For a few nights every February, the Portland Winter Light Festival transforms the City of Roses into a city of lights. Designed to bring light to the wintry darkness, the festival returns every February. The free 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 2018
The third Winter Light Festival was themed “The Light of Progress” and showcased more than 100 installations at “hubs” around the city, along with live performers, interactive activities and events. The year’s roster of more than 100 artists and creators drew almost exclusively from the Pacific Northwest.
For the first time in its history, the festival expanded to additional sites throughout the city.
“The Portland Winter Light Festival has already become a favorite wintertime destination for the Portland community,” Herring said. “Nothing showcases that more than our ability to bring in artists and performers from around the region and [to] expand the footprint of this year’s festival to neighborhoods well beyond anything we’ve been able to do before.”
In addition to its original OMSI stomping grounds, the festival had installations at Portland General Electric (PGE) headquarters at the World Trade Center and at Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) by the North Park Blocks (in downtown Portland and the Pearl District, respectively), along with Cathedral Park in North Portland’s St. Johns neighborhood.
Featured works & activities
Artworks at the 2018 festival included Tyler FuQua’s “Cosmic Space Worm,” a 30-foot-long (9.1 m) aluminum worm built on five adult tricycles; “Tron Pong,” a black-light ping pong experience by James Thompson; and “Light Gardening/A Robot at Play,” a robot built by Richard Miner that tends to a fiber-optic garden.
Additionally, performance groups like BodyVox dance company performed downtown and the Oregon Rail Heritage Center showcased Tesla coil demonstrations. Portland’s bike-share program, Biketown, also provided “Light Bikes,” illuminated bicycles which could be ridden throughout the festival. The perfect time to ride one was during the festival’s 3-mile (4.8 km) Illuminated Bike Parade.
Some favorite installations from the 2017 festival also made reappearances, including the “Flamethrower Chandelier” by Ryan Ramage, free rides on the Portland Spirit (which were illuminated), “Homage to Trogdor” by Ivan McLean (a 50-foot-tall [15 m] fire-spitting dragon) and silent disco dance parties.
“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.”