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An LED Sculptor Whose Interactive Art Fills the World With Light


Meredith Winner | November 9, 2017
Christopher Schardt discusses his huge interactive LED art pieces and his creative grounding in music.

Situated on a quiet street in Emeryville, Christopher Schardt’s massive studio attaches to the back of his house — making his morning commute a breeze. Amid several large new LED sculptures, he tells me how building the house and studio is still one of his greatest achievements. Christopher has been an artist and engineer for decades, but he only started creating LED art in 2013.

He spins the wheel of his latest piece, “Spokes,” equipped with a Raspberry Pi and dozens of LED strips, and I am mesmerized by the colorful spirals it creates.

photo by Betty Ray

People flock to Schardt’s illuminated pieces not only because they are beautiful, but because they create a sense of calming space. His best-known piece, “Firmament,” has toured nationally. People tend to witness his pieces and stay, often lying down to take them in fully. Coupled with music, Christopher’s pieces provide an immersive experience that changes over time.

Sitting beneath his piece “Nova,” Christopher discussed the clear correlation and transition from his musical history through to his current love for LED.

Where are you from?

I was born in San Francisco in 1963 and grew up in Marin County. I was raised by a landscape architect father and an Asian art historian mother, but I wouldn’t say that art was laid heavily on me as a child. As a kid, I was more drawn to technology and making things and learning about science.

Can you tell us about your art and background?

In high school I got very involved in music: singing in choirs, participating in musicals, acting… I wanted to be a rock star, to write original, quirky music. I went to UC Berkeley to double-major in electrical engineering and music. It was impossible under their standards, but that’s where that I discovered Stravinsky and classical music.

Music really precedes my art. My love and pursuit of being a professional musician continued when I formed the band Moe’s Kitchen. It was my full-time job to recruit, write jazz funk, manage people, make schedules, etc., which proved very difficult. We were a nine-piece band with horns, percussion, backup, the whole works. It was an immense effort, but it didn’t end up impressing the music industry.

In 1998, I went to Burning Man for the first time, which made me slowly see a new direction. I ultimately gave up on music in 2000. I realized I would prefer to be making big pieces of art instead of putting together music that the industry didn’t want. I’ve made a piece for Burning Man every year since then, from art cars to huge towers to fire art, except from 2005 to 2007, when I was building my house, and in 2008, when my daughter was born.

When and why did you start using LEDs?

After I came back from Burning Man in 2013, I was sick and tired of fire art. It’s so much work! You have to staff it! I vowed that I would never make another piece of art that needed to be staffed. I made my first LED piece with the help of a friend and the use of an app I developed called L.E.D. Lab.


Who are some of your artistic influences?

Jean Marie Tinguely, the Swiss guy who made these crazy mechanical sculptures. He came up with all kinds of amazing contraptions. Music-wise, Steve Reich, Steely Dan, James Brown. For visual art, Talking Heads for both the music and vision. David Byrne for his music, but also his certain style… and Devo. Oh! And Salvador Dalí.

Do you consider yourself equal parts artist and engineer?

Yes. I take great joy in coming up with artistic solutions to engineering problems. I combine my engineering and artistic skills all of the time. I would say I’m not that talented as a raw, intuitive, inspired artist, someone like Michael Christian, who comes up with amazing shapes and figures out how to make them real. I work the other way. I solve the engineering problems to come up with the shape. People who are meant to be programmers are people who like to come up with solutions.

Where would you like to see your art most?

As a musician, I always wanted to play the Greek Theater in Berkeley. I don’t know if there’s a similar place for my visual art. I would certainly like for it to be in the Smithsonian, which it actually is going to be next year! I very much enjoy seeing my art in public spaces, places you don’t need to pay to be in, like the placement of “Firmament” in Houston. That was particularly enjoyable as it wasn’t just for “art people.” I enjoy having my art out there for regular folks.

For other creative people, join the Fernet-Branca Family

All images courtesy of Christopher Schardt

Meredith Winner is an art-enthusiast and advocate living in San Francisco. She is the co-founder of Building 180, an emerging artist representation and consulting company that focuses on public art placement, creation, and curation.


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