While many cities around the world have dialed back their holiday celebrations due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, San Francisco has found a way to (safely) flip the switch and move forward with one of its most popular festivities this winter. Last week marked the start of the eighth installment of Illuminate SF Festival of Light. Running nightly through January 23, the annual event features more than 40 light installations scattered across 17 of the city’s neighborhoods, turning San Francisco into a dazzling wonderland.
The festival was able to move forward this year because nearly all of the installations featured are visible outdoors, making it an activity that people can enjoy while also practicing safe social distancing. “It’s a great opportunity to experience either on foot or driving around in a vehicle,” says Brenda Tucker, director of arts marketing for the San Francisco Travel Association, the entity responsible for organizing the festival. “Because of the pandemic, people want to feel safe, but also inspired.”
As in previous years, the festival features installations created by a roster of world-renowned artists who create dramatic, eye-grabbing illuminated artworks, many of which are large enough to alter the city’s iconic skyline. In addition to a number of permanent displays that are visible year-round, including New York City-based artist Leo Villareal’s The Bay Lights, a massive piece featuring 25,000 white LED lights stretching across the western span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, and local artist Jim Campbell’s Day for Night, a beacon comprised of 11,000 programmable lights and video screens atop Salesforce Tower in the Embarcadero neighborhood, several pieces by artists new to the event debuted this year.
One piece premiering this year is The Ladder (Sun or Moon) by Chilean artist Ivan Navarro, who’s known for creating ladders and other architectural elements in his work. For this piece, located at 1066 Market Street, he’s created the rungs of a ladder using neon tubing. Other installations coincide with the 150th anniversary of Golden Gate Park. These include the 15-story SkyStar Wheel, a Ferris wheel lit with more than 1 million colored LED lights, and Entwined, a grove of towering trees ranging in height from 6 feet to 20 feet located in the park’s Peacock Meadow, designed by Bay Area artist Charles Gadeken.
While Illuminate SF Festival of Light does feature creations by artists recognized around the world (James Turrell, Jenny Holzer and Olafur Eliasson, to name a few), it also strives to nurture up-and-coming local artists who are doing impressive work. One of these emerging stars is Dorka Keehn, a self-trained artist who serves as chair of the Visual Arts Committee with the San Francisco Arts Commission and also runs an art consulting firm called Keehn on Art. After spending much of her career in politics, Keehn shifted her focus to art and began collaborating with fellow artist Brian Goggin, resulting in two installations for the festival.
The first, Caruso’s Dream, in SoMa, features 13 pianos made from pieces of illuminated glass dangling off the side of a 17-story residential tower. The piece is inspired by the late opera singer Enrico Caruso, who, in 1906, was staying in the nearby Palace Hotel when he was jostled awake by the historic 7.9-magnitude earthquake. “This piece is what we imagine he would’ve seen in a dream before waking up to the earthquake,” Keehn says. “The display is programmed to music, so people can tune into 90.9 FM [from 4 to 10 p.m., within a block of the artwork] and listen to Caruso singing.”
Keehn and Goggin’s second piece, located in a plaza connecting Chinatown and North Beach, is called Language of the Birds. It serves as an homage to the city’s thriving literary scene and features birds in flight, each of their wings represented by the pages of a book illuminated by LED lights. Beneath the display are words and phrases embedded into the plaza’s floor, each verse selected from written works penned by area authors and poets. “As an artist, I strongly believe in the importance of the creative economy,” Keehn says. “It’s a driving force and one reason why people want to live in [San Francisco]. Illuminate SF is an example of how this city supports artists and allows them to be creative, which attracts people to come here.”
Keehn says that every year the festival continues to grow and evolve, citing the early years when she and Goggin would offer impromptu walking tours of their artworks to crowds of people. This year the festival features a Light Art Trail that visitors can follow on foot on their own. Organizers have also teamed up with Big Bus to offer nighttime open-air bus tours where passengers can sit on the top level of the double-decker buses (face masks required).
“The breadth and depth of our program is pretty spectacular,” Tucker says. “The art trail is designed so that people can drop by area coffee shops and cafés to pick up a warm drink as they walk around the city. [Especially during this pandemic], it’s important to support small businesses as well as the arts.”