Newburgh Heritage

When the light is just right

By Mary McTamaney
Posted 6/20/24

Today is the solstice. The sun is high in the sky and, as we learned to do when we were children, we will look down and see our smallest shadow when we stand in the rays of that warming sun. Summer …

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Newburgh Heritage

When the light is just right


Today is the solstice. The sun is high in the sky and, as we learned to do when we were children, we will look down and see our smallest shadow when we stand in the rays of that warming sun. Summer has begun and our minds follow our bodies outdoors into nature. We have reached the longest days when sunshine lingers after dinner drawing us back outside to relax and be neighborly.

Eleven years ago, Newburgh created a great new way to open its doors and embrace the light all around us. It was called “Newburgh Illuminated,” a festival developed by some of the most creative and energetic people I have ever worked with. In January of 2013, Mayor Judy Kennedy invited all citizens to join her at the Armory on South William Street and brainstorm ways to improve their city. She outlined issues that Newburghers had often discussed with her and asked everyone present to break into smaller groups to see what might advance those issues. One topic was History and Culture and I sat at that table as city historian. What came of that first conversation and scores of meetings afterward, was the plan to shine a new light on the value of our city. Quickly, the name Newburgh Illuminated emerged. It was a testament to our historical place as the first New York State city (after a single district in lower Manhattan) to install a central electric generating station. That generating station on Montgomery Street rapidly transformed Newburgh, putting us in position to invent and innovate in many sectors.

The same energy that pulsed through new electrical wiring in 1884, enlivened the Newburgh Illuminated committee in 2013. Partners were brought to the table and a city-wide festival developed for Solstice, the longest day of the year. Exhibits, art, music, lectures, tours, film, theater and family fun were staged around the theme of our historical connection to the transformative new power offered by Thomas Edison and his company. Central to the success of Newburgh Illuminated was a core of creative volunteers. June Henley, then the program director of Safe Harbors, kept everyone on track as we held frequent meetings and subcommittee meetings. She sat up late many nights to outline our ideas and graphically lay out the rich program of events.

The idea of the light bulb logo came to the group early on and was sketched out by Ian Stephen. Running with that logo and theme was the incomparable artist Gerardo Castro who developed and managed what became Newburgh’s Light Bulb Project, a moveable gallery of public art that he led and curated. There were framed paintings and photographs of wonderful light-filled scenes in Newburgh galleries during the first Newburgh Illuminated festivals but nothing as engaging and unique as our light bulbs. Other communities have public art in distinctive shapes and themes like the cats of Catskill or the ferries of Highland, but the Newburgh Light Bulbs were show-stoppers. On four-foot plywood cut-outs, artists were invited to let the shape inspire them to create a work that would be showcased at venues all around town during the month of the Illuminated festival.

Then, the light bulbs were auctioned after one central show downtown as the Illuminated festival ended. The first year, 52 artists participated. Eighty-four artists contributed in year two. It was dazzling! Complimenting the festival’s motivation were a range of subjects and interpretive styles from mystical to historical to futurist and often just fun, the Light Bulb Project engaged visitors of every age. You can still visit pictures of many of these masterpieces on the website:

We are unlikely to revive such a creative endeavor even if we can revive some sort of Newburgh Illuminated in the future. The Light Bulb Project was the kind of magic that rarely happens. Our community lost our multi-talented Gerardo Castro to a sudden illness this March and will be hard pressed to replace that spark. I own a Newburgh light bulb purchased at one of the auctions held at the close of a past festival. Many local people own others.

As the earth reaches its maximum tilt toward the sun this weekend, we should all stand our beautiful light bulbs proudly in those beams and offer thanks for our neighbor Gerardo and for the talent that sometimes surfaces here when the light is just right.