September 16, 2015 | Rachel Watson

Lamenting the loss of celestial light over the world's great cities, Thierry Cohen produced this work as part of the Darkened Cities series.

The light pollution curtain pulled back to reveal a starry host over the San Francisco skyline. A series of angled light-and-shadow moments in a near-empty room. An everyday, Caravaggio-style glance into a woman’s nighttime beauty routine. A Dutch masters-inspired still life with light reflected from one direction.

These paintings and photographs are part of a new exhibition, “Light: An Eternal Presence – The Donna Spaan Contemporary Collection of Art,” now on display through Oct. 10 at Calvin College’s Center Art Gallery.

Patron and curator

Spaan, a 1955 alumna of Calvin, theater patron and founder of The Chicago Semester, approached Calvin in 2012 with the idea of contributing financially to the arts in some way. She discussed her idea with Joel Zwart, director of exhibitions at Center Art Gallery.

“We talked a few times, and I gave her a couple options,” Zwart said. “She became very interested in the idea of putting together a collection of art work that would stay at the college but would be available to other people, that would serve as a teaching instrument here on campus, that could travel to other places.”

The collection, which is up to 17 pieces that Spaan and Zwart jointly curated over the past two-and-a-half years, will be housed at Calvin College but will be loaned out to other college museums and churches.

“She has a very good eye,” Zwart said of Spaan. “The beginning part of the process was me finding artists and bringing them to her to look at. Then, she picked that up, too. Now, it’s a joint project. Both her and I are saying, ‘Take a look at this artist; I think they have some potential.’”

The collection will continue to grow as Zwart and Spaan find more photographs and paintings to add. All told, Spaan has committed more than $350,000 to the project. So far, Zwart estimates they have spent about a quarter of that.

An enlightening motif

The theme of the exhibit is light. Craig Hanson, associate professor of art and art history, who will give a lecture at the exhibit’s Sept. 16 opening spoke of the theme’s importance.

“Light is the structuring motif that provides a kind of coherence to works of art that can be fabulously varied,” Hanson said.

“On the one hand, you have light as it’s refracted through a snowflake. On the other hand, you have largely black tonal photographs that don’t immediately make you think of light, and yet, the more you look at them, the more you become aware of this precious nuanced sense of light.”

Zwart added: “It’s simple and yet complex. [The theme] is quite relevant because it’s a common theme in a lot of artists’ work, in particular a lot of photographers.

“Light has such an important role in photography, both in terms of early photographers’ use of light entering into the camera and then also the idea that light is something photographers constantly have to gauge in their approach to the medium.”

Universal appeal

Hanson said the exhibit is compelling for its universal appeal.

“It’s hard for me to imagine someone not finding something in that space that wouldn’t be compelling, interesting, engaging, but also something that will provoke questions,” he said.

“It’s an exhibition that invites thoughtful responses.”

“Light: An Eternal Presence” is open through Oct. 10 during Center Art Gallery’s regular hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.

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