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Free public events mesh arts, science to ease winter gray

COURTESY: CHAD GAETZ - Works by artists such as Chad Fez Gaetz (his piece Helianthus, right) will be part of the first Portland Winter Light Festival, Feb. 3-6.About 100 years ago, lights were considered an attraction, a luxury — and you might go 20 or 30 miles outside of Portland and not find any in homes. So, when civic leaders built the Great Light Way, a series of lighted arches on Third Avenue, it was quite an attraction.

Inspired by the Great Light Way, and such festivals around the world, the city will put on the first Portland Winter Light Festival, based at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, 1945 S.E. Water Ave., the evenings of Wednesday through Saturday, Feb. 3 to 6.

Among the sponsors is Portland General Electric, which makes sense, doesn’t it?

As opposed to 1914’s Great Light Way, which PGE serviced with simple energy sent in from Willamette Falls and elsewhere, the Portland Winter Light Festival will be “Powered by PGE Renewable Energy.”

The exhibit will consist of lighted sculptures and art installations, all using LED lights, and projections and performances — a tapestry of light, color, artistry and imagination. There’ll be ancillary events, such as a lighted bike parade. Portland Opera’s building next door to OMSI will be bright with lights, as will the nearby Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation’s building and steam


There are more than a dozen artists involved in the festival, which came from ideas generated by the nonprofit Willamette Light Brigade and Jeff Schnabel, a Portland State University architecture professor. He and others visited other such festivals in Montreal, Quebec, Eindhoven, The Netherlands and Helsinki, Finland, and helped get the discussion started with then-Mayor Sam Adams about staging something similar in Portland. PGE became the first presenting sponsor for the Willamette Light Brigade event.

Organizers hope the Winter Light Festival makes things more bright and cheery and brings people together in the dark winter days.

COURTESY: OREGON HISTORICAL SOCIETY - This old postcard shows some of the Third Street lighted arches that made the Great Light Way, part of the inspiration for the new Portland Winter Light Festival.Going back to 1914, civic leaders wanted to attract shoppers to Third Street (now Third Avenue), and the concept of huge steel, lighted arches adorned with lights came to fruition. Competition being what it was, Third Street merchants saw the success of Broadway companies and felt left behind. The arches were built from Yamhill to Burnside, and then to Madison on the south and Glisan on the north — there were 10 in all. The Great Light Way arches and lights were gradually taken down from 1920 to 1940, partly to save money and to make way for other road projects. During its beginnings, though, it was quite a spectacle.

“A lot of homes were still being electrified,” PGE’s Stan Sittser says. “Rural electrification had not taken place, yet. If you came to the Lewis and Clark World’s Fair (in 1905) or Third Street in the 1920s, if you were living 20 or 30 miles out of town, you might be on a farm without lights.”

The Great Light Way influenced other areas. Decorative lights went up on Grand Avenue, Washington Street, Jersey Street in St. Johns and then Broadway. A good website to reference for more history is Cafe Unknown (www.cafeunknown.com) by Dan Haneckow.

Festivals around the world feature installations and art opportunities throughout cities, but organizers here wanted to start small and keep things centralized at OMSI. Montreal’s festival draws more than 500,000 visitors, citywide.

The Portland festival starts at 5 p.m. and ends around 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, Feb. 3-4, and goes till 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 5-6. The Portland Spirit will offer free rides from its westside port near Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park, and the 45-minute ride will take visitors to the Tilikum Crossing and then to OMSI.

For more info, including Portland Spirit’s schedule, see www.pdxwlf.com.

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