By: Debra Dylan

Master glass artist Richard Jolley says Cycle of Life: Within the Power of Dreams and the Wonder of Infinity is monumental because “it’s the only answer to this space.”

Displaying art in the Knoxville Museum of  Art’s cavernous Great Hall was always a challenge. Any low hanging art risked damage from patrons and equipment during special events.

“The first aesthetic challenge was how to deal with the visual interruption of the mezzanine and the stairwell yet keep a cohesive narrative while realizing that the entire installation could not be viewed from any one point in the Great Hall.

“I knew scale was critical. Fortunately, I have worked on a number of projects that equipped me with the skills necessary to make the transition to this scale successfully.” Jolley also traveled to Paris, Pompeii and Naples to study frescos and other large scale art. He enjoyed complete artistic control over Cycle of Life, thanks to patrons Ann and Steve Bailey Hall who generously underwrote this massive project.

The Earth Elements

Six Earth elements flank each side of the mezzanine and stairwell.


The south wall contains three icons representing youth: Primordial (moonlit trees), Emergence (young male and female), and Flight (135 blown-glass black birds). Themes from Jolley’s earlier works appear throughout Cycle of Life: birds, male/female relationships, and flower blossoms. What is missing is Jolley’s use of whimsy and dreamy hues of colored glass. The south wall icons are easy on the eye and pleasantly spaced. Due to the mix of metal and black glass, the eye can be fooled into believing the sculptures are mostly metal.

The north wall contains three icons representing maturity: Desire, Tree of Life, and Contemplation. Tree of Life is the finest sculpture in the series. Representing “symbolic maturation, fulfillment, and abundance,” this 22-foot tree is adorned with with thousands of leaves, pomegranate blossoms, and doves. Sadly, this sculpture competes for space and attention between Desire‘s primitive romantic couple and Contemplation‘s massive human face.


Contemplation contains two seperate pieces. Viewing this icon from an angle is confusing, like an unsolvable magic-eye puzzle.  The north wall is best experienced straight ahead and at a distance. Also, this metal and glass mural does not contain enough negative space. A little more breathing room between the figures would have been nice.

The Sky Elements

According to Jolley, “the Sky elements visually connect the two sides and bridge the gulf of the mezzanine.” KMA Director David Butler’s suggested to Jolley that an icon from Cycle of Life create a sightline from the museum’s front entrance, “to let people know there is something going on down here.” Sky, a large and colorful constellation suspended from the ceiling, provides that focal point. Sky’s arc is completed with with dual molecular strands symbolizing “physical transformation” of the earth elements.

Richard Jolly (left) and KMA Director David Butler discuss Sky.

Richard Jolly (left) and KMA Director David Butler discuss Sky.

Butler says “theatrical lighting to illuminate Circle of Life was added as part of its installation.” Depending on the time of day, the reflective surfaces of the sculpture – both the glass and steel elements – appear in a range of colors thus presenting an ever-changing visual experience for the viewer.”

Dramatic lighting and shadows begin to appear as evening approaches.

Dramatic lighting and shadows begin to appear as evening approaches.

An Engineering Marvel

Jolley says, “The exciting aspect was all the creative problem solving involved in completing this project and the opportunity to explore new ideas and develop new modalities of working.”

Filmmakers from Jupiter Entertainment documented Jolley’s five year odyssey in it’s 30 minute film Bigger Than Life.  It’s interesting to see the challenging logistics involved in transporting and installing Circle of Life.

This was an exercise in stamina and mental toughness. – James Breed, lead assistant to Richard Jolley

Massive reinforcement of the building’s steel structure was necessary to accommodate the project’s 7 ton weight. The overhead mechanical and electrical systems were reconfigured. Flat bed trucks, specially made dollies, and cranes were utilized to move the icons. During motor transport, heavy rain, electrical wires and overpasses offered challenges. Through it all Jolley remained unflappable.

Alive After Five Returns

Another exciting renovation to the Knoxville Museum of Art is the “revitalization of the 23,000-square foot multi-purpose North Garden. This additional space contains some terraced seating, a variety of flowers, and additional space for “other programming opportunities.”

After a 3 month hiatus, the Alive After Five music series returns on Friday, May 9, at 6:00 p.m., in the North Garden (or in the Great Hall if rain threatens). Award-winning bluesman Stacy Mitchhart will perform with special guests The Mitchell Davis-Labron Lazenby Blues Experience. Tickets are $15 or $10 for members or students.

© Debra Dylan, 2014.

© Elizabeth Felicella Photography



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