Celebrating 30 years of Winter Lights in Harvard Square! 1986 – 2016

 

 

Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association is pleased to announce that the HSBA is celebrating 30 years of Winter Lights in Harvard Square. There will be a special meet and greet with the designer, Ross Miller and Jason Weeks, the Executive Director of the Cambridge Arts Council. 

The event will take place on Wednesday, December 21st at 4:15 p.m. at the HSBA office at 18 Brattle Street, Harvard Square. 

Ross Miller is a longtime Cambridge resident and renowned local lighting artist. He explained the evolution of Harvard Square’s Winter Lights in this way…

 

I believe it is a basic need, a spiritual need, to seek light to warm our spirits as winter days get shorter and nights grow longer, darker and colder. 
 
30 years ago, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to combine my desire to create artwork in public spaces with my net-making experience, learned while commercial salmon fishing; a seemingly incongruous partnership that was sparked by a piece of graffiti I saw drawn with lipstick in Harvard Square!
 
At that time, I had graduated from college and was living with roommates near Inman Square. During the previous summers I worked salmon fishing on the vast Pacific Ocean. Back in Cambridge, I missed those nights under the crisp, dark star-filled sky.
 
In a casual conversation with arts planners, I described my still un-formed idea to weave miniature lights into nets suspended over urban streets. ‘Can you do that?’ I was asked. ‘Sure’, I said confidently…and yet, I honestly had no idea how to do what I had just proposed! 
 
A few years later as ideas kept developing, I was invited by the Harvard Square Business Association and the Cambridge Arts Council to offer designs for winter lighting. On the way to the meeting I passed a telephone booth near the Pit in Harvard Square and there scrawled on a glass side panel, in red lipstick, was an exuberant spiral-squiggle-star graffiti mark. That drawing became the inspiration for the Dancing Stars over Brattle Street, and over Mass. Ave at Bow Street that were installed in 1986.   
 
The next year the star over JFK was developed from children’s sketches in a day care center.
 
Lastly, the Spiral Nebula over Out of Town News was installed.  Its design is based on a Hubble Space Telescope photograph of Galaxy M-51. Known as the Whirlpool Galaxy, it is currently estimated to be 23.16 million light years from earth, plus or minus 4 million light years or so. First documented in 1773, it is understood to be the interaction of two entirely separate companion galaxies. A black hole, surrounded by swirling clouds of dust, is thought to be at the center of the spiral form.
 
The design and fabrication of these artworks has involved collaboration with artists including Shannon Flattery, Douglas Fitch, and assisted by students from Mass Art, The Museum School and Cambridge Rindge and Latin.
 
Each year before the holiday season, we spend hours in my Allston studio repairing and maintaining the light displays; fixing electrical shorts, changing thousands of light bulbs, and rolling the nets up for installation by Cambridge-based electrical contractor Aetna Lighting.
 
As winter begins, Joe Occhino, of Aetna and his bucket truck crew install the displays, snow or shine, at 4:30 a.m. before the hustle of Harvard Square begins. The Winter Lights remain up, when they are really needed… through snow and storm, through the dark nights of January into February, until the sunlight returns and the days grow longer. 
 
If you look carefully, you may notice that every year the light patterns subtly change.  I add a new arrangement of colored twinkling lights here, a miniature light sequence added there. My most recent maintenance work included a bit of net weaving restoration, and replacing traditional incandescent bulbs with low-energy LED lamps. 
 
Truth be told, I am astonished and delighted that the Winter Lights are still going strong after 30 years!”

 

Miller is not alone in his delight.  According to Denise Jillson, “thousands of people enjoy the lights and mark the beginning of the winter season by their presence.” 

Jason Weeks points to the 30 year collaboration between his organization, Miller, and the HSBA as a wonderful example of private/public partnership.

Weeks said, “Ross Miller is nothing short of a national treasure! As an artist working in a variety of media, his curiosity and humor are evident in everything he creates. Whether sculpting with light, water, sticks and reeds, netting or even animal footprints, his artwork is steeped in history and frequently upends our common or preconceived notions of place. The whimsical nature of Winter Lights is the perfect antidote to the cold, dark winter nights that settle in just around the time that the banners are erected over our city streets. Their magic is activated through the interaction with those passing by and beneath and it can be measured by the joy their illumination brings to countless individuals, families and visitors the Harvard Square each year!”

Jillson added that not only does the HSBA provide for the maintenance and installation costs of the Winter Lights and has throughout the decades…but she and her staff enjoy them with a unique advantage. The HSBA is ensconced in a wonderful old-world office on the third floor of 18 Brattle Street that boasts the best view of the Brattle Street Dancing Star.

Over the years, Jillson has said that she wished that everyone could see the lights from the HSBA vantage point as they cast a warm glow in the cozy, early 20th century office space with its high ceilings, original chair rail and vast windows that look out onto the hustle and bustle of the street below. 

Jillson is not certain that the HSBA will have the “privilege of being in this special space next Christmas, as the building has been sold.  So this year, I am inviting folks to join us at 4:15 p.m. on the evening of the winter solstice (12/21), in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Winter Lights. Ross Miller and Jason Weeks will be on hand to discuss the project and of course, to view the Brattle Street Dancing Star from the best prospect, in what surely is, the most charming office space in the City of Cambridge!”     

For more information about this event, please contact Denise Jillson at:  djillson@harvardsquare.com