more mindful application of light will always enhance a space and, more importantly, our shared human experience of that space.