As the sun sets, the sun will rise at Cabell Library

Joana Stillwell. [View Image] Joana Stillwell.

Joana Stillwell often woke before dawn this past summer to record the sunrise from her Fan district bedroom window. While not a morning person, the Virginia Commonwealth University student finds that her days flow better when she has an early start. The practice continued through the fall and spring.

With hundreds of sunrises recorded, Stillwell, a graduate student in the Department of Kinetic Imaging, has edited them into one piece, which today debuts as the first long-form video on Cabell Library’s outdoor screen. The one-hour film is also the first piece to run overnight.

“We are slowly approaching a solstice everyday” will play on loop every night from dusk until dawn — approximately 5 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. — for three weeks. Generally the big screen runs from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. The Cabell Library Ramcam provides a live view.

“Joana's rolling sunrises are an interesting investigation into the screen’s demands on the time and attention of the people in the Compass,” said Kelsey Sheaffer, multimedia production specialist at VCU Libraries and a member of the committee that curates the big screen. “Her pieces tend to be meditative examinations of the loveliness in the ordinary, which I think is the perfect way to challenge the conventions of the big screen.”


Subtle change of light

Stillwell started filming sunrises over the summer as a form of meditative journaling. Experimenting with a new 4K camera, she wanted to record the subtle changing of light as the sun rose. She wasn’t aiming to catch the actual ball of sun in the sky — just the colors, she said. Some days were more dynamic than others, but it was a good personal exercise.

The bulk of the footage came from last semester when she recorded most mornings. She usually kept her tripod in the same position, but would change the angle of her camera depending on what part of the sky was the most intriguing that day. 

“Collecting is a common thread in my work and I think repetition and accumulation can highlight and show a significance to the everyday, which are essential and grounding elements,” Stillwell said. “Poet Michael Longley writes about how the ordinary and banal things are the key to our sanity and I thought a lot about him during this project as well.”

She was equally inspired by a book of poetry by Lola Ridge and kept returning to the line, “but the day is an upturned cup.” She knew her work would be shown in the early evening and liked the idea of juxtaposing the earliest moments of sunlight with the earliest moments of darkness.

“I’m excited to see how that translation of light will occur on the library screen,” she said.

We are slowly approaching a solstice everyday from Joana Stillwell on Vimeo.

"We are slowly approaching a solstice everyday" by Joana Stillwell.

‘It strikes us as dreamy’

“Solstice” is an iteration of a piece that Stillwell originally exhibited in November at InLight, an annual community light-based art show. She wants to expand it in other site-responsive ways. 

“It was a nice surprise to see people interact with the piece as much as they did; there were a lot of images of people in front of the sunrises and engaging with their silhouettes. However, I always saw it as a quieter, subtle piece and like to think that people might overlook it in the evening as they do the sunrise every morning.”

Sheaffer, a Kinetic Imaging alumna, heard of the project during its early stages. When the curating committee discussed an interest in slower, meditative projects that challenged the conventional use of the screen, she thought of Stillwell’s sunrises. The project picked up steam after Sheaffer saw the exhibition at InLight.

“[Sheaffer] approached me about the possibility of showing my sunrises at Cabell and I thought it could be interesting to work with a screen so different than ones I’m accustomed to in terms of scale, location and definition,” Stillwell said. “For the Cabell screen I’m experimenting with showing one sunrise at a time and thinking about how each LED bulb will be responsible for and encapsulate each particular shade of changing light. I also enjoy how the screen articulates darkness as no light and how each bulb will slowly turn on with each sunrise.”

The display should make for an interesting experience on campus, said Sue Robinson, director of communications and public relations for VCU Libraries and chairwoman of the big screen committee. 

“It strikes us as dreamy and inspiring to show sunrise after sunrise after sunrise in the midst of dark winter days,” she said. “Joana Stillwell is a young artist, an emerging artist who already has amassed compelling credentials.”


Experimenting with new mediums

Stillwell studied photography at the University of Washington and, after receiving her bachelor’s degree, began working with video. As her practice became more cross-disciplinary, she looked for graduate programs that would allow her to focus on video while expanding her practice into new mediums.

“I felt my work was developing into installations and I was also interested in how my work conceptually overlapped with themes discussed in other media such as fiber,” she said. During her search, she came across VCU’s Kinetic Imaging department and happened upon an artist talk by professor and graduate program director Stephen Vitiello in Seattle.

“I visited VCU eight months later, got a feel for the place, met other grads, and felt that this could be the open, interdisciplinary place to grow my practice, and here I am now,” she said.  

“Solstice” is the first graduate student solo exhibition to run on the big screen.

The committee is open to various projects and approaches, of varied types and lengths. In particular, Robinson said, it is interested in finding more projects such as “Solstice” that were edited or created for the big-screen medium.


Want to display your art on the big screen or coordinate a class assignment that uses it? Are you a student who wants to submit your big screen art to be shown during regular Student Showcases? or submit your information online.