After rain, wind and sunshine, lights turn off for Baltimore's Light City festival

On Sunday, the house of cards was to come down.

The life-sized deck at the foot of the Transamerica building was to be dismantled. The 23-foot honeycomb egg at the Inner Harbor already came down. And down came the umbrellas, hundreds affixed to sailboat masts, that endured wind and rain last week in the Light City Baltimore festival.

In its second year, Light City extended over nine days that challenged artists and organizers with maintaining an electric festival in the rain.

Kyle Miller fretted over how to keep dry the electric control boxes for Charlie, a 12-foot-tall steel peacock adorned with 15,000 lights.

"We covered things up with plastic," the Baltimore artist said. "We threw a tarp up every night. The weather was so unpredictable. We were getting some serious gusts out here."

Still, a soggy crowd arrived for the opening March 31, which saw more than an inch of rain. The weather warmed and nights cleared by the festival's end Saturday.

The two additional days — last year, Light City ran one week — likely pushed attendance up 17 percent to an estimated 470,000 people, said Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts.

Revenue from last year's festival fell short $400,000. Organizers held fundraisers to cover the loss.

"We're right on target to break even this year," Gilmore said. "We'll know in the coming weeks. We don't have all of our numbers, but I'm sleeping at night. I feel we're very close."

Profitability and increased attendance would shore up the future of Light City Baltimore, a celebration of light, music and innovation. Organizers asked artists this year for bigger, bolder, brighter installations to stand apart from the crowds and skyscrapers of the Inner Harbor.

Meanwhile, dueling lawsuits continue over the festival's name and logo. The Office of Promotion & the Arts sued last year to become owner of the Light City name and logo. Brooke Hall and Justin Allen, the Roland Park couple who devised the festival, have asked a federal judge to bar the city from using the trademarks.

Legal wrangling, however, was far from mind for the exhausted artists breaking down their installations Sunday. One night last week they closed an hour early because of rain.

"Rain or no rain, it kept working," Belgian artist Tom Dekyvere said, proud of his installation.

He worked Sunday to cut down 25,000 feet of neon rope that pulsed beneath spotlights over the harbor. Dekyvere waved to passing tourists.

"We are taking it down and they all say, 'Oh, no!' It's like the artwork started to integrate already into their hearts and minds," he said.

Nearby, Miller removed LED strips from Charlie the peacock's plumed tail. Belgian artist Pol Marchandise unscrewed pine planks from the towering, wooden egg that once glowed beside the Constellation.

Tourists Vince and Fran Santarelli of Philadelphia stopped and marveled over three whimsical sailboats brimming with colorful umbrellas. The couple had come to celebrate their 51st wedding anniversary, and they spotted the umbrella boats while dining across the harbor Friday night at the Rusty Scupper.

"I loved the light going through them," Fran Santarelli remembered.

Hidden beneath umbrellas, artist Stephanie Imbeau cut away the fastens that held her umbrellas together during nights of wind and rain. Early in the festival, one sailboat began taking on water and a Baltimore police boat pulled up and pumped it out.

The rain and wind proved revelatory for Imbeau, an artist from South Carolina who has covered walls and TV station signs with umbrellas.

"I was actually confronted with how vulnerable one is in the face of the weather," she said.

She collected more than 400 used umbrellas to cover the three sailboats. Working for 13 days, she wired a skirt around the masts, then tied on the umbrellas like floating Christmas trees with panels in polka dot, plaid and pink. Some umbrellas showed patterns with caterpillars, monkeys and airplanes; some were tie-dye; one said "Bud Light."

All week, she studied the hourly forecasts, tightened the lines to steady her boats, and adjusted the flimsy umbrellas against the harbor winds.

"I'm attracted to the struggle of the fragile," she said, "and the triumph of the fragile."

On Sunday, her struggle over, she smiled. "I feel as triumphant as I can."

tprudente@baltsun.com

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