Ann Preston's Lamps Illuminate the Bradley Wing

Central Docents, Central Library,
Illuminations, a series of lanterns by Ann Preston in the Bradley Wing. Photo courtesy of Karina Buck
Illuminations, a series of lanterns by Ann Preston in the Bradley Wing. Photo courtesy of Karina Buck

A highlight of our docent tours is Ann Preston's Illuminations, a series of lanterns that descend the southern escalator landings of the Tom Bradley Wing. Each lamp is 13.5' tall, and contains lights at the bottom and top of the lamp along with reflectors that cast light in the surrounding area.

Illuminations, a series of lanterns by Ann Preston in the Bradley Wing.Pole lamps on the landings were part of Pfeiffer's original design. Photo courtesy LAPL

Preston traces her thinking about the design to a visit to Egypt's iconic temples. The sheer audacity of the giant structures interested her in large vertical forms. Preston says her lamps were intended to be a subliminal view of the human profile and parts of the body. Rather than being simply physical constructions, Preston wanted to make her work feel both tactile and organic. "I am female and feminist, but my work is not usually specific to that." However, she describes the lamp in the Illuminations series as "a feminized totem. It's about power and authority."

Preston started as a painter, attending the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston from 1962-1966. She describes the era as "a kind of flakey time." After school, Preston moved to Southern California and took several years off from the world of art and painting. But she didn't stay away long. With CalArts almost on her doorstep, she applied to their graduate program. Upon her admission, Preston found herself drawn to picking up three-dimensional objects, sanding them, and painting them. "It felt so natural, that I started a career as a sculptor."

The Illuminations series of lanterns were Preston's first foray into the world of public art. Working from early versions of the architect's concept sketches, she designed her sculptures to suit the space. She says there were many changes in the architect's proposals along the way. Pfeiffer’s original concept sketches for the new wing featured tiled walls that echoed works in the historic Goodhue building. 

Pfeiffer's original proposal included tiled walls.Pfeiffer's original proposal included tiled walls. Photo courtesy of Pfeiffer Architects

With such a visually busy backdrop in mind, Preston designed seven identical matte metal sculptures, one for each landing. If she'd anticipated that the tiled walls would be dropped for budget reasons, she might have taken a different tack. Once placed in the finished atrium against blank concrete walls, the final works were more subdued than she would have liked.  Additionally, the number of lamps was trimmed from the original seven down to four. The approval process was long and complicated. "It was a huge scramble and a learning process. My work had to pass through multiple approvals, including fire and safety. It was a narrow crack to crawl through."

Photo courtesy of Karina Buck.Photo courtesy of Karina Buck

An important takeaway for Preston was realizing the need to protect her vision during the fabrication process. She says that when the lamps came back from the foundry, "I was disappointed in the tactile nature of the lamps. I wanted the surface to have a more hands-on, less machined feel."

Preston shared photos of another series of sculptures entitled Capital Fire. Like the library lamps, she sees them as feminizations of the totem using human profile templates. She was pleased with the fabrication and finish of the copper works. "They are studio pieces. I'd had my hands all over them."

Preston's Capital Fire works.Preston's Capital Fire works. Photo courtesy of Ann Preston

It's worth noting that Norman Pfeiffer was very pleased with the Illuminations series of lamps, and how they harmonized with the look and feel of the Bradley Wing. Preston still stops by the library and says, "I am proud of them."

Since their installation, Preston has done several other permanent public art works, including a 5' x 80' wall piece at the San Francisco Airport; a piece at the San Francisco Courthouse, Family Court; and one at the Performing Arts Center, University of Utah, Logan, UT.

Ann Preston's work at the San Francisco Airport's International Terminal.Ann Preston's work at the San Francisco Airport's International Terminal was installed in 2000.  The sculpture is made of only two 3D tile shapes that echo the human profile. Photo courtesy of Ann Preston.

The world has changed dramatically in the two decades since Preston's library lamps were installed. "I used to be very optimistic, but the world now calls upon you to redefine everything." She says the art world has changed too. "I am still making art, but in some ways I have returned to ground zero, back to my grad student roots." Preston is currently taking multi-image, super high-resolution, macro-level photos of dead and dying plants. "I don't want to give up on my art, but I'm cleaving more and more to my own criteria."

One may read more about the public art in the Tom Bradley wing by using this link.

Please join us for a docent-led tour of the Central Library.

Blog Post written by library docent, Karina Buck