Art exhibit gives gallery-goers the chills

Southern Oregon University student traps light bulbs in ice tubes
SOU student Colby Stephens has an art installation at the campus' Retzlaff Gallery.Jamie Lusch

Light bulbs encased in ice slowly melted their way free, sending drops of water falling into black basins below, where they echoed in the dim, cave-like interior of Southern Oregon University's Retzlaff Gallery.

Bachelor of fine arts student Colby Stephens used his knowledge of electricity, chemistry and construction to create the sculptural installation, which will be on display through Jan. 27.

"There's a total reversal of form," he said. "The ice object disappears and the vessel below becomes full."

The title of the exhibition, "Positive/Negative," is a play on both electrical and art terms. Stephens studied engineering at Portland State University before coming to SOU and focusing on sculpture and photography.

"As the electrons transfer from the negative terminal to the positive terminal through the resistor, heat develops. Heat melts the ice, the positive (white) form, and transfers it into the negative (black) space of the vessel below," he explained in his artist's statement that accompanies the exhibit.

Back in February 2010 during a photography class, Stephens suggested that a friend freeze a light bulb inside ice and then photograph the results as the ice melted. She said it couldn't be done, which convinced Stephens to give it a try.

In October 2010, he started months of work to freeze 65 light bulbs inside ice tubes. He can make three at a time, using rubber molds that he made himself.

After each tube is frozen, he stores it in an ice chest set at 5 degrees below zero.

The water used to make the ice tubes has to be distilled so that minerals won't conduct electricity and short out the light bulbs. Luckily for Stephens, a science building on campus has a water distillery.

Stephens is continuing to freeze light bulbs inside ice even as the exhibit is running, melting away his creations. It's a race to make enough ice tubes to always have five suspended in the gallery space.

After the installation went up on Jan. 6, Stephens spent more than 12 hours in the gallery, taking photos every 10 minutes to document the process. When he left, about three-quarters of each ice tube had melted.

Many of the light bulbs are crushed during the freezing process. Stephens estimated he has about a 60 percent success rate. On a recent morning, all three light bulbs that he was freezing had broken when he pulled them out of the freezer.

People who have visited the gallery are usually filled with questions about how Stephens made the installation. They've also commented on the echoing sound of the dripping water, which manages to seem both gentle and eerie at the same time.

Stephens said he had focused on the visual aspects of the installation and hadn't planned on sound becoming such an important aspect.

"I do enjoy the sound. It's not something I planned on purpose, but it does indicate the transition from positive to negative," he said.

For more information on his work, visit www.colbystephens.com.

Retzlaff Gallery hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday. The gallery is inside the Art Building, next to the Schneider Museum of Art.

Vickie Aldous is a Daily Tidings reporter. She can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.



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