For nine nights, Napa is being brightened after dark by the city’s newest exhibition – a collection of large-scale artworks painted entirely in light.

Major buildings from downtown to the Oxbow District to Napa Valley College have become the backdrops for the Napa Lighted Art Festival, an artwork under the stars that debuted Saturday and will continue nightly through Dec. 17. Using light projectors and sound systems, artists from across the U.S. and Europe are turning Napa’s streetscape into an open-air gallery – of pulsating geometric patterns on the Riverfront building, blooming flowers on the side of the Historic Napa Mill, even the slow-motion bowing of cellos in the NVC auditorium lobby.

The play on light began at 5 p.m. Sunday, just as the sky’s own light was waning.

On Third Street, the white-painted, steeple-crowned First Presbyterian Church instantly became “The Language of Love” – a chapel becoming a billboard to love, expressed in numerous languages. Against a background that turned now blue, now green, the words “LOVE” and “AMOR” filled the archway over the main door; more translations in German, Russian, Korean and other tongues appeared beside, above and even over the stained-glass windows.

Church members welcomed the night’s first spectators, beckoning them to a table for hot cider, cookies and conversation. It was a scene of literal and emotional warmth that touched Amy Pierce, a First Presbyterian worshiper taking in the show with her husband and their 4-year-old twins.

“It’s nice to see this has the message of love, which I think the holiday season is all about,” she said.

For the artwork’s creator, the choice of one of Napa’s most prominent houses of worship as a canvas was no accident.

“It’s a special message, that love should be the language,” said Birgit Zander. In 2005, she founded the Berlin Festival of Lights, whose illuminated displays draw more than 1.8 million spectators to the German capital over its 10-day run each October. “It’s a beautiful building (with which) to tell the story, and also to build a bridge between Germany and California; for me that is something special.”

Farther east on Third Street, passers-by began to line both sides of the Main Street crossing, where Napa’s Riverfront seemingly took on a new shape every second. As spectators took in the scene with cellphones – or just their own eyes – projector beams formed a loop squares, diamonds and waves that bulged in and out and in again, while a large speaker accompanied the shapeshifting with a slow-tempo, low-bass soundtrack redolent of water surging from a great depth.

“We produce a lot of shows with a narrative, that tell a story,” said Ross Ashton, who with his creative partner Karen Monid have produced large-scale public light art from their London studio for 20 years. “Here, I wanted something that was completely different from what we normally work on.”

Famed elsewhere for illumination shows at the British Parliament, The Venetian casino-hotel in Las Vegas and other major venues, Ashton and Monid turned to an abstract approach in Napa, playing with the phenomenon – known as moiré – that results when dense patterns of lines and shapes interact and create visual illusions. Set against a city building, the effect can be three-dimensional, playing tricks with an observer’s vision of its outline.

“I feel like you could stand and watch this for hours, it’s amazing,” said Ann Dearborn of Napa Saturday night as she finally tore herself away, to walk north on Main Street to the Winship Building and the close-up eye images of Marissa Carlisle’s “Duette: Shared Vision Clear Water.”

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Launched jointly by Napa and the city’s Tourism Improvement District, the Lighted Art Festival, which can be viewed free, is the latest effort to draw more visitors during the holiday season. But its creators took pains to present it as an art exhibit that happens to take place at the holidays, and not just another Christmas-themed entertainment.

“We researched what other cities had done with (light festivals), and we wanted to do something different, something more elevated,” said Katrina Gregory, recreation manager of the city Parks and Recreation Department.

“My first question when I was told about was, ‘Is this a holiday show, or an art show?’” recalled Olivia Dodd, president of Arts Council Napa Valley, which advised the city on the project. “And they were clear they wanted this to be an art show.”

“I’m a fan of bringing art out to the public, rather than asking the public to come to the art,” she said. “When you put lights onto a building, it catches people by surprise. You’re going to catch people because you’re bringing art to the streets, literally; you don’t have to sell it, because people are going to see it.”

Zander, too, hoped her creation at First Presbyterian Church, would touch the hearts of observers as directly as possible.

“Light, as I like to say, speaks all languages,” she said. “It’s connections; it’s emotion; it’s life.”

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.