Light at Sensorio
Bruce Munro’s solar-powered light show is 15-acres of jaw-dropping joy in Paso Robles
By Misty Hall
Paso Robles: Land of gently rolling hillsides, dotted with oak trees, and blanketed in vineyards. During the daytime, it is a playground for wine lovers, with more than 200 wineries taking advantage of the many microclimates this topography affords. In the evening, there’s a totally different way to experience this landscape: Sensorio. With well over 100,000 color-changing lights spread across 15 acres of rural hills, this awe-inspiring spectacle has attracted world-wide attention in its four years of existence.
The idea for Sensorio started about as far from Paso as you can get, in Uluru, Australia. It was there that Paso locals Ken and Bobbi Hunter discovered an incredible light exhibit, Field of Light, by renowned British artist Bruce Munro. It blanketed the nighttime landscape in an explosion of light and color, with the sacred rock of Uluru standing sentinel over it all.
Munro’s mastery over the technical as well as artistic aspects of the project deeply inspired the Hunters, who reached out to Munro to see if he’d be interested in creating something new back in Paso. “They had already been dreaming about creating an ‘inspiring entertainment garden’ that would serve as a ‘playground of the mind’ that also honored nature on the rolling hills of Paso Robles,” said Ryan Hopple, the general manager of Sensorio. Munro gladly accepted the Hunters’ offer.
The Paso partnership would task Munro with his biggest-ever piece, with the added challenge of being entirely solar-powered. In May 2019, the Central Coast got its first Munro: Sensorio: Field of Light. It started with 58,000 stems of light, scattered across the hillsides. Visitors could stroll through the lights, which illuminate multiple acres “in subtle blooms of morphing colour that describe the undulating landscape,” according to brucemunro.co.uk.
Not surprisingly, the Sensorio exhibit was a big hit — as Munro’s works have been for years, all over the world, from the UK to Nashville to Denmark and South Korea. So popular was the original Sensorio exhibit that Munro agreed to expand it, first to 100,000 stems, and then with three new exhibits on the property: Light Towers, Gone Fishing, and Fireflies.
Light Towers tips its hat to Paso’s wine country, with 69 illuminated towers made of 17,000 wine bottles. Fiber optic lights in the bottles changes colors in sync with a musical soundtrack. Gone Fishing is comprised of 750 fishing poles threaded with fiber optics, set in a series of semi-circles under which visitors can walk. “To me, fishing has always conjured up the notion of removing oneself from the here and now to a place of peace and reflection,” said Munro. Nearby lies Fireflies — 9,720 whimsical bursts of light that dance in the breeze.
“It is my belief that light is a wonderful medium to connect mind, body, and soul with the natural environment,” Munro said. “I hope this installation instills a sense of wonder and surprise to those that see it.”
Munro stresses that he doesn’t want his installations to overshadow the natural beauty of his settings. He is “acutely conscious of light pollution issues and has devoted himself to creating work that interacts harmoniously with its environment,” said Hopple. This dedication resonated with the Hunters, as well. From its earliest inception, the Sensorio project honored the landscape with environmentally friendly practices. “For this exhibit,” Hoople added, “the ground was carefully excavated to ensure the heritage oak trees dotting the site, as well as the natural plants and animals, were not disturbed.” Before any work began, Sensorio worked closely with a slew of environmental and government agencies — from the City of Paso Robles to the Army Corps of Engineers and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife — to ensure the work was done in an ethical, responsible way. “An exhaustive list and classification of every biological asset historically and presently on site, a Floristic Inventory Report with an exhaustive list and classification of every species of plant life on site, and even a Cultural Resources report” were part of the work, Hopple said.
To power Munro’s exhibits, 58 solar panels soak up the Central Coast sunshine during the day. “All light emitting equipment has been carefully selected based upon its low power consumption,” said Hopple. “The fact that one can see stars while in the center of the exhibit demonstrates how little light is actually emitted. The Field of Light installation at Sensorio utilizes just under 5KW per hour — the equivalent consumption of two and a half average houses, spread over 15 acres.” When standing on the terrace above the lights, it’s hard to believe that such a large-scale exhibit requires so little power.
The best way to view Sensorio? Get there before sundown, so you can watch the exchange of light as the sun goes down and the lights come on. And be prepared to move — you’re going to want to get up close to each of Munro’s four exhibits. All the pathways are smooth and ADA accessible, so those with mobility issues can participate as well.
After strolling around, you’ll find plenty of areas to kick back and watch the light show (and lots to do, as well). Grab a bite to eat and local brews at the Mercado, then enjoy live acoustic music at the picnic tables, fire pits, or lawn area. For an elevated experience, get tickets that include admission to the Terrace Experience. This includes priority entry as well as private restrooms, an Airstream bar, fireside tables, heaters, a beverage, and “special seating on the terrace with the best views of the exhibition,” Hopple said. Additional menu items can be pre-ordered with these tickets.
Sensorio and the Hunter family have more plans in the works for the future, including a new exhibit, Dimension, opening later this year. “This new exhibit will feature walk-in artworks and music to create a visual/audio experience that will transport you into an uncharted dimension,” said Hopple. Further down the line are even more exhibits, as well as plans to build a hotel on the site. Check the website for special events, such as Sunrise at Sensorio.
For tickets and more, visit sensoriopaso.com.