February 09, 1976 12:00 PM

Even sober drivers blink and often screech to a halt as the familiar old Federal Land Bank in downtown Columbia, S.C. comes into view. There before astonished eyes is a veritable mirage: a tunnel hewn out of mountain rock, through which a clearly marked highway curves off to a brilliant orange sunset.

The 50-by-75-foot, fool-the-eye illusion was created by local artist Warren Johnson, 38, who goes by the name of Blue Sky (primarily because he believes that in a previous incarnation he was an Indian).

Blue Sky, despite his name, did not always think big. For most of his artistic career, he has been satisfied with easel-sized canvases. But Sky, who regularly fasts one day a week in total silence, was inspired to a larger vision by listening to symphonies. “I wanted to do in art what Beethoven had done in music,” he explains, “tackle something larger than life, go right through to the next dimension.”

It did not hurt that Blue Sky’s mural would also brighten up the drab city-scape. Sponsored by the South Carolina Arts Commission, he began a year ago by erecting a scaffold and preparing the wall. Why a tunnel? “It’s because the bank wall borders a parking lot,” Sky explains. “I wanted the painting to work with its environment, and the parked cars naturally inspired the idea.” Then, too, the tunnel expressed some of his metaphysical yearnings: “I wanted to reach through that wall, touch something larger than life.”

The reaction to Tunnel Vision, which he completed last October, ranges from cheers to puzzlement. No one has tried to detour through the tunnel—yet. But there have been near crashes as motorists gawk at the phantasmagoria—apparently transfixed by the prospect of driving off into Blue Sky’s wild blue yonder.

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