Residents of Albuquerque, New Mexico, like to think they see UFOs. But one evening in September 2005, they really did spot unidentified saucers shining down from a ridge of the Sandia Mountains. State police and U.S. Forest Service dispatchers fielded thousands of calls.
What were the mysterious orbs? From which planet-slash-solar system had they come? And who — or what — was responsible? The following day, a ridgeline search party couldn’t find any evidence.
Turns out the circular discs were 12-inch lights, each containing 120 Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs). The high-intensity lights had been planted, then packed out after midnight, by Jito Coleman and his wife Bonnie Atwater. It was the 60-year-old engineer’s first outdoor art installation. (He ended up getting a local permit — after the fact.) When Coleman returned to Warren, Vermont, he shelved the saucers in his basement.
Coleman is still creating lighted outdoor displays, but now he connects tiny LED sensors to 14-inch black and blue wind turbines. Then he mounts 50 or 60 of the mini-turbines on ski poles and plants them in fields around the Champlain and Mad River Valleys. When wind hits the sensors, Coleman’s “fireflies” emit a mellow glow that fluctuates according to atmospheric conditions.
Fireflies only work when the wind cooperates. Case in point: Back in January, Coleman helped a crew of Middlebury College students organize an installation adjacent to Route 30, a two-lane road that bisects campus. But no breeze stirred, so Coleman’s retrofitted ski poles looked like quirky leftovers from an outdoor gear swap.
The students didn’t seem to mind. “It put our creativity into the landscape, which is an environmental message in itself,” says Pier LaFarge, an Environmental Studies major from South Carolina. Coleman, for his part, appreciates how some environmental art depends on nature for success. As he tells Middlebury’s Public Affairs office: “Finding how to place the lights on the land will be like spreading paint on canvas, but it will be invisible ink until the wind sparks it to life.”
It’s an articulate artist’s statement from someone who doesn’t consider himself an artist in the formal sense. A trained engineer, Coleman was president of Barre-based wind turbine manufacturer Northern Power (formerly Northern Power Systems) from 1993 to 2005. Now he runs a renewable-energy consulting business called GreenToolbox from home and says his mechanical know-how informs his creative process.
Are his fireflies creative shills for the wind-energy industry? Coleman doesn’t deny that he thinks Vermont should have more turbines, but he sees public debates on renewable energy as lacking “nuance” — the sort of nuance an artwork can provide. Though Coleman himself is politically engaged — he donated $1039 to Scudder Parker’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign — he insists his fireflies aren’t ideologically “prescriptive.”
A visit to Warren suggests Coleman is inspired by both his left and his right brains. Several miles from the cedar-shingled house he built in 2000, for example, sits “Dimetrodon,” an experimental multifamily dwelling full of Seuss-esque protrusions and angles that Coleman helped construct in 1980. (The structure was featured in a recent Fleming Museum exhibition on Vermont’s “design/build” movement.) Similarly, while Coleman’s basement laboratory is stocked with vise grips, screws and power tools, it’s also decorated with Oriental rugs and a Picasso poster. Coleman himself, a trim guy with a gray goatee, greets a reporter wearing jeans, clogs, a canvas vest and a red beret.
Emerging from his basement workshop, Coleman says the Firefly project reflects his interest in “homogeneous multiples.” When natural forces disturb identical-looking objects, he explains, viewers begin to notice subtle differences. Art fans know the concept from the highly publicized work of Christo — who, four winters ago, joined fellow New Yorker Jeanne-Claude in placing 75,000 flags of billowy orange fabric in Manhattan’s Central Park for an installation called “The Gates.”
Coleman has been exploring multiples since the fall of 2005, when he planted about 1910 3-by-5-inch white flags outside the Vermont Statehouse to honor American casualties of the Iraq war. Now the installation lives in a Waitsfield meadow owned by the Yestermorrow Design/Build School. Like Coleman’s fireflies, the flags — 4243 and counting — make a succinct, implicitly political comment without pushing a partisan message.
Jack Byrne, Coleman’s friend of 20 years, says the firefly and flag installations help viewers grasp important truths that aren’t visible on the surface of everyday life. The Moretown resident is one of the only Vermonters to have seen both projects. And, as director of Middlebury College’s Sustainability Integration Office — an administrative engine driving the private college’s world-renowned environmental programs — Byrne is an unofficial firefly promoter.
Reflecting on the handful of firefly installations Coleman has done for Middlebury since last summer, Byrne says the most memorable occurred at the college’s Bread Loaf campus. He had invited Coleman to create a demonstration for guests attending a sustainability conference on the remote Ripton property. Coleman set up his fireflies across from Bread Loaf Inn’s dining-room window without telling anyone. When guests saw LEDs flickering, they rushed outside to stare.
“How do you make the invisible visible?” Byrne reflects. “Firefly puts this interesting package of art, science, fun and seriousness in front of people in a creative way.”
Back at his Warren house, Jito Coleman says he is tossing around several ideas for new firefly demonstrations. First on his list is the upcoming quadricentennial celebration of Lake Champlain’s discovery. He thinks the Burlington breakwater and the Colchester causeway are ideal display sites.
Coleman is also talking with Ripton author Bill McKibben about creating a firefly installation for 350.org, McKibben’s global-warming-related advocacy campaign. Finally, Coleman says he’s looking for the “perfect field” — possibly at Shelburne Farms or on the New England sea coast — in which to plant hundreds of fireflies.
When hundreds of mini-turbines start thwacking in the wind, Coleman speculates, their LEDs will coalesce into a rough “continuum of images” resembling “waves of grain.” In other words, viewers would see an abstract representation of the field itself, painted with wind on an electronic canvas.
Pending his discovery of the ideal outdoor venue, Coleman says he has been “guerrilla planting” fireflies in treeless patches near his shady Mad Meadows Road property. He places the devices and retrieves them overnight, making them as evanescent — and memorable — as a periodic natural phenomenon. “It’s sort of like wildlife,” Coleman notes. “They leave about as much of a footprint as a flock of deer.”