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Light Fantastic: An Interview with Andy McKeown

Andy McKeown in his studio
Light artist Andy McKeown has been creating spectacular sound and light installations for half a century - now approaching 70 and with a clutch of shows in Shropshire this winter

There are Christmas trails – and then there are Christmas trails by Andy Mckeown.

The internationally renowned digital light artist is excited to be illuminating the whole of the inner Bailey at Ludlow Castle this weekend (Nov 26th). After half a century of creating weird and wonderful psychedelia and spectacular, immersive light shows, his creative juices are far from running dry.

Andy cooks up his magnificent inventions from his Shrewsbury-based studio in a wonderful old aircraft hanger, cluttered with mysterious remnants of projects from his 50-year career. You get a sense every one of them has a story.

Andy in his studio
Andy McKeown hard at work in his Shrewsbury studio, preparing for the Cinderloo Voices installation in 2021

Approaching his 70th year, Andy is still nuts about his medium – sound and light – and forever experimenting, always curious to see where his own creative energy will carry him. When I caught up with him, he’d just come down from the attic where he’d been recording the rain and the wind and was happily chirruping about how the traditional clay Dreadnought tiles enhance the sound.

This winter, he’ll be getting a few installations out of storage – local audiences in his hometown, Shrewsbury, are devoted to his ‘Splinters of Heaven’ show, which is made up of hundreds of images of the very fine 16th-century glass windows at St Mary’s Church.

Splinters of Heaven in St-Marys Church Shrewsbury
The magical ‘Splinters of Heaven’ show in St Mary’s Church, Shrewsbury – a truly immersive experience

The beautiful, mediaeval church has one of the tallest spires in England and world-famous stained glass, including the 14th century ‘Jesse window’, which, in the right light, positively blazes with Old Testament kings and prophets. Andy projects the images onto the walls of the church’s interior, like multi-coloured shards of light in ever-changing colours. It’s like stepping into a holy kaleidoscope. Truly, an experience not to be missed.

Andy has some tricks up his sleeve for this year (he can’t leave well enough alone!), so there will be some changes, but he won’t say what they are.

“So many people ask for Splinters every year – so we are doing it again,” Andy says. “It’s one of those pieces. St Mary’s is such a beautiful and important space to work with – I love bringing it back.

“The show changes every time I do it. I create it live. It layers videos, graphics and sounds together. Hopefully, this year, we’ll have all the furniture removed so you can lie on the floor of St Mary’s with a cushion or blanket and look up!”

If you miss ‘Splinters of Heaven’ in Shrewsbury, you can catch it again in Saint Idloes Church, Llanidloes on December 9th, except, in that case, the images will be taken from that church’s glass millennium window – spot the donors’ St Bernard dog!

Andy’s follow-up show ‘Psychedelitron’ at St Mary’s Church, Shrewsbury, on December 15, is the result of collaboration with a photographer and digital painter in the US, Deborah Freeman Voizin, that they call ‘Driven by Chance’: “She doesn’t tell me what she’s going to do – it works perfectly,” Andy explains. “We get excited about what we manage to create. ‘Psychedelitron’ is a huge, abstract psychedelia with a soundtrack by Nick Raybould of Thought Bubble (also from Shropshire – All Stretton), who produce really beautiful ambient psychedelia.

Andy will hopefully be mixing light and sound – creating the soundtrack using some fancy new synths in a psychedelic genre (think Tangerine Dream or Ozric Tentacles). It’s what he used to do way back in the early 1970s with his first light shows: “I’m still doing it. I love that drifty, psychedelic light and liquid oils and lava lamps – I’m a bit of a hippy, really!” he laughs.

With 24 separate channels of sound to handle for his live events, it’s all super techy stuff, which, possibly, only Andy truly appreciates – but for the uninitiated, it makes for a novel and brain-melting experience.

“I have direction-focusing sound – sound projectors that can point at people. I can whisper in your ear!” he reveals.

Both shows (‘Splinters of Heaven’ and ‘Psychaedelitron’) will be free entry, with donations encouraged to help raise funds for the restoration of the church’s famous stained glass.

Over his 50-year career, Andy has done some amazingly high-profile shows – huge outdoor light works – around 500 in all, across the globe. His favourite was for the 50th anniversary of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral in 2017 when he created a 360-degree projection of 50 giant shards of fabric hanging from the sanctuary canopy. And in 2020, for the Mayflower 400 event in Southampton, he lit up five identical tower blocks.

Closer to home in Shrewsbury, you may have seen Andy’s stunning projections on Shrewsbury Market Hall, on the fly tower of Theatre Severn and The Flaxmill or the waterfall of poppies recently at St Mary’s in Shrewsbury.

