Written by:
Wendy Brodsky,
Design Professional

Project Team Leaders: Jake Bryda, Wendy Brodsky, Max Malany (Turner Construction)
Project Team Members: Jesse Walt, Xanthe Steffen, Thomas Thilavanh, Angel Lopez
Turner Construction Team Members: Eli Somers, Prashanth Narasimhan, Klarissa Lou

The Portland Winter Light Festival, PDXWLF, features captivating light installations, projections, and performances scattered across the city. This eagerly anticipated event takes place in early February, a time of the year that is dark and dreary in the Pacific Northwest, making it the perfect backdrop for a vibrant festival celebrating light and art.

For the last six years, members of the Integrus Emerging Professionals Committee, a group of rising young professionals, have enthusiastically volunteered to create an installation. Equipped with ambitious ideas and in partnership with Turner Construction, we took the lead on the entire process, giving us the chance to be project managers, designers, and builders. Each year the festival theme is driven by a poem written by the PDXWLF’s Creative Director, Chris Hering. This year’s theme was “WHAT GLOWS UNDER PRESSURE,” an homage to the depths of the sea and the creatures that dwell deep in the abyss.

Last year, we ambitiously designed and built a 25 ft long tunnel for visitors to walk through and interact with. We primarily focused on developing the design of the structural frame and incorporating reactive lighting. After many iterations and small-scale prototypes, we came up with an alluring plywood tunnel that was easy to assemble, disassemble, and transport—and did not generate too much waste during the construction process. The tunnel was a fantastic hit, and it was featured on the local morning news! At the festival’s end, we packed away our tunnel with plans to reinvent it the following year.

We started by engaging our whole office in a word-image association exercise, asking participants to identify pictures and words that resonated with the poem. Thinking about how we could give our tunnel a new life, we decided to create an experience evocative of walking through an aquarium tunnel with fish and sea creatures swimming all around. We submitted our application describing the basic concept, size of the installation, electrical needs, some sketches, and the name Blub Blub, decided by popular vote among our Portland colleagues. But as is often the case with design, it is easy to try to do too much, so we narrowed our vision to focus on jellyfish. With just 3.5 months between application submission and the festival, we rebuilt our tunnel frame in the Portland office, giving some of our colleagues an interesting new background for virtual meetings, and began working on how to bring our vision to life.

One of our biggest challenges was determining how to clad the inside of the tunnel. We wanted something that would emulate the reflective glimmer of water and was flexible enough to match the curves of our tunnel. We settled on a black fabric that would easily conceal the wood frame and wiring, but with a holographic finish for light to bounce off.

The other big challenge was crafting the jellyfish residents of our aquatic production, capturing the range of jellyfish varieties in the ocean. To achieve this feat, we utilized a combination of sculptural jellyfish, acrylic-etched jellyfish, and fiber-optic jellyfish. We engaged the entire Portland office, along with a few Turner Construction folks, to create their own jellyfish interpretations using a variety of fabrics, ribbons, trim, wire, and other embellishments. The result was an impressive bloom of shimmery jellyfish.

Then came the complicated part, how to illuminate them? Initially, we wanted to reuse the LED pixel lights from last year to light the jellyfish, but with their wide assortment, we found ourselves short on time and unable to wire and program them all. So, we decided to experiment with el wire as the light source, a plastic-coated wire that lights up when its center, a phosphorus-coated copper wire is electrically charged. The el wire was attached to the jellyfish, each with their own battery-powered power supply. As a nod to the thick acrylic walls of aquarium tanks, we used the Seattle office’s laser cutter to etch jellyfish into acrylic sheets that were illuminated by concealed LEDs. Had budget not been a concern, we would have had a lot more of these, but we were still pleased with our artfully arranged collection of 14 framed jellyfish windows. Wishing to capture the sparkle of the reflective fabric we had chosen for our interior; we supplemented our handmade jellyfish with whimsical fiber optic jellyfish that were bright enough to make it shine and gave us the range of illuminated elements that we were looking for.

During the last three days before the festival, we relocated and rebuilt the entire tunnel. Although we had mocked up our tunnel in the office, this was the first time we had fully assembled all the pieces we had worked on. Thankfully, our thoughtfully planned sequencing of installation paid off. We built the frame, attached the lights, and tested them before stapling down the interior and exterior fabric shells. Getting the interior fabric in place was no small feat, but several people from the Portland office and Turner Construction donated their lunch hours to help us hoist it into place. By the day before the festival began, we finished our final touches and were thrilled to be festival ready.

Realized as an immersive light and art experience chronicling the enigmas of the oceanic world, Blub Blub came to life for four spectacular nights. We were ecstatic to see festivalgoers of all ages enjoying the installation, with many going back to walk through it multiple times.

It was a tedious process that challenged us to consider cost, be mindful of schedule, and use labor effectively so that we could produce a piece of art that brought light and joy to numerous members of the community. But it was worth it! This year’s festival is behind us, but we can’t help but wonder what PDXWLF has in store for us next year…

Read more about the Portland Winter Light Festival here.