I won’t forget the first time I saw Ray Howlett’s art. It was over a year into the pandemic, and my 11-year-old daughter, Tess, had become a nautilus. Like the cephalopod mollusk in its hypnotizing spiral shell, she had withdrawn to a deep, dark crevice. I had not seen her sly smile in months. I couldn’t even recall the echo of her laugh. Watching her slowly disappear was like looking at a solar eclipse. My eyes burned. My heart skidded.
I didn’t admire Howlett’s piece in a pristine setting like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I had walked into a beach house in Malibu that late afternoon planning to drink some tequila with good friends and watch the sun sink into the sea.
But as soon as I stepped inside and kicked off my shoes, life changed. There, perched on a table in the entryway, was one of Howlett’s two-foot-high infinity light sculptures. At first, I just circled the vibrant pyramid of coated glass and mirrors and electric light. Neon pink and blue and green ladders of illumination—as intricate and graceful as DNA—beckoned me closer. Howlett’s sculptures are known for inducing the dizzying illusion of eternity. The reflection is never-ending. Call it a human-made mirage. But instead of seeing the crushing continuum of the pandemic and my daughter’s depression in that moment, I felt a flicker of hope.
This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
“When you see something you can’t process, the mind shuts down and your emotions open up. You get enlightened. You get to feel stuff,” says Howlett, who is 82 and lives in a cabin about two hours north of Los Angeles in Pine Mountain Club. I tracked the artist down online a few days after I saw his light sculpture. Howlett’s work wasn’t easy to surface on Google, since I didn’t know his name and could only describe his art. He’s not nearly as well-known as James Turrell, Larry Bell, Helen Pashgian, and other visual artists who came up during the Light and Space movement of the late 1960s in L.A. “I was a nobody,” he tells me. “Too shy. When I did go to one of those parties where artists socialized, I left after 15 minutes. I was so uncomfortable.”
Howlett had moved from his native Nebraska to Silver Lake in 1965 and was hired as an interior designer for the Downtown department store Bullock’s. Once he committed to being a full-time artist, he worked out of studios in beach towns from Venice to Malibu. He left California for two decades to take care of his widowed mom and shared his art with curators in a self-funded traveling exhibition. Now he spends about 12 hours a day in his mountain studio, fulfilling a long waiting list of commissions for his light sculptures. “I don’t want to socialize. I don’t want to go to a party. I just want to make art,” he tells me.
Before COVID, Tess would initiate games of tag just by yelling “I’m it!” and chasing anyone nearby. She went on sleepovers every weekend. But the social isolation, coupled with the bewildering onset of puberty, stole her confidence. It probably didn’t help that she grew almost eight inches in a few months. “I don’t know what to say to anyone,” my only child whispered to me and my husband when we tried to arrange “safe” masked playdates. We got Tess a therapist, who recommended a pet. We got Tess a rabbit, who didn’t like to socialize either.
Images of Howlett’s art became my beacons. I gazed at them on my laptop over coffee every morning. Somehow, these flat versions of his complex, multisensory work summoned the same sense of buoyancy I’d felt in Malibu. The scientific study of how art affects the brain is known as neuroaesthetics. When I am moved by the stimulus of Howlett’s sculpture, apparently, my mind is able to muse more freely on the past and the future. The memory of Tess’s smile had been fading, like a photo left in the sun—but I could start to see the lift of her lips and the light in her ocean-blue eyes. In navigating Howlett’s illusion of infinity, I could visualize a future in which she looked up at me and laughed again.
When I ask Howlett what inspired him to flirt with endless time and space in his art, he talks about staring at the ocean in Malibu for the first time. “Being at the beach and the openness of Los Angeles gave me the ability to come up with something outside of what I learned in art school,” he says. “I’m a California artist.”
A few months ago, Tess started to resurface. She talked to a psychiatrist about her sadness and social anxiety; medication helped too. She smiles a lot now. When I look at my daughter, who will be 12 in a few months, I see an aura around her. Sometimes, it’s a soft blush. Other times, she gives off a bold blue. She’s my own light sculpture.•