Monday, July 20, 2015

Adios to Fred "Rainbow Man" Stern

Fred Stern, “the Rainbow Man,” is dead at 76. After a fall, the internationally renowned artist who called Las Cruces home, lingered for several weeks before dying in hospice care in El Paso on June 21.
Throughout a long and unique career, Stern created more than 50 rainbows all over the world to benefit and promote charities and worthy causes ranging from hospice in Las Cruces, to a “peace” rainbow over the United Nations building in New York and a recent, multi-award-winning project involving a series of rainbows in Africa.
With the help of fire departments and ever-evolving artistry and technology, Stern carefully computed angles and weather conditions, but, like the fabled scientist who analyzed rainbows and then believed in their magic anyway, Stern retained an almost childlike enthusiasm that was infectious.
“Rainbows have cultural meanings all over the world and really interesting philosophical implications. A rainbow needs an eye to be seen. It only exists next to a point you’re looking at it, which brings it into existence. A rainbow is not a real object. As you get close to it, it gets smaller. So in a sense, we are what is at the end and the center of every rainbow,” Stern said in a June 29, 2014, interview with the Sun-News.
That year, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of free elections for South Africa (known as the Rainbow Nation), Stern creating a series of large-scale rainbows in the sky over the Johannesburg skyline. The project was the basis of the short video piece, “A Rainbow for the Rainbow Nation.” The video was selected from more than 32,500 submissions for France’s prestigious Cannes Lions International Festival for the Creative Communications Industry. The video won the top Golden Lion honors, as well as two silver and two bronze awards.
“It was a fantastic experience. After Johannesburg, I went to Cape Town, the most amazingly beautiful place I’ve ever seen, for the African version of Burning Man, AfrikaBurn, and created a natural rainbow over the huge event’s sculptural piece before it was burned,” Stern said.
“My vision was an around-the-world tour with a series of major rainbow-type events,” said Stern, who managed to do just that for more than three decades.
“Maybe my favorites have been the ones for children with health issues,” said Stern, who devised a way to make “moonbows” at Camp Sundown for children with a condition that makes exposure to sunlight harmful. He also worked with American Cancer Society Relay for Life events, the Alzheimer Association and Hospice.
Stern was politically active throughout his life. In the 1960s, he organized Freedom Rides to the South, and spoke out against conflicts in the Vietnam War, Iraq and Afghanistan.
He was born on June 3, 1939, in Philadelphia and grew up in New York City. He studied at the Pratt Institute, Columbia University, and received a doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of Rhode Island.
“I got into art working with light shows at the Fillmore East in New York. I started work on multimedia electric light projects in large-scale urban environments. A rainbow is really a three-dimensional sculpture that’s just not permanent. I generate an artificial rainfall by pumping water into the air using local fire department equipment. These water droplets refract the sun’s light to establish the rainbow. I use a computer program to determine the optimal time, position and spray parameters for rainbow generation,” he said, explaining the process that created arcs of 200 feet and more.
He adapted rainbows to local environmental conditions. Where water was plentiful and easily recycled, in ocean harbors, for instance, he made rainbows that involved pumping 120,000 gallons of water per minute. A rainbow in Africa used just 30 gallons. One of his smallest rainbows was made with a pocket prism at Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was detonated.
He also coordinated groups of artists in the presentation of environmental works for the International Sculpture Conference in Washington, D.C., and the Festival de Dos Culturas in Mexico. He served as an adviser and participant at New York’s annual Avant Garde Festival for more than 10 years and served as associate professor of sculpture and engineering at Pratt Institute, and as associate professor of visual arts at New York University, the University of Maryland and the Instituto de Allende in Mexico.”
His honors include an Art in Public Places Individual Artist Award and other awards from the National Endowment for the Arts.
He moved to New Mexico in 1992 and was active in the Silver City arts community. He moved to Las Cruces in 1999.
The creative and colorful Stern died as he lived, friends said.
“Fred was a great friend and a dedicated artist. He not only delighted uncounted observers around the world with his rainbows but remained a curious, committed artist experimenting with a variety of media. Fred was full of life and energy, still creating everything from rainbows to poems, falling in and out of love, and talking earnestly about the strange wonder of living. Fred died following his artistic bent, climbing onto a wall to take a photograph of the full moon rising. He lost his balance, fell and caused severe damage to his spinal cord. He fought valiantly in the hospital, but the injury was too severe,” said his longtime friend, Peter Goodman.
“Fred believed strongly that the world was a magical place in which everything happened for a reason, with no coincidences,” Dael Goodman said.
Stern is survived by his daughters, Diane Stern of Santa Fe, and Cheryl Silberman of Huntington, New York, and “a family of friends across the globe.”
A celebration of his life is planned on Aug. 9. For directions and more information about the memorial, send an email to
S. Derrickson Moore may be reached at 575-541-5450.

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