Here comes the sun

Naomi Darling’s “Solar Time” is installed in front of the Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts until November 7. Photo credit: John Solem, UMass Amherst.

How does an artist get people to engage with a public art installation in a meaningful way? How does that artwork convey sustainability and the power of the environment?

That’s the challenge that Naomi Darling, an assistant professor of architecture at Mount Holyoke College, undertook in her collaboration with sculptor Darrell Petit. Their work, “Solar Time,” provides an accessible, meditative space — via an adapted shipping container — that is focused on connecting visitors to the sun, the heavens and the passing of time and the seasons.

Installed on the plaza in front of the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Fine Arts Center, “Solar Time” is one of 13 projects that are part of the “Cross Town Contemporary Art” exhibit, a collaboration between the university and the town of Amherst. The installation also gave a Mount Holyoke student the opportunity to obtain real-world experience through work with a faculty mentor and is leading her to a possible career path.

Darling’s research and practice interests are in sustainable design, at the intersection of climate, culture and materiality. These themes have become central to Mount Holyoke as the College pursues its goal to be a carbon neutral campus by 2037.  

Solar Time interior with oculus

Capturing the sun

Darling’s installation invites the viewer to enter a space to observe the effects of light as it changes over the course of a day — and over several months, as the seasons move past the summer solstice through the vernal equinox.

Painted bright orange, the exterior of the shipping container offers the first hint of its purpose with its external markings, the project’s geographical position, “LAT: 42°23’ N; LONG: 72°32’ W.” Positioned due south to capture the sun, with wide-open doors on either end, visitors are invited inside to do what they have always done: contemplate the sun.

“Since prehistoric times, societies have created devices to mark the seasons,” Darling said. “Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, the amazing solar clocks in India at Jantar Mantar that would indicate when to plant, when to harvest. People today don’t often stop to think how quickly the sun moves across the sky,” she added, citing one of the common reactions to the installation.

Solar Time-oculus and milled birch wall

As participants walk through the shipping container, sunlight enters the interior space from an oculus — a circular window — in the ceiling and shines onto the north wall. This sloped wall, of milled Baltic birch, is carved with lines that indicate the month and time of day. Participants can read the time of day and day of the year as they pass — no smartphone needed.

Excited and inspired

Darling involved students to work on “Solar Time,” including Maya Gamble ’18, who was deeply involved in its fabrication. Gamble first got interested in the design process as a sophomore when she took a class with the professor and building solar clocks was one of their assignments. 

“We gained a broad understanding of the sun moving through the sky,” Gamble said. “It was the first time I’d thought about the sun as it relates to sustainable architecture.”

Solar Time installation-Darrell Petit, Naomi Darling, Maya Gamble

Gamble spent part of her summer constructing the installation, via an internship that was funded by the Miller Worley Center for the Environment, which provides annual grants to students and faculty as part of its efforts to promote teaching and research initiatives that have an environmental focus. 

She is excited that something she had the opportunity to work on, from design to fabrication to installation, is getting recognition within her own community. 

“I was in a cafe and people were talking about it,” she said. “That is one of the fun things about doing a local project.” 

She’s also inspired. She is currently interning for Darling’s architecture firm, and the collaboration continues. 

As for “Solar Time,” in keeping with its sustainability aspects, the installation will live on after the exhibition closes on November 1. The container will become a minimalist pied-à-terre for Petit at the Stony Creek Granite Quarry, where he works as a sculptor.

— Mitchelle Stephenson

Touch the sun. Visit.  

Photo credits, from top:
John Solem, UMass Amherst: “Solar Time” installed on the Fine Arts Center plaza, UMass Amherst
Naomi Darling: Visitor interacting with “Solar Time” and oculus
John Solem, UMass Amherst: oculus within “Solar Time”
Sandy Litchfield: “Solar Time” project team (from left): Darrell Petit, Naomi Darling, Maya Gamble