Jennifer Steinkamp was, like Benjamin Franklin, intrigued by electricity.
For her latest art piece, Steinkamp, a design media arts professor, created a sculptural video installation, titled “Winter Fountains,” which will be illuminated sunset to midnight from Thursday to March 18 as a part of the centennial celebration of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. The work draws inspiration from Franklin’s scientific discoveries and the fountains that line the parkway to showcase natural phenomena such as lightning, steam and ice.
“There’s something behind (natural processes), but we don’t know what that is, and I think science and religion really don’t quite know what that is,” Steinkamp said. “We sense it, but we don’t know it.”
The piece features four 13-foot high, 26-foot wide architectural domes cast out of fiberglass, embedded with glitter and spaced out along the parkway. Each of the domes sits above the street on poles and a projector will cast three different animation sequences on each one.
Steinkamp said the first of the three projections, in which lightning and electrically charged particles collide around the dome, represents the formation of static electricity. The second represents the formation of clouds by showing steam materializing and drifting upwards. The third projection showcases a variety of flowers drifting and bouncing off one other around the dome, which Steinkamp said she added for fun.
Steinkamp’s initial inspiration for “Winter Fountains” came from the fountains along the parkway, which don’t run during the winter months. She decided she wanted to design something that would mirror the aesthetic appeal of the actual fountains while they were turned off.
She also took inspiration from the formation of electricity in clouds, where particles collide with each other and create an electrical charge. The piece focuses on the icy particles within the clouds, which she said are reminiscent of what a frozen fountain would be made out of. Other natural processes, such as motion and ice, influenced her design process as well.
“Go look at an ice cube, you’d see how the surface is moving, because it’s melting,” Steinkamp said. “In other pieces that I’ve made, (things) in nature aren’t just randomly created.”
Steinkamp said the design process included a long period of conceptual work. Because she is based in Los Angeles, she used Google Earth to virtually place each piece of “Winter Fountains” throughout the Philadelphia parkway. The software also helped her design a 3-D simulation that she later submitted as part of her proposal for the artwork.
The Parkway 100 celebration, which “Winter Fountains” will be the centerpiece of, underwent a long period of collaborative effort from the educational and cultural institutions along the parkway, said Judi Rogers, the executive director of the Parkway Council Foundation. She said although the celebration will also have events and exhibitions, they wanted it to focus on a major piece of public art.
“The Parkway Museums District has this collection of art, education, science, fountains, in a beautiful park setting,” Rogers said. “Jennifer has woven all of those elements into her artwork, which makes it perfect in this situation.”
Penny Balkin Bach, the executive director and chief curator of the Association for Public Art, commissioned Steinkamp’s piece. She said she chose “Winter Fountains” as a part of the celebration partly because the project mirrors Benjamin Franklin’s interests in both the natural world and the artistic world.
“There’s this incredibly wonderful connection between the spirit of Benjamin Franklin as the quintessential creative and scientific mind, and (“Winter Fountains”), which are very scientifically based but also extremely creative and artistic,” Bach said.
Franklin’s discovery that static electricity and lightning are the same forces inspired her to depict lightning forms in clouds, Steinkamp said. However, Steinkamp said she was influenced by more than just Franklin’s scientific discoveries. She said she also found Franklin to be an inspiring historical figure with profound achievements in science and the arts.
Steinkamp said she considers the mile-long Benjamin Franklin Parkway a kind of cultural heart of the city because it is located amidst other artistic and cultural facilities, such as museums and churches. She therefore aimed to create a piece of artwork that could appropriately contribute to the cultural atmosphere of the parkway.
“To me, (Benjamin Franklin) became a great representation of all these cultural institutions along this parkway,” she said. “I hope (“Winter Fountains”) makes people curious enough to want to understand (natural processes) more.”