Published Aug. 6, 2006|Updated Aug. 6, 2006

The artwork:

Nancy Holt, Solar Rotary

1995, aluminum and concrete

Remember in Raiders of the Lost Ark (and many other movies) the pivotal moment when the sun shines on something at exactly the right moment and boulders shake, secret tunnels open and mayhem ensues?

Solar Rotary, the sculpture you see here, is like that. Sort of. Because once every year on one day for one minute, the sun shines directly through the circular opening of the sculpture's canopy and casts a perfect circle around its center bench.

Nothing erupts, of course, and the moment passes quietly while people go about their campus business. But, like those fantasy adventure movies, like Stonehenge and other, older sites, Solar Rotary connects us to our ancient past, when time was measured by movements of the heavens rather than clocks.

- LENNIE BENNETT, Times art critic

Easy on the eyes

Solar Rotary sits on the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida. It is a configuration of eight 20-foot aluminum poles topped with an elegant swirl of more metal, called a shadow caster, set in a circular plaza. A round bench anchors its center. Eight concrete benches rim the plaza's perimeter. Four more benches are set further out, under shade trees. As the sun moves from east to west, the shadows projected by the aluminum canopy shift and vary in subtly beautiful ways. It's a quiet installation that probably wouldn't stop you in your tracks. Unless you knew what to look for.

More than meets the eye

Solar Rotary only looks simple. Dr. Jack Robinson, archaeo-astronomer and a professor emeritus at USF, collaborated with Holt. He spent about 100 hours fixing the sun's coordinates, when it seems to stand still for a moment during the day of the summer solstice, down to the degree and hundredth of a minute, as well as precise calculations for the five plaques. Complications - we are far enough north of the equator never to have the sun truly overhead, the land itself is uneven - required some heavy-duty trigonometry.

Holt's design was even more site-specific. In an interview with art historian Julie Alderson she said, "The openings between the vertical posts of Solar Rotary are aligned with the central axis formed by the converging sidewalks and the inscribed lines extending these sidewalks through the center of the paved circle in an eight-point star pattern," integrating it with the grid of walkways that run throughout the campus.

Here comes the sun

Artist Nancy Holt, a well-regarded sculptor associated with the Earth Art movement, is known for incorporating ideas of time and its passage in her work.

Solar Rotary casts shadows throughout any sunny day, but it was created specifically to mark the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, which occurs around June 20. An explanation is inscribed on the round center bench: "On the day of summer solstice at solar noon between 1:31 and 1:32 PM a circle of sunlight will be cast around this circular seat."

Five plaques are embedded in the plaza to commemorate other dates more specific to Florida. Some are well-known: Ponce de Leon's first sighting of the Florida coast on March 27, 1513. Others are obscure: "August 14, 1772, The first map of the coast of Florida submitted by cartographer Bernard Romans to Lord Hillsborough, British Secretary of State for the Colonies, after whom this county is named."

Like the solstice bench, each plaque gets its place in the spotlight once a year, on the date specified, when the sun shines directly on it through one of the outer curves of the shadow caster.

Neat trick, but what's the big deal?

And in the end

More relevant to the viewer is what it all means. A small meteorite, embedded in the central bench, is a key. Its inscription reads: "In the center of this ring is a 4.5 billion year old meteorite said to have fallen to Earth in Dade County, Florida." That's about as old as the Earth is supposed to be. And as old as the summer solstice, which existed before there were names for such phenomena.

Holt links us to a time before time. She extends the link to more recent, dated events. She acknowledges the shifts and changes that are part of earth's life and our own smaller ones. And measures them against that great ball of fire that has seen it all.

Art that belongs to all of us

Solar Rotary was installed at USF in 1995 as part of its Public Art Program. The state of Florida, as well as most cities and counties in the Tampa Bay area, have programs that dedicate a percentage of building construction costs to the creation of public art.

More than 100 works of art dot USF's Tampa and St. Petersburg campuses. Most are easily accessed. Now, before the fall session begins and parking gets really scarce, is a good time to visit. Solar Rotary is just north of Alumni Drive and east of LeRoy Collins Boulevard. For a map showing it and other works, go to Click on "public art," then on "map."

Source: Vincent Ahern, coordinator of public art at the University of South Florida

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or


For previous installments in the "Inspirations: Art in Focus'' series, go to