Bruce Munro and Desert Radiance

We returned to the desert gardens just as the sun was setting, leaving a warm glow on the saguaro.

Curly Cacti


This was our second trip to the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix, Arizona, this time to view the installation Sonoran Light. And a second show by artist Bruce Munro. The first time we encountered the artist was at the Cheekwood Botanical Gardens and Art Museum in Nashville, Tennessee just as we started this crazy nomad existence three years ago. You can see some of my photos of the Dale Chihuly show we saw on our first visit to the Desert Gardens here.

As an artist, Bruce Munro works with lights: changing lights; flashing lights; flowing lights. His inspiration often comes from what he calls “moments of happiness” he has been documenting in sketchbooks since his childhood. Other works reflect snippets or scenes in books by authors including Roald Dahl, Rudyard Kipling, and C S Lewis.


Desert Radiance

The show Desert Radiance is comprised of four exhibits in the Phoenix area and we managed to see three during a stopover on our Migration West.  Besides the show Sonoran Light at the Desert Gardens that focuses on desert flora and fauna, two other installations are located in nearby Scottsdale with direct references to water.


Saguaro – designed for this exhibition welcomes visitors to the Desert Botanical Gardens


Sonoran Light

Large scale, dense concentrations of bulbs that change colors in waves are one of my favorite Munro installations. The work is called Field of Light and the original was developed over a decade before he built it in a field at his home in the UK.

Originally inspired by a trip to Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Australia, it has now been brought to a number of locations with adaptations for each. On his website – Munro recalls

I wanted to create an illuminated field of stems that, like the dormant seed in a dry desert, would burst into bloom at dusk with gentle rhythms of light under a blazing blanket of stars.

The exciting news is that the Field of Light is currently being installed in Uluru and will be on display for a full year beginning April 1, 2016. 


(Click on the photo galleries to see larger versions)

Usually the bulbs are planted on sticks in grassy fields, the Desert Gardens had the bulbs laid out directly on the ground so as not to compete with the low-lying plants. Using LEDs, a single power source can feed up to 500 stems making the energy usage smaller than expected.


Papago Blue

Papago Butte covered with 30,000 lights


A prominent feature of the Desert Gardens is Papago Butte; a stark outcropping rising from the desert floor. The hillside has been covered from top to bottom which made the bulbs visible from trails throughout the gardens. Close up you can see each bulb and its wiring connecting it to the pod. Color changes flow through the wiring and out to the ends of each pod of 50 blooms. Yet, the color changes also flow across the hillside in mesmerizing waves.


In Nashville, musicians provided the evening’s soundtrack for this Field of Light as we happened to be there for the opening night. As the sun set, the bulbs subtly began to glow until the hill was filled with the changing colors.


Ferryman’s Crossing

At the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Ferryman’s Crossing uses recycled CDs and lights that mimic a river crossing as soft water sounds play in the background. The light reflects up onto the walls and onto your face so you can feel immersed in the water and reflections of sunlight.



Reading the website for this post I’ve learned that the light pulses are actually a Morse Code transcription of a passage from the Herman Hesse novel “Siddhartha”. The main theme is “finding inspiration in life’s repetitive journey.”

This recurring design using CDs as flowing water has taken on many forms, adapting to the landscape for the installation. The origin was to mimic the sparkling sun dancing off the sea in Sydney, Australia on a day when as a young man, the artist was homesick for his father who lived in an English harbor town. By touching the water, he felt a needed connection to his home and family. The original design used 600,000 CDs spread out in a field. Each iteration takes a different shape but the thematic element is having the light reflecting upon the viewer.



The Scottsdale Canal is home to Blooms a series of floating floral arrangements created with fishing rods. Multicolored in the daylight, at night they shine white. We weren’t able to get a close look at these since the surrounding canal trails were closed off for a weekend art and wine festival (and we were just too cheap to pay the entrance fee…)

The canals are stocked with catch-and-release fish that also keep them clean

The canals are stocked with catch-and-release fish that also keep them clean


Desert Botanical Gardens

Many of Munro’s materials are low cost items such as recycled CDs and the plastic water bottles used in another recurring work, titled the Water-Towers. This helps ensure that the pieces can be built at the scale he intends.

Back at the Desert Gardens, we experienced the Water-Towers in a relatively compact space which led to people wandering around and circling the Towers almost as in a technicolor maze. Contrasted to the Cheekwood installation with the Water-Towers lining a walkway with more space between each one. A muted, peaceful background to a ramble through the grassy hills.


The Desert Gardens have relatively narrow trails that wind through examples of desert plantings. The Gardens fill the spaces so the other installations could be found in smaller gathering areas and alongside the trails among the plants.

The show is very crowded for the first hour or so after sunset. Patience is definitely a virtue until families have done a pass through and start heading for the doors. It was at this point that we made a second lap, lingering at some of our favorites pieces enjoying the color cycles without pressure to keep moving.



While I enjoyed both of the Munro shows, I was intrigued by a lecture given by the artist that I found while gathering links for this post. The insights and inspirations for the various works have given me a new appreciation for what I actually saw. A shorter interview from the BBC is here if you are interested in a shorter version.

Australia is on our travel list and Bruce Munro may be just the nudge we need to make it happen by 2017!


How about you – have you seen any Bruce Munro installations?