Walk through a forest of light at the U.S. National Whitewater Center

Inspired by nature, artist Meredith Connelly created a whimsical holiday light experience

The U.S. National Whitewater Center’s holiday light display started with a walk. Artist Meredith Connelly set out on the trail with a notepad sketching the details of the forest and deciding how to share it with others.

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Artist Meredith Connelly works primarily with light and is inspired by the intersection of nature, science and technology.

Now, for the second year, you can see her sketches come to life in illuminated displays on a half-mile trail through the immersive art experience, Lights. Connelly and her team crafted more than 400 pieces of art depicting ground-dwelling mushrooms to canopy-level cocoons.

The displays, she said, are not just about the light but what they illuminate in the forest. Each piece was designed and installed to accentuate what stood out to her during her time on the trail.

“I still look at the smallest things in the forest with childlike wonder, so by taking that a step further in my process,” Connelly said, “I hope to shed light on that for other people.”

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One of Connelly's favorite installations this year, Moss, uses fiber optics to create a thick blanket of light.

Connelly is a Charlotte-based artist who primarily works with light. Last year was her first light-based art installation on the trail, and this year she doubled the number of displays and incorporated new techniques like fiber optics. One of her favorite pieces, inspired by moss, is made up of 3,000 bulbs. Each bulb is supported by 42 strands of fiber optic cable to create a thick blanket of light that hovers over the path.

“When it’s presented it looks really natural and bright, but the viewer might not see the back end of all the science and equations that go into it,” she said.

The science is her favorite part. After sketching her designs in the summer, Connelly and her team spend three months figuring out what kind of lights and materials she can use to make a display. They must determine how many bulbs each breaker can hold without tripping, what size each bulb should be to achieve the right look, and how the lumens will pass through each. She’s been working with lighting for about 10 years and has transitioned to mostly LEDs for sustainability and efficiency.

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Keep an eye out for the lights that line the trail. They're modeled after turkey tail mushrooms like this one. Connelly spent weeks testing new materials to recreate the colors and swirls you see in nature.

Whether it’s a huge display like the moss or something small like the turkey tail mushroom lights that line the trail, each piece is hand-crafted and engineered. It’s a fast project, Connelly said, but she’s honored to share her observations with hikers of all ages and backgrounds at the center.

“[Art] has the ability to be a catalyst for change and inspiration, and, especially right now, evoke some kind of joy and healing at a time when our world really needs it,” she said. “Just to be a small and humble piece of that is my dream, so I am grateful.”

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Visit Lights at the U.S. National Whitewater Center

When: 6 to 10 p.m. through February.

Where: 5000 Whitewater Center Parkway, Charlotte, NC 28214.

Cost: Free but parking is $6.

Learn more: usnwc.org/relax/lights/

Not near Charlotte? Click here for light displays in other Duke Energy states.