With 'The Steeple of Light,' A Kansas City Artist Left A Legacy By Connecting To The Heavens

Dec 23, 2016

The installation called "The Steeple of Light" shines like a beacon from the rooftop of Community Christian Church at 4601 Main Street in Kansas City, Missouri. But the artist behind it is not as well-known. Sculptor Dale Eldred died in his West Bottoms studio during the 1993 flood, while trying to save his equipment from the rising waters. Since 1994, his "Steeple of Light" has illuminated the night sky.

Congregation member John Sharp joined the Thanksgiving crowd on the balcony of the church designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

On Thanksgiving night on the Country Club Plaza, thousands gathered for the annual Plaza Lighting Ceremony. Just east of the shopping district, at Community Christian Church at 46th and Main, a smaller group assembled. They stood on a covered balcony overlooking the Plaza to celebrate a different illumination: "The Steeple of Light." Massive flood lamps on the rooftop threw beams of light into the sky.

Congregation member and former City Councilman John Sharp says he comes to this event each year. "It’s a great view and we’ve got over 200 people here tonight so everybody’s having a great time and glad to open up the church for it," Sharp says.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed Community Christian Church in 1940. But some of the ideas he proposed, including "The Steeple of Light," were beyond the technology of the era.

About five decades later, church members approached Kansas City artist Dale Eldred because of his expertise in both natural and generated light. Eldred died soon after the testing phase, but his wife and collaborator Roberta Lord stepped in to finish the project, which first lit the skies in December 1994.

Senior Minister Shanna Steitz says "The Steeple of Light" realized one of Wright’s grand ideas.

"For me, the light and us being here in this busy part of town right on Main Street is a reminder of the holy and the ordinary," says Steitz. "Having Dale and his wife after his passing to complete the project, you know, we’re really honored to be a part of that legacy that he leaves for so many in this city."

You can still see "The Steeple of Light" a few blocks away at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

“We have this perfect column of light,” says Leesa Fanning, curator of contemporary art. “It’s like a searchlight, a beacon in the sky. It’s absolutely fantastic and the idea of connecting to the heavens itself is ancient as humankind.”

 

A portrait of Artist Dale Eldred briefly hovered over the gathering of professors and students during a meeting in early October.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

Dale Eldred chaired the Kansas City Art Institute’s sculpture department for 33 years. Former Art Institute students and professors shared memories in October when the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center hosted an exhibition of Eldred’s light-based art, captured through photographs.

Seven projectors flashed images of the public art projects Eldred created, that were completed between 1976 and 1995, in the United States, as well as in Denmark, Finland, and Turkey.

Photographs taken during the construction of the exhibit on the grounds of the Nelson-Atkins in 1979, show Dale Eldred in front of the Nelson with a model of his installation and on the roof with a mirror reflecting into the Rozzelle Court below.
Credit Images Courtesy / Roy Inman

James Woodfill, assistant professor in the Art Institute’s painting department, says Eldred’s work influenced his own.

“You hear the statement of artists that the goal might be to make the invisible visible,” Woodfill says. “And it sounds so mystical and hard to get your head around. With Dale it was very pragmatic. You went out and you made the invisible visible. Here’s the stuff that does it.”

For sophomore Jessica Hitchcock, hearing stories about Eldred deepened her understanding of his art.

“It’s like we’re becoming a part of this legacy that was created by him and we’re being influenced in our work by people who were influenced by him and it’s just a nice little cycle it’s going through,” says Hitchcock.

Jessica Hitchcock, (from left) Steve Whitacre, chair of the Foundation Studies department at the Art Institute, Hattie Odell, and Michael Elwood discuss Dale Eldred's work at The Leedy-Voulkos Art Center.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

Steve Whitacre, chair of the Foundation Studies department at the Art Institute, says Eldred’s art explored time and place, reflection...and light. 

“It was about phenomenon which was the extraordinary, reality of the coming and the moving of light, the arrival of light, and the disappearance of light,” Whitacre says. “So the rotation of the earth and the cycles that we’re all engaged in and witness every second of our lives.”

In 1979, the Nelson-Atkins — inside and out — provided a setting for Eldred’s one-man exhibition: "Sun Structures and Time-Light Incident." He created a lush grass ‘X’ on the lawn and a temporary forest of 400 mylar poles shimmered in the sun. Large mirrors reflected golden light onto the building.

 

Eldred's 1979 work 'Sun Structures and Time-Light Incident' featured a nitrogen fertilized grass 'X' on the lawn of The Nelson-Atkins. This 'Kansas City Star Magazine' illustration allowed readers to build their own version in paper.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM

Nelson curator Leesa Fanning says because Eldred's large-scale sculptures were mostly temporary, it makes it tough to imagine the experience. 

“Dale Eldred’s art is ephemeral and it’s difficult to describe to people who perhaps didn’t see it,” Fanning says. “I think it’s also poignant in a certain way because he died to unexpectedly so there is the ephemeral quality of life itself. ”

Eldred was 59 when he died during the Great Flood of 1993, falling 20 feet through an opening in the second floor of his West Bottoms studio while trying to move equipment to higher ground. 

 

Massive flood lamps glow inside the dome on the rooftop of Community Christian Church.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

Whitacre says Eldred was aware – perhaps more than most – of the fleeting nature of all things.

“How long is the arc of one’s life?” says Whitacre. “How long will it echo forward? We forget so easily. The story will only go so far. The objects will only go so far and then the world rotates. And then the sun will come up again and the light will blaze. He was perfectly comfortable with that.”

From the rooftop of Community Christian Church, a piece of Dale Eldred’s legacy continues to shine in night sky above.

“The Steeple of Light" beams from the Community Christian Church, 4601 Main Street, just east of the Country Club Plaza. It's on display throughout the holiday season and on weekends the rest of the year.

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.