August 20, 2012 by
Photography by minorwhitestudios

Try to catch a rainbow.

Michael Jones McKean pursued this alluring and evanescent image for 10 years before “unveiling” The Rainbow: Certain Principles of Light and Shapes Between Forms at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. An arc of iridescent light shimmered above the Bemis and admiring patrons, over the purr of tires on brick, above surprised Old Market visitors, above the sounds of music and laughter and evening birds. “The spirit of the rainbow is egalitarian,” McKean told me. “It can’t be owned; it can’t even be fixed. It’s very mischievous.”

Rainbows are made of sunlight and water drops. As light enters a water drop, its cargo of collective color refracts into a prism of brilliant individual hues. These are reflected and re-refracted, emerging as seven bands of color, from outermost red through orange and yellow, cool green, blue and indigo, to sweet violet. But there’s the first sign of mischief—rainbows shine in a continuum of color, not bands. One color mists into the next, and more or fewer colors may be seen depending on one’s vantage point, vision, and atmospheric conditions.

Bemis curator Hesse McGraw (left) with McKean.

Bemis curator Hesse McGraw (left) with McKean.

Rainbows are a universally recognized image. They appear in art, mythology and literature, religion, and science throughout time and around the world; they’re eye-catching marketing tools; they’re seen as magic by the child in each of us.

For McKean, the intrigue was in trying to understand such a complicated object. In a poetic sense, how does a rainbow, a timeless and iconic image, define our concept of beauty, of the sublime? That process of discovery began by studying rainbows produced by car washes, paint sprayers, and irrigation equipment. Step by incremental step, from these prosaic beginnings, McKean continued his autodidactic ambition. He devised experiments and tested equipment, read, listened, and persevered. He never doubted that he could catch, if not keep, this ephemeral quarry.

Hesse McGraw, Chief Curator at the Bemis, knew McKean’s work and of his rainbow trials. In 2008, newly hired by the Bemis, he contacted the artist to commission a project. When McKean described his ideas, McGraw wondered, “Is it possible to do this?” The following day, McKean faxed “the blue sketch” and three words: “Anything is possible.”

The water apparatus atop the Bemis in action.

The water apparatus atop the Bemis in action.

From this nebulous beginning, it was quickly clear that creating a rainbow would be enormously complex. A team was assembled that included, in addition to Bemis staff members, electricians, plumbers, structural engineers, experts in myriad aspects of water—harvesting, containment, dispersion, purification, etc., an atmospheric scientist, film documentarist, and computer wizards.

Recirculating rainwater is stored in six 10,500-gallon tanks; one of them near the Bemis entrance. Seen inside, a pump delivers water to nozzles on the roof at the rate of 2,000 gallons per minute. This visibility of the project’s working components celebrates the efforts and collaboration of its many diverse contributors. The Rainbow’s gallery component also includes a display of objects that represent what McKean calls “a small poem on the nature of space and time”: a bristlecone pine (Bristlecones may be the earth’s oldest living organism; this one is watered by the same rainwater that makes up the rainbow.), a meteorite from Argentina’s famed Campo del Cielo, a Micronesian conch shell, and a 19th century handmade quilt.

The project’s subtitle, Certain Principles of Light and Shapes Between Forms, expresses McKean’s sense of the rainbow as a bridge. Its arc connects the viewer to a meteorite hurled to earth 5,000 years ago; connects workers and thinkers from disparate fields; connects the forms, the buildings, people, plants, and activities of an urban landscape under its variegated canopy. It connects idea to reality…if rainbows are really real. Try to catch one.

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