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Vision of power (electric light)
American, late 1800s
Accession No. 2010-11-us
38" x 44.5" x 4"
This item was found at an elementary school rummage sale in West Orange, New Jersey. In the 1870s a reclusive and eccentric school janitor began having a recurring image appear before his eyes every time he turned off his gas lantern at night, haunting him until he fell asleep. This vision looked similar to the map of the world he saw daily on his rounds through the classrooms, but it was strangely and only partially delineated with white glowing dots instead of the usual geographical markings. This apparition became such a firmly etched sight in his mental vision that he could eventually see it every time he shut his eyes.

He became obsessed with the wonder and the mystery of the sight, and finally decided that he had to create a physical replica of the image in hopes that it would free his mind’s eye to see other things. He took an abandoned map from the school’s storage attic and painted it out completely, then painstakingly poked out the pattern he saw in his mind. He hung the shade in a window so that during the day light would pass through the holes, mimicking the glowing dots of his vision. At night he would gather several lanterns and hang them outside his window so he could continue working.

Though he never was able to understand what his vision meant, we can now recognize it as the Earth at night as seen in NASA’s composite image, glowing with the dotted pattern of electrical light emissions. This was surely a premonition of the future of electric light, a pet project of another resident of West Orange, Thomas Edison. This piece of what might be called “Visionary Art” is only one of many created by the janitor over subsequent years.

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