For a few nights every February, the Portland Winter Light Festival transforms the City of Roses into a city of lights. This free Central Eastside event features imaginative works that combine light and technology to create an interactive experience. Marvel at glowing installations like the inaugural 2016 festival’s 30-foot (9 m) metal tree with LED lights shaped like flowers. Also on offer: light science talks, an illuminated bike ride, a lantern parade, workshops, laser light shows and dance parties.
“We’re doing it to bring people together, and also to bring people out of the dark,” says festival Artistic Director Chris Herring. “We want people to see their community in a different light.”
The renewable-energy-powered festival is an extension of the Willamette Light Brigade, a nonprofit that’s been lighting Portland’s bridges since 1987. It lights up the area surrounding the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) at the east end of the Tilikum Crossing Bridge and along the Eastbank Esplanade.
Inspired by European celebrations like the Festival of Lights in Lyon, France — an event which Herring says “blew his mind” when he attended in 2007 — the Portland Winter Light Festival combines creativity with various forms of light. Artworks might feature fire, tungsten lights and LEDs, along with playful use of reflections and shadows. Artists throughout Cascadia (Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, Alaska, Idaho and Northern California) submit proposals for these displays to a volunteer committee months in advance. During the festival, the chosen artists are on hand to speak with festival-goers and answer questions about their work.
Herring says that while the festival has no restrictions on installation size, artists must follow one rule: No white light. That ubiquitous shade is considered harsher and less aesthetically pleasing than other light forms. “The lighting that America uses all the time is super utilitarian,” he says. “The technology’s here to make it dynamic. You can create your own world.”
Winter Light Festival 2017
The second Winter Light Festival, themed “Between the River and the Stars,” showcased work from more than 50 artists. Highlights included a fire-breathing metal dragon and a 36-foot (11 m) fallen robot, encrusted in LEDs. Community installations created by teams of local businesses, designers and engineers were also featured throughout the festival grounds. The Portland Spirit (illuminated, of course) offered free rides across the Willamette River from downtown to the festival.
With interaction and education being key aspects of the event, “Bling Your Thing” workshops and light science talks encouraged participation. An illuminated bike ride and lantern parade added to the festival’s luminous tapestry of light, color and sound. LoveBomb Go-Go Marching Band and The Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers contributed live music.
“All the way up to New Year’s Eve, there are parties and events, and then everyone turns out all their lights,” said Herring. “We are trying to be the stepping stone to spring.”