James Turrell Skyspace Exceeds Expectations

The James Turrell Skyspace, a public work of art housed in the new Chestnut Hill Friends Meetinghouse, has more than exceeded expectations in terms of the number of visitors and received a ranking as sixth among Philadelphia attractions on TripAdvisor.com with one visitor describing the experience as “unforced serenity.”

In addition to the winter viewing on Sundays at dusk, the Skyspace will be open on December 24 at 4:40 and December 31 at 4:45 . There will be one dawn opening at 6:32 am January 1.

Serving as the Lead Skyspace Host Signe Wilkinson shared her thoughts and the numbers after a recent Skyspace opening.

“We projected a thousand visitors in the first year of operation and we are well over four thousand visitors and counting,” said Wilkinson, following a post-Thanksgiving Sunday evening sunset opening in which many local residents introduced out-of-town guests to the experience. “I just love seeing the visitors come out as most did not know what to expect going in and they leave wide-eyed and inspired. It’s a great way to slow down and unplug and experience art and connect to the spirit.”

In September, 2013 the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting began worshipping in their newly constructed Quaker meetinghouse, which includes the Skyspace, a work of public art that is most dramatic and dawn and dusk, and was donated to the Meeting by world-renowned contemporary American light artist James Turrell.

Turrell transforms entire rooms or structures by installing an aperture in the ceiling with a retractable roof, coved ceiling, and recessed lighting, which focuses one’s gaze on the beauty of the ever-changing sky overhead. Turrell’s Skyspaces create places for silent reflection and meditation, and are featured in galleries and museums around the world.

Meeting members say the installation that opens to the heavens, has also opened the Meeting to new people and ideas, and helped rejuvenate Quakerism in the area.

“The Chestnut Hill Quakers have always been a strong religious group, but the new meetinghouse has breathed new life into the Meeting. We hope to use that new life to better serve the wider Philadelphia community,” said Jon Landau, a member of the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting.

Dona Garrettson was one member who had some concerns about the move.

“I will be the first to admit that I had reservations coming here, but when you see the spotted pines and large rocks and the children playing outside, along with the variety of people coming through our doors, I think that we (meaning Quakers and the community) have embraced this space,” said Garrettson.

Alison Marzuoli, an art teacher in the Philadelphia School District, has been to approximately 20 viewings and also volunteers. She lives within walking distance of the Skyspace.

“I love seeing the faces on people coming out into the lobby. They are usually filled with wonderment and many still haven’t quite processed the experience. I encourage people to lie down and view it, instead of sitting on the benches and craning their necks,” said Marzuoli.

First time viewers Kate and Ramash Churi of Mt. Airy brought their son, Ariel, his wife, Amy Parness, and their two children, Robin, 4, and Marcel, 2 months who were visiting from Montclare, New Jersey over Thanksgiving weekend. Marcel sat under the stars sleeping while Amy spread out on a nearby bench and looked up into the opening.

“I was very familiar with James Turrell as an artist, but words can’t adequately describe the whole experience,” said Parness, while holding a still sleeping Marcel in her arms. “It was pretty incredible. No, more than incredible. It’s hard to find the words.”

“I am taking an amazing yoga class here and wanted to see what all the talk was about and now I get it,” Kate Churi chimed in. “It’s hard to “get” unless you’ve experienced it.”

Anne Harper, who recently moved to Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat and conference center in Wallingford, had visited once before and returned with some out-of-town friends.

“I was curious to see it again and what it would be like a second time. This time I was more curious to see how it works from the technical side,” she said. “It’s really quite fascinating and refreshing.”

Harper’s friend, John Kern, 75, of Roanoke, Virginia, did admit to napping under the stars.

“It was so very peaceful as evidenced by my nap. I’m sorry, did I snore too loud,” Kern joked with his friend. “I would say it’s a unique, one-of-a kind experience.”

“It almost plays tricks with your mind in terms of the color exposure and color theory. At one point I thought, stop trying to figure it out and just enjoy it and I did,” said Gerhardt Weich of Gladwyne.

“James Turrell’s Skyspace at the Chestnut Hill Meeting House is an immense and unexpected gift to the people of this city,” said Philadelphia painter and teacher Stuart Shils who has visited many times. “My life was permanently altered the first time I sat under the Skyspace. Sitting there, we find ourselves face to face with a complex abstract mystery and an unanticipated sense of wonder, and ironically (or maybe not so) in the most unexpected of places, a simple, unornamented Quaker meeting room.”

