03/06/2013 09:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Renowned Artist Puts Bay Bridge In Lights

Leo Villareal and the Bay Bridge. Photo courtesy of Lucas Saugen

San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge may have celebrated its 75th anniversary with glorious fanfare last year, but it's the city's 'other' bridge, the Bay Bridge, that will transform into the largest LED light sculpture in the world on March 5.

The 25,000 LED lights fastened to the suspender cables of the bridge are part of an installation called The Bay Lights, designed by internationally renowned artist Leo Villareal, who has been working on the project for two and a half years. His other work appears in the permanent collections of top museums including the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., New York's Museum of Modern Art, and Naoshima Contemporary Art Museum in Kagawa, Japan.

As a San Franciscan, I've long been charmed by the grey steely structure that stretches from downtown San Francisco, over Treasure Island, and into Oakland. There's something resilient about her, and I'm pleased she'll finally get her time in the spotlight. I plan on standing on the Embarcadero when Villareal pushes the "go" button on his laptop, but the exhibit will also be visible from the Marin hills, parts of the East Bay, and high points in the city like Coit Tower.

I was fortunate to secure an interview with Villareal who grew up in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and El Paso Texas. He talks about his The Bay Lights, his inspirations, and some of his favorite things to eat and do in San Francisco.

Have you always been interested in light design, for example when you were an art student at Yale?

I became interested in programming as a teen with one of the original Apple II+ computers. At boarding school, I developed an interest in art history and set design. At Yale, I decided I studied sculpture and decided I wanted to be an artist. In graduate school at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, I immersed myself deeply in digital tools. I was always attracted to light but it wasn't until1997 that I made my first light sculpture.

Who were some of your artistic or other inspirations?

I am interested some of the masters of light sculpture like James Turrell and Dan Flavin as well as artists like Sol Lewitt who deal with rules / underlying structures. I also take inspiration from mathematician John Conway who discovered the Game of Life.

How and when did you came to be involved in The Bay Lights project?

I was asked by Ben Davis, founder of Words, Pictures and Ideas, to consider the Bay Bridge as a canvas for its 75th anniversary. We met in 2010 when I was in the Bay Area for my exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Art.

How has the city of San Francisco been a muse for this project?

The Bay Lights is absolutely site specific for San Francisco. It is custom made for its environment and takes its inspiration from the systems that surround it- the traffic, weather, organic systems all factor into the abstracted movement of the lights. After several months of work in 3D and Photoshop, I created a rendering of what would become The Bay Lights -- 25,000 white LED nodes fastened to the suspender cables of the bridge, along a 1.8 mile length between San Francisco and Treasure Island. My initial impulse was to add an additional layer to this already rich environment. I did not want to overwhelm the site but to augment it by creating a very integrated artwork. I believe my work will allow people to see this iconic piece of infrastructure in a new way.

You've been involved in some impressive projects in your career -- in Los Angeles, Seoul, Korea, New York, Barcelona -- what does it mean to be presenting your work back here in San Francisco?

I lived in San Francisco in the 1990s and had some very formative experiences at Interval Research in Palo Alto and at the Burning Man Festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. It feels great to be able to bring back some of what I have learned over the years. The Bay Area is incredibly inspirational to me. There is such a wonderful spirit of innovation and creativity that opened my mind and helped me to integrate art and technology. It also makes sense in that the Bay Area is the home to the most cutting-edge technology and this project merges art and technology in a new way.

Can you explain exactly what we will see on the Bay Bridge?

The installation is called The Bay Lights and you will see non-repeating light patterns on the western span of the Bay Bridge facing north that reflect my interpretation of the surrounding elements. It will be illuminated from dusk until 2 a.m. nightly beginning March 5.

So, there will be 25,000 individually programmable LEDs. I picture you sitting somewhere with your laptop, punching buttons whack-a-mole style, drinking a glass of wine as spectators ooh and awe at your masterpiece. Am I far off?

It's not quite that glamorous, but I have been working nightly for months, creating my vision for The Bay Lights. I work from many different points along the waterfront using my laptop and wearing gloves and a very warm coat to interpret the waves, traffic patterns, wind and other elements around the Bay Bridge.

Are the lights wired in series or parallel -- I mean is it going to be like my Christmas tree lights -- when one goes out, you'll have to replace the whole thing?

We are using LED nodes from Philips, which use three wires. Two for power and a third for data. If one of the nodes fails, the rest of the strand will continue to function. That said, the equipment is very robust and made to go outdoors. We are in the process of debugging now and have an amazing team of contractors, electricians and engineers helping us with the installation. There is a budget dedicated to maintenance over the two years of installation in case we have an issue.

What do you hope your work gives to visitors and locals of San Francisco?

Public art is so important to the culture and life of a city. This piece will bring roughly $97 million in tourism and hospitality dollars to the Bay Area and make a monumental piece of art available to millions of people at no cost during the two-year installation.

Will you actually be the one to 'flip the switch'? Is that a button on your laptop?

I will be joined by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom at 9 p.m. on March 5 to turn on The Bay Lights for the first time. I will use my laptop to activate the installation. People around the world will be able to share in this moment by watching our live webcast of the Grand Lighting at from 8:30-9:30 p.m. PT on March 5.

On a personal note, what are some of your favorite things to do when you return to San Francisco?

I enjoy the museums, SFMOMA and the de Young Museum. My kids love the Exploratorium and look forward to its reopening in April; Hiking on Mount Tam and enjoying the spectacular nature found in the Bay Area.

Some of the food I've enjoyed when I've been in town for The Bay Lights and with my family are antipasti and pizza funghi with fontina and black truffle oil at Americano. Octopus Carpaccio, Oak Roasted Ono and Tomales Bay Oysters at Waterbar. And Hog Island clams and Baked Eggs at Zuni Café.

Kimberley Lovato is a freelance writer based in San Francisco whose always up for a chat and a bridge lighting.