Why the Portland Winter Light Festival?

For someone so focused (literally, using a 100 mm macro lens) on plants, it seems kind of strange that I’d be involved in the Portland Winter Light Festival. But really, it’s not that far of a stretch.

My passion with the Willamette Light Brigade and then the Portland Winter Light Festival is to help people recognize the importance of the Willamette River to our city’s culture, economy and ecology. That value, at its heart, is at the root of the Winter Light Festival in which we come together to build community, in the deepest, darkest, coldest part of the winter, held in the space “between the river and the stars.”

From early 2015 until July 2017, I’ve been the Executive Director of the Willamette Light Brigade (WLB) — a non-profit organization that aims to heighten the civic awareness of residents and visitors to the significance of the river. Since 1986, the WLB has carried out its mission by adding architectural lights to each of Portland’s Willamette River bridges. In 2013, the group decided to research the feasibility of expanding its activities to include an annual winter light festival. They formed a committee that included: Sam Adams, Mike Abbate, Eloise Damrosch, Deane Funk, Randy Gragg, John Hoke, Michele Reeves, Paddy Tillett, Karen Whitman, and Marianne Zarkin. The group agreed upon the need for a family-friendly community event that celebrated light and imagination during the dark days of winter.

The first time I heard about the event was December 15, 2014. Ed Slavin of Northern Illumination Company, was hosting a company holiday party at Nel Centro and we had just stopped there for a bite as well. He spotted us, said hello, and in the din of the boisterous hour of happy, I could make out only a few phrases, “come to one of our meetings…” “festival” “it’ll be amazing…” “winter 2016” “innovative” “you should be involved…” Fast forward a few months, a few meetings, and next thing I know I’m the Executive Director of the Willamette Light Brigade and drawn into the planning of the First Annual Portland Winter Light Festival.

Held over 4 nights the first weekend of February 2016, the first Portland Winter Festival was a huge success with over 30,000 in attendance. Free of charge, we provided an escape from normal winter evenings by transforming the area around OMSI into something magical. Attendees came from every zip code in the city, with a high proportion of attendees from near the East-side Max and Orange Lines. Thanks to the media efforts of folks such as Chad Carter, we even attracted folks from far-away-places who’d heard about the event through the Alaskan Airlines in-flight magazine.

In 2017, despite record-breaking cold, snow, ice, and rain, we added at least 50% more attendees. And drew people from out of town who came to Portland, during the shoulder tourist season, specifically for the Festival.

If you’ve never been to a winter light festival before, here are my top 4 suggestions for how to enjoy the event.

Carolyn’s Tips for the Portland Winter Light Festival

  • Embrace the Season — it’s a Winter Light Festival. At its heart, this is a celebration of Portland’s worst weather, so dress for the weather! In 2017, it was cold, icy at times, wet, and windy. I can’t stress enough the importance of layers and water-proof gear.
  • Be part of the fun– from spontaneous organic participation at one of the installations, adding a colorful  LED or three to your bicycle, or building a lantern to be part of the parade​, everyone is encouraged to participate. In the video below, participants dance below “Light Chimes,” an artistic collaboration between Andrew Haddock of Sticky Co., and Annmarie Trimble of the literary rock band Little Hexes. Use your own creative spunk. That’s how you put the Festive in the Festival!
  • Public transportation is the perfect way to avoid traffic and parking hassles.
  • Donate your time and/or money. While there is no fee to attend, the festival is not free. There are real costs: artist materials, insurance, permits, vendors, and more. There are a number of ways to support the event, with donations and sponsorships the primary needs. However, the festival is nearly 100% volunteer-based, and it requires a lot of organizational time, as well as time during the event to keep everything running smoothly and safe. Hundreds of people are needed for us to keep the event free and open for all. Think about your special talents and how they may fit in!

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