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Roxbury’s Highland Park trees “breathe” in ‘Winterlights’ installation

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Roxbury’s Highland Park trees “breathe” in ‘Winterlights’ installation
“Winterlights: A Circle of Peace,” an installation by artists Mark Schafer and Yvon Augustin of the Roxbury Electric Illumination Collaborative, brings life to a circle of trees in the park. COURTESY PHOTO

The park next to the Hawthorne Youth and Community Center in Roxbury’s Highland Park will once again come to life with the calming glow of lights this season. “Winterlights: A Circle of Peace,” an installation by artists Mark Schafer and Yvon Augustin of the Roxbury Electric Illumination Collaborative, brings life to a circle of trees in the park, dimming and brightening as though the trees are breathing slowly under the night sky.

“Winterlights” debuted in 2020 as part of an initiative to bring the community together in a safe manner outdoors during the COVID-19 shutdowns. The project was supported by grants by the city’s Transformative Public Art Program and the Opportunity Fund. You can visit the installation, hosted by the Hawthorne Youth and Community Center, at 184 Highland Street. What began with strings of holiday lights and a switchboard has turned into a meditative and tech-based retreat in the heart of Highland Park.

Mark Schafer (right) and Daniel Idemudia, a 9th grader at Boston Latin Academy and participant in the 2021 “Lights, Coding, Action!” coding workshop, work on the “Winterlights” installation. PHOTO: Yvon Augustin

In fall 2021, Schafer and Augustin hosted a coding workshop with five local teenagers, taught by the Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn program at the Mel King Fab Lab at Madison Park High School. Together with the young people, the artists learned how to program the lights to “breathe” in a more natural way. Switching to LED lights also brought in more of the calming atmosphere the artists envisioned and cut down on energy usage.

“It was a fantastic few months with the teens, just learning together,” says Augustin. “We are designers, we are artists, but we’re not programmers — so we were learning all together with the teens.” In this way, the artists acquired the tools to execute their vision and were able to bring a community engagement and educational component into the work. Three of the teens that took the original course with them also assisted with the installation of the 2022 piece. Augustin says it was extremely rewarding to see their skills come to life in the finished product.

Both Augustin and Schafer live in the Highland Park neighborhood and wanted to create a space the local community could experience rather than just look at.

The lights are programed to dim and brighten as though the trees are slowly breathing. COURTESY PHOTO

“The difference between what we’re doing and all these other lights is that the other lights are to look at, but this actually creates a space that you can enter,” says Schafer. “This is a combination of technology and nature and trying to use technology in an organic way that relates to people’s physical and emotional being.”

The new installation of “Winterlights” opened Sunday, Dec. 4 with an inaugural gathering, music and remarks from the artists and teens involved. The installation will operate every night from dusk until dawn through Feb. 28. Visitors can use the QR code banners near the installation to provide feedback to the artists.

Schafer and Augustin hope “Winterlights” creates moments of peace for those in the neighborhood. People can visit, stand among the circle of trees, and breathe deeply in time with nature.

“Having trees in Roxbury, and in Boston in general, is not something that we can just take for granted,” says Schafer. “It’s really appropriate and symbolic that this becomes a place of gathering and peace and that nature holds us in this circle.”

arts, Highland Park, Mel King Fab Lab, public art, roxbury, Winterlights