Light in the distance: ‘Let There Be Light’ adapts to the pandemic

The exhibit takes place
in front yards and businesses throughout Charlottesville Friday, December 4 and Saturday, December 5 from 6-9pm. The exhibit takes place in front yards and businesses throughout Charlottesville Friday, December 4 and Saturday, December 5 from 6-9pm.

A few months ago, James Yates awoke from a nightmare.  He was hosting “Let There Be Light”—the same luminesce-focused art exhibit he has helmed for the past 13 years at Piedmont Virginia Community College—but there was a problem. “Nobody was wearing masks, and everybody was crowding together,” he says. “I woke up in a panic and realized we can’t do ‘Let There Be Light’ at PVCC this year.”

Yates arranged a meeting with Beryl Solla, PVCC’s chair of performing and visual arts and curator of “Let There Be Light,” to weigh their options. They agreed immediately that the program shouldn’t be canceled outright—for a number of reasons, Solla says, “we need it more than we’ve ever needed it before.”

In years past, “Let There Be Light’’ was headquartered at PVCC. The programming—which consists of several Charlottesville artists’ effulgent creations—took place outside on the college campus with refreshments, conversation, and a chance to warm up inside.

But the exhibition couldn’t exist in its typical form, which necessitated creative problem-solving. Yates thought of “Yard Dreams,” a 2016 project he had organized where installations were set up on various Belmont lawns. After some discussion, he and Solla decided to adopt the same structure for the winter solstice event.

This year, 23 “Let There Be Light” exhibits will be scattered across the city. Maps will guide people from location to location, and everyone will be asked to follow standard safety procedures, like staying in their cars when possible and wearing a mask when outside.

The curators are excited to see what might result from the restrained event, and Solla wonders how the pieces might transform it. “Drive-by art…art that’s meant to be seen at 40 miles an hour, is just so odd and surprising,” she says.

The foundational aspects of “Let There Be Light” remain unchanged. For example, the program’s emphasis on the secular will be preserved. “Separating it from Christmas,” Yates says, was a priority since its creation. The seeds for an illuminated art event were planted in his head when he was a “wee child,” and he and his family would drive around town to see neighbors’ light displays. “I wanted to replicate that magical feeling,” he says, while providing an alternative to the “hyper-commercialization of the holidays.”

This year’s program features many familiar artists, including PVCC professor Fenella Belle whose latest creation, “Border Lines,” enigmatically promises an “exploration of the role lines play in dividing and connecting us.”

Choreographer and filmmaker Shandoah Goldman returns to present two short, COVID-related films in a drive-in format at the Woolen Mills Chapel, and C. James Cunningham’s piece, “SOS,” will “be floating in the sky above the Downtown Mall,” says Yates.

Yates and Solla say that even when the arts world returns to normal, they’ll consider keeping the multiple locations as a new level of interactivity. Solla doesn’t anticipate pushback from the artists, who are a “peculiar breed…ready to try anything.”

They were, after all, amenable to this year’s changes, and willing to adapt so that a program intended to combat darkness could continue to do so in a particularly dim year. Solla says they all agreed: “We need the light, we need the love, we need the vision for the future.”

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