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Of Zip Ties & Kittens

River of Lights—behind the scenes

11/12/2015 - “If you’re lighting all day, it looks like you got attacked by a herd of kittens,” Levi Swartz says through a grin as he reveals the red scratches that decorate his forearm.

This is what happens when you repeatedly rub against one of the 90,000 zip ties used to wrap lights around more than 500 sculptures for the ABQ BioPark’s River of Lights—and it’s pretty inevitable when you’re wrapping lights all day, he says.

Swartz, who has been working on River of Lights for six years, is a lighting technician for the annual event, and an apprentice to Welder/Sculptor Joey Trujillo.

Trujillo is the man who quite literally brings shape to the annual event. He has worked for the River of Lights for 10 years and shapes every single sculpture frame out of metal himself.  Many of the pieces are bent by hand, while thicker metal and precise curves require hand tools and special benders.

Trujillo often uses small plastic toys for design inspiration. He saves these models—in a shrine of sorts—on a shelf in his shop.

With hundreds of sculptures and millions of bulbs, Trujillo says that the event has expanded every year since he started a decade ago, and he and Swartz say they want to continue to grow—they envision one day having enough sculptures to allow them to rotate pieces in and out of the show so that no two years are the same for visitors. Even now, they say changing the locations of the current sculptures keeps the event unique for returning spectators.

Though some of this year’s fresh creations include a hot air balloon and a barrel of monkeys, both Trujillo and Swartz say their favorite sculptures are more prehistoric in nature—Swartz admires the stegosaurus while Trujillo prefers the tyrannosaurus rex, which was his first piece.

While visitors enjoy the River of Lights’ holiday flair, most probably don’t give much thought to the logistics of putting on a large-scale light show. Starting October 1, the six-person River of Lights crew tests older lights, and wraps and places the sculptures. They also decorate the garden with twinkle lights and even laser lights, which can shine for up to 100 yards into the tall trees. All this pre-show work is a full-time task that lasts until the River of Lights kicks off the day after Thanksgiving.*

But the team isn’t off the hook just yet—the show’s start brings troubleshooting responsibilities.  With so many lights, a bulb could burn out at any time—at least one member of the lighting crew has to be on hand for every show throughout the winter event.

“Imagine if you have 2 million lights in your house—something is probably going to burn out at any given moment,” Swartz says.

Trujillo says he enjoys hearing positive comments about his creations during the event, but he’s always relieved to disassemble the show each February. But soon it’s time to start planning for the next season—when March rolls around, the group brainstorms new sculpture ideas and Trujillo jumps into action once more.

 “It’s Christmas year-round for us,” he says.

*In addition to Trujillo and Swartz, Bucky Bomaster, Damon Green, Armand Romero and Coleman Donze bring River of Lights to life.

Did you know?

  • Forty percent of the lights in the show are LEDs, an advantage when it comes to power—LEDs only use 10 percent of the electricity that conventional lights use.
  • The pirate ship is made up of 26 individual pieces.
  • Not only do they go through a lot of lights and zip ties, the lighting squad uses nearly 8 miles of extension cords to light up the Botanic Garden.