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Light Art Sculptures Proliferate in San Francisco

By Lee Foster

A relatively new art form now proliferates in San Francisco. It is called “light art,” meaning the use of light to create art sculptures, at night, with the City as the dark canvas. Light art has become a major form of artistic expression in San Francisco in recent years.

The most dramatic of these installations was (and will be) Leo Villareal’s “The Bay Lights,” which will light up the west section of the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge again starting January 30, 2016 (I’ll update this article then.) This highly popular “temporary” illumination in the recent past has been called back to become a perennial visual joy. This was a wise civic decision.

Light art in San Francisco known as

Light art in San Francisco known as “Soma,” along the Embarcadero, with Holiday Embarcadero Center lights in “giftbox” background

There are now many other major light-as-art installations in the City. They are compelling to view all year, but particularly in the December Holidays period, the darkest time of the year, the Winter Solstice, when some message of illumination regarding the human condition is widely sought.

Here are installations to consider year round, but especially in the Holiday period.

The official consumer tourism information site for San Francisco is

The official consumer tourism information site for San Francisco is San Francisco Travel

Pier 14, East of the Ferry Building

Pier 14 is the first large public pier east of the Ferry Building, only a short walk. This pier has been rebuilt as a pedestrian walkway and can be considered your finest and first place at which to enjoy light art in San Francisco. From the end of this pier, starting January 30, 2016, you will see again the wonderful illumination of the Bay Bridge.

However, during the holiday period, you can stand at the end of this pier and look back at the San Francisco skyline. In the Holiday period, the Embarcadero Center Buildings are lit up with lights like boxy Christmas gifts.

Moreover, at the entrance to the pier, there is a new and permanent light art installation that is lovely to observe and requires some explanation to understand.

For pure joy without any explanation, the sculpture can be seen with the Embarcadero “gift boxes” in the background. After the Holidays, the lights themselves will be beguiling. The sculpture is also interactive. Hit a button at the site and you will create an effect.

This unusual light art sculpture, cute as a Christmas tree, is called “Soma.”  A descriptive placard says this sculpture symbolizes “two neurons communicating,” which is helpful to the passerby who might not have guessed.

The Bay Lights, on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, Yesterday and Tomorrow

Leo Villareal's earlier light art sculpture,

Leo Villareal’s earlier light art sculpture, “Bay Lights,” on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge west span

Leo Villareal set a high bar for competing light artists when he had both the ingenuity and the political clout to set up a Bay Bridge light display that became a locals and visitor favorite.  Walk out on Pier 14 (after January 30, 2016) to witness a parallel to this original and audacious lighting masterpiece, a tour de force.

This undertaking will be seen historically as a parallel to lighting the Eiffel Tower in Paris at night. Villareal presents what is said to be the world’s largest LED light sculpture, about 1.8 miles wide and 500 feet high, with 25,000 LED lights that he has individually programmed. The light sculpture originally celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Bay Bridge birth (1936) with a never-repeating and dazzling display of light on the vertical strands of steel cable holding up the bridge. It became iconic, with calls for a repeat performance.

More on this in February 2016.

Firefly, Golden Gate at Polk

Light art sculpture

Light art sculpture “Firefly” in San Francisco

Ned Kahn’s “Firefly” is at 525 Golden Gate Avenue, where Golden Gate Avenue meets Polk Street, in the Civic Center area. Kahn is an environmental artist who won the commission to create this 12-story kinetic sculpture from the San Francisco Arts Commission.

His canvas is the front of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s (PUC) headquarters. Kahn’s “Firefly” consists of thousands of five-inch-square, clear polycarbonate panels. The panels are hinged to move freely in the wind. During the day, the effect appears to be as a wave. At night, the movement becomes a vibrant undulation of light because the panels are connected to electric switches that trigger tiny LED lights.

The lights are said to mimic fireflies, a threatened species that needs riparian environments for its survival. “Firefly” is a permanent installation. Stand immediately below the sculpture on the sidewalk and look up to get the full effect of twinkling fireflies at night.

Language of the Birds

“Language of the Birds” light art sculpture in San Francisco

Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn’s light sculpture, called “Language of the Birds,” is at the intersection of Broadway and Columbus Avenues in North Beach. This is a permanent installation, part of the Civic Art Collection, viewable 24 hours a day and featuring a night lighting aspect.

This piece was commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission. Where do they get the money? Funds come from a two-percent-for-art program charged to developers. This piece is part of a pedestrian walkway between Chinatown and North Beach. The installation presents books, as if in flight. The books resemble birds in motion, as if pigeons have taken flight, with wings in different positions. At night LED lights embedded in the books create changing visual patterns.

This sculpture is said to be one of the first solar power-offset public artworks in California. The sculpture pumps power into the City grid on sunny days. Pedestrians walking here will notice words in the sidewalk below the books. The words seem to have fallen from the pages of the books and are in English, Italian, and Chinese, reflecting the nearby communities.

The efficiency of modern light creation sources greatly reduces the energy cost of running a light-as-art sculpture. Incredibly, it is said that the entire Ned Kahn “Firefly” sculpture is so efficient that it uses less energy that one old-fashioned 75-watt light bulb.

The Role of Light Arts

The medium of the past for art has tended to be physical objects, such as sculpted stone and poured bronze, or paint applied to a surface, such as canvas. However, in these modern light-as-art sculptures in San Francisco, new materials and strategies are at play. The light might well be controlled by a computer or the wind. And the light visible at night might itself be saved sunlight, gathered by the art object during the sunny part of the day.

If you’re a local or a visitor to San Francisco, put “light art” of your short list of the fun and rewarding things that make exploration in the City a joy.

See Lee’s four Northern California books/ebooks on his Amazon Author Page.

See Lee’s books/ebooks
on his Amazon Author Page and in Independent Bookstores

San Francisco figures prominently in my book/ebook titled The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco. My main book/ebook on Northern California is Northern California Travel: The Best Options. Those volumes, including some more on California, can be seen on my Amazon Author Page. My further books on Northern California are Back Roads California and Northern California History Weekends. One of my California books, Northern California Travel: The Best Options, is now available as an ebook in Chinese.

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Copyright © 2016 Lee Foster, Foster Travel Publishing. All rights reserved.

This article was written by Lee Foster of Foster Travel Publishing. Contact Lee at .

Lee has 250 worldwide travel writing/photography coverages, plus articles on publishing and literary subjects, for consumers to enjoy and for content buyers to license at

Lee’s latest books/ebooks include one on self-publishing, titled An Author’s Perspective on Independent Publishing: Why Self-Publishing May Be Your Best Option, and a literary memoir about growing up in Minnesota, titled Minnesota Boy: Growing Up in Mid-America, Mid-20th Century. Lee’s travel literary book/ebook, Travels in an American Imagination: The Spiritual Geography of Our Time, now exists also as an audiobook.

Lee’s travel books/ebooks, focused mainly on California, include Northern California Travel: The Best Options, now available also as an ebook in Chinese. Lee co-wrote and co-photographed a major book for publisher Dorling Kindersley (DK) in their Eyewitness Guide series, titled Back Roads California. Lee’s further current California titles are The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco and Northern California History Weekends. All of Lee’s books can be seen on his website at and on his Amazon Author Page.

Lee's photo-selling website on PhotoShelter has 7,000 digital images for photo buyers to license. Buyers may be individuals looking for photos for their blogs, publications, and décor. Lee’s traditional markets have been travel magazines and travel PR entities looking for travel images. See the photos at and some licensing detail there at About.
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