While conveyor belts circulated suitcases of every size, color and shape around her, artist Jen Lewin dipped a black-booted foot onto a glass "lake" atop the floor at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport's baggage claim.
As she pressed her foot, the purple-colored perimeter zipped into red, then yellow tones.
"There's just sort of infinite colors," Lewin said dreamily.
Then she started tapping both feet on the translucent surface while waving her hands in the air and swaying in place.
Above her, "The Aurora," a 29-foot-tall glass-and-metal spiral studded with handblown bulbs containing thousands of LED lights, reflected her movements using heat-map-tracking cameras. It was March 1, a springlike day, so software in Lewin's sculpture triggered a springtime palette of purples, blues, greens, reds and yellows.
Airport visitors noticed Lewin gliding on the cluster of eight interactive lakes she created as they marched to bathrooms, baggage in hand. A couple of construction workers in neon yellow vests took a break to dance on the lakes. Some people paused and looked up, observing the colorful simulation of the aurora borealis dangling from the Terminal 1 ceiling, far overhead.
"Adults usually are cautious," Lewin observed. "Kids get it immediately."
After nearly a year of COVID delays and three years of planning, "Aurora" has arrived.
Spanning the ticketing and baggage levels through an oval opening in the floor between them, the sculpture is a new signature piece for MSP, welcoming travelers to the 11th-busiest airport in the United States. The airport's user-funded Arts & Culture Program shelled out $750,000 to make it happen.
Lewin envisioned the work as a "wispy gesture of light floating in the air."
To keep it peak-Minnesota, "Aurora" is constantly receiving data on the state's weather patterns — it has its own power supply and internet connection.
This all sounds complicated, but Lewin's hope for "Aurora" is quite simple.
"I just want to bring a moment of joy and connection," she said. "I really want people to have fun."
Making Minnesota magic
Lewin's husband, Bill Magnuson, grew up in the northern Twin Cities community of Ham Lake. She recalls winters snowmobiling across frozen lakes and summers canoeing in the vast Boundary Waters, not seeing other humans for a week.
Her experience of that calm, natural beauty inspired the piece, along with feedback she solicited from Minnesotans during trips here.
"People mentioned weather a lot," she said. "The crunching of snow under my feet, the light coming through the trees in fall, just really beautiful moments that got me thinking of the time I've spent here."
The most ambitious piece of public art to arrive in the Twin Cities since the relaunch of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in 2017, "Aurora" may be high-tech, but it's human participation that makes the work come alive.
Lewin's knack for making public art that people will actually embrace has earned her international attention.
Like most public artworks, "Aurora" is meant to take people out of their routine and into an aesthetic experience.
"Public art has an economic aspect, but it also has a civic asset in that it contributes to a public sense of well-being, pride, pleasure-in-place that is life-enhancing," said art historian Michele Bogart, who specializes in the social history of public art and teaches at Stony Brook University in New York.
That sense of pleasure-in-place is visible throughout "Aurora."
The lakes are a hand-cast glass flooring product, made with a custom dichroic inner layer by a New Jersey company, Glass Flooring Systems.
When people step, dance or move on them, it feels as if one is dancing on one of the 10,000 frozen lakes in the dead of a Minnesota winter.
When it's safe to do so, the airport will add couches and a grand piano to the area around the lakes, giving it a lounge feel.
"Public art makes people feel comfortable and less agitated," said Bogart. "It is a calming device, and we could take issue with that, but these days what's wrong with being calm? Nobody is calm anymore. Art can do it in a way that nothing else can."
Coping with COVID
Lewin and her team were ready to install "Aurora" last fall, before the holiday wave of COVID-19 infections swept in.
They wound up spending most of February here, just as subzero temps chilled the world outside. Wearing masks, they worked up to 12-hour days.
No vendors were open nearby, so they brought their own coffee; a giant thermos was parked on the team's worktable alongside tools, screws, zip-ties and light bulbs.
On a particularly frigid day last month, Lewin climbed onto one of two lifts and whizzed up to the middle of "Aurora." She reached down to a box filled with light bulbs custom-made by her teenage son as part of a summer job she gave him.
She eyed the clear bulbs, then grabbed a silver one, a custom controller that normally would be hidden from public view.
"It's hard to make a full piece like this where everything is exposed, even the zip ties," she said. "Everything has to look pretty, but it's like the guts of the LED system."
On the other lift, shop and fabrication manager Paul Underwood and electric specialist Elliot Siegel screwed bulbs into the swooping wing at the top of "Aurora."
That work continued for a week, then the team shifted to the eight translucent lakes modeled on actual lakes in the Twin Cities, including Lake Phalen, Lake Como and Lake of the Isles.
"We flew over some of the lakes on the plane ride in," said designer Thomas Evans as he crouched down, adding diffusing tape — a non-sticky tape that helps soften the pixels — around the edges of the glass platforms. "It was like: 'There's one! There's one!'
"We spent the last two years looking at those lakes as CAD models, so it's fun to see them come to life."
Tuning up the 'Harp'
Although Lewin is not a Minnesotan, she is pretty close to becoming one.
She met her future husband in 2013 at a South by Southwest Interactive panel about the intersection of art and technology. A graduate of MIT, he helped with the "Aurora" software.
Lewin's larger-than-life artworks are often a family affair. Her mother-in-law, Lisa Magnuson, is Lewin's part-time bookkeeper and shipping manager, and helped build the artist's other Minnesota piece, "Sidewalk Harp," located on 5th Street in Minneapolis' North Loop, a block north of Target Field.
Lewin was born in Tuba City, Ariz., on the Navajo Indian Reservation, though she is not Native American (her father worked for the Indian Health Service). When she was 4, the family moved to Hawaii. She left for college in Boulder, Colo., then bounced around until landing in New York City. She and Bill live in Manhattan with her two children from a previous marriage.
On a cold February afternoon, her mother-in-law — clad in a bright yellow "Jen Lewin Studio" hoodie — and lead designer/project manager Mikael Flores-Amper worked to repair "Sidewalk Harp," a 40-foot-long stainless steel form in the shape of a wave that produces musical notes and LED colors when pedestrians walk beneath its 36 sensors.
Installed in 2015, the piece was a popular fixture in the North Loop until a snowplow knocked it out of commission in December 2019.
Lewin, in a black mask and black-rimmed glasses, emerged from the basement of the Be the Match Registry building, where she had been toggling the harp's digital control panel.
A passerby across the street shouted that he couldn't wait for the harp to be back.
"There was a maintenance dude from a building around here who said he was so glad he could come back to the harp," Flores-Amper commented. "He said that it used to be the best part of his day."
Much like "Aurora," there's something easy and electric about Lewin's art. It's like watching a firefly light up — there's joy in the moment, even if you know it's coming.
@AliciaEler • 612-673-4437
'THE AURORA' BY THE NUMBERS
29 feet high
20,000 aluminum rings
1,900 blown-glass bulbs
6,000 RGB LED lights that can change color