Starting at sunset Saturday, artist Kelley Bell will place Baltimore's venerable landmark Bromo Seltzer Tower at the exact center of the solar system.
For at least the next five weeks, pedestrians and motorists will view the four faces of the clock tower alight with Bell's animations every day between sunset and sunrise. The design she's chosen humorously plays off Baltimoreans' affection for the 1911 tower by making the focal point for the sun, moon, planets and stars.
"The Bromo Seltzer Tower fills a unique role in this city," says Joe Wall, the tower's facilities manager, who dreamed up the idea of animating the 24-foot-in-diameter clock faces.
"It is Baltimore's version of the Empire State Building. Every movie that's set here has an establishing shot that includes the Bromo Seltzer Tower. It's an iconic structure, so I wanted to get local residents to start playing with it as a piece of art."
Bell, 40, a Baltimore artist and college professor, modeled her design on a famous astronomical clock in Prague in the Czech Republic. She also performed mathematical calculations to ensure that the planets are moving as fast as they would in real life — assuming that it takes exactly 60 minutes for Pluto to finish one full orbit.
The tower will remain illuminated until at least Dec. 12; Wall is looking for a donation that will allow Bell to keep creating animations year-long. But for three hours Saturday, visitors attending an opening reception on the tower's 15th floor will have a chance to examine the illuminations from inside the clock tower itself.
"I love the idea of people interacting with my work," Bell says.
"One of the things that's very problematic for me with most animation is that it takes place inside a frame. You sit in a chair and look at it. My art is about finding ways to get out of that box. People can immerse themselves in the artwork, share a physical space with it."
It's also merely one step in Wall's efforts to make the tower an even more prominent participant in Baltimore's landscape. He reasons that the more people engage with the tower, the more likely they are to participate in civic life.
"This building has the potential to do other things," he says.
"I'd love to give the building a face that changes with the seasons and that changes with the mood of the city, without damaging the structure architecturally. That's the nice thing about working with projections."
He envisions temporary installations erected either inside or outside the tower, or simply bathing the building in colored lights. He'll also consider embellishments with a high entertainment value, but little artistic merit. Next Halloween, for instance, visitors might conceivably find a giant spider, or perhaps King Kong, crawling up the sides of the Tower.
"The Bromo Seltzer Tower is supposed to be a copy of the Palazzo Vecchio in Italy," he says. "But it's not a faithful copy. The Palazzo Vecchio didn't originally have a 50-foot bottle rotating on top."
(The Tower's bottle came down in 1936 because it weighed so much — 20 tons — that it was damaging the building beneath it. It was replaced with neon signs spelling out the name of the stomach remedy.)
"I'm not opposed to kitsch," Wall says. "The Bromo Seltzer Tower already is half classy and half kitsch. It's always skating the line."
So in June, when the Tower prepared to celebrate its 100th anniversary, Wall asked Bell to come up with a series of animations that ran over three weekends. Bell knew she'd have to create simple illusions that would be easily understood when viewed from a distance, so she played off the round shape of the clock face.
One side contained a giant eyeball with a lens that roamed around the iris, and lids that blinked open and shut. Another image nodded to the Tower's heritage as the headquarters of a headache remedy with a series of lilac bubbles, some with faces, that drifted skyward. A third face contained a kaleidoscope.
The animations were an immediate hit with the public.
"I'd make a point of standing outside and listening to what people said when they walked past," Wall says. "Nearly everyone commented on the projections. Somebody from the Fire Department said, 'That building is looking at me.'"
But because the sun in June sets late, the projections weren't fully visible until after 9 p.m., when the downtown was mostly deserted. So Wall began scheming to bring Bell back to create a new series of illusions for the late autumn, when her work could enliven rush hour.
"Over the summer, I was experimenting to see what I could do with the building," Bell says. "Once I got used to the location, I figured that a giant clock was the perfect place to do projections that talk about time."
Bell grew up in Washington, but quickly became a fixture on the Baltimore art scene after moving here in 1997. Though much of her work contains a political or social subtext, other pieces are pure fun.
As one of the organizers of the annual festival of miniature foods held every winter, Bell will spend months planning an event in which participants finesse such creations as a Smith Island Cake the size of a marshmallow, or TV dinners no larger than a postage stamp that contain actual pieces of fried chicken.
"What I love about Baltimore," Bell said, "is that this is a city where people are serious about being silly. We'd never be able to do something like this in Washington or New York."
After graduating from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2005 with a Master of Fine Arts degree, Bell returned to the campus, and now is an assistant professor of motion graphics and design.
Visitors to the Maryland Institute College of Art have seen examples of Bell's animation for the past two summers as part of the exhibit for the Janet & Walter Sondheim semifinalists. In her most recent design honored by the Sondheim awards, Bell drew a series of Rube Goldberg-like machines to illustrate the five stages of grief identified by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.
More recently, Laure Drogoul had to smile when she saw the animation that Bell had created for Creative Alliance's annual Halloween parade, which kicked off last Sunday in Patterson Park. Onto the back of the monument of General Pulaski at Eastern and Linwood avenues, Bell had projected — what else? — a loop of the general galloping along on a hobby horse.
"I love Kelley's humor, her whimsy," says Drogoul, the parade's director. "She can boil an abstract idea down until it's accessible, and then find a physical metaphor for it. Her work is enchanting, because it makes the ordinary extra-extraordinary."
If you go
The opening reception, featuring artist Kelley Bell will be held from 6:30pm-9:30pm Saturday on the 15th floor of the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower, 21 S. Eutaw Street. Free. Call 410-752-8632 or go to http://www.promotionandarts.com.