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Petaluman Amy Critchett and the Bay Bridge light installation


The wind whipped around Amy Critchett as she made her way, step by careful step, up the last portion of the west tower of the Bay Bridge. At 500 feet above the bay, the clear blue skies offered a 360-degree panoramic view that few people ever experience. But this was not a sightseeing trip.

Critchett is the executive producer of The Bay Lights, a large-scale public art project designed by acclaimed artist, Leo Villareal, known internationally for his light sculptures. For the installation, 25,000 white LED lights were strung along the cables of the 1.8-mile western span of the Bay Bridge, designed to create rippling patterns from dusk to dawn.

Atop the bridge, she and the crew were making inspections and adjustments, preparing for the grand lighting ceremony that took place on March 5, 2013, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the opening of the original Bay Bridge.

Accustomed to wearing many hats throughout her varied career, she had no qualms donning a construction hat and helming the production of the world's largest light sculpture. When March 5 arrived, with it came torrential weather. "It was literally a tempest-#8212;20 minutes of the most extreme weather you could imagine," said Critchett with delight. "It added to the excitement. We were prepared with redundant systems and when we launched, it was a spectacular sight."

Critchett grew up in Petaluma, alongside her three older brothers and their working parents. With three athletic boys to follow, she fearlessly waded into sports, finding one that spoke to her: artistic freestyle rollerskating.

"From about age 6 to 16, I spent six days a week training and competing on weekends, becoming the California state champion. I loved it," she beams.

Meanwhile, her mother, Lynn Woolsey, was always active politically. "ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) dinners, attending events and being in the middle of situations with dedicated people who were not afraid to stand up to the status quo was part of the fabric of my childhood," recalls Critchett.

Woolsey was elected to the Petaluma City Council in 1984, serving until 1992 when she became the U.S. Congresswoman for the 6th District, where she served for 20 years before retiring in 2012. Critchett worked on her mother's campaigns, gaining valuable insights on how to create consensus between disparate factions, a skill she has applied to her work.

"I was fortunate enough to be employee number six at the brand-new Wired Magazine in 1992," said Critchett. As the magazine found its footing and grew along with the new "multimedia" industry, Critchett found herself at the epicenter of the digital universe in a funky area south of Market Street in San Francisco. "At that stage, everyone did everything. I was director of special projects, which meant assisting president Jane Metcalfe, to produce their infamous parties. We were making it up as we went along."

In 1998, she moved to ZDTV, another breakthrough technology venture, where she developed the online property and integrated it with ZDTV's cable programming. There she worked with tech talk gurus such as Leo Laporte, who now heads up TWiT TV, the number one ranked technology podcast with studios located in downtown Petaluma.

When Oxygen Media was conceived by former Nickelodeon executive Geraldine Laybourne and partners such as Oprah Winfrey, Critchett was recruited in 2000 as an executive producer for the new network's website in New York and tasked with facilitating the convergence between conventional TV and the Internet.

When Critchett returned to the Bay Area, a serendipitous project put her back in touch with a former colleague, artist Mark Pauline. Their relationship blossomed, and the two were married in 2003.

With a child on the way, Critchett's arc turned toward Petaluma, "This has always been home," she said.

The family settled into a modest house, close enough for Pauline to bike back and forth to his studio. "We are able to live a flexible lifestyle here," said Critchett. "My son, Jake Eddie, goes to the same elementary school I went to. It's a great base for us, and allows Mark and I to pursue our professional goals and still have a close-knit family life."

Critchett is ramping up for the first anniversary of The Bay Lights this March. The sculpture has become so popular there is a push to continue the display beyond the original two-year time span. "The challenge now is to obtain permission and secure the funds, as the project is privately financed," she said.

Not one to shy away from complex tasks, she quotes songstress Billie Holliday, "The difficult I'll do right now, the impossible may take a little while."

(Dyann Espinosa can be reached at argus@arguscourier.com)