'Maestro of Light' Leo Villareal brings brilliant blaze to Bay Bridge

Courtesy PhotoLeo Villareal

Courtesy PhotoLeo Villareal

Two years after its 75th anniversary, the Bay Bridge is about to experience a birthday celebration of unprecedented proportions, called The Bay Lights.

The massive light-as-art installation is by Leo Villareal, known as the “Maestro of Light.” He was approached by Ben Davis, founder of the San Francisco creative-marketing agency Words Pictures Ideas, to create the piece.

Villareal is slated to talk about the project — a sculpture of 25,000 white LED bulbs installed on the suspension bridge between Treasure Island and San Francisco — in a sold-out event at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on Thursday.

The bulbs, programmed to flash in unique flowing algorithms, will light up the nighttime sky beginning March 5 and be on display for two years.

“People may not know necessarily that it’s artwork,” says Villareal of the project’s spirited design, “but light, especially light in motion, is something that we are all attracted to.”

Installing thousands of lights on a 1.5-mile structure that is 500 feet tall at its highest point is not the easiest task.  
For months, dozens of crewmen, many harnessed to the bridge’s cables, have worked through the night, often braving grueling weather conditions.  

Many light clusters are linked to something akin to circuit boxes, which are programmed by Villareal.

When the switch is officially turned on next month, The Bay Lights will be eye candy, and more, for locals and visitors. The project is expected to attract 50 million viewers and boost the local economy by nearly $100 million.

Still, for a guy who first was inspired to work with light after attending Burning Man more than a decade ago — and has since won stellar reviews for his work around the world — Villareal has an air of humility.

“As we started doing the simulations for this we began to realize that, yes, maybe this could really happen,” he says. “Local agencies were excited about it and it’s been an incredible process of winning people over. I feel as if we are all doing this together — it’s way beyond what any single artist can do.”

He didn’t have huge doubts that he and collaborators could accomplish such an immense, complex undertaking.

“I am a pretty optimistic person and I have done large-scale, complicated projects, although nothing quite like this before,” he says. “Certainly I am a believer in the power of art and public art. But I knew that it was possible and … why not?

“Why not try?”

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