I BECAME addicted in a physics class in 1978.
Prof. Hilborn was explaining how lasers worked. He turned out the lights, switched on the laser and clapped two erasers in front of it. A bright line of red light appeared from nowhere. It shimmered and sparkled as the chalk dust danced in its path. And where it met the wall, the line ended in an eerie glow.
It was a simple demonstration, but I was hooked. I spent the rest of my book money on a laser, little realizing that I would become an artist working with lasers.
All visual art is light. A painter brushing pigment on a canvas changes the wavelengths (color) of the reflected light. A sculptor changes not only the color of the light, but its direction. A laser artist works directly with light, manipulating it to create forms ranging from soft and organic to precise and technical. Washington sculptor Rockne Krebs is probably the best-known artist using lasers, but his sculptural beam-works use techniques very different from the projected designs with which I work.
There are many ways of creating projected designs, but I prefer using vibrating mirrors called scanners to draw shapes on a wall. The process is similar to the way in which a television tube creates images. When I send electronic music signals to the scanners, they move the laser's beam so that it draws out abstract forms. I am literally creating music for the eyes. A microcomputer can control the scan motion even more accurately, letting me draw words and representational images.
It is exciting work, but at times it can be frustrating. Few people understand it; fewer still do it. I am part of an informal group of scanner artists, holographers and visual musicians who exchange ideas about art with lasers and who critique each other's efforts. Last month, we spent two weeks at the University of Michigan School of Art. Our work with laser projections was part of a holography and laser-art exhibit at the school's Slusser Gallery.
Inside the gallery, we manipulated an aquamarine dot of bright laser light, moving it faster and faster until it formed a line, curving it into a circle, then bending and breaking the circle to create slowly swirling abstract images. Using the computer, we could stop the motion entirely, freezing a composition of looping, flowing lines drawn with the laser's unique sparkling light.
Each of the artists there had his or her own style and approach. I favor slow, symmetrical works. My best piece is a gentle, sensual dance between two lines of light that weave hesitantly towards each other, briefly touching before returning to the dance.
In all of our works, we concentrate on line and form, fluidity and grace. Some of these qualities can be captured in photographs. However, pictures can never record what makes laser light magical -- the intense, pure color and its ethereal glow.
Because we are so familiar with the techniques of this art, though, we tend to get ahead of some viewers. At the Michigan show, we initially displayed our most recent work, but some visitors could not relate to the seemingly random forms. When we exhibited earlier, more symmetrical pieces, they could better see the subtlety we were trying to communicate.
As we sat operating the equipment, we fielded a stream of inquiries from gallery visitors. The questions ranged from "Can you feel the beam?" to "Can your scanners be transharmonically comodulated?" The answers to these questions were easy -- no and yes -- but my favorite question was the inevitable inquiry, "How do you do it?" My answer was always the same: "It's all done with mirrors."
Such technical questions are ones I hope to hear less as the art becomes more familiar. The technology is interesting, but it is not nearly as important as the art it helps produce.
We also received a lot of questions about safety. I replied that making displays safe is easy. However, documenting the safety procedures we take for the Food and Drug Administration is possibly the most difficult task faced by an artist working with lasers. It took artist David Lytle and myself a month to produce the various safety reports mandated by the FDA, and it took them another month to read and approve our 75-page submission.
Certainly, though, the satisfactions of working with lasers far outweigh any frustrations. It is a new field that's full of potential. Creating designs, I enter a world of unexpected pleasures. And when I stand in a darkened gallery, turn on a switch, and see a laser artwork fill a wall, I feel again the same magic I felt on that day in Prof. Hilborn's physics class.
Washington artist Patrick Murphy works by light at Wordscape, a typesetting company; at night he lases around. First Hand is a weekly column written by people in the arts.