It's raining glass!
The tiny world explodes into brilliant fragments of gold, blue, pink, green, silver, an inspired geometry of fantastic hexagons! Logic beatified!
Turn the tube and suddenly they are gone and a whole new tapestry of light blossoms before your eyes. And again. And again.
America's first major kaleidoscope show opens today at Strathmore Hall Arts Center in Rockville, just north of the Grosvenor Metro stop. It lasts through Oct. 5, six days a week, and it is free.
More than 100 scopes, from the size of a pen cap to a 10-foot-long box that looks as though you could sluice gold in it, are scattered around on two floors of the lovely mansion. Many are for sale for under $50, and you can buy a do-it-yourself kit in the gallery shop. Some date back to Sir David Brewster, who invented the kaleidoscope in 1816. There are kaleidoscopes made of brass, polished wood, translucent plastic, silver, leather, ceramics and bamboo. Some are set with gems. Some stand on tripods, and some dangle from the neck as pendants. The Van Dyke II, a beautifully tooled brass cylinder the size of a serious thermos, would sell for $5,000 today.
In recent years American artists have been taking another look at this pleasant 19th-century toy. Judith Karelitz of New York uses polarized light in her Karascopes, with a transparent prism in place of the usual mirrors and small objects floating in liquid. Turn one tube end and the colors slowly shift; turn the other and the designs reinvent themselves. The Smithsonian has commissioned a new work by this artist.
There are also paintings and photos of the things you can see in a kaleidoscope. The show is curated by Cozy Baker, who has written a book, "Through the Kaleidoscope."
The bits and pieces that create the magic ("Pay no attention to that little man behind the screen," the Wizard of Oz commanded) are as varied as the tubes. At the far end of the piano-sized scope from Newe Daisterre Glass of Ohio is a disk three feet across, spangled with snapshots, old pop bottles, broken glass shards. You look in the business end, turn a crank that spins the disk, and a wonderful Busby Berkeley explosion of colors seems to be rushing at you. Turn it the other way, and the patterns pull away.
The Geoscope III stands on a tripod like a Manhattan apartment telescope. Point it out the window and you see a giant silvery globe made of hundreds of triangles of light: bits of sky, leaves, the lawn, the windowsill.
Some kaleidoscopes splinter the ordinary world around you into countless bright slices. Some transform disks of stained glass into clean patterns of color. Some make disembodied swirls that reach right up the tube toward your eye. Some, using objects in liquid, shift slowly and inexorably as you watch. And some don't move at all.
One scope is a light box you gaze down into. There you see many levels of translucent intersecting strips, layer upon layer, an Escher fantasy, receding into the dark depths until you lose them.
It's all you can do to tear yourself away.