Lighting up the Market Hall by Andy McKeown
One of Andy’s brilliant projections on the side of Shrewsbury Market Hall for the DarwIN Shrewsbury Festival

He calls it ‘just playing’ – but somehow, he’s managed to earn a living from it.

“It’s fun; I’ve managed to make a career out of mucking about. It’s a case of having faith in what I can do,” Andy says.

Somewhere along the way, Andy also trained as an art teacher and taught at schools in Shrewsbury, which he enjoyed until he was consumed by the possibilities of emerging computer technology. For a time, in the 1980s, Andy was sponsored by Atari: “That was a different lifetime,” he recalls. “Now I just do sufficient shows to buy me equipment to create new shows that other people might like me to bring to them.

“I’m still really excited by it. The technology still excites me – what it liberates and enables from the ideas I have. You see something and think I want to do that.”

The Clockwork Toy Factory at Ludlow Castle
The Clockwork Toy Factory at Ludlow Castle

Currently, he’s recording traditional music boxes and playing with Japanese wind chimes ahead of his next light show, the Clockwork Toy Factory at Ludlow Castle, on November 26, part of the Ludlow Winter Festival.

“It’s going to be quite an interesting evening. It’s based upon ideas and pieces I did in St Helen’s when we had an enormous audience watching the 15-minute animation.

“We’re taking over the whole of the interior of the inner bailey at Ludlow Castle. At the entrance, there will be a snowfall, then you’ll go over the drawbridge through the gates, and the whole place will be a mass of projections and sound pieces. We’ll have an immersive musical box installation in the Round Chapel.

“Some of the pieces will be interactive; you can participate in yourselves, and there will be interesting food, chestnuts and the like and various Christmas-themed stalls in the outer bailey.

Ludlow Castle Installation by Andy McKeown
A sneak peek of Andy McKeown’s Clockwork Toy Factory installation at Ludlow Castle

“The art piece in the inner bailey will be devoid of anything else other than the art piece. People will follow a trail – we’ll have a snowstorm with umbrellas in the great hall and a present launching system, musical boxes and ticking clocks from the ‘clock room’. It’s meant to be whimsical. It’s going to be fun. I’m really looking forward to it.”

He’s excited to show Ludlow what he can do: “Most winter trails don’t use this much projection – and usually have trails of Illuminated trees and LED lights. I want to make it a huge space filled with projection like the big installations I’m used to,” he says.

Tickets sold out aeons ago, but there’s another chance to see Andy’s work on December 17 – 21 when he’ll be illuminating the Chelsea Garden at Telford Town Park for The Magical Festive Gardens event. The free-to-access Christmas experience will also include music, entertainment and festive creative workshops around the gardens and bandstand.

Andy has planned a series of projections, illuminations, smoke and lights, which will lead people on a trail around the gardens: “You’ll see people doing forest trails around stately homes, and they can be very expensive. This is a small one, and it’s free. For me, it’s a nice way of trying out ideas,” he said.

Andy will never stop working on new ideas or tweaking old ones – he’s waiting on new material from Driven-by-Chance with Deborah from Pensacola, Florida. She’s working on a new climate piece for him inspired by Navarre Beach during a thunderstorm, complete with rainstorms and cloud thunderheads, whatever they are.

“It’s really big and immersive and very suitable for this current time,” Andy says.

He’s also keen to give credit to his wingman Bill McCabe – who has been with him for more than a decade, dealing with the public, helping with the heavy lifting and ensuring Andy survives the shows.

“He describes it as care in the community,” Andy laughs. “His function is to look after me. I get focused and forget to eat and drink. We do big outdoor pieces. He makes sure they stay up. He’s absolutely brilliant. He’s really good at comedic parking. If there are only two cars in a car park, he’ll park between them. He makes it worthwhile; he’s so much fun to work with.”

For a guy with such an awesome body of work, it’s odd that Andy’s own name is not up in lights – he’s the Wizard of Oz behind the screen, he rarely comes out; he’s not had an exhibition of his own for 24 years.

“I make work. I am my own worst enemy when it comes to publicity. I’m most interested in making, not showing,” he says.

“I had a big rush in the 1980s (with Atari) – anything I wanted, I could have; there were some wonderful parties on riverboats. But that’s not me. I am in my studio on my own, doing work.”

Andy is currently looking for sponsors for Shrewsbury Light Nights – a project he would like to bring to town in February 2024. If you are a business interested in getting involved, contact Andy at Andy@wildstrawberry.com or 07941 101730.

Andy McKeown Installations in Shropshire this Winter:

  • 26 November- Ludlow Castle – Clockwork Toy Factory
  • 9 December- Llanidloes – Splinters of Heaven
  • 14 December – Shrewsbury- Splinters of Heaven
  • 15 December – Shrewsbury – Psychedelitron
  • 17-21 December- Telford – Chelsea Garden illumination
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