The Portland Winter Light Festival Sets the City Aglow

Discover a 16-foot-tall robot, a glow-in-the-dark community mural, wood-burning sculptures, projection mapping, and more at this year’s nine-day festival.

By Isabel Lemus Kristensen January 25, 2023

Fire performer Erika Ryn at the 2019 Portland Winter Light Festival

Image: Amy Sakurai

The annual Portland Winter Light Festival returns with its characteristic charm this February. Since 2021—when it shifted to a decentralized format during the pandemic—the festival has transformed neighborhoods, storefronts, and public spaces across the city, serving as a source of joy during the darkest time of the year.

If you’ve walked through the South Park Blocks recently, you might’ve already seen a glimpse of the dappled light from Ivan McLean’s disco ball, Tyler Fuqua’s color-changing tree sculpture, or Fez BeGaetz’s 25-foot LED sunflower. The three pieces were installed in December and will stay up through the rest of the festival, says Alisha Sullivan, the festival’s director. But they are just a preview of what’s to come.

Starting February 3, approximately 130 works of art, which engage with the theme “The Light of the Stars,” will brighten up the city for the nine-day fest. Attendees can venture into neighborhoods to check out pop-up installations or visit three anchor sites—Pioneer Courthouse Square, the World Trade Center, and the Electric Blocks—to catch fire-based performances, fire and ice sculptures, projection art, and more.

Standing 16 feet tall, veteran artist Fuqua’s commissioned robot sculpture is a must-see. The robot will be stationed at Salmon Street Springs in Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park for the entire month of February. And on the Central Eastside, a dynamic, large-scale projection mapping installation by artist Mark Johns will cover the face of an Electric Blocks building on SE Second Avenue and Clay.

Other light-art installations to check out include Christian Lindquist’s water vortexes at the World Trade Center, an interactive laser harp titled Sensory Abduction Scenario by Rich Burton at Pioneer Courthouse Square, and a glow-in-the-dark art exhibition facilitated by East Portland Collective in Lents Town Center. Community members are also invited to participate in the festival’s Illuminated Bike Ride on February 4.

The three anchor locations are only open on Friday and Saturday nights from 6 to 10 p.m., Sullivan notes, but on weekdays, people can explore pop-up art in different neighborhoods.

Disco Lights by Ivan McLean

Image: Brooke Hoyer

“We really want people to create their own path and choose their own route, which is why we don’t publish a direct walking path,” Sullivan says.

When the festival first began in 2016, it welcomed large crowds to its location along the Eastbank Esplanade. Now, it operates like a self-guided scavenger hunt. Illuminated works of art are scattered throughout the city—some can even be found on the front yards of private homes–engaging wider community participation and providing free art to more people, Sullivan says.

In 2022, the festival attracted nearly 190,000 people to 101 total sites across Portland and had an estimated economic impact of $3.7 million.

The response from community members and venue partners has largely been positive, Sullivan says. “We’ve heard from countless people that last year’s PDXWLF was the first time they’d been out and about with their family and friends for months, if not over a year.”

Sullivan hopes this year’s festival serves as a reminder of what makes Portland unique: its “incredible creativity and vibrancy,” she says. “I think that filling our city with art and seeing the familiar transformed into something else is such a fun and exciting and joyous experience. It makes you look around with a new lens and think, ‘Oh, is that an art piece?’ And I think that Portland really needs that right now.”

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