3rd Annual Illuminate SF Festival Brightens Up Dark Nights

The city's holiday season will shine brighter this year: Illuminate SF, San Francisco's annual outdoor light festival, has more than doubled its collection of light installations to 27 city-wide locations. Though the festival runs from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day, many pieces may be viewed year-round. 

Now in its third year, Illuminate SF aims to "celebrate the Bay Area's culture of creativity and invention" and "shine a light on San Francisco's ever-expanding light art scene," according to the website by San Francisco Travel, which organizes the festival. The light festival features tours, celebrations, and other events.

Its founders were inspired by the Bay Lights sculpture that gilded the Bay Bridge from 2013 to 2015 (and will return for the festival before its permanent relighting in 2016). "We recognized at the time that we had a number of other permanent light installations, and so if we grouped them together, made a story out of it, created experiences, and developed tours, it could be a great holiday getaway," said Lisa Hasenbalg, SF Travel’s Senior Director of Arts & Culture Strategy.

Hasenbalg said light art is becoming more and more popular around the world, particularly since the advent of L.E.D. lighting. Light art festivals have been have been happening for many years, with most centered around event lighting, like the lighting of a building.

Year-round installations you may recognize include the Embarcadero's Soma, North Beach's Language of the Birds, and Ninth Street's Caruso's Dream. Many less-trafficked sculptures round out the map, including two in the Inner Sunset: James Turrell's Three Gems at the de Young and Jim Campbell's Ocean Mirror with Fragments at UCSF. These, according to Hasenbalg, are actually two of the festival's most prominent because of their artists' international status.

Turrell, a prominent light artist whose installation, Skygarden, is also featured in the festival, created Three Gems for the de Young Museum's Osher Sculpture Garden in 2005. The sculpture is his first in the stupa form, a cylindrical mound traditionally used as a Buddhist shrine. Viewers can enter the stupa through a tunnel and view the sky through a circular opening in the roof. More recently, the piece underwent an L.E.D. light restoration, which subtly alters viewers' perceptions.

According to Hasenbalg, light art fans may not be the only ones flocking to the sculpture. "The other thing that happens is that people go in there and they sing. It has these amazing acoustics, so you might go in there and be sitting on the bench, and see people come in and sing a capella. People that sing and know about good places to sing, they know about this."

Jim Campbell's Ocean Mirror with Fragments. Photo by Sarah Christianson, courtesy of Lisa Hasenbalg

UCSF's Saunders Court is home to the more hidden of the two pieces. Ocean Mirror with Fragments was created in 2007 by Jim Campbell, another acclaimed light artist and Bay Area resident who works out of a studio in the Dogpatch. His piece features a film of waves at Ocean Beach projected onto a six-by-six foot glass wall with single cubes scattered about. The wall faces directly west, creating a mirror image. "His piece is lovely, and it's very subtle, like the space it's in. You have to kind of be looking for it," said Hasenbalg.

The 36-day festival features guided walking tours, bike toursself-guided tours, and more of what SF Travel dubs experiences, ranging from special museum events to parties to a parade. These early nights make for prime viewing, and Hasenbalg recommended going after 4pm, when dusk falls, to see the lights in their full glory. If you're not usually a fan of long winter nights, it's one reason to look on the bright side.

Three Gems is located in the de Young Museum's outdoor sculpture garden. Access to the garden is free until 4:30 when the museum's open and during Friday Nights at the de Young.

Ocean Mirror with Fragments is located in UCSF's Saunders Court, accessed via a walking path on the southwest side of Parnassus Ave. near Fifth Ave. It's accessible from 9am to 5pm on weekdays. 

For more information about the festival, visit Illuminate SF's website

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Illuminate sf festival brightens up dark nights