Q&A: What it takes to operate Winter Lights

LIGHT IT UP: Since 2018, Mary Rose Ridderbusch-Shearer has co-designed The N.C. Arboretum's Winter Lights event. Photo by Abby Cantrell of The N.C. Arboretum

Even as this year’s Winter Lights display sparkles at The N.C. Arboretum, staff members are already planning for next year’s celebration.

“It is a year-round gig,” says Mary Rose Ridderbusch-Shearer, who has co-designed the event with her colleague Clara Curtis since 2018.

Launched in 2014, Winter Lights is the arboretum’s biggest annual fundraiser and has become a tradition for many Western North Carolina families. Its popularity, Ridderbusch-Shearer notes, continues to grow. Last year, an estimated 107,000 guests strolled through the light display. And because of the use of LED lights, the cost to run the six-week-long event is only $34 per night.

Ridderbusch-Shearer recently spoke with Xpress about the ins and outs of the annual holiday tradition — both the joys and unique challenges of lighting up the arboretum.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Xpress: What goes into designing Winter Lights?

Ridderbusch-Shearer: Clara Curtis has been designing the show since its inception nine years ago. Typically, what we do is start with the things we know we want to keep — like the big, iconic tree in the middle of the show. We try to identify those elements that have become a tradition for folks and consider whether or not we want to do a refresh.

The quilt garden is a great example of that. Its design typically changes for Winter Lights every three or four years. Clara uses traditional quilt squares and patterns for inspiration. For the show, we typically try to pull a design that has been used in the plantings as well, so that we are mirroring some of the natural, more plant-based displays throughout the year.

From there, once we know our returning elements, we start planning. It’s an open-ended creative process where we just throw things at each other throughout the year and save ideas if we see things in other places. We try to ensure that our designs, no matter the theme or the specific displays, tie into our mission by offering nods to the natural world.

How do you choose where to place the lights?

Clara’s background is in horticulture, and so we work really closely with the horticulture department. Typically, our light displays are not on a lot of plants besides trees. We do use some net lighting on bushes, too. But we try to incorporate structural elements and designs that don’t have a strong impact on the garden itself.

Does the crew have a favorite decoration?

This year, we’ve all been really loving the rainbow tunnel. We have a large arbor that comes off of one of the buildings as folks enter the show. We’ve done it as a white light tunnel the last couple of years, and we decided to go rainbow this year.

We do light checks in the lead-up to the show, and the first night we all got to see the tunnel — we were pretty excited. The light crew shared that the rainbow was a lot of work. It took a lot more time than we thought, but the impact and the result were really satisfying for them.

How do you store the lights? 

Our maintenance and install teams put a lot of work into being really intentional about the way things are taken down, packed away and inventoried. And before we even think about putting up lights each year, there’s a huge process of unpacking, testing and figuring out what we need to replace.

How long does it take you to get everything down? And when does the following year’s setup actually begin? 

We usually finish teardown by the end of February, and we start unpacking the lights to test them in July or August. So, it’s just a few months that the lights are stored away.

Our team has to constantly be checking on things and making sure that the lights are not getting chewed by critters or getting rained on. Our staff has really good systems in place, but it’s a pretty big undertaking.

Are there other challenges the general public might find surprising? 

When folks start light shows, they don’t think about how much space you need to store these kinds of displays, and what it takes to keep them from being unusable the following year. We have several containers in a nonpublic part of the property — big, metal 20-foot containers, where we store most of the lights. Then we store some of the more sensitive things in our operations facility.

Besides the Winter Lights, what’s your favorite event at the arboretum?

I mean, it’s such a simple event, but I really love the ArborEvenings series that started in 2019. It usually runs from mid-June through the end of September. Twice a week, we bring out local regional musicians, and we sell beer and wine and snacks.

And it’s been growing year to year. It used to be me trying to track down people and convince them to play because they didn’t really know who we were. Now, we have so much interest that we can only offer each musician one date to perform.

It’s been a really nice way to connect with all the great talent in the area.


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