The Skyspace has also been reviewed on Yelp. One person wrote, “Hands down this is the best art experience I have had while living in Philadelphia. All sorts of people attend, from young, hip twenty-somethings to people my grandparent’s age, and of course the occasional person who falls asleep during the hour that the whole experience takes. Completely free, make your reservations online beforehand, and arrive at least ten minutes early to get a great spot (try to bring a pillow and yoga mat if you can, since you lie down the whole time).”

Actually the Quakers request a $5 donation that can be paid online or in person.

The new, larger meetinghouse allowed the meeting to host homeless families involved in the Northwest Interfaith Hospitality Network for five weeks this year. The new building has become popular for community gatherings from AA groups and yoga classes to board meetings of the local food co-op. The meeting room has also become a popular place for weddings and other social gatherings.

Cyane Gresham, who serves on the Property Committee, has been in awe of the use of the building and the draw of the Skyspace.

“The Skyspace is nested within a larger context of this building. It does say something about awareness and beauty and is at the heart of entire property. There have been days where we haven’t been able to mow the lawn because there is a wedding or other activities. It’s hard to imagine this was an abandoned lot and now people come to honor and respect the Skyspace. It has been truly astonishing,” said Gresham of Lafayette Hill.

The Skyspace retractable roof will not be opened if weather conditions are unfavorable. Specifically if there is risk of precipitation, temperature below 40F, snow on the roof, or high winds. Check the weather forecast for zip code 19118. A 20-minute closed roof light sequence is presented if the roof can’t be opened.

For more information on hours of the openings and to make reservations for sunrise and sunset openings, visit www.Chestnuthillskyspace.org.

Personal historian and Flourtown resident Barbara Sherf has been attending the Quaker Meeting since writing about the new Meetinghouse three years ago. She serves on the Hospitality Committee and can be reached at CaptureLifeStories@gmail.com.

The empty James Turrell Skyspace at the Chestnut Hill Friends Quaker Meeting welcomes visitors on Sundays and dusk and special Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve viewings. For more information on hours of the openings and to make reservations for sunset openings, visit www.Chestnuthillskyspace.org. (Photo by Terry Foss)

The empty James Turrell Skyspace at the Chestnut Hill Friends Quaker Meeting welcomes visitors on Sundays and dusk and special Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve viewings. For more information on hours of the openings and to make reservations for sunset openings, visit www.Chestnuthillskyspace.org. (Photo by Terry Foss)

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Reaction to Chestnut Hill Quaker Friends Meetinghouse

Reaction to the new Chestnut Hill Quaker Friends meetinghouse was celebratory on Sunday, as members worshiped for the first time in their new meeting room. The new meetinghouse is the only location in the Greater Philadelphia region with a Skyspace by world-renowned light artist James Turrell.
Having outgrown the tight quarters of their 82-year-old meetinghouse and after many years of discussion and careful consideration, the 200 member Chestnut Hill Quaker Friends marveled at the environmentally friendly building built just one lot below the old meetinghouse near United Cerebral Palsy of Philadelphia on Mermaid Lane.
Following an unusually talkative meeting, Storm Evans, Clerk of the Client (Building) Committee, pushed the button to open the retractable roof in the ceiling at the close of the meeting.

“I’m thrilled that people were thrilled. It needed to be opened,” she said, noting that what the group witnessed was just a preview to seeing the finished Turrell Skyspace. The piece will not be complete until Turrell comes in early October to program the interior lights for approximately hour-long cyles at dawn and dusk. “For it to be a Skyspace, it needs to be the right time of day with the lighting on,” she said. Turrell also does not want photos of the space taken as he feels his work is to be experienced in person, according to Nikka Landau, Skyspace Coordinator.
Turrell, 70, who credits his upbringing in the Quaker faith as the inspiration for his fascination with light, has donated the design for the Skyspace as a gift to the Meeting. Quakerism focuses on a direct relationship with God, sometimes expressed as the “Light”, and discerning this light in all aspects of one’s life.
“The Quakers do what they call ‘going inside to greet the Light,’” explained Turrell in an interview on YouTube. “This ‘going inside to greet the Light’ is like going into self… So it is not dissimilar from going inside in terms of meditation…Shutting off other influences to find this very fine thread, to find this dim light that is so powerful.”
In a Skyspace, Turrell constructs a chamber containing simple seating, lighting, and an opening in the ceiling. Most people who enter a Turrell Skyspace – be it in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in England, or the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 in Brooklyn – naturally fall quiet as they look up at the sky, particularly at dawn and dusk, Landau noted. The contrast between the internal light of the room and the altering outdoor natural light intensifies viewers’ perception of the changing light and deepens reflection.
Wyndmoor resident Jude Brandt, a Quaker for 40 years, and a member of the Chestnut Hill Monthly Meeting for the past decade, was moved to tears in the new space.

