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Petaluma producer Amy Critchett helps light up London’s bridges

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Amy Critchett piled into a van with her three older brothers on a fall day in 1976, and soon they were on the road for the Sonoma Coast, thinking little on what lay ahead.

Her parents, one of which is former U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey, wanted them to see “Running Fence,” a 24-mile-long veiled barricade constructed through the Marin and Sonoma County hillsides.

The project had initially sparked an outcry during the planning process, but eventually became a beacon for the type of community collaboration that’s possible with public art.

Seeing Christo’s art installation up close that day “blew my mind,” said Critchett, 52, as she thought back to the creative forces that shaped her.

That blip of exposure was a small step toward a career in media and art that has spanned decades for the Petaluma native. Last month, she helped unveil one of the largest projects yet, an international collaboration to illuminate 15 of London’s bridges along the River Thames.

“It’s that sort of moment, and those sorts of opportunities (that can impact lives for the better),” she said of her experience visiting Christo’s fence. “Especially now, in today’s world, it’s more important.”

Critchett is the executive producer for artist Leo Villareal, a pioneer in LED sculptures whose latest public art project is the “Illuminated River” installation in London.

He earned global acclaim for “The Bay Lights,” which lit up the north side cables along the western span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Critchett served in the same role for that project as well.

Throughout the years, she’s traversed different mediums, helping launch WIRED magazine in the early 1990s and TV networks ZDTV and Oxygen at the end of the decade. During the 2000s, she helped manage nonprofits like ZERO1 and One Economy Corporation before stepping into marketing and business development work.

The one constant was helping launch and scale startups, and a decade ago she started her own, AC Eclectic Creative Services, which has been the vehicle for her work with Villareal.

“I’ve always been encouraged to be creative in my way,” Critchett said. “I’m really a producer through and through. For some reason I know intuitively it’s important to surround yourself with experts in what they do to create the momentum and capacity to do these amazing, impossible things.”

“Illuminated River” certainly fits the mold.

The project was done under the purview of seven different public agencies, requiring the largest single planning application ever made without an act of Parliament, according to a press release. More than 50 organizations helped consult and shape the piece, which will be the longest public art commission in the world at 2.5 miles.

Project officials estimate the piece will be viewed over a billion times by the end of its 10-year lifespan.

Critchett said her role is to integrate the artist with the myriad of teams focused on things like design, technical aspects, planning, and ensuring the entire machine is constantly moving forward.

The first four bridges — London, Cannon Street Railway, Southwark and Millennium — were illuminated on July 17, with shifting hues that imitate the London sky during sunset, moonlight and sunrise, the release said. Each incorporates a pattern inspired by the natural and social activity of the river.

Phase two features the next five bridges, and is on track for a fall 2020 completion date.

Critchett said she gets emotional when she thinks about the project, and described the night it was unveiled as an absolute triumph.

“It brings tears to my eyes. It’s so magnificent and so glorious,” she said. “And in London, certainly we were nose to the grindstone making it work and seeing snippets (as it was developed). … When you do public art like this, there’s no curtain. I was seeing from my team and seeing from Leo as he was programming in London, snippets. But nothing compares to the real thing.”

As a Petaluma resident, Critchett has been following the saga that has engulfed her hometown’s first piece of public art, “Fine Balance,” by San Francisco artist Brian Goggin, and said “it’s not all that different.”

The key is for the artist to constantly remain in conversation, Critchett said, showing respect to the site and ensuring the concerns of the public will be addressed thoughtfully — something she said Goggin has done, despite the vocal opposition to the piece.

“For ‘Bay Lights,’ that meant being honored to have access to this key player in California’s infrastructure, a North American major artery,” she said. “We knew that we couldn’t distract drivers. We knew the installation that the engineering needed to be sound. We knew we couldn’t impact the environment. They’re important conversations to have.”

As a friend and supporter of Goggin, she said it’s been difficult to watch the contentious reaction pour out, but she remains optimistic that a positive outcome is on the way when the city council makes the final decision on the project later this year.

“Everyone experiences his artwork differently,” Critchett said. “It’s wonderful, and important to have beauty in the world and encourage creativity, and encourage awe and wonder. I think that can happen in Petaluma, too.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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