James Yates is on a quest to bring magic back during the holidays.
“When I was a kid, we used to drive around the town looking at Christmas lights. I remember how awesome that was: me being in the back of the station wagon, drinking hot chocolate, looking out the windows,” the artist says.
“Several years ago, I was unhappy about the commercialism of the holidays and wanted to come up with an alternative way for people to come together and celebrate this time of year. I’m going for that magical feeling…I want to be amazed. I want to experience awe, however that may happen.”
Yates is the founder and curator of “Let There Be Light,” a one-night outdoor art exhibition at Piedmont Virginia Community College that features light-centered art installations and performances. Now in its ninth year, the exhibition nods to the approaching winter solstice.
“Every culture celebrates this time of year in one way or another,” says Yates, who became inspired nearly a decade ago after a friend in Hawaii described attending a candle-lit, light-filled evening in a park. “The light is just a really cool way to bring people together.”
Also championed by Beryl Solla, the gallery director at PVCC, “Let There Be Light” inspires collaboration between a variety of artists and community members. “Running into people in the dark, you make a connection that is totally different than what you would make in a day to day [situation], in the light,” says Solla. “It totally transforms your experience.”
On December 11, visitors can expect the unexpected—even Yates doesn’t know what artists will create until shortly before the show launches. Artists select their chosen sites on the hillside so they can be fed electricity if needed, then they prep for nightfall. “It’s by invitation,” he says. “The main criteria is to amaze me.”
This year, “Let There Be Light” features work by 25 individual artists from the Charlottesville and Richmond areas. They include award-winning photographers, local potters, Lincoln Center performance artists, UVA faculty, costume designers and musicians.
In video, Allison Andrews and Julia Dooley construct a metaphor for the cycle of creation and destruction, while John Grant, Jacob Chang-Rascle and Shane Matthews debut Galactica, a short-video fantasy based on a photography project that explores celestial shapes and forms that occur in simple blocks of ice. And Deborah Rose Guterbock and A.I. Miller illuminate a moving diorama of a very high tech-looking lunar landspeeder.
Electric light creates luminous contrast to heighten the magic. Jarn Heil’s “Swarm” consists of colorful night fliers swarming overhead, while Russell Richards’ “Goth Kite” is a kite designed to be flown at night. Mark Edwards’ “Olo” “breathes” light and transforms it into fiber optic cables. “A Dream for Sophie” by Susan Watts creates an enchanted field accented by suspended clouds of light. Illuminated performers form ambient sculpture in Annie Temmink’s “Nightwalker,” and “Dance Move Burglar 2.0,” choreographed by Michelle Cooper, looks like life-sized stick figures dancing in the dark.
Earth elements come to light at PVCC as well. Mark Nizer maps videos on the water of the lagoon. Tom Clarkson and Nancy Ross, ceramics teachers, host raku firings for the fourth year in a row. Visualabs’ “Pipeline” is an installation that uses state-of-the-art high pressurization Wavicle technology to harness vibratory formations deep in the Earth’s crust. Finally, Chris Haske’s “The Materiality of Light” captures light in a transparent chamber, at which point its materiality becomes apparent.
Interactive works include Fenella Belle and Stacey Evans’ “Space Scrambler,” which invites participants to collaborate in the process of making art and share their experience through social media at #spacescrambler. In “Ground Control,” an audio-visual experience by Travis Thatcher, Peter Bussigel and Luke Dahl, groups of people create patterns of light and sound by walking, tapping, scraping and dancing on the court.
Yates and Solla plan to offer an instruction-based, step-by-step guide to seeing the light, though the specifics remain to be seen. After nine years, the spirit of play is very much alive in the process.
“One of my favorite pieces I’ve done was called ‘If Not Now, When?’” Yates says. “It was a large sandbox filled with glitter, and we invited people to sit inside the glitter box with goggles. They took fistfuls of glitter and threw it up in the air, and the word ‘now’ appeared in the glitter.”
As an art-maker, Yates says, “Organizing stuff is just as equally important as doing my own individual art.” He cites a childhood spent making things around the neighborhood—a miniature golf course, a spook house, a magic show—as his inspiration.
In art school, he focused on the creation of performance, video and site-specific art. “Like I was in a show where my piece was inviting artists to come. It was just a space, and they would come and do whatever,” he says.
Providing space for artists to come together and co-create is a theme that’s carried through in his work. When you open the floor to interplay and artist interaction, he says, “surprising, delightful things can happen.”
Having people come together feels particularly poignant around the holidays.
“What I like about collaboration is it’ll take you some place else that you wouldn’t have gone on your own. It’ll stretch you and take you to different places, surprising places and so on. Bringing people together at this time, I think people are basically longing for connection and community and this is one way to do that.”