In 2009, the streets of Durham welcomed a new kind of celebration. They’d seen mining galas, food gatherings and flower festivals, but never before had they witnessed such a spectacular showcase of artistry as the Lumiere festival. Through large-scale projections and mind-blowing LED sculptures, Durham Lumiere reimagined the city’s historic buildings and public spaces as canvasses for creativity, bringing awe-inspiring light to a dark winter’s night.
Capturing the imagination of the city, the festival has returned every two years since, becoming a flagship event not only in Durham’s calendar, but for various other cities across the UK. In 2013, the festival travelled to Londonderry in Northern Ireland, before taking over the capital with Lumiere London in 2016 and 2018. Each festival invites local and international artists to create works to be displayed around the city, with 3D video mapping, moving fire installations and stand-alone light sculptures helping to strike a stunning balance between modern technology and cultivated art.
This year, Lumiere is celebrating its 10th anniversary by returning to its birthplace in Durham with a special edition of the festival, and whilst all is not revealed, it promises to provide a gateway for local artists yearning to get their name up in lights. One of which is Lucy McDonnell – a Newcastle-based creative who has turned junk stainless steel into a galvanised, global enterprise.
Based at the Biscuit Factory in Newcastle’s creative quarter, Lucy’s design company, Full Blown, has patented the process of inflating metal using innovative blowing techniques to create beautiful, curved reflective surfaces that seem more organic than manufactured. From the unmistakeable halo sculpture in Gateshead’s town centre, to suspended gold-plated ‘bees’ in Maison Guerlain’s Champs-Élysées boutique, Full Blown has transformed ordinary spaces into sites of architectural wonder for over 20 years.
But, as Lucy explains, these reflective surfaces of blown metal weren’t enough to satisfy her growing fascination with light art. ‘After working on Full Blown projects with my husband Stephen for nearly 15 years, I became increasingly drawn to light art. I realised that I could transfer my knowledge and the skills I’d learned through designing to create my own installations. So in 2016, I decided to create Studio Vertigo to separate the light installation side of the business.’
Inspired by an ever-growing desire to envelop the senses and challenge our everyday realities, Lucy’s light artwork seeks to engage the viewer while disrupting the usual relationship between viewer, object and space. As a consequence, Studio Vertigo installations feature large-scale metal sculptures which beam out light to illuminate their surroundings, creating a sensational visual impact that is designed to move and inspire.
From the Norrköping Light Festival in Sweden, to the Amsterdam Light Festival in Holland, her light illusions have been showcased across Europe to critical acclaim – but Lucy’s favourite piece was displayed in none other than Gateshead’s Enchanted Parks Festival. Ursula Lassos the Moon depicted a shining moon lassoed around a boat, reflecting its light onto the lake beneath.
‘We get a lot of enquiries from some pretty high profile clients,’ says Lucy. ‘We’ve worked with Louis Vuitton and Jo Malone, for example, but my favourite moment was definitely Ursula Lassos the Moon for Enchanted Parks. It was so amazing to bring my kids along to see it – my youngest genuinely thought I’d tied a massive rope around the moon and lassoed it to a boat in Saltwell Park lake, just for her to gaze at!’
Alongside showcasing international artists, each Lumiere event gives local people the opportunity to be involved in the festival through their BRILLIANT competition. With applications opening in January, this year’s competition was open to anyone currently living in, or originally from the North East, to put forward an idea for a light artwork in the hope of having it selected to be displayed at Durham Lumiere.
Feeding her passion for light art, Lucy’s visits to previous Lumiere events provided inspiration for her own commission, and this year she took the plunge to submit her idea. Following an assessment of her written proposal, a site visit to her proposed location and an in-depth interview, Lucy was selected as one of four North East artists to exhibit at Lumiere’s 10th anniversary spectacular.
While she’s keen to keep us in the dark right now, Lucy lights up when she talks about her vision becoming a reality, especially as it is influenced by her two young children. ‘Without giving too much away, I guess I wanted to make something playful and familiar to everyone, but I also wanted to disrupt the way that we usually look at things by changing the scale and location of them. The idea actually came to me when I was playing with my children and it’s inspired by the link between toys and artwork.’
As well as the economic and cultural benefits that light art provides for cities, the technological advancements in lighting are also making so much more possible. Every urban surface can now be a screen, allowing cities to become lightscapes and offering artists amazing new potential. Having studied at both Sunderland and Northumbria University, Lucy recognises the opportunity for budding artists in the North East, and her hope for the future is bright.
‘I’m not sure what the actual figures are, but engagement with visual art in the North East has often been up there with the highest in the country,’ says Lucy. ‘You don’t have to look far to find some incredible galleries and festivals, and despite the imbalance of arts funding between London and the rest of the country, the North East has still managed to build a thriving grassroots scene.’
Earlier this year, Arts Council England announced a £2 million funding award for Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland, focused on significantly increasing the number of local people taking part in cultural activity. Along with this, Museums Northumberland’s bait initiative – which is aimed at increasing levels of arts engagement in South East Northumberland – has received extended funding until 2022.
This, paired with the many advancements in 3D design, printing and innovative fabrication methods, makes complex projects light art possible and more affordable for less established artists in the region – a premise illuminated by Lucy’s rise to the top. Taking scrap metal at a warehouse in Byker to star-studded designers and national art festivals to be seen by thousands – there’s no dimming her shine.
You can see Lucy’s artwork at Durham Lumiere between 14th–17th November