Photo by Jennifer Carter.
The 13th Annual Illuminated Garden is scheduled to run on Thursday, February 22nd Friday, February 23rd and Saturday, February 24th, 2018 from 6:00 to 9:00 pm in Newport’s Ballard Park. The free event features thousands of lights displayed on the trees and unique features of Ballard Park’s three-acre quarry meadow.
Each year Friends of Ballard Park (FBP) hosts monthly hikes, concerts, movie screenings, evenings of stargazing and educational programming to encourage the public to use the park. These activities have drastically reduced the negative park use such as underage drinking parties and graffiti that plagued the site for many years. The public now uses Ballard Park on a regular basis for positive reasons such as viewing art, taking a hike, enjoying nature, listening to a concert or outdoor learning.
Friends of Ballard Park was looking for a way to encourage people to visit the park during the winter months and was inspired by the lighting at La Salette in the winter of 2005. Executive director, Colleen McGrath, decided to create the Illuminated Garden and tie it in with Newport’s Winter Festival in February 2006 with an emphasis on creating outdoor sculpture and transforming the park into an artistic wonderland.
The event has grown significantly over the years. In 2006, 300 people visited the 1st Annual Illuminated Garden. In 2017, the event attracted 3,146 people. Weather conditions have an impact on audience numbers. In 2015 when there was record cold, the Illuminated Garden had its lowest attendance in seven years at 661 people. Having a variety of exhibitors helps to attract new people to the park. The event doesn’t open if it is raining (due to all of the electrical lines), so some years the Illuminated Garden has only been open for one or two nights. Event goers are advised to check the organization’s website, ballardpark.org, for weather advisories as the date nears.
The event takes several months to create. In the fall, Friends of Ballard Park issues a “Call for Entries” to schools and community groups. The organization also hosts after-school programs to create exhibits for the event. This year students in after-school programs at Pell Elementary and Gaudet Middle School created packing tape sculptures with an ‘illuminated galaxy’ theme. There will be aliens, spaceships, and planets in their exhibit.
Newport Area Career & Technical Center Advertising, Design & New Media teacher David Connell has incorporated the Illuminated Garden into his curriculum as a sculpture and form lesson for the past ten years. This year he expects ten student exhibits. Mr. Connell noted that while much of a graphic artists training is in two-dimensional media, the reality is everything in the world occupies three-dimensional space. The assignment gives students needed experience and confidence in developing sculptural concepts and using tools needed to bring the concepts to maturity.
Robert Kalaidjian, an art teacher at St. Michael’s Country Day School, has created amazing displays over the years with his students. Last year’s “Awkward Empire” incorporated all recycled materials on posts. The year before the group decorated donated bike wheels with colored tissue paper hardened by acrylic which people of all ages enjoyed.
Many of the students who have made an exhibit come all three nights, standing near their display, observing responses from the crowd and interacting with event goers. Scouts and other students who help with the event set up proudly show off their exhibits to family members and strangers.
Set up for the event takes three to four full days. Tree climbers from the City of Newport and Bartlett Tree Experts help Friends of Ballard Park staff and volunteers install lights in the trees and unique features of the meadow. Weather can influence the design, like in 2015, when snow piles were decorated with lights.
Friends of Ballard Park’s staff checks and organizes all lights from previous years in January. Past light materials are re-imagined into new designs. For example, “Rainbow Forest” has evolved over the years from simply stringing lights in trees in a rainbow color block to adding clear umbrellas hanging upside down filled with colored lights ala an installation inspired by one seen at Milan Design Week. Chinese lanterns have been hung in trees, stacked among snow drifts and most recently become a labyrinth children could run through.
The 13th Annual Illuminated Garden is free and open to the public. The event is sponsored by Bartlett Tree Experts, the City of Newport, Kiki Finn, National Grid, the Rhode Island State Senate and Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. Friends of Ballard Park is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting, maintaining and promoting Newport’s Only Nature Preserve. Co-sponsors for the event include A1 Roofing, CAT Entertainment, Discover Newport, the Fitzpatrick Team, McGrath Clambakes, Inc., Newport Insurance Agency, TJ Brown Landscape and Whitehouse for Senate.
Ballard Park is located at the intersection of Hazard & Wickham Roads in Newport, RI. Parking is available at the Rogers High School parking lot at 15 Wickham Road for this event. Event goers will then walk about a quarter mile down Hazard Road to the entrance. For best visibility, attendees should bring a flashlight. Attendees are also advised to wear appropriate shoes or boots as trails may be dark, muddy and uneven in places. One can spend anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour in the park looking at the displays.