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Horseshoe Lake by Barry Underwood

Governor’s Awards Artist Addresses Environmental Themes in Nature-Inspired Photos

Cleveland artist Barry Underwood was selected to create the artwork for the 2020 Governor’s Awards for the Arts in Ohio. Photo courtesy of Barry Underwood.It’s tempting to say that the magic behind Barry Underwood’s colorfully illuminated images is more than just a trick of the light, but the Cleveland-based artist would be the first to tell you that light is exactly what makes his photography possible.

“We call it ‘light photography,’ but if you get down to it, all photography is light photography,” said Underwood, whose work has been presented to the nine winners of the 2020 Governor’s Awards for the Arts in Ohio in recognition of their achievements. “It’s either reflected or direct or radiant. Or diffused, of course, on a cloudy day. But it is all light photography.”

The lights in Underwood’s scenic compositions are different. Whether arranged in a neon grid like lasers in Hollywood’s latest spy thriller or perched on the water’s edge like a cluster of phosphorescent pebbles, the glowing geometric shapes in his photos appear as neon novelties. The light trails they weave through darkened forests and misty beaches are less like those of comets or fireflies and more like the afterglow of a chemical spill or some radioactive figment of science fiction.

It’s all a way of making a mark on the scene, said Underwood, an associate professor in the photo and video department at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

Jackson, Wyoming (for Rainer), 2016, by Barry Underwood.“So, instead of walking a straight line back and forth or making a spiral out of rocks, I am just making the mark out of some sort of structure to which I then attach a light source,” he said, adding that he has previously achieved this effect by using LED lights and glow sticks. Recently, he’s switched to EL wire, a reusable equivalent to glow sticks which allows him to create striking, snaking patterns with less waste.

Underwood said his approach to creating his photographs begins with research into the history of a location and how the landscape has evolved over time. He considers how certain environments have been depicted by artists who have come before him, and he ponders the impact human civilization has had on the surroundings.

“I look for locations that have specific baggage or sort of signifiers that come along with them,” he said, citing past residencies in the Big Sur area of California and the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Utah, housed on the former Wendover Air Force Base where aircraft like the Enola Gay were kept before they flew to Japan in World War II.

Using the principles of scene-setting that he learned from his undergraduate training in theatre and through working as a commercial photographer, Underwood knows how to convey a message through visual composition and, he admits, a little optical distraction.

Linear Construction 11 (Shaker Heights, Ohio), 2019, by Barry Underwood.“Most of (my photographs) are about trees. Or the lack of trees,” Underwood said. “If you start to look at the pieces, the lights are the glimmer or the shiny flicker that attract attention, like attracting a magpie. But the landscape is really the thing I am more interested in as far as the message goes.”

His message is one of environmental impact and the indelible footprints centuries of human activity have carved into the natural world. Underwood said his photographs demarcate the points where irreversible impact touches a pristine landscape by literally shining a light on these intersections.

“There’s a lot of little things that I like to put in there. Anything from a light in the distance, like a streetlight, to … (allusions to) water and pesticides, herbicides sort of seeping into a body of water,” Underwood said. “Some of the landscapes are very ubiquitous. They really are kind of like in people’s neighborhoods.”

As a photographer, Underwood said, he gets to choose what parts of an environment appear in the frame. And just as he can use his lenses and lights to show the unfortunate elements of human life seeping into the landscape, he can also show his viewers how they can find beauty in their surroundings by simply looking at something in a different way.

Chesterton, IN (for Konrad), 2018, by Barry Underwood.“Working with a high aesthetic, like a beautiful landscape that is not considered a ‘traditionally beautiful’ landscape, that’s what I feel is a good way to get the conversation going,” he said. “I want people to say that they are attracted to it, but upon longer examination, I want them to think about ‘What’s going on?’ and then look at the world around them.

“That’s what art is. It’s a means to communicate some sort of message, and it’s about changing people’s perception for hopefully the better.”

The 2020 Governor’s Awards for the Arts in Ohio will be presented as a virtual celebration premiering on May 10, 2021, at noon. The pre-recorded broadcast will feature video segments highlighting each of the nine award winners, along with remarks from Governor Mike DeWine, legislative leadership, Ohio Arts Council Executive Director Donna S. Collins, and more. 
The OAC is partnering with the Ohio Channel to offer several opportunities to celebrate the impactful contributions of our 2020 award recipients, including the online premiere on Facebook and YouTube, and a televised rebroadcast on the Ohio Channel on Saturday, May 15 at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m.

To learn more about Underwood and see more of his work, visit


Since its beginning in 1971, the Governor's Awards has recognized individuals and organizations who have been vital to the growth and development of Ohio's cultural resources. One of the most prestigious arts events in Ohio, the Governor's Awards showcases and celebrates exceptional Ohio artists, arts organizations, arts leaders and patrons, and business support of the arts. Governor's Awards recipients are honored at a luncheon ceremony in Columbus, where they are presented with the only arts award in the state that is conferred by the governor. Each award winner receives an original piece of artwork created specifically for the event by an Ohio artist and the opportunity to share their story with other arts supporters statewide.
The Ohio Arts Council is a state agency that funds and supports quality arts experiences to strengthen Ohio communities culturally, educationally, and economically. Connect with the OAC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or visit our website at
Article by Amanda Etchison, Communications Strategist
Featured image: "Horseshoe Lake" by Barry Underwood
Editor's Note: This story was updated to include details about the 2020 Governor's Awards for the Arts Virtual Celebration on May 10, 2021, at noon | Originally published Jan. 27, 2020

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