ArtSEA: Light shows give Seattle a glow-up this winter

Paintings in Pioneer Square, hot air balloons in Green Lake and lanterns in Woodland Park Zoo offer glimmers in the dark.

abstract painting of a street scene with rain-smeared lights

“Light Show,” a new oil painting by Seattle artist Kate Protage. Her exhibit ‘Home and Away’ is one of several ways to bring light to the darkest days of winter. (J. Rinehart Gallery)

’Tis the season of long, dark nights. I recently learned that while our shortest day is the solstice (Dec. 21), the slightly squished and slanted nature of our planet means our earliest sunsets are actually happening right now, at the devil’s hour of 4:17 p.m. Sundown will start arriving ever-later beginning on Dec. 15, so until then we have to hold tight and look for the lights.

That’s what Seattle artist Kate Protage does in her dark and deeply atmospheric paintings, now on view at Pioneer Square’s J. Rinehart Gallery in Home and Away (through Dec. 23; artist meet-and-greet Dec.10, 1-4 p.m.). This new body of oil paintings shows off Protage’s signature style: city scenes somewhere between abstract and representative, as if seen through a rain-spattered windshield at dusk.

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Protage creates these evocative images with a color palette pulled from the gloaming: indigo sparked with bursts of yellow and red. Headlights blur and flare as you squint to make out the locations … is that Alki Beach? Queen Anne Hill? The old viaduct? Sometimes stepping back brings the image into clearer focus.

In her artist statement, Protage says she appreciates the mystery that comes with sundown — the astronomical trick that turns the everyday of daylight into “an environment infused with a strange kind of lush, dark beauty and romance at night.”

‘A Bonsai Solstice’ encourages fans of tiny trees to BYO flashlight and explore. (Pacific Bonsai Museum) 

Walking through lit gardens at night brings a similar feeling of transformation — it’s why so many local green spaces light up for the holidays. Annual displays are already in full swing at places like the Bellevue Botanical Gardens, where the popular Garden D’Lights (through Dec. 31, 4:30-9 p.m.) features birds and bees, slugs and seahorses and other creatures taking shape in tiny lights. 

If you can’t get enough glow-in-the-dark animals, check out the third year of Woodland Park Zoo’s WildLanterns (through Jan. 22, 4-9 p.m.), a self-guided night walk showcasing a different take on the usual zoo fauna. These large-scale (some very large!) creatures — caterpillars, octopuses, tigers, dolphins, orangutans — are made from fabric stretched over frames and lit from within. 

For a mellower, moodier night-garden experience, consider Federal Way’s Pacific Bonsai Museum, which is bringing back A Bonsai Solstice (Dec. 17, 4-7 p.m.). This unique outdoor museum showcases tiny but mighty bonsai trees in a grove of tall cedars — all softly lit for this special event. Visitors are encouraged to “BYOF” (Bring Your Own Flashlight) to peer deeper into the carefully formed branches.

At Lakewold Gardens, Samuel Stubblefield’s light and music installation shifts according to magnetospheric changes. (Samuel Stubblefield)

Meanwhile at Lakewold Gardens (near Gravelly Lake in Lakewood), the Winter Solstice Lights installation (through Dec. 31, 4-8 p.m.) channels the movements of our skies and seas. Artist Samuel Stubblefield uses an algorithm to capture real-time magnetospheric data from NOAA and NASA satellites — wind speeds, ocean wave heights, barometric pressure — and translates it into amplified music and lights that shift against the trees. 

And at Green Lake Park, the annual Pathway of Lights (Dec. 10, 4:30-7:30 p.m.) presents a peaceful walk through luminaria set up all around the lake. This year, the event takes it up (in the air) a notch, with a Hot Air Balloon Glow (Dec. 10, 4:30-5:30; weather permitting), featuring five colorful 100-foot-tall hot air balloons lit up and hovering above the festivities. You can’t ride in them, but you can rock to music by DJ Lucky Strike.

A screen capture from a short video about ‘Winter Brilliance,’ a new installation with morphing light projections and music at Chihuly Garden and Glass. (Chihuly Garden and Glass)

Of course the big booming light show happens at the Space Needle on New Year’s Eve, but there are a few fireworks at ground level in Seattle Center too, such as a new exhibit at the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum. The recently installed Winter Brilliance (through Feb. 28; viewable with museum admission) is a sort of icy diorama, featuring Dale Chihuly’s signature icicle, chandelier and reed forms — some 700 of them — gathered into sharp and luminescent crystals. 

Set inside a dramatic black cube with one side open to viewers, the icicles glisten and shimmer as if melting before our eyes. Intricately designed light projections bring color and movement to the clear shafts, causing a chameleonic change from whites to blues to purples. Designed by Northwest producer and musician Terry Morgan (who also created the layered digital effects for the 2020 New Year’s at the Needle event), the soothing seven-minute audio-visual loop features music by Brian Eno

And since I mentioned it: Don’t sleep on the Space Needle as a cure for winter doldrums. The observation deck just after sunset might be the best light show in town — with the skyscrapers, ferris wheel, stadiums and ferries all aglow down below. Until this week, I’d never been up to the top at night, and perhaps never at all in winter. But it’s pretty great! 

Unlike summer, there are no lines and you won’t be packed into the elevator for that 41-second shot to the top. Out on the deck, I had a whole quarter of the circular platform to myself, with no other people in sight — which was very cool until it started to freak me out. 

When I rejoined the other visitors I felt buoyed by the camaraderie of total strangers enjoying the same experience, many of us laughing nervously at our own fear of heights, at the wind blowing our hair into photos. I took snapshots for a couple couples and told folks to be sure to check out the revolving glass floor inside. All around, Seattle sparkled and the Salish Sea shimmered. It felt like a holiday.

View of Seattle on a winter evening from the Space Needle observation deck. (Brangien Davis/Crosscut)

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