BY BRIAN LIBBY
Sometimes in Oregon during the winter it can rain so long or hard you just don't want to go out, at least not on foot. If you do, you know you'll be soaked to the bone, perhaps even within minutes. And yet that's exactly what I decided to do last Saturday in order to check out the second annual Portland Winter Light Festival, located mostly along the east side of the Willamette between OMSI and the Hawthorne Bridge (although this year it also expanded across the river to the Zidell Yards). By the time I got home my pants looked like I'd just pulled them out of a lake, but I didn't care.
I'd gone to the festival last year without any expectations but soon was captivated by the installations and exhibits, which are contributed by a wide array of local artists, artisans and designers. What made them so endearing was that so many of the exhibits were so simple. In many cases, they involved simply moving through some sort of enclosed but illuminated space, perhaps mirrored to distribute the light or possessing some kind of interactive texture. Others involved simply projected light onto a nearby surface, such as the massive, Sequoia-like columns of the I-5 freeway overpass. Still others were basically just glowing orbs, responding and changing according to touch or some other cue. None of the Winter Light Festival was overly sophisticated, and yet it succeeded in conjuring something much greater than the sum of its parts. In the dead of winter, with darkness and bad weather stuck with us for weeks, this festival managed to bring many thousands together with a collective sense of delight.
Earlier this week I spoke with one of the Portland Winter Light Festival's primary founders, Portland State University architecture professor Jeff Schnabel, about how it came together and what we might see in future incarnations of the fest.
Portland Architecture: despite getting soaked at the fest last weekend, and that discomfort ultimately keeping me from venturing over the river to see the rest of the exhibits, I'm so glad this event happens when it does. We all need a pick-me-up in the dead of winter, especially this year given the huge disgrace and danger happening in national politics the past few weeks.
Schnabel: People have often asked, "Why don’t you have this in the summertime when you won’t have those kinds of weather problems?" But in summer there are tons of things to do. In the wintertime, not so much. We wanted to create a public event that happened at a time of year we typically aren’t out as much in the public realm. We’re hearty stock here in the Northwest. We just kind of figured folks would find their way out. It provides a kind of wonderful diversion in the dark of winter. And it gets dark much earlier.
I don't think I've ever seen the east-side waterfront as crowded as it was for the fest these past two years. How did this year's crowd compare to last year?
Last year it caught it us a little bit by surprise, the sheer number of people. I hear we even kind of backed up I-5 a little bit as well. We were better prepared this year. We got geographically larger and separated pieces out a bit more. The Portland Spirit was running multiple boats this year because last year they had more people wanting to ride than were able. I think this year the organizers did a good job getting ready for the crowds. Saturday night we still got the big numbers we’d hoped for. The three previous nights there were plenty.
Friday night was probably my favorite night. It wasn’t particularly crowded. The rain did stop and the wind died down. There was an opportunity to stand and be with some of the art pieces and take them in without feeling like you had to move on.
I loved the whole fest and the eclectic nature of the installations, but my favorite was “Immersive Jelly” by Ivan McLean, with scores of long pieces of fabric moving in the wind and with people moving through, and constantly changing light. It felt a little bit like a rock concert where you could go onstage and become part of the show.
I like that piece as well. Wednesday night, when the wind really picked up, it was horizontal. It wasn’t dangling at all. But even that was beautiful. It was kind of pointing you toward the city skyline, revealed from underneath it. Even in the high wind it was quite lovely.
Could you walk me through the origins of the festival, and what it took to get it off the ground?
I guess it started with a symposium I hosted here at PSU called “The Illuminated City.” I was getting very interested in designing for nighttime. I brought in folks internationally to talk about new technologies that were illuminating our cities. I met Chris Haring, who eventually became our artistic director for both years. He and Jean Margaret Thomas, our technical director, have done the heavy lifting both years.
For a while as we tried to get it off the ground, it just wasn’t happening. At one point I stopped trying to make it happen. But then this landscape architect, Mary Anne Zarkin, called me and said, 'I’ve just been to Amsterdam’s light festival. We’ve got to get this going again.’ About that same time, I had joined the Willamette Light Brigade. I said, ‘This seems like it might be a reasonable extension to your agenda.’ To their credit, they enthusiastically embraced the idea. I was coming to them with no funding, no backing. They agreed to be the umbrella organization and use their 501(c)3 and use their contacts and connections in the city. Chris and Jean came on board and began to reach out to the design and artist community and the lighting industry. But that was five years it took to get that going.
What really helped spark me was getting the Van Evera Bailey Fellowship from the Architecture Foundation of Oregon. I wanted to do something but was incredibly naïve. It made me less naïve, which was a great thing. It allowed me to travel to a bunch of bad-weather locations that had light festivals. I went to Helsinki and Montreal and Reykjavik and Amsterdam. The weather was horrible in each of those locations. It also gave me a chance to talk to their directors and how they funded these. The funding came in a variety of ways. Helsinki was fully funded by the city government: about $600,000. The opposite end of the spectrum is probably Montreal, which is largely funded by large banks and corporations, but they do get some arts funding as well.
