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A secret city of sundials

Seattle professor hones his timely passion in garage

Lots of people convert their garages into home offices.

Then there’s Woody Sullivan, who painstakingly plotted 700 dots of sunlight on his garage ceiling at his home. The dots were the reflections from a 1-inch mirror, attached to a 6-inch pipe bolted to a windowsill.

The world certainly would be a much lesser place if not for passionate people such as Sullivan, 68, a University of Washington astronomy professor.

It is that passion that has gotten him nicknamed “Mr. Sundial.”

Sullivan has plotted out the months of the year in Seattle and their respective percentage of cloudy days.

December he labels as “gloom,” with the percent chance of seeing some bit of sunlight to be in the mid-20s.

But July? That’s 70 percent, baby!

All the more to celebrate a sundial, Sullivan says.

Sullivan is responsible for helping create half of the some 26 public sundials in the Seattle area, working with architects and artists.

He knows it might seem odd for someone in such a high-tech field as astronomy to be passionate about sundials.

“Sundials slow you down. They connect you to the cosmos,” he says. No matter what you do, that shadow cast by the sun just ... goes ... by ... at ... a ... certain ... speed.

That ceiling sundial on his 11-by-17-foot garage, three years in the making, Sullivan says, is his magnum opus.

When he’s using his office, research papers spread out, he can look up, and if the sun is out, that reflection on the ceiling tells him the time accurately within a couple of minutes.

It also shows everything from the date he married, to birthdays for himself, his wife and two daughters, and other anniversaries.

It includes the signs of the zodiac, with a Northwest twist. Pisces is represented by a pair of sockeye salmon; Cancer is a Dungeness crab; Capricorn is a mountain goat.

All the artwork was done by Jim Noonan, an Edmonds, Wash., painter who specializes in murals, Sullivan says.

It is all Sullivan’s homage to the ceiling sundials developed in the Renaissance era of the 1600s, found in palaces, churches and schools.

Back then, the ceiling sundials were among many versions of sundials around – you could place them flat on the ground, or on walls, and even make miniature handheld ones.

The story is that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson carried pocket sundials.

In this digital age, it’s hard to imagine that for centuries, up until the 1800s, when mechanical timepieces became more accurate and cheaper, sundials were the prevalent way of keeping time.

Sullivan is proud of his garage sundial, and he’s not reticent to explain why.

He says, “Through organizations and persons around the world, I am quite cognizant of all modern ceiling sundials. I can say with confidence that this is the finest one in North America and amongst the two to three best in the entire world.”

Sullivan says his sundial passion came about in the early 1990s, when the University of Washington’s Physics/Astronomy Building was being designed. He says he suggested that perhaps a wall sundial on the outside would make a good decoration.

The architects liked the idea, he says, and Sullivan was off to research sundials. He soon became enamored of them. Sullivan became such a sundial expert that he was even tapped to design one of two sundials used by the Mars Exploration Rovers that landed there in 2004.

Fred Sawyer, of Glastonbury, Conn., president of the North American Sundial Society, says it’s likely true that Sullivan’s garage sundial is one of the best in North America.

The society’s website is quite enthusiastic about the contraptions, posting such breaking news as “Ancient Egyptian Sundial Discovered.”

Having visited Sullivan’s home when the society’s annual convention was held in Seattle in 2011, Sawyer is impressed by the professor’s creation.

“It incorporates a real sense of artistry,” Sawyer says. As for being the best, Sawyer does gently point out there aren’t that many ceiling sundials in this continent, period.

Sawyer also says that Sullivan shows “a great sense of irony” about another of his sundial-related passions – making Seattle “the sundial capital of North America. Nobody would think of sundials and Seattle.”

Why not? Sullivan asks.

Sure, he says, cities like New York and Chicago might have more sundials than Seattle, “but most are of the boring variety.”

In olden times, he says, there were sundials using stained glass, and the tradition was for the artist to incorporate a realistic-looking fly on the glass, perhaps as a joke on the phrase “time flies.”

In his garage, Sullivan used Super Glue to put a dead housefly, moth, fake slug and beetle onto the ceiling.

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