by Barbara Sherf
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 Wednesday, Dec. 24, at 4:40 and Dec. 31 at 4:45 p.m. There will be one dawn opening at 6:32 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 1.
Serving as the Lead Skyspace Host, Signe Wilkinson (who is also the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist) 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 4,000 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, as most did, not knowing 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 at dawn and dusk, and was donated to the Meeting by world-renowned contemporary American light artist James Turrell.
(Construction was delayed by several months after arson caused about $500,000 in damage to the structure. After a lengthy investigation, several members of the Ironworkers Union were arrested and charged with firebombing the facility, allegedly because non-union labor was used in the construction.)
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 this 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 originally had some concerns about the move. “I will be the first to admit that I had reservations coming here,” she said, “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.”
Alison Marzuoli, an art teacher in the Philadelphia School District, has been to approximately 20 viewings and is also a volunteer. She lives within walking distance of the Skyspace.
“I love seeing the faces on people coming out into the lobby,” she said. “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.”
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 Montclair, 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. “It was pretty incredible. No, more than incredible. It’s hard to find the words.”
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,” she said. “This time I was more curious to see how it works from the technical side. It’s really quite fascinating and refreshing.”
“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 local painter and teacher Stuart Shils, who has visited many times. “My life was permanently altered the first time I sat under the Skyspace.”
The new, larger meetinghouse also permits the hosting of 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.
The Skyspace’s retractable roof will not be opened if weather conditions are unfavorable. For visitors to Skyspace, the Quakers request a $5 donation paid online or in person. More information at 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.