When Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville closed in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, its North Forest Trail remained open from dawn to dusk. As quarantine continued into the summer, people realized that outdoors activities, like hiking and cycling on the museum’s trails, offered a welcome relief to confinement at home. Now, months into Crystal Bridges’ cautious reopening, the North Forest Lights has returned for its second year and transformed the trail into a light, sound and sensory experience that invites people to safely gather and reconnect with nature.
Since its opening in 2011, Crystal Bridges has encouraged visitors to engage with both art and nature. The surrounding trails encompass nearly four miles and made uniting the two appear to be an easy endeavor. Sculptures and outdoor art, like the famous “Fly’s Eye Dome” by R. Buckminster Fuller, fill the forests outside the museum for visitors to peruse while hiking, cycling or just strolling through the trails. Museum officials, however, envisioned a different kind of exhibit that drew people to the grounds at night.
The museum first began preparing the North Forest Trail for more visitors when it welcomed the Chihuly exhibit in 2017. Featuring the works of sculptor and glassblower Dale Chihuly, the exhibit was Crystal Bridges’ first indoor-outdoor exhibition. The outdoor portion, called “Chihuly: In the Forest,” required museum officials to clear some of the paths in the North Forest to make the trail more accessible to all patrons. The museum staff has also spent time cultivating the forest by removing invasive species and reintroducing native plants. The success of the Chihuly exhibit motivated the museum to bring a new, customized art exhibition to its grounds.
“We wanted to activate our grounds, and give people something to do at night,” says Beth Bobbitt, public relations director at Crystal Bridges. “But we also wanted to keep the natural setting natural.”
Crystal Bridges eventually partnered with the Moment Factory, a Montreal-based multimedia studio, whose work has spanned the entire world. The studio has created similar outdoor experiences in France and Japan and produced massive light shows in public spaces like the Jacques Cartier Bridge and Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal. The Moment Factory’s motto, “We do it public,” reflects its mission to create art-based experiences that bring communities together.
“The Moment Factory specializes in immersive light and sound experiences, and they were the perfect match with us,” Bobbitt says. “They highlighted the beauty of our forest and created this customized experience. You can’t see it anywhere else.”
The result of the partnership was the North Forest Lights, which ran for the first time from October 2019 to February 2020. The experience quickly became a stapled holiday attraction for people and families across the state. Unlike most art exhibitions, though, the North Forest Lights does not travel. Instead, the Moment Factory designed the works specifically for Crystal Bridges and used the grounds and the Natural State as inspiration.
The North Forest Lights contains five installations, and each work highlights a different aspect of Arkansas. The trail, as well as museum attendants, guide visitors through the exhibition. The first three installations are inspired by recent findings that trees are able to communicate with each other. The Crystal Grove, the first work, uses glowing pixels to represent Arkansas quartz. Each light is attached to the base of a tree, and they glow in tune with music produced for the exhibition. LED light strips affixed to trees in the Forest Frequencies installation also change in tune with a series of melodies in a seven-minute program the Moment Factory calls “a choreographed orchestra of color and light.” The third installation is the Whispering Tree, which encourages visitors to speak directly to the forest and to hear a response in return.
The next installation is the Hearth, a large sculpture that is meant to resemble a bonfire. Visitors sit in a circle around the centerpiece — the seating naturally separates groups, and museum attendants control each groups’ entry to guarantee social distancing — and watch as the sculpture emits light, fog and sound, punctuated by surrounding spotlights. By framing the installation as a gathering, the Hearth highlights the communal experience of the North Forest Lights.
Memory of Water, the final installation, is one of the most popular works of the North Forest Lights. Viewers stand on a bridge and watch as the dry creek bed below comes to life with the Moment Factory’s digital mapping technology. Although each work changes depending on the season and weather, the Memory of Water is perhaps the most subjective depending on where one stands; museum guides encourage visitors to watch the show in its entirety on the bridge, walk a few paces down the trail, and turn around to watch it again to see how the experience changes.
As visitors walk through the trail, however, there is more to see than just the exhibit’s five installations. Permanent pieces of the museum’s collection are also on display throughout the trail, including Brian Tolle’s Tempest. The labyrinth-like sculpture is made of aluminum, fiberglass and LED lights, and most people walk through it on their way to the main exhibit. Deer, a massive sculpture of the eponymous animal by artist Tony Tasset, is a popular photo spot just before visitors reach the Crystal Grove. Two of Chihuly’s glass sculptures, Sole d’Oro and the Fiori Boat, have also now joined the permanent collection on the North Forest Trail. These pieces are on the trail year-round, but experiencing both at night, amid the North Forest Lights, offers an entirely new perspective on Crystal Bridges’ permanent collection.
The exhibition includes an area called The Village that offers food and drink, as well as distanced seating options. The museum also provides specialty culinary baskets to be ordered in advance that are customized to different experiences. The Heart of the Forest Basket, which includes wine, chocolates and cheese, is perfect for date nights; and the Campfire Basket, which includes cookies and popcorn, is full of family friendly treats. The entire exhibit is about a mile and a half walk, and the museum welcomes mobile devices that allow everyone to enjoy the lights.
According to Bobbitt, Crystal Bridges had always planned to bring back the North Forest Lights for a second year. The Moment Factory’s technology is relatively easy to set up and take down, and the museum simply packs it away during the summer. The installation which runs from September 2020 to April 2021; last year the exhibition ran from just October to February. Extending the duration allows visitors to experience the North Forest Lights during nearly every season.
“Depending on when you see it, you can see what bounces off of trees and how the light reflects in the rain,” Bobbitt says. “Some of our employees will tell you it’s actually better to see it in the rain.”
The extended season two also gives people a much-needed safe outing during the pandemic. Crystal Bridges has been reopened with enhanced safety measures since June, and those restrictions were extended to the North Forest Lights as well. Timed tickets for entry have to be ordered in advance, and the crowd is restricted to one-third of its typical capacity. Face coverings are required for people 10-years and older, except when eating and drinking. The exhibit is open every night from Thursday to Sunday.
Tickets have been consistently selling out for Friday and Saturday nights since the North Forest Lights returned, and the museum expects that trend to continue as the holiday season approaches. Despite the exhibit becoming a near-instant holiday staple last year, no aspect of it directly relates to Christmas. The installations contain no reindeer and no chats with Santa, and the only evergreens are the trees already filling the forest. The technology used to create the show is even different than the typical holiday lights show. The Moment Factory’s digital mapping technology uses a collection of lights, fog machines, speakers and projectors to create the experience rather than a record-breaking number of lights.
The draw for holiday-minded visitors, though, is the beauty of the exhibition rather than any overt reference to Christmas. In a year when gatherings have been scarce, the North Forest Lights provides a collective experience for people to safely — with masks, of course — celebrate the union of art and nature.
“I think it’s so popular partially because it’s so accessible,” Bobbitt says. “There’s no target demographic. It has a multigenerational appeal, and anyone can enjoy it. It’s all about these sensory experiences, and we all see and hear and feel.”