Glowworms invading downtown Petaluma? No, public art

A group of local creators has illuminated a downtown Petaluma alleyway with an electrifying public art installation, incorporating a message of environmental awareness with creativity as part of an effort to inspire more public art in the city.

Dubbed “Petaluminescence,” the interactive solar powered LED light display suspended over the staircase that connects Kentucky Street to Helen Putnam Plaza is the brainchild of Petaluma artist Mike Hollibaugh and his wife Jessie Buickerood, who formed a “Light Refreshments” art collective.

“I’ve always been enamored with large-scale public art,” said Hollibaugh, who works for his father’s Holly Solar company, a Petaluma-based manufacturer of renewable energy equipment. “I love lights - especially things that glow, and this ties it in for me. And there’s just not that much public art here ... there’s such a huge array of artists here, it seems like we could be doing more in the community.”

The $3,000 temporary installation is inspired by the Arachnocampa luminosa, a bioluminescent glowworm found within the Waitomo Caves of New Zealand, Hollibaugh said. Bioluminescence is an organic chemical reaction that creates visible light, and in the female Waitomo glowworm, the illumination occurs in the abdomen and is used to lure prey, attract a mate and indicate hunger.

The hand-crafted artwork is comprised of 105 individually programmed LED lights that contain a micro-controller that’s programmed to show the artists’ interpretation of “communication” emitted by the glowworm. Like the glowworm, each fixture emits the same color but has its own unique behaviors, with no repeating programs.

For the interactive component, the lights “scare” and temporarily turn off when passersby make too much noise, he said.

“We don’t commonly stop, especially in a lot of urban environments, and explore and see what’s going on in other ecologies,” Hollibaugh, 38, said. “It gets rowdy there on the weekends with the concentration of bars, and residents have complained about the noise, so we thought it would be interesting to see how it would translate when you see how much noise you create and how it effects the specific installation.”

The couple, who live in downtown Petaluma, selected the location because of the high amount of foot traffic in the area, Buickerood said. It took the team, who worked with engineer John Long, about eight months to design and fabricate the piece. The artwork, was installed over the course of several hours in late October with permission from both building owners, and the duo added the interactive sound component Nov. 16.

The display turns on around 5 p.m. and is programmed to run for nine hours each night, Hollibaugh said. The artists hope the installation can remain up for another month.

The artists have received positive feedback about the piece, said Buickerood, who works as a graphic designer for Sebastopol-based Far Fetched Jewelry.

“For me, it’s kind of bringing beauty and magic to the passerby,” Buickerood, 38, said. “We’ve kind of put it out to the community and asked ‘What do you think about this?’ and to me it seems like they like it. It lights people up and makes them smile and look around, and to me, that is the most important thing.”

Petaluma Downtown Association Executive Director Marie McCusker said public art adds to the charm of the city’s central shopping district.

“I love the idea of public art downtown, I think it’s very engaging and I think those alleyways are perfect environments for a little more creativity,” she said.

The installation comes as Petaluma’s Public Art Committee continues with a years-long process to commission a $150,000 piece of art for Water Street.

After the first attempt to select an artist to create an original piece for a strip along Petaluma’s central waterway yielded lackluster results, the committee in April decided to tweak its process and ultimately restart the search.

A request for qualifications was re-issued Oct. 13, with 66 complete applications received by the Nov. 15 deadline, according to Associate Planner Jacqueline Overzet. Hollibaugh, who worked with finalist Ned Kahn to handle lighting for his “Vertical River” proposal in the first round of the selection process, said he didn’t apply.

Moving forward, a selection panel will be established to review the complete submissions at a committee meeting in January. Three to five finalists will be selected and invited for an interview in February, and ultimately, one final artist or team will be chosen to create a site-specific piece, she said.

Public Art Committee Chairwoman Caroline Hall said she hadn’t personally seen “Petaluminescence,” but she’s in favor of incorporating more public art into the cityscape.

“The more art the better,” she said.

Hollibaugh said the “Light Refreshments” collective hopes to work with the city and community to gain input about future projects, and hopes to potentially work with a local winery to create a larger installation in a cave.

(Contact Hannah Beausang at

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