Under an intricately patterned dome, Charles Patisaul lay on his back, hands tucked under his head. Every few minutes, a new group of people would follow his example, lying down on either side of him and casting their gaze up toward the ceiling’s kaleidoscopic design, before resuming their exploration.
Patisaul, who lives in Cary, had come to Raleigh Sunday to enjoy one of the Artsplosure festival’s biggest draws this year – an inflatable piece by English artist Alan Parkinson known as the Katena Luminarium, a massive structure crafted from thin layers of colored vinyl. Sunlight shining through bathed its chambers in vibrant shades of blue, red, orange and green.
People waited in a zig-zagging line for up to 45 minutes to wander the technicolor corridors. Inside, an atmospheric soundtrack added to Patisaul’s sense of distance from the outside world.
“Having all this natural light is really interesting to me,” he said. “When you lie down like I was doing, it’s kind of meditative. The combination of this music and so many people making noise, it feels like you’re in an ocean.”
Parkinson’s piece joined works by another 180 artists from around the country whose booths lined Fayetteville Street from Lenoir Street to the Capitol building. That’s where the main stage was set up and where at 3 p.m. Sunday, NPR Tiny Desk Concert sensations Tank & The Bangaz performed an hour-long set.
In between, a pair of acrobats known as the Red Trouser Show charmed and dazzled audiences throughout the day. A block away, Raleigh-based artist Dan Nelson put on a quieter but equally impressive show at the corner of Fayetteville and Davie streets as he used an unusual technique to paint the cityscape before him.
“I wasn’t ambidextrous at all, but I just forced myself to use both hands,” Nelson said as he shaded a window with his left hand and a tree with his right. “It’s been incredible. My brain feels different, and it drives me nuts now to paint with one hand. It’s interesting – I’m totally right-handed, but my left hand makes vertical lines better than my right hand.”
Such a vast range of artistic experiences in less than half a mile can feel scattered, eclectic and even overwhelming. But that’s the point, organizers said.
“You’ll see both in the representations and the activities, we have every genre, every medium,” said Cameron Laws of Artsplosure Inc., the Raleigh nonprofit that also presents First Night Raleigh on New Year’s Eve. “We program to reflect how incredibly diverse our audience is.”
The event costs about $180,000 to put on. Last year, it drew about 100,000 people, but Laws said that given the weekend’s pleasant weather, she wouldn’t be surprised if this year’s total topped that.
“The luminarium, we brought that five or six years ago, and people remember that,” Laws said. “We’ve seen a surge because everyone wants to see the new one.”
Katie and Chris Britt of Raleigh were among that group. The couple had fond memories of the last time Parkinson’s work came to Raleigh, but now they have two small children, who played nearby in one of the structure’s many alcoves while their parents talked.
“We came years when this was here, and we remember it being amazing, so we came back just for this,” Katie Britt said. “The kids are amazed by it.”
“It reminds me of a spaceship in here,” Chris Britt added. “It’s otherworldly. Last time we were here, they had a live band with a didgeridoo. It reminded me of the cantina scene in ‘Star Wars.’ ”
Artsplosure debuted 38 years ago, making it one of downtown Raleigh’s longest-running cultural events. Its mission has always been to make high quality art accessible, Laws said – admission is free – and to represent the broadest array of art possible. The same weekend in Durham, Moogfest sold tickets for $250 and up.
“The question we field the most is, ‘How much are tickets?’ ” Laws said. “It’s great to be able to say, ‘There aren’t tickets – we’re just doing this for the community.’ ”
Shanti Freed, one of the Katena Luminarium’s exhibition managers, said the installation is designed to be similarly inclusive.
“It’s designed as an interactive artwork for everyone,” she said. “We really pride ourselves on being wheelchair accessible, for instance. We find it seems to rev up small children and chill out older people, and our job is to make those meet somewhere in the middle.”
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan