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)