Meet Detroit Installation Artist Patrick Ethen

The Michigan-based artist talks about his colorful light creations throughout Detroit.
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Photograph courtesy of Patrick Ethen

Patrick Ethen, a lover of math and science since childhood and University of Michigan Taubman College architecture graduate, never thought he would one day call himself an artist. However, he found success by combining his architecture and engineering background with an artistic vision that utilizes light, color, and music.

Ethen says while growing up in Kentwood, near Grand Rapids, he didn’t have any role models who were successful artists. This caused him to resist using the term “artist” to describe himself for the first seven years of his work. But now, he proudly calls himself a light artist.

“What I do, it’s kind of architecture, it’s kind of engineering, it’s kind of design. I’m just right in the middle of all these things,” says Ethen. 

Ethen began to transition from his scientific aspirations to creating art after participating in the ArtPrize festival in Grand Rapids. He says this set him apart from other architecture students and sent him down a path toward more artistic pursuits.

Installation art exhibits, sometimes called environments, often take up an entire room, and can typically be walked through or around to maximize interaction between the viewer and the work. These installations are often temporary, able to be disassembled and moved, but can sometimes be permanent. 

Ethen’s work uses sculpture and light, often paired with music, to give each viewer the opportunity to form their own interpretations and experience something unique. 

“The goal is not to provide meaning, the goal is to provide experiences,” says Ethen. “People like the idea of ‘The work is about this,’ but it’s an oversimplification.”

“It’s like looking at a campfire, where you’re just observing, and you’re open to color and you’re open to light,” Ethen adds. “It’s the same reason why a sunset is good, why a campfire is good, why it’s good to watch the ocean waves. Because it doesn’t repeat itself, because it’s always new, it’s always moving.” 

Ethen has three permanent works in Detroit, one in San Diego, and one in Boston, but most of his installations are temporary and can be found in Detroit’s underground music scene, particularly electronic music. 

Ethen has done work for Movement electronic music festival and has a long history working with Texture, a pop-up music event that provides an audio-spatial experience. 

“My aesthetic is really future forward, and electronic music was made as the music of the future, so I think there’s a great pairing with the work there,” says Ethen. “All over the world people look to Detroit because they know us for our music scene. We’re a major exporter of culture via music.” 

“I know my work has had an impact on the city, at the very least, in the music scene,” adds Ethen, noting that he is the only person in the midwest doing this kind of work.

Reflecting on why he creates this type of art, Ethen says he tells a story from his childhood. 

“Growing up, my dad had a corporate job, and he would take two weeks off of work every Christmas, not to go on vacation, but to literally put up 35,000 Christmas lights on our house every year.” Ethen explains. 

“Our house had a six-foot star at the top,” he continues. “Anyone who didn’t know me, I’d be like, ‘Oh, well you know that house with the star on the top?’ That’s how you get to my house.”

“It was always this question for my family. We love it, tour buses come by the house, but why does dad do it? I don’t even think that he knows. And all my friends are like, ‘Oh, you do lights because your dad put up Christmas lights on your house,’ and I’m like, ‘No, that’s not why I do lights.’”

“I think the reason I do lights and my dad does lights are the same reason, and that is that, other people like it, and it’s important to do stuff for other people,” he adds. “I think focusing on joy is just the most powerful way of fighting for what you believe in.”

Learn more about Patrick Ethen and his work at patrickethen.com. Plus, find even more stories about metro Detroit’s art scene at hourdetroit.com