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In a Gloomy Pandemic Season, the Portland Winter Light Festival Returns Just in Time

The annual event is more dispersed, masked, and distanced, but still aglow.

By Julia Silverman February 1, 2021

Tyler FuQua’s Disco Bug will be on display on N Williams Avenue as part of the Portland Winter Light Festival.

In 2020, the Portland Winter Light Festival was one of the last events to unfold as normal, before the start of the pandemic shut down pretty much every other circled-on-the-calendar date in the city. 

In 2021, the completely free event will be the first in-person event to tiptoe back, a hopeful sign for the days and months ahead, even if this year’s version won’t look much like its predecessors. 

For starters, this year’s event—which kicks off this coming Friday and Saturday from 6 to 10 p.m. and repeats on February 12–13, won’t be clustered around the Eastbank Esplanade and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. That area has traditionally been at its heart, resulting in molasses-slow, bundled-up crowds oohing and aahing at the often-interactive light installations positioned every few feet. 

Instead, says Alisha Sullivan, the festival’s director, more pop-up art installations will be spread throughout the city, in five of six quadrants, to prevent crowds from flocking to a single location. Some are larger—an immersive light installation at Pioneer Courthouse Square—and some are just an art piece placed in the window of a business or on the front lawn of a private home. (Plot your route via the handy online map.) Everything is visible from a public right of way; attendees are asked to wear masks and stay distant from other parties. 

Most of the year we planned on canceling,” Sullivan says, “or just being really flexible. But around fall, we started thinking there’s a way we can do something. Our event is all outdoors anyway.” 

Modeled on similar festivals across Northern Europe, the Portland Winter Light festival falls squarely at the center of prepandemic Portland’s calendar events dead zone: that post-holiday, pre-spring lull when everyone retreats inside and wears slippers. The festival was founded in 2015 to showcase emerging and established artists, and to draw foot traffic during a slow stretch in the city.  

This year, with a pandemic-battered downtown Portland coping with an avalanche of bad publicity, that mission felt especially vital, Sullivan says. 

“Part of our mission is to invigorate Portland in the winter,” Sullivan says. “We were thinking about what small part we could play in showing people that it is OK to go downtown. We’re getting closer to the next chapter of the pandemic—maybe people will start taking the wood off their windows. Filling the city with light and art can help shift the narrative a little bit.” 

It’s true that you’ll have to work a little harder to discover the exhibits this year, but think of it like a scavenger hunt, Sullivan says. Some don’t-miss-its: Amy Meyer’s Astral Tide projection mapping installation at SE Second and Clay Streets, artist Dave Shirkani’s mental health–inspired inflatable piece in the lobby of ZGF Architects downtown, titled Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself, and Tyler FuQua’s disco ball–spangled VW bug on N Williams, in an empty retail space near the Peloton apartment buildings. (Another don’t miss, on Saturday, February 13, only: short films by Black filmmakers, screened outdoors by the Albina Vision Trust at 501 N Dixon St.) 

It’s not quite the traditional Winter Light festival, but Sullivan says she thinks there will be lessons learned from this year’s event that will apply in 2022 and beyond, when things are (pleasepleaseplease) back to some kind of normal.  

“We hope to come back stronger next year,” she says. I don’t know exactly what that will look like. We are testing some different strategies through thiswhat does it look like if we do it for two weekends? In more dispersed areas? Have more of a presence downtown? We are trying to playfully experiment as much as we can right now.