For sheer magnitude of public art at UNLV, The Flashlight will be tough for future generations to ever top. The 36-foot-8-inch sculpture, installed between the Judy Bayley Theatre and Artemus W. Ham Concert Hall in 1981, is made of 24 fins of three-quarter-inch steel. It weighs 37 tons.
It is, by any measure, a lot of flashlight.
The sculpture, commissioned in 1978, was originally supposed to point skyward, in one sense to mimic the searchlights of the Strip, and in another to recall the flashlights ushers inside those venues would use to direct patrons to their seats.
The project was given to artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen, but during the design process, Van Bruggen began to question the light shining into the sky. She thought it clichéd. Authoritarian, even. So the artists ended up flipping the sculpture into the upside-down configuration you’ve known and loved for the past 38 years.
But that’s Oldenburg and Van Bruggen, two European-born artists who were living and working out of New York at the time. The College of Fine Arts Garden, just down the steps from the Flashlight at the northwest corner of the Alta Ham Fine Arts Building, on the other hand comes from inside UNLV. It is the end result of a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort that came out of Pasha Rafat’s Art in Public Places class in 2008.
“I tried to bring in people from different programs,” Rafat said. “A lot of architecture. Theater, dance, music. The premise of the course is based on collaboration. In classes we put people in mixed groups together. My course is based on space. It's more like architecture. It wasn't really art stuff. I tried to avoid the word ‘art’ because it gives everybody heebie jeebies. The more collaborative the better.”
The garden itself follows Rafat’s philosophy of good public art – it integrates and blends into its surroundings. At the center of the project is a series of concentric steps of stone brought from nearby quarries and topped by Rafat with his own sculptures. Currently, a pyramid sits there, though he expects to change that out in the coming years.
The bottom level, seven blocks form an incomplete square more than 19 feet on its two complete sides, nestled into a hillock. The next level, 12 of them form a square on top, 17 feet, 2 inches long. Then 16 blocks make a square just over 14 feet per side. On the uppermost level, the 12 blocks make an 11-foot square. It weighs more than three tons, all told.
Students frequently use the sculpture as a place to stop and sit between classes, one of UNLV’s outdoor spaces that double as impromptu study halls.
It may be the biggest piece of public art to come out of the class, but it isn’t the only one. The class has also been responsible for the decorated electrical boxes that can be seen along Maryland Parkway. They also created the “Big V” on the front window of the Flora Dungan Humanities building, which cast the lobby in a kind of stained-glass glow until it was removed.
After a brief hiatus, Rafat will be offering the class again in the fall. When subtle, but noticeable improvements come to campus, you may very well have Rafat and a collection of students from disparate backgrounds to thank.
“The important thing is function, and beauty comes out of that. If you moved the object from here to here, it lost its meaning,” Rafat said. “It has to be site-related. All the clues come from the actual environment. They keep thinking the idea of the art is that you make this little watercolor and you put it on top of the fireplace. That's not what I do. I do something quite different. This wasn't put a couple of paintings up. Eveyrthing there is to know about this we want to design. The trees, the rocks, the path, the materials. Every inch of it. If a bird is going to fly by, I want to know what that bird is.”