RICHMOND, Va. – It's hard to think about rainbows in winter, but as the sun peeks through the overcast skies and the ground begins to thaw, an art project eight years in the making will soon bring the colors of spring to the masses.
Michael Jones McKean, an artist and assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, has created a machine that uses a large-scale sprinkler system and the sun to create rainbows nearly four football fields in length -- when Mother Nature is cooperating, of course.
"When you've gone through six or seven months of hard winter, all of us have felt this moment when the ground starts to warm and the smell changes, and the sun is sort of pitched a little bit higher in the sky," said McKean.
"It's sort of a hopeful, optimistic feeling that we all have when the weather changes."
McKean's project, developed in his Richmond studio and tested in other locations like Houston and Kansas, is expected to be on display later this year at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Neb., where he has been an artist-in-residence. There are discussions to bring the project elsewhere, but Richmond isn't on the list yet.
The machine is being installed atop a five-story industrial building in Omaha.
Using customized nozzles and pressure pumps, McKean expects to produce a rainbow for 15 minutes twice every day. McKean plans to harvest thousands of gallons of rainwater and use biodiesel fuel to power the machine.
"It's run by the sun. ... Essentially I'm providing the water and the timing," McKean said.
McKean's work, which has been displayed all over the world, often centers on the idea of naturally occurring phenomenon. McKean's next project is illustrating what is known as "The Great Circuit," or the longest distance around the Earth.
About eight years ago, McKean started doing experiments to create rainbows as part of an art project he hoped could energize a group of people and spark conversation. McKean started out on a much smaller scale, but the rainbow machine has grown over the years to its current manifestation.
So far, McKean's test runs have produced rainbows of 200 feet by 200 feet using the right size water droplets and water wall, but a gentle breeze can spread the rainbow to nearly 1,000 feet wide, he said.
No matter the size of the prismatic display, McKean and Bemis Center curator Hesse McGraw say the rainbow project goes beyond traditional paintings or sculptures because of its power to connect people through a tangible, shared encounter that takes on different meanings to all who view it.
"This idea is sort of both granting immense joy to a 4-year-old who's chasing a pot of gold even as it's engaging a sophisticated art audience," McGraw said. "The combination of something that's very elusive, but also spectacular is probably something that a lot of great contemporary art tries to access."
During test runs throughout the country, people would gather to view the rainbows and spontaneously call friends over, and cars would stop on the side of the road to share the experience.
The project, McKean said, also shines light on the social and political ideas that the rainbow has come to represent -- be it hopeful optimism, biblical, or equal rights.
"When you actually see the phenomenon, it's almost like all of those things go out the window and it just becomes this beautiful ghost image in the sky that totally mesmerizing," he said. "It goes from being very political on one side, being completely scientific on another, to just being wondrous."