Looking up at the Rose Window and seeing the beams of light diffuse through the 3,800 pieces of stained glass and then again diffuse through the hazy smoke wafting inside the cathedral’s grand, sacred expanse, one wonders. Wonders about what? I’m not sure we can all come to the same answer and I think that’s the point. Are we wondering about the meaning of life? What comes in the afterlife? Or maybe we were all thinking, at least for a brief minute: what is the most awe inspiring art installation and why is it Grace Cathedral and Illuminate’s collaboration: “Window”?
The one, most important thing, that I was in awe about was how the combination of lasers and landmarks can bring together communities. The past few years, San Francisco has developed an image problem because of a lot of the socioeconomic and political issues plaguing this city that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of it warranted, and some of it unwarranted. For me, increasing crime since the pandemic started was the biggest issue on my mind. As a photographer, during pre-pandemic times, I would regularly go out on solo night photography walks and hikes around the Bay Area to capture the city at hours when most people are already winding down or tucked into bed. That changed during the pandemic as the mass exodus of people out of SF and the Bay Area left the city struggling and feeling lifeless. Restaurants and businesses closed down leading to darkened city streets with nary a soul felt eerie and unsafe. Wild stories of photographers and journalists being violently robbed of their camera gear. Every evening outing required an even greater sense of heightened vigilance of one’s surroundings. It eventually wasn’t worth the effort and for the most part I stopped this part of my hobby for a long while, until Illuminate’s “Summer of Awe”.
From June to July 2023, Illuminate put on the “Summer of Awe”, a series of large scale laser light art installations across San Francisco in collaboration with the city and its various landmarks. You might have seen the multi-color lasers cutting through SF’s infamous fog. Installations included shooting rainbow colored lasers up Market Street from the Ferry Building for San Francisco Pride, pointing lasers skyward from Sutro Tower, turning Coit Tower into a candle (or the world’s largest lightsaber), and culminating with lasers atop the Fairmont Hotel beaming into Grace Cathedral through its famous Rose Window. Each of these events brought together residents and visitors… at night… to take part in observing and celebrating something awe inspiring as one community; proving that we can take back our city’s streets by lighting them up.
On several occasions throughout this summer, I had the opportunity to chat with Ben Davis, Illuminate’s founder, about this sentiment: how the light installations his team, this city, and its residents put up brought back that feeling of community and safety that was lost during the past few years. I also had many conversations with random strangers while admiring the different light shows who I probably wouldn’t have talked to if it wasn’t for events like these. More than once, tourists would come up to me and ask, “What’s going on? Is it always like this?” My favorite interaction had one visitor tell me, “I saw the lights, so I decided to trudge up this hill to check it out.” We are like moths attracted to light. There’s warmth and safety associated with it and you know everyone else is going to be there.
And, on this particular occasion, it seemed like these lights were pointed in one direction: into Grace Cathedral. Grace has always been a pillar in the community, long before I moved to San Francisco, promoting faith, spirituality, social justice, community service, arts, and culture. I must have stepped foot inside the cathedral exactly three times in my life, both as a tourist and as a resident, and for many, including native San Franciscans, it was their first time. The event brought hundreds if not thousands into the cathedral and the surrounding neighborhood to view the spectacle. Night after night, more and more people came back to see it, lest they miss out on the brief, temporary art installation. Even strolling around Huntington Park at 3 or 4am in the morning, one could find many people still oohing and aahing at the lasers beaming over their heads with their ever changing colors and patterns projected upon the almost 100 year old cathedral. I never thought I would be photowalking through the city at that grim hour ever again. But I did, together with fellow photographers, as that grimness was overpowered by the beauty, comfort, and safety of the lights and the people gathered to see them.
Inside the cathedral, viewers were treated to an even more unique experience. A smoky haze was imparted into the space to both diffuse and to define the seemingly heavenly, divine rays of light streaming into the cathedral. Clare Hedin’s soothing music imparted a mystical soundtrack. The pews packed with onlookers silently focusing their gaze upwards giving physical warmth and depth to the large, open, sacred space. It was a treat for the senses, perfect for admiration, appreciation, relaxation, meditation, and reflection.
For me, that reflection was on the awe instilled in me that here I was, amidst a community of my neighbors and visitors to our city, witnessing something so incredible and amazing together in the same shared space. We often forget how important art and culture are in community building and this is something organizations like Grace Cathedral and Illuminate understand, promote, and make accessible to all. Sure, it might not be the most important factor in most people’s eyes, but this event, and many like it, are just one of many important instruments to help our city heal and create new community bonds that were seemingly lost in the past few years. Maybe those strengthened bonds will help us to work harder together to find and enact the solutions to help lift up every single person in our community.
In response to my comments about how this “Summer of Awe” has given us a refreshed sense of safety and community, Davis simply told me, “spread the word.” I tried visually through my photography, but I don’t think my reach is big enough nor my voice loud enough to spread the word compared to the power of these lights gleaming as bright beacons that can be seen from miles away by many, many more people, who will come and gather together out of curiosity and awe as a community like moths to a light.
About the Author
Ashley Cristal is a clinical researcher in UCSF’s Division of Cardiology. Born and raised on the Jersey Shore, he has since lived on two continents having resided in New York City, Manila, and New Haven for medical school and postdoctoral research before moving to San Francisco in 2019. He has been snapping photos for more than 20 years and enjoys capturing landscape, cityscape, street, documentary, and sports/concert/event imagery.
Grace Cathedral is a sanctuary for spirits where all are welcome. From transcendent religious experiences to deeply moving performances, everyone can find what they seek in our sacred space. We are grateful for the underwriting support of our congregation and supporters of GraceArts cultural membership, who make sharing personal experience stories like this possible.