For a few nights each year, the Portland Winter Light Festival transforms the City of Roses into a city of lights. Designed to bring light to the wintry darkness, this free festival returns every winter with imaginative works that combine light and technology to create interactive experiences.
“We’re doing it to bring people together, and also to bring people out of the dark,” says festival Artistic Director Chris Herring. “We are trying to be the stepping stone to spring.”
Portland Winter Lights Festival returned for its fifth iteration Feb. 6–8, 2020, with 114 illuminated art installations, dozens of performances and live events, educational programming and mesmerizing kinetic fire sculptures placed throughout the city. The festival’s 150,000 attendees enjoyed a silent disco, an illuminated nighttime bike ride and lantern parade, live ice carving, dance performances and more.
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, and since 2018 has expanded to feature installations in locations throughout the city.
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.
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.”
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.
“The [festival] has become a favorite wintertime destination for [our] community,” Herrings says. “And nothing showcases that more than our ability to bring in artists and performers from around the region.”
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