When long dark nights have Portland in their grip, the Portland Winter Light Festival brightens lives and locales, with support from the Oregon Cultural Trust. Performers prance and dancers dazzle, festooned with color. Around the city anchor sites, complete with performances and large light-based art installations, are interspersed with a web of pop-up installations to bring the city to life in a luminous kaleidoscope of color. The 2023 Festival is scheduled from Feb. 3 to 10.

From Pioneer Courthouse Square and the World Trade Center to the “Electric Blocks” east of the Willamette River and locales as diverse as the Lents neighborhood and Northwest Portland, night-lights burst in brilliant optics and activities. When it comes to lighting up the night, nothing outshines the Portland Winter Light Festival – a production of the Willamette Light Brigade.

Festival goers join the bike procession during the 2022 Portland Winter Light Festival. Photo © 2022 Remaining Light Photography

The Willamette Light Brigade created the Winter Light Festival for people to explore their community and see it through a new lens. Through dynamic digital lighting, displays, activities and events the Festival shines for nine evenings in February. “It comes at a time of the year when we are putting the darker days of winter behind us,” says Alisha Sullivan, executive director of the Willamette Light Brigade.

The Festival began in 2016 and the Cultural Trust has been a partner since 2019, providing more than $55,000 to help make it happen.

Those grants have combined with donations from individuals and groups… many in the $20 dollar range. As Sullivan says, “People are really looking for an accessible experience of art, especially digital art, that engages them across the city in so many public places.”

Something must be working because attendance totaled nearly 190,000 in 2022.

“It’s a wonderful event,” says Sullivan. “The artwork brings folks from all backgrounds out to explore Portland and experience levity and community during a dark time of year.”

The Festival also encourages people to join in creating art. As Franklin Potts of YGH + Integrus Architecture says, “For some of us, this has become our favorite time of year because of the creative and collaborative spirit that buzzes around this annual project as well as the chance to play with lights.” He adds, “Our team created Elliot’s Garden, a suspended cloud structure filled with LED lights and paired with a screen of projected rain and snow for the plant store’s resident tortoise, Elliot, n at Reclamation PDX plant shop. After the festival, nobody felt it would be right to remove the cloud and that’s where it remains today… to be a part of this annual event has been very rewarding.”

The Festival is open to everyone…no reservations required. “Our idea is to encourage attendees to explore the city and view art while allowing for equitable access for more families and guests.  No barriers, no doors, no fee,” says Sullivan. “Anyone can come and experience art first-hand.”

The Portland Winter Light Festival is an artistic discovery process that enlivens a broad and diverse community and helps chase winter doldrums away. Its organizers promise to bring the unexpected and “invigorate the community.”

Story by Peter Murphy