February 11, 2018

A Specter of Light and Glory in Days of Darkness

"Bottle houses" were a thing back in the Old West, during the Gold Rush and in the heyday of mine camps. The men there drank enough booze to make enough raw material available, and they mortared those green, cobalt blue, and clear bottles together into structurally sound shacks that, thanks to the translucence of the glass, let in plenty of natural light.

But nobody in California needs to use bottles for building anymore. Our glass recyclables are collected regularly, and our building materials are cheap and mass marketed far and wide. We have electricity and solar panels. And when all else fails, we repurpose shipping containers.

So, those glass bottles that remain—the ones that haven't been replaced by plastic—may have lost their architectural utility, but that just means they've been reclassified.

Now, they're art.

circa 2014

Bottle art is usually more associated with folk artists like Grandma Prisbrey of Bottle Village or Elmer of Bottle Tree Ranch...

circa 2014

...but those are examples of traditionally untrained commoners (hence, the "folk" in "folk art").

circa 2014

And although they—as well as others, like Simon Rodia of Watts Towers—serve as a major inspiration for Randlett Lawrence...

circa 2014

...the "Randy" of "Randyland" in LA's Echo Park (near Dodger Stadium) was already an incredibly talented builder when he began erecting the glorious and monumental bottle art sculpture in front of his house.

But when he's not building sets for Hollywood productions, he's been paying tribute to the Virgin of Guadalupe—in colored glass bottles, rebar, and wire (including her wings, which are cobalt blue).

And, like much of his folk art predecessors and contemporaries, Randy is constantly changing it.

The basic approach is simple and consistent throughout the sculpture's iterations: Take a teardrop-shaped bottle, fill it with water, harness it in a wire cage (akin to, say, the wire cage that protects the cork on a bottle of champagne) and string it up with a bunch of others.

You can see the so-called "Phantasma Gloria" sculpture from the street, of course (that's part of the point)—and at certain angles at certain times of day, the sunlight shining through it is certainly brilliant. But it's a really rare and special experience to climb up the stairs and find yourself behind it.

And that's when you get to meet Randy.

Randy calls the bottles "lenses" and, years after making his discovery in a "blue blaze of light," still marvels at the inverted images inside created by their convex shape.

That's why this bottle mosaic is more than a "suncatcher" or a "lightcatcher."

In fact, Randy calls it a "Sky Catcher"—because each "lens" becomes something of a crystal ball reflecting the world back at us.

And, if not our actual world, then some parallel, upside-down universe.

And he never gets sick of finding new ways to look at it—or look at the world around him through it.

Depending on the time of year and the angle of the sun, there are certain peak times to view it to get "maximum refraction"...

...but honestly, it's the kind of thing you could sit and watch all day, as the colored light beams shift position and different aspects of the mosaic get illuminated at different times.

It changes dramatically, even just over the course of an hour.

And as you watch it, you get the sense that it is watching you, too.

And everything looks better through the lens of beauty and art and color and light.

But for some of us, the natural inclination is to dim and darken, to enable our myopia rather than embrace the colossal.

Thank goodness for people like Randy who are here to set us straight on what's important.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Bottle Tree Ranch
Photo Essay: Bottle Village (Updated for 2016)
Capturing Particles of Light in Three Dimensions
Meditations on Chroma

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