It’s hard to improve on the interior design of a building as hallowed and grandiose as Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, famed for its stained-glass windows, two labyrinths, and mosaics by Jan Henryk De Rosen. But New York-based artist Anne Patterson managed to make the space even more magical with her installation “Graced With Light,” made from 20 miles of silk ribbons suspended from the cathedral’s vaulted ceiling arches. In blue, green, red, and maroon, the ribbons reflect light from the windows like shimmering celestial curtains. Hundreds of community members were invited to write their prayers, hopes, and wishes on the red ribbons, sending them toward heaven.
Patterson has synesthesia, a neurological condition that, in her case, makes her see sounds and music as shapes and colors. (It’s a condition she shares with a number of famous artists, composers, and writers, including Vasily Kandinsky, Vladimir Nabokov, and Duke Ellington.) She used her condition to inform the design of “Graced With Light,” which was inspired by music. While planning the installation, Patterson met with cellist extraordinaire Joshua Roman, who played Bach in the cathedral.
“I sat in the pews, watching him and sketching, and I heard his notes traveling upward, which lent itself to the whole idea of verticality in these pieces,” the artist tells Co.Design. “When listening to music, I see colors and shapes, either angular or circular, and get a sense of whether the piece is horizontal or vertical. Joshua’s piece was all blue and green.” Roman also played in the installation’s inaugural performance, “Seeing the Light,” in front of dramatically dancing lights and swoops of muslin fabric.
Was it daunting to create an installation for such a grandiose space? “It was terrifying,” Patterson says. Her background is in theatrical set design, and it was her first time designing for a cathedral. But viewers have been consistently in awe of the final work. “One man told me it was the best therapy session he’d ever had in his life,” she says. “He said, ‘I’ve spent so many hours in psychiatrists’ offices, but this was the best session.’” While lying on the pews under the ribbons, he imagined all he didn’t want in his life traveling out of him, up the ribbons, and all he did want traveling down the ribbons, into him. If only doctors could write prescriptions for such mystical visions.
Whether secular or religious, visitors find that the installation channels their personal versions of a higher power, like thousands of glowing antennae extending heavenwards. “Every Tuesday, the cathedral holds a free yoga class, and over 300 people show up without fail. The hanging ribbons start out still, but as the class heats up, they begin to dance,” Patterson says. “The yogis love the ribbons.”
The installation was supposed to close early last fall, but has proved so popular that it’s been extended to late February. After that, there’s talk of bringing it to New York City’s Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, but plans aren’t finalized.
All photos by Sean O’Leary and Fiestaban Photography.