Light Maker

LightRails installation

By Rachel Wedding McClelland

The 1960s were drawing to a close when Bill FitzGibbons (Knoxville ’72) graduated from high school and left his Memphis home to move east and attend college. At the time, he wasn’t certain on a major. He first examined liberal arts, then political science.

While exploring a number of academic areas, he joined a fraternity and developed friendships with English and art majors, eventually becoming the music editor of a student-led alternative literary magazine.

Bill FitzGibbons
Bill FitzGibbons (Knoxville ’72)

“When Janis Joplin performed on the UT campus and when Jimi Hendrix was in Memphis, I had the opportunity to interview them,” FitzGibbons says. “It was a whole brave new world, and everyone was getting involved in the arts. I changed my major to the visual arts.”

FitzGibbons’ first artistic creations were neon paintings, then scrap material media projects and eventually polyester resin sculptures. Much to his father’s chagrin, Fitzgibbons settled on a major in sculpture and art history.

More than 40 years later, FitzGibbons’ art is world renowned. His work has transformed landscapes in St. Louis, colored a pedestrian walkway in Seattle, calmed firefighters outside an Anchorage, Alaska, firehouse and brought attention to immigration issues in a Texas-Mexico border town. His creations dot the landscape of the cities throughout 
the world, transforming lives, attitudes 
and even economies.

“It’s been proven, case after case, the importance of public art in terms of quality of life. There’s great benefit to public parks and buildings. They draw more visitors and become more critical pieces of the community when art becomes a part of the landscape,” FitzGibbons says.

That transformative aspect of FitzGibbons’ art has recently spilled into Birmingham, Ala., where, through a community redevelopment initiative led by REV Birmingham, a railroad underpass has been brightened with a computerized LED light system.

“The four underpasses of the Birmingham Lights project were places people rarely enjoyed walking through, even during the day,” says REV Birmingham’s Chief Public Investor Relations Officer Atticus Rominger.

“After we flipped the switch on Bill FitzGibbons’ LightRails … it quickly became obvious this was going to be an iconic spot.”

The once dark and foreboding tunnel that was home to the homeless is now a destination where people are shooting videos and wedding photographs, Rominger says.

In late August, FitzGibbons’ Birmingham installation was named a 2014 Collaboration of Design + Art award winner, one of the most prestigious international honors that can be awarded to public art projects.

With more projects in the works for the cities of Baltimore, Los Angeles, Shanghai and New Delhi, the 64-year-old has no plan to slow down. “If I had $200 million, I would still be doing the same thing I’m doing now,” he says. “I just see going in this direction for the rest of my life.”

Rachel Wedding McClelland is director of student media at UT Knoxville.