“There is an elegant simplicity about the design of the meeting room that brought me to tears for a good portion of the meeting and that’s not common for me. There was a sense of wholeness and energy that was experienced on another plane than the usual consciousness,” she said.

As for her role in the process, Evans, like many of the other Friends, did not want to be singled out.

“God gave me a lot of gifts and I happened to be at an age and a place where there were no little kids and no elders and I am self-employed. It was a community effort. It was a perfect storm.”

Following the meeting, Dylan Steinberg talked about the celebratory experience.

“It was like being at a Quaker wedding where after the couple says their vows everyone is moved to speak and share in the celebration,” said Steinberg of Chestnut Hill.

Dan Evans, who serves as treasurer and has been a member for a dozen years described himself as “giddy” and talked about how the Schuylkill Expressway was projected to solve traffic woes for many years noting “it was jammed from the first day it opened. It would be good if we experienced the same problem here.”

However a longtime Friend, who did not want to be identified was more circumspect in her words saying that her prayer for the meeting is “that we do not lose connection to the spirit with all of this material temptation.”

Dona Garrettson, who co-chairs the Hospitality Committee with Liz Williams, was in her glory in the shining new stainless steel kitchen, where members were gleefully washing dishes by hand because nobody knew how to operate the new dishwasher.

“We have to figure out how to use this space effectively. Despite what you see here today, we know this building is imperfect as we are all imperfect. To be a Quaker we need to work every hour of every day to treat each other with love and respect,” said Garrettson, who along with her husband, George, and their four children joined the Meeting in 1974.

One daughter who lives in Mt. Airy, Carla White, was on hand as she is nearly every week. “I was really amazed by how many came for their first worship. I felt it was a blessing of the space,” she said.

One Friend who also wished not to be identified spoke about the morning being filled with joy, relief and trepidation as well as of the Spirit that will buoy us and guide us to share our gifts with the wider world.”

Mt. Airy resident Margaret Funderburg came to honor Gertrude Fuchs a longtime family friend and member of the Meeting who has since passed away.
“She left a sizable chunk of money for this purpose and I came to honor her,” she said.

Miriam Fisher of Chestnut Hill talked about the difference it makes being in a beautiful space from her firsthand experience.

“Beauty matters. I do work at the historic Fairhill Cemetery where we try to keep things cleaned up and I saw a difference in people before that space was cleaned up and after. People look up when they are in beautiful spaces,” she noted.

Diane Dunning, who was a leader of the $3 million “Building the Light” fundraising campaign stood with fellow committee member Mary Day in the new social hall that looks out to a courtyard and a wooded section of Fairmount Park.

“Quakers are often derided for spending so much time making decisions. Many become impatient with the Quaker process but today we see that taking all of this time has resulted in the making of clear decisions,” said Dunning, an artist. “It was magical to see the light come in the new meeting room. Simply magical.”

Tracey Smith, a member of the Green Street Friends Meeting, lives just across the street on Mermaid Lane and had a firsthand look at the project as it progressed.

“To see it unfold was like a spiritual journey. From my bed I saw a vacant lot change into something that is full of life. I hope to see it spread and grow.”

Dennis Wint, who was in the news recently regarding his retirement as President and CEO of the Franklin Institute, talked about how people handle change.

“Life cannot exist without change. The question is how does one take advantage of the opportunity that change presents in a meaningful way,” he said.

Once it is finished, the Turrell Skyspace will be open for worship to the public at regular publicized times during the week as well as for special events. For more information, go to www.quaker.org/chestnuthill.

Barbara Sherf is a guest writer, Quaker attendee, and personal historian. She can be reached at 215.233.8022 or CaptureLifeStories@gmail.com.

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