With his face glowing purple, just inches from a large cylinder covered in colored lights and electrical wires, Joe O'Connell appears to be defusing a nuclear device straight out of a 1980s sci-fi movie.
But where is his special protective suit? Why no nervous drop of sweat sliding down his forehead? It turns out O'Connell is simply testing the power supply for one of his many interactive public-art pieces that can be seen throughout the Tucson area, from downtown to Marana.
The 41-year-old with the Ivy League education is the mastermind behind Creative Machines Inc., a design-build firm that creates exhibits and spaces that encourage creativity. His multi-layered pieces combine light, color and sometimes sound, all in the hope of inspiring those who interact with them.
"I consider myself a maker, meaning someone who compulsively makes things, and looks for how those will help other people, inspire other people, interact with other people," says O'Connell. "It's almost like being an addict. I learned at some point that I wasn't happy unless I was making things."
O'Connell's addiction has taken him from building highly interactive museum exhibits to creating public-art pieces across the nation and internationally. While the pieces can very greatly, they often focus on bringing out the creativity of the people who use them.
With Tucson as his home base, the city is filled with his works.
"I love that Tucson has such a highly educated, and diverse, and interesting group of people," says O'Connell about his decision to move the company here from St. Petersburg, Fla. His wife, Nan Schmidt, had lived here for a while when she got her masters in geology from the University of Arizona.
"It's a little more forward-looking than the East Coast cities I'd grown up in," O'Connell says. "It seems less materialistic, less superficial than some other places, a good place to live for a long period of time."
When it comes down to it, O'Connell understands that public art is for the public.
"It's paid for by the public. The public uses it. The public bumps into it every day," he says. "If public art is not popular, in many ways it's a failure. It has to reach many people in many ways. My approach to art is basically give people what they want, and that's not the same as saying give people what they ask for. The job of the artist is to figure out what people really want and give that to them."
Three downtown sculptures
This solar-powered sculpture turns different colors for each night of the week. There's a secret button that lets you cycle through a bunch of colors.
• Installed: 2005 .
• Find it: In the middle of West Alameda Street, near North Main Avenue.
• Etc.: O'Connell built the piece for Tucson-Pima Arts Council and ended up buying it at a benefit auction. He later donated it to the city.
Bright red LED lights illuminate the griffin sculpture as it stands guard over South Scott Avenue.
• Installed: May 2009.
• Find it: On South Scott Avenue near East Broadway, downtown.
• Etc.: The City of Tucson paid $31,500 for the sculpture.
A memorial for bicyclists killed on Tucson's streets.
• Installed: Last month, with collaborator Blessing Hancock.
• Find it: From East Speedway, go south on Main Avenue. You'll see it.
• Etc.: Built with the help of a $50,000 grant from the Pima Association of Governments.
O'Connell pieces around town
A folded, galvanized steel panel of about 1,000 words with powerful colored LEDs that cast shadows onto the library walls and surrounding area. Like many of his works, see this one at night.
• Installed: 2008.
• Find it: At the Wheeler Taft Abbett Sr. Library, 7800 N. Schisler Drive, in Marana.
This glowing musical instrument encourages user creativity by playing multiple sounds and adjusting the pitch.
• Installed: 2008.
• Find it: In Ochoa Park, corner of South Ninth Avenue and West 25th Street.
At the push of a button, bubbles rise at varying speeds within multi-colored liquid-filled tubes.
• Installed: 2006.
• Find it: In the pediatric hallway at Tucson Medical Center, 5301 E. Grant Road. It's one of three interactive pieces at TMC.