By the time February rolls around here in the rainy northwest, most folks are going a little bit crazy. Portland native and lighting designer Chris Herring knows the feeling.

“In the winter, Portlanders start working on weird projects,” says Herring. “Because they’re inside or at a bar, but they’re just kinda ready and waiting to do something.”

Artist Rich Burton, of HooperFly, presents his ideas for illuminated flying robots to Chris Herring, the Portland Winter Light Festival's artistic director.

Artist Rich Burton, of HooperFly, presents his ideas for illuminated flying robots to Chris Herring, the Portland Winter Light Festival’s artistic director.

Greg Bond/OPB

In 2016, Herring and his friends found a way to harness that creative crazy and turn those cold, dark winter days warm and bright.

The Portland Winter Light Festival is a free, outdoor, multi-day event along Portland’s southeast waterfront that features displays and environments created with light or shadow or projection. The festival is presented by the Willamette Light Brigade (the folks who light up Portland’s bridges) is hosted by OMSI and receives major support from PGE.

An easy walk along the eastside esplanade allows a visitor to take in everything from elaborate interactive LED sculptures to large-scale projection mapping to post-apocalyptic, fire-powered spaceships.

“We have a lantern parade and a bike parade and whatever happens to show up because part of it is we want the public to come and light up and be part of it. We want them to feel like it’s their festival because it is their festival,” says Herring.

Herring’s vision isn’t limited by the length of the waterfront walkway.

A scene from the Portland Winter Light Festival

A scene from the Portland Winter Light Festival

Greg Bong/OPB

“It’s not about just looking. It’s about participating. I want people to actually walk into this thing, just look around and go, ‘Oh, why didn’t I think of that. Why is it that nobody has ever done this before?’ We want other people to become part of the festival. So if you’re the neighborhood association on Division, you might want to change all your streets to pink or talk to the artists in your neighborhood and create your own version of it.”

The ethos of the now 2-year-old festival is also one of illumination.

“I want people to make art. I want people to actually do something to make themselves happy, you know, because I think people just get stuck,” Herring observes. “Right now I feel like after New Year everybody turns off all their Christmas lights and then everything gets sad and I don’t understand why.”

Herring sees no reason to turn off the lights just because a calendar tells you to, “If it’s inspiring and it makes you happy, then just leave it on or do something else with it. There’s just no reason not to.”