Sun Painting



of an Exhibit

by Wendy Pollock

Published on November 06, 2007

  • Museum: Exploratorium

  • Visit Date: Year 1983

  • Description:

    No one who’s seen the Sun Painting could ever forget it. Bob Miller created this luminous exhibit during the Exploratorium’s early years. A heliostat on the roof, far overhead, tracks the sun’s movement and reflects the sunlight off a mirror down into the dark, cavernous space. Bouncing off other mirrors, the light reaches a wall of prisms, breaks into a luminous spectrum of colors, and reflects off mylar panels. These bright-hued scribbles of color shift with moving air currents and whenever someone discovers that the prisms can be set rotating. Like a stained glass window in an ancient cathedral, the Sun Painting prepares those entering the Palace of Fine Arts for a transformative experience.

    Bob Miller’s death last week is an occasion for remembering and celebrating what he contributed to the science center field. Light, color, and human perception were hallmarks of the Exploratorium’s iconic early exhibits. Bob was a crucial part of that creative work, which has served as an inspiration to others all over the world. (Tom Nielsen wrote in an ExhibitFiles review about his experience with one collection of these exhibits, Seeing the Light.)

    Bob Miller was also famous for his Light Walk, which (one time I went with him) included a stop outside to look at the tiny images of the sun coming through a simple sheet of peg board. Nearly every time I see one of those tiny pinhole suns—sometimes with the shadow of a branch moving across it—I remember Bob. Now, more than ever.

    Thank you, Bob.

    The Exploratorium’s explainers have created a site for recording memories of Bob Miller:
    Jim Spadaccini shares his recollections here:

Latest Comments (2)


by Ulrika Andersson - November 12, 2007

Bob’s piece Sun Painting was the first rebuild I ever worked on at the Exploratorium, as an intern with Eric Dimond.
Bob was a fascinating person to be around, a person so observant it was as if he was struck by visions from time to time. When the white light from the sun first hit the prisms of the newly rebuilt Sun Painting: bathing a giant screen in dazzling rainbow, I told Bob I thought that was just about the most awesome thing I’d ever seen. Bob says back: “Yeah and that’s just from a couple of square feet of sunlight…imagine all the thousands of square miles out there!” -Ulrika Andersson

Bye Bob

by Tom Nielsen - November 13, 2007

I didn’t know Bob very well, except through his work. But I had a beer with him once, long ago before I knew anything about him, and in a single hour learned a lot through his eyes. “Notice how the light from that neon sign is focused by each of the billion bubbles in the head on that Anchor Steam”, he would say. I thought he was looking for some new effect to turn into an exhibit, but really, he was just, always, looking for the pleasure of looking.

A few years ago, Norman Tuck told me how he had seen Bob off on an ocean voyage from the pier in San Francisco, then drove over to the bridge and called his cell to say a last farewell as the ship passed out through Golden Gate. I am still struck by the power of that action – a friend passes over a bridge as a friend passes under. As the ocean’s waves draw them apart, light waves connect them, and two hands wave wishes of bon voyage across the void. Artists know how to live, do they not?

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