ArtSEA: Chasing the aurora borealis afterglow at Seattle art shows

Northwest artists channel Northern lights in galleries from Ballard to Pioneer Square.

digital art installation that looks like dark evergreen trees lit by the shifting colors of the aurora borealis

A detail shot of “Project Aurora,” an LED light installation by Seattle artist Ginny Ruffner. (Jim Bennett/Photo Bakery for the National Nordic Museum)

The biggest cultural event of the season happened this past weekend, when the aurora borealis made a surprise late-night appearance before a rapt Northwest audience whose eyes were glued to the skies.

Performing an ever-changing array of light and color — sometimes in the form of drippy swaths of hot pink, in other moments swirling into a ghostly green spiral — the show was a thrilling execution of shape, movement and color, all set to a soundtrack of oohs and ahhs uttered by neighboring viewers. 

ArtSEA: Notes on Northwest Culture is Cascade PBS’s weekly arts & culture newsletter.

As with any must-see arts event, those in attendance couldn’t help but shower social media with photos snapped on their phones. I loved watching my Instagram feed light up with pics, and sharing my own amateur attempts to convey the celestial dance. Like many, I stayed up late the following night, hoping to catch an encore of the solar-storm inspired laser show, but sadly, it was a one-night-only engagement. 

If, like me, you’re still hankering for more ethereal magic, you can get a taste in a few new art shows that happen to be perfectly timed with the aurora afterglow. 

Start at the National Nordic Museum, which recently acquired longtime Seattle artist Ginny Ruffner’s large light installation Project Aurora. The 20-by-10-foot-tall piece — originally installed in the two-story windows of the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art — now towers over the Nordic museum’s lobby, its 34,560 LED bulbs emanating an eerie and ever-shifting green glow.

Ruffner brought her vision to life with the help of Ed Fries, an ex-Microsoft programmer who led the team who built the first Xbox, along with UW professor Wanda Gregory, also a former video-game wizard. The group worked to build a “neural network” that with AI assistance mimics the aurora borealis based on images of the phenomenon. Similar to the real thing, the lights in the piece dim and brighten, ripple and morph, changing the overall appearance about every 20 seconds and never repeating.

You can learn more about the artwork — now part of the National Nordic Museum’s permanent collection — from creators Ruffner, Fries and Gregory, who will discuss how it came together during a Project Aurora panel at the museum (May 23 at 6 p.m.).

“Night Swimming,” a painting by Twisp artist Perri Lynch Howard. (Smith and Vallee Gallery)

With her Frequencies series (through May 26 at Smith and Vallee gallery in Edison), Northwest painter Perri Lynch Howard conveys the natural soundscapes of specific places she has visited as a way of tracking delicate and disappearing ecosystems. 

Using “a meticulous process of listening, recording, and analysis,” she writes in her artist’s statement, Howard combines shifts in light and sound with Cartesian coordinates to create paintings that throb with movement and mystery. While not a specific reference to the Northern lights, I see a connection in these imagined landscapes, which reveal wavelengths that commonly go unseen — whether sound, solar wind or sensory. 

You’ll find more far-out landscapes that roll with vibrant color at Winston Wachter Gallery, where Portland artist Adam Sorensen presents Basin (through June 22). His Technicolor takes on mountains, lakes and skies draw attention to the surrounding natural beauty we often take for granted. 

For more art exhibiting a color-shifting palette, head to Greg Kucera Gallery, where Seattle artist Jeffrey Simmons has a new show, Warm Fusions (May 16 - June 29). Using a painstaking process, he creates repeated patterns that vibrate with subtle changes. His piece “Northern Lights,” for example, captures the green-blue-pink of the aurora borealis in vertical rows that also remind me of the fuzzy light tubes in the transporter scenes of vintage Star Trek. Beam me up, Jeffrey! 

At Arte Noir, you’ll reach an astral plane by way of two artists on view in Parallel Perspectives (through Sept. 1). The Artist L.Haz (aka Zahyr Lauren) and Wolf Delux (aka Malcolm Procter) have teamed up for a show celebrating sacred geometry, featuring apparel and visual art adorned with colorful mandalas and Afrofuturist patterns. 

And one last rec for an awe-inducing light show: At On the Boards, visiting artist Andrew Schneider presents NOWISWHENWEARE (the stars) (May 16-19), a fully immersive installation — pitch-dark except for sparkling “stars” — that takes each audience member on a personal journey through the night sky. Caveat: Tickets for the show are now sold out, but put your name on the “rush list” 30 minutes before entrance time and you might just be able to grab a spot from a no-show.

“King of Birds” by Seattle artist Jeffrey Simmons. (Greg Kucera Gallery)

A few more ways to spend the coming days

< Novelist, filmmaker and indie darling Miranda July hits Town Hall to talk about her newest book, All Fours, with Seattle author Laurie Frankel. (May 21 at 7:30 p.m.

< The ever-innovative Emerald City Music presents its final concert of the season, Mother, which explores the nuances of the maternal role by way of real-life stories captured in a documentary by Carlin Ma and accompanied by live classical music. (May 17 at 8 p.m.

< The Seattle International Film Festival continues… (and finishes May 19). See my picks for local flicks in a previous newsletter.

And a reminder: Black Arts Legacies: Season 3 keeps rolling with 10 stellar artists who’ve made a meaningful impact on the Seattle arts scene, past and present. We’re revealing the names of these artists once a week through June. Missed this week’s reveal? It’s DJ and radio host Robert L. Scott, who electrified Seattle airwaves in the 1970s and ’80s, paving the way for future Black radio personalities. 

Sign up for the Black Arts Legacies newsletter to be among the first to discover each new artist in this year’s cohort.

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