Photo Courtesy of  Josh Garrett
Art Type
Media / Materials
Year Completed
Commissioned by Des Moines Performing Arts.
Latitude & Longitude
41.586915, -93.621568
Location Description
Southeast section of Cowles Commons, at the corner of Walnut and 3rd Streets; the plaza is adjacent to the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines.


Share This Page

This unique public artwork is titled “Swirl ” — the sculpture’s depth is 28 feet, width is 94 feet, and height is 28 feet.

Swirl is made up of nine stainless steel uprights and more than 8,000 LED lights that are suspended in the air. The LED lights are programed to display prerecorded images each night at dusk [after sunset and just before night] to 2:00 AM.

Detail of "Swirl"

CHARETTE of 2008

Many ideas for Cowles Commons, previously named Nollen Plaza, were discussed during a 3-day “charette” in 2008. A design team comprised of Ken Smith, a highly-regarded landscape architect from the Des Moines area with offices in New York City and Los Angeles, and Jim Campbell, an artist from San Francisco whose works include highly interactive installations and various forms of electronic media.

Themes emerged: make it a space for all ages, create a draw, a destination, and a postcard view for Des Moines, continue to incorporate water, support outdoor community gatherings, and design the plaza with a balance of green and paved spaces.


The plaza was dedicated in the 1979 as part of the new Civic Center Complex which replaced the recently closed KRNT Theater. The area was named after Gerald and Henry Nollen in recognition of their contributions to Des Moines commerce and culture; both were officers of Bankers Trust, which has become Principal Financial, and active in a number of civic organizations.

Cowles Commons is a block square park containing a tree-lined grassy area on its Walnut Street frontage and the Brenton Waterfall and Reflecting Pool with surrounding steps that provide audience-seating along Locust and 3rd Streets.

Crusoe Umbrella,” a 1979 sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, stands on the northeast corner of the Plaza.

More than $12 million was raised by Des Moines Performing Arts for the design, construction and endowment of Cowles Commons. The Gardner and Florence Call Cowles Foundation is a major funder of the project with significant financial support from The Principal Financial Group, William and Susan Knapp, the Lauridsen Family Endowment, the Kruidenier Charitable Foundation, Vision Iowa, the City of Des Moines, Prairie Meadows, Wells Fargo and the Polk County Board of Supervisors. The Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation provided $100,000 of support for Swirl by Jim Campbell.


The installation began in October 2015 by Demiurge LLC, a sculptural fabrication company based in Denver, CO, which also fabricated the sculpture. Crews, including local volunteers, spent several weeks working on the intricate installation.

On 13 March 2016, the artist presented a public talk. Campbell increased the visual activity of the moving pixelated LED images swirling around the elliptical rings. This was created by speeding up the low motion recording of the figures and occasionally zooming into or freezing the image. Moments of the 2015 Des Moines marathon dissolve and resolve to unusual visual angles, then fade into a matrix of clouds and blue sky.  Accentuating the effects of the passage of time, movement becomes as a crucial element of human perception and experience. An additional element of the installation will be a small defusing window located within the plaza garden along Locust Street. The window will reveal a higher resolution of the pixelated image.

The title had to both reference the shape and the movement of the imagery that will be seen at night [beginning at sunset to 2AM]. The form itself also implies movement. "Swirl" is both a verb and a noun so it seemed to make sense for my design. (1) ...In 1988, coming from a technical background in engineering and an artistic background in filmmaking, I began to create interactive video installations that involve the viewer and the viewer's response to a given situation. In creating interactive video art work, my goal has been to move away from the conventional computer screen "button pushing" interface and instead to move towards creating works that have a more intuitive level of interaction. Making a distinction between a work that is controllable and a work that is responsive. I have tried to create installations that are less about a viewer dominating a work, and more about viewers participating in the developing personality of a work. My work incorporates electronic memory, prerecorded images and live images. (2)

(1) Katlin McKinney, "New Cowles Commons Light Sculpture Has a Name," WHO Online, 21 Dec. 2015, accessed 18 Jan. 2016,
(2) Artist’s statement for The Mortal Coil: Mourning Becomes Electronic, exhibition at the University of California, Santa Cruz; Sesnon and Faculty Galleries, 1996

Jim Campbell