On Sept. 22, an overcast sky encapsulated the city of Bellingham in a drizzly, dreary rain. It was the autumn equinox, marking the beginning of fall and the reveal of Bellingham’s new sundial mural.
On the south-facing wall of Ciao Thyme, a restaurant on Unity Street in downtown Bellingham, a sundial within a mural of Mount Baker and the Skagit Valley projected off the red bricks in bright colors, transforming the gloomy day.
The mural’s fusion of science and art was the brainchild of Sasch Stephens. Stephens, a professional sundialist for 35 years, said he has been trying to get this project off the ground for 10 years.
Stephens said when he first saw the 30-foot by 60-foot wall, it was like love at first sight, because it was south-facing, which would provide a symmetrical path for the sun’s shadow. Stephens proposed the idea to Mataio and Jessica Gillis, co-owners of Ciao Thyme, but Mataio told Stephens he needed time to warm up to the idea.
Stephens said one of the things that convinced Mataio to go forward with the project was showing him a picture of a town in Italy with almost 100 sundials.
However, in order for Stephens to make his sundial mural a reality, he needed a fiscal sponsor. Local nonprofit Allied Arts partnered with Stephens, allowing him to accept donations for the mural because of his affiliation with the organization, said Katy Tolles, Allied Arts artist services coordinator.
After partnering with Allied Arts, the selection committee for the mural asked for artists to submit proposals of their visions for the mural. According to Stephens, they received 27 art submissions from 11 countries in total. The selection committee consisted of six experts in the field of art and sundials, as well as Mataio Gillis.
“We worked really hard coming up with a long list of artist and architects, even street artist and sundialist all over the world to push this idea, to get the best sundial we could get,” Stephens said.
The committee chose Bellingham artist Gretchen Leggitt’s submission in June 2017. According to Allied Arts, Leggitt’s design was chosen for its originality, visual impact, connection to setting and sundial design accuracy.
Sitting down with Leggitt two days prior to the ceremony, she was bundled up, her hands red from the cold with paint stains all over her fingers. Leggitt said she had been working 14-hour days on another project in Bellingham, a mural the size of two football fields, but was still eager to talk about the finished sundial mural.
Originally from Colorado, Leggitt went to college for fine arts with a focus on painting and art history. Before becoming a full-time artist, she balanced a career as a part-time K-8 art teacher and part-time artist.
Leggitt said her inspiration to translate nature’s kinetic energy into art comes from flow sports, like snowboarding and mountain biking, because she’s able to experience and create movement in nature.
She said she was drawn to submit a design because she loved the idea of creating something that had a scientific and artistic purpose.
“This idea of marrying both imagery and an actual moving shadow, the science to it and precision to these measurements,” she said. “I thought it was really intriguing.”
Leggitt explained that her goal when designing the mural was to capture the horizon glow that illuminates the mountains and clouds, known as the alpenglow, on Mount Baker from the perspective of the Skagit Valley.
She said she wanted the the mural to remind viewers in the gloomy months of fall and winter that beauty and light exists in the Pacific Northwest.
Over her six day painting process, Leggitt said she felt motivated by community members who approached her and expressed their gratitude.
“I was having conversations with all types, all ages, all races [of people], from all walks of life,” Leggitt said. “This is not just for people of the upper and middle classes, this is for people in all walks of life, where everyone can appreciate a more beautiful city.”
During the celebration, the clouds would break intermittently, allowing the sun to cast a shadow on the gnomon, the metal piece in the center of the sundial, created by local artist Aaron Loveitt, owner of Altility Art Studio.
Speakers took turns expressing their gratitude for the mural and spoke about its importance, including Woody Sullivan, a professor at University of Washington in the department of astronomy.
Sullivan said sundials offer scientific and philosophical contemplations through the personalized motto that most have. Etched in blue and white is Bellingham’s sundial motto, “Savor the gifts of this hour.”
Sullivan continued to explain that using the shadow of the sun, the sundial displays the date and time based on how it reflects on the painted grid.
Sullivan said the shadow of the ball goes straight across on the horizontal line, also referred to as the equinox line. The curved lines are in one month intervals. Viewers can tell what month and time it is based on where the shadow reflects on the curved lines slightly above the horizontal line.
Physics and astronomy professor from Western Kristin Larson expressed her hope for what the sundial will do for Bellingham residents.
“When we come and admire this beautiful piece of artwork and this illustration of science, I hope it will get us to ask these questions,” Larson said. “Not just what time is it Bellingham, but where are we, where are we going and who are we and who do we need to be.”
Many attendees of the event included individuals who donated money to the project. Currently, the project is still in need of donations, said Stephens.
As the ceremony winded down, the crowd wrapped up the event with an acoustic sing-a-long of Pink Floyd’s song, “Time.” The lyrics “you are young and life is long and there is time to kill today,” rippled across the crowd.
The sundial will not only let viewers track the motions of the sun, but allow them to contemplate the motions in our solar system and universe, reminding us of our tiny planet that we need to take care of, Stephens said.