Lights washing in the wind

Set in Dorothy House’s hospice woodland, Bruce Munro’s Fireflies offer the opportunity to dedicate a beacon of light to celebrate the life of somebody special. Emma Clegg talks to the artist about the concepts behind his work, and discovers a deeply felt connection with the world around him, one that’s perfectly in tune with the work of Dorothy House.\

Light artist Bruce Munro is telling me about the Aboriginal word ‘Putuwa’ meaning compassion: “It’s to do with putting your hand above a fire, absorbing its warmth, and then holding somebody else’s hand and passing the warmth of the fire on to them. That was really what was in my mind for the Fireflies for Dorothy House, because I just felt that you needed that connection with somebody.”

Wiltshire-based Bruce Munro, who creates beautiful, immersive, light-based art installations, in 2020 gifted Dorothy House hundreds of individually handmade ‘Fireflies’ for installation in the woodlands at Winsley House. Each Firefly is a constellation of separate small lights, which glow from dusk to dawn. With each light representing the life and soul of a loved one, friends and family are able to watch the glistening Fireflies dancing in the night sky and feel connected to the special people who are no longer here – and to one another. Each light purchased also goes directly back into supporting more local patients and their families through the most difficult of times.

This year the immersive space of reflection in Firefly Woods has been expanded to contain almost 20,000 individual lights, which move in harmony with the leaves of the woodland surrounding them. This is part of a new partnership between Dorothy House and Wiltshire Wildlife Trust to increase nature connectedness and wellbeing for people diagnosed with a life-limiting illness or experiencing grief after the death of a loved one.

Munro’s firefly vision was inspired by a book he read as a child, Kim by Rudyard Kipling. “There was this wonderful paragraph when the old llama finds the River of the Arrow, and this stream of enlightenment appeared to him. I had always wondered how I could put on an imaginative interpretation of that.

“The light movement in the Fireflies is very simple”, continues Bruce. It is created by fiber optics and the gentle air movements that you get during the day and evening. They are almost like grasses, and they just get gently washed in the wind. When you have thousands of these it becomes a dance, and is quite magical.”

Munro took a roundabout path to becoming a world-renowned light artist. He studied Fine Art at Bristol (formerly a polytechnic; now UWE) where his work was focused on painting, although he was always fascinated by light and as a student used to layer bits of paper and put them up against the windows to create interesting light gradations. A working holiday in Australia led to a permanent move there and a number of years later he came across some light products in a shop window, was fascinated by them and started playing around with ideas for lights before starting a commercial lighting business.

First conceived in 1992, the installation that made Munro’s name as an artist was The Field of Light in Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock). This large-scale site-specific installation slowly changes colour, creating a shimmering field of light. “It was really an interpretation of an experience in an amazing landscape in the Northern Territory. For years I just kept on wondering, ‘how am I going to make this?’”, he says.

“The connection I had with this landscape of red desert was very visceral – I wondered how the place that I knew intellectually was a desert, emotionally was full of life. And in truth, physically it is full of life. It was just this feeling that I had inside myself, first that I was completely alive. And it was also responding the sort of energy that you get from feeling at one was the world, connected with everything. It was such a joyful feeling, – so powerful.”

Munro says, “I saw a landscape of illuminated stems that, like dormant seeds in a dry desert, quietly wait until darkness falls, under a blazing blanket of southern stars, to bloom with gentle rhythms of light.”

Munro has created other site-specific interpretations of Fields of Light since Uluru, including one at the Holburne Museum in 2010; Forest of Light (2012) at Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, PA; River of Light (2013) at Waddesdon Manor, the Rothschild Collection, Buckinghamshire; and Sensorio in Paso Robles, California (2019). In 2010 he created Water Towers, an installation of 69 towers built from plastic bottles of water and fiber optics at Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire, based around the discovery that the Earth has a heartbeat of 69 beats per day.

Many of Munro’s installations are conceived at scale – Uluru covers 49,000 square meters – yet sustainability is integral to his work. “When an installation is deconstructed, the components that you can’t use again get repurposed, ground back to their basic form or reprocessed. Many of our installations are now solar-driven, which means that you don’t have to have these big electrical cable infrastructures going into the land. And it feels appropriate to know that an installation is drawing power from the sun, and that it exists within a very sustainable form.”

Dorothy House recently welcomed HRH The Princess Royal to celebrate the opening of the expanded Firefly Woods and she accepted a Firefly in memory of her late mother and father, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh.

Anyone can purchase a light on a Firefly for a year. Dorothy House hospice is also offering the chance to purchase an exclusive NFT (non-fungible token) of a Firefly. Dorothy House will receive 95% of the proceeds of each Firefly NFT sold. Owners will receive a photograph and video of the Firefly installation, with a unique Solana blockchain tag, allowing the owner to keep a part of the exhibition with them. Anyone is welcome to visit the Firefly woods at any time they wish as a space of solace and reflection in grief.

Munro’s art is totally at one with the compassionate outlook of Dorothy House. In Bruce’s words, “Art isn’t a competition; it’s a way to understand the world around you and express that to others.”

Firefly NFTs can be purchased via the online donation form on the Dorothy House website. Firefly dedicators are welcome to visit the Fireflies at Winsley House at any time.