‘This Little Light of Mine’ shines at Civil Rights Museum

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Like any flame, it started with a spark that, once caught and fed, wrapped the skills and talents of many into its growing glow.

However, the fabric/light sculpture This Little Light of Mine, a metaphor for the civil rights movement, is unlike any other, anywhere.

In the rotunda of the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, opening along with the Museum of Mississippi History Dec. 9, This Little Light of Mine is a centerpiece art element and integral part of the visitor experience. It serves as a contemplative counter to exhibits of dark, hard truths about the civil rights movement, as a celebratory symbol encircled by faces of the struggle and as an engaging beacon with tendrils that carry the spirit forward.

Photo by Sherry Lucas

Installation of “This Little Light of Mine” fabric sculpture at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

One November afternoon, its long, fabric-covered blades were heaped in an abstract tangle of twists and turns in the lobby of the yet-to-open museums. In the rotunda awaiting installation, blades’ naked aluminum frames looked like roller coaster tracks, for all their undulating swoops and curves.

A week later, the physical structure was installed, its blades weaving in, out and around each other and lights dancing in a riot of color against a backdrop of scissor lift beeps and the hum of human conversation. Next up: squeezing in all the programming to meet the opening deadline.

The gospel song that became a civil rights anthem and gave the sculpture its name is also part of it. Visitors emerge from the tight confines and tough history of Gallery 2 — with monoliths bearing lynching victims’ names, a Ku Klux Klan robe and Jim Crow images on display — into Gallery 3’s rotunda.

“It’s a nice-size area, so that you can breathe, so you can reflect, so you can think about what you saw,” says Pamela Junior, Mississippi Civil Rights Museum director.

Its message: “Lights came into Mississippi. … From all over the United States, people came in, and they were lights.”

When one visitor walks in, the blades blink a bit, and as more people enter, lights and color increase and react to movement. The song begins with one or two voices, building to a choir as more people come.

The team behind the sculpture came from around the country, too. Exhibits designer Hilferty & Associates from Ohio worked with Transformit founder and artist Cindy Thompson of Maine, media producers Monadnock Media from Massachusetts and lighting program engineers CED (Communication Electronic Design) from Kentucky.

Photo by Sherry Lucas

Before installation, artist and Transformit founder Cindy Thompson shows the scale of the individual blades that make up the fabric sculpture “This Little Light of Mine” at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

Several museum galleries conclude with major civil rights movement turning points — the Emmitt Till murder, Medgar Evers’ assassination, the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner.

“At the end of each one … people needed a moment,” says Hilferty’s Richard Woollacott. The center gallery became that area for reflection, processing and internalizing, plus honoring martyrs of the movement.

In museum planning meetings in communities around the state, civil rights veterans sought assurances the state-sponsored museum wouldn’t whitewash their story, stressing, “We need to pass on the torch and how are you going to do that?” Woollacott says. “We assured them that we would be truthful, hard-hitting and show it, warts and all, and I think we’ve done that.”

A lot of those meetings ended with singing This Little Light of Mine.

“That sort of became a rallying cry for how we were going to approach this.”

The aim: something physical, visual and emotionally engaging to reinforce the message that every person makes a difference and, together, they create an immovable force.

An interactive, visitor-driven, animated, lighted sculpture was the brainchild of Hilferty and Monadnock, says Tim Creed with CED. CED was brought in early, to make sure the project was technically feasible. “There were some pretty big challenges with it,” with embedded lights, gesture sensors and layers of sound.

Photo by Sherry Lucas

Hilferty’s Richard Woollacott and Monadnock Media’s Steven Bressler were at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum for the installation of the “This Little Light of Mine” sculpture.

The emotional core of the civil rights movement, as people fought against brutality and bigotry and were galvanized by anthems and hope, drove the design.

“The whole concept, with the dark subject, is to say, ‘There is a light,’” Thompson says. “This sculpture and what it does — there’s nothing like it in all the country. It is a one-of-a-kind. It’s never been done before and none of the programming has been done like this before.”

“Way unique,” Creed describes it. “There’s a first time for everything, and this is the first time. We’re pretty excited about it.”

They figured it out as they went.

“We went through a couple of different kinds of light that didn’t work and burned up because of the program,” Thompson says with a quick laugh, fingering the stretch hologram fabric that covers the blades. “There was smoke at our place one time …. Of course, this is all fireproof, but still.” The project was three years in the making and her company’s biggest job to date.

Photo by Sherry Lucas

CED’s Mandie Clark and Tim Creed stand in front of the board that controls the sculpture.

“This was a very cool art piece,” says CED chief engineer Mandie Clark, “And to come up with a way to not only communicate with all the lights from one computer, but also to get all the wiring that’s needed in every location — we have a spreadsheet that’s pages long that has wiring that just goes to that sculpture.” Each blade has up to eight channels of lights, and each channel has at least 40 LED lights, Clark says, scribbling a quick calculation of “probably 10,000 lights, and those are individually controlled, almost like pixels.”

And, that’s just the blades.

The sculpture and ideas behind it “all grew out of that sense of being honest, being truthful, carrying the torch … recognizing that everybody has a contribution to make, and that all their contributions come together to create this force, this shape,” Woollacott says.

Photo by Sherry Lucas

Artist and Transformit founder Cindy Thompson shows the scale of the individual blades that make up the fabric sculpture “This Little Light of Mine” at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

The sculpture will be in ambient mode most of the time, with gently moving lights and audio, with a show mode every half hour, playing This Little Light of Mine and Ain’t Gonna’ Let Nobody Turn Me Around. (Kids, college students and adults recorded locally at Malaco Studios.)

“As it leads into what we call the show mode … you can contribute your light, your motion to this sculpture, which will be responding and building to the song that’s playing,” Monadnock Media’s Steven H. Bressler says.

“This is probably the most unique thing that any of us have done,” Thompson says, “because it interacts with you and your movement. And it also sings to you.

“And,the whole purpose is to bring some light into a subject that, right now, we are still going on and on about.”