"Feedback and Flow" by Max Strater and Kyle Paulsen (Brian Libby)
How did you fundraise here?
Neither one of those aforementioned options turned out to be available for us. We couldn’t get the City of Portland to bite. They’d say, 'It’s a great idea. You should do it.' And Portland lacks Fortune 500 companies. There are some very generous individuals and companies within the city, but they get asked six times a day to support things. We’re a big town, small city. There’s a finite number of resources. And so this festival would not have taken place if not for the passion and in-kind donations from the creative community. It was landscape architects, architects, engineering firms, lighting design and supply firms—and lots of them. Each stepped up with what they could to make this thing happen. They almost are too numerous to name.
I think that in part is responsible for the character of the festival: it’s not just one or two large corporate donors making this thing happen. It is a lot of firms that are passionate about the festival and really stepped up. This festival exists because of the Portland design community, and I use that term broadly. You’ve got lighting designers, lighting suppliers, artists and sculptors who are fascinated with light. You’ve got some people really geeky about light, and I mean that as a compliment. They’re looking at what lasers can do. The artists largely provided their art for free, or basically the festival covered their costs. We want to be the kind of festival that compensates artists for their art, but folks were coming to us and passionate about being in the festival, and generous with their time. You’ve got people like Jonah Cohen from Hacker Architects for example, fundraising like a madman and putting up his own cash. He’s manning info booths and locking up toilets at night.
And he’s just one example. The commitment people had to this festival went so far beyond just writing a check. Somebody would say, ‘I will help with the graphics’ or ‘I will help with the website.’ People started coming out of the woodwork and donating their time. But we still weren’t there yet. We didn’t have the kind of funding we needed to pull off the event. That piece came about as I reached out to Erin Flynn at PSU, in research and sponsored projects. She was spearheading the Innovation Quadrant and advocating for that. It was PSU, OHSU, PGE, and OMSI. They wanted to give some identity to this geography they all share. She made some introductions and we were able to secure PGE as the first funder. That gives you a bit of credibility so other funders followed. PSU contributed and OMSI became our host location, and really an important collaborator in the event.
Even if a lack of wealth here makes fundraising more challenging, doesn’t that need to get buy-in from a wide swath of participants and people in the community help raise awareness while you fundraise? Or is it possible it makes the effort feel more eclectic and less corporate?
I think that’s absolutely true. That said, I certainly would not mind a couple of big checks coming in. And part of it too is that the festival is largely an all-volunteer effort. We don’t have paid positions. Our executive director this year was Michael Joyce. He got a token amount of money for what he did. The challenge is to be sustainable. Portland has seen a lot of interesting one-off events. To make something happen year-in, year-out, you can’t just have complete turnover. You need some continuity. And that does require some reasonable amounts of money. For the festival to be sustainable, we’re going to have to see some additional revenue coming in.
Did fundraising become any easier in the second year, when you had a successful event to show potential donors?
Over 30,000 people were in attendance, and then there’s the economic development impacts it made for the city. February is a terrible period for hotels, restaurants, retail, and if we can get to come particularly from out of town, that’s great for our economy. But I was kind of hoping that after the first year, when we could show the numbers, the lifting would get easier in the second year. And I don’t think it did. The struggle to raise money was as great in the second year as it was the first.
I also think is important part of that delight you described is our commitment to it being free. That means that the audience is way more diverse. I think that’s an important thing. As we tracked where people came from, it really was from all parts of the region. We got outer southeast folks, Oregon city folks. I think people are looking for things you can do for free. I got to go to the Oregon Winter Fest in Bend. I got to be a judge for the fire sculpture competition. It was quite fun. But there was admission for that. It was a very nice event, but it definitely felt like it was an event for the privileged. That’s just not us. We want that delight to be experienced by anybody and everybody who wants to come down and be part of that. Part of our challenge comes from our own making.
Inside "Ocular Operatic Observatory" by Hacker Architects (Brian Libby)
How might the festival grow in the years ahead?
I’ll let you in on some long range planning. We always see the Willamette River as the core. We refer to it as the heart of the festival. But you’ve already seen us expanding over to the west side. You had Place doing installations for the Halprin sequence. And as we grow, we’ll expand the heart but really I think everybody on the board and the advisory committee sees this event as being a citywide event, and more than just four nights. You might just go into one quadrant to see that stuff. Another night you may come to the Willamette and participate in that. But we’d like to introduce extraordinary light installations throughout the city. The city is the festival. You can’t just block off space for that. And we’re starting to see little bits of that. Elizabeth Leach Gallery featured a light artist this month. PNCA participated last year. We’d love to see that zone in the North Park Blocks in the Pearl grow and expand. We’ve done some things at PSU and would love to expand that. Last year they hosted two shadow-puppet performances, and this year we got students involved in the lantern parade. We’d like to make all of this an integral part of the light festival. Amsterdam’s light festival is like that, as is Montreal’s. They’ve got four major zones in Montreal for their light festival. People visit it multiple nights.
That’s the beauty of this festival: its lack of specificity. It really can absorb any of the arts.