In October of 2010, a message was found painted in white on the south side of the Highland Avenue overpass: “YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL.” The street art campaign drew some ire not only for being graffiti, but also for being unabashedly sentimental, yet for many in town — including Mayor William Bell — the installation was a source of much-needed positivity for city and citizens alike.
Marcus Turner wants to create another reminder of Birmingham’s possibilities for beauty. The TicketBiscuit employee, working on his own recognizance, is trying to bring an arts company called Architects of Air — and their sprawling, inflatable art sculptures, known as luminaria — to Railroad Park in the spring, with a mind to give Birmingham another feather in its aesthetic cap.
Turner is pitching the Architects of Air show as the Inner Light Festival, which pretty neatly encapsulates its appeal. Starting in the mid-1980s, Architects of Air founder Alan Parkinson has worked in plastic, pneumatic sculptures, many of which were originally intended to inspire disabled children. After years of testing out different materials, Parkinson settled on the right plastic to sculpt with, creating huge domes, tunnels and alcoves to walk through in his installations. They’re called luminaria because, working from a basis of seven pure colors, they create beautiful landscapes to experience as the colors mix with the addition of natural light.
“What motivates me to design is the fact that I continue to be struck by the beauty of light and color found in the luminaria,” Parkinson wrote on his website. “These structures nurture an awareness of a pure phenomenon that gently cuts through everyday conditioned perceptions and awakens a sense of wonder in people.”
That sense of wonder seems inevitable with the Architects’ installations. Working in a medium that is, quite frankly, typically dismissed as being a medium at all, Parkinson and company get at the magic of what art can be in a way that any sighted person can appreciate. The radiant sculptures, mixing green and red and blue on an enormous scale, don’t simply enrich your world; they create entirely new worlds to wander in, even if it’s just for a little while. It almost seems like walking through a Sigur Rós or My Bloody Valentine song brought to life, exchanging waves of sound for waves of light.
That otherworldly experience has proven quite popular. Since their start in 1992, the Architects of Air have put up installations on five continents and 40 countries, and have seen more than two million visitors. Set up in Railroad Park, with a planned opening date set to coincide with the Barons’ opening game against the White Sox, the potential of the Inner Light Festival seems obvious.
Turner found the Architects of Air while doing business development research for TicketBiscuit. After vetting the company with a fine-toothed comb, Turner was taken with the imagery they provided, and he came to see Parkinson as a visionary. Specifically, he came to see Parkinson as a visionary with a great potential impact on Birmingham’s future.
“I’ve been involved in the local arts community and a number of revitalization projects,” Turner said, “and I’ve just been very passionate for years and years about what opportunities this city has for creative people to shape what Birmingham is going to be 25 years down the road. I truly believe that arts and culture can change the world — or save the world.”
Any lasting cultural influence, of course, would have to work in tandem with the community. In Turner’s mind, the Inner Light Festival provides the immediacy needed for foot traffic and social media popularity and the resonance needed for long-term impact. “Light and color are universal,” as he pointed out, and they collude to make something genuinely awe-inspiring in the case of the Architects’ installations.
“I’ve just been looking at the city and the transformation that we’re going through right now, and seeing what caused that transformation and what seeds were planted in the heads of the community to forge that, to move it forward,” Turner said. “You have to have the community behind an idea in order for it to progress. Seeing what Railroad Park and the stadium and different cultural and artistic events have done for the community, it’s changed the perspective on Birmingham. Now things aren’t impossible; they’re possible.”
If Turner can raise the funds needed to book the Architects of Air, and if it becomes a phenomenon in the Magic City — two big ifs, as Turner will readily admit — then Turner’s ambition is for it to be the catalyst for festivals in the future that will shine a light on the Birmingham creative community, from craftsmen to abstract painters. In time, Turner hopes that it could blossom into a sort of South by Southwest for the visual arts.
Despite those heady ambitions, one of Turner’s primary motivations to try and organize this festival as a private citizen is much more direct: inspiring children. Citing the potential value the Inner Light Festival could have for organizations like the Bell Center and Children’s of Alabama, Turner said, “I know the impact something like this would’ve had on me as a child, and being able to facilitate that experience for other children, especially children who are dealing with health issues…is something that drives me to continue.”
The festival is still a work in progress, and if Turner can’t secure funding, that’s where it will remain. But if Turner’s dreams of bringing the Architects of Air to Railroad Park come true, then he may sow the seeds of a successful festival for years to come. And Birmingham and its citizens — no matter their age — will have a critical reminder that this city is capable of beautiful things.
The festival is planned to debut on March 28 in Railroad Park. For more information and updates on its progress, follow the Inner Light Festival on Facebook.