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Meet the man helping to light Nelson in winter

John-Paul Pochin, the spark behind the Light Nelson festival. Photo/Tim Cuff.

It takes just one bright spark to generate an idea, but it needs a community of people to make it illuminate a city.

That’s the philosophy of UK-born John-Paul Pochin, who dreamed of adding sparkle to Nelson in the depths of winter. The festival that evolved, Light Nelson, is a spectacular mix of technology, imagery, sculptures and performance, centred largely on the grounds of the city’s historic Queens Gardens and the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology campus.

The free event has grown hugely since its inception in 2013 when it attracted nearly 30 installations and 15,000 visitors. By 2016, the festival had stretched to more than 60 exhibits, with 55,000 people attending over five nights. Projects featured have included laser shows, illuminated giant moa, and an interior light show at Christ Church Cathedral choreographed to the tower’s bells.

A former computer programmer, Pochin had his own light-bulb moment after he and a friend projected laser patterns onto a hillside for fun, then onto a building in the city centre. “Passersby seemed entertained by it and we wondered what we could do next,” says Pochin, a keen photographer. He enjoys creating art, so was excited by the possibilities of combining it with knowledge gleaned from his degree in physics, electronics and computing. “At the time, Nelson was dead on winter evenings, and I’d just visited Germany where I’d seen winter markets create a real buzz.”

Read more: Harbour Bridge lights to 'change the Auckland skyline'

Through contacts via Pochin’s artistic friends and his work as a photographer, a collective was established of people who recognised the potential, and a trust grew from there. “It’s great to have such a wonderful bunch of people who could see the possibilities and were much more organised than me,” he says.

That first year, as well as serving on the trust, Pochin created three installations of his own. One was a tree fabricated from lights powered by bicycle; another involved animated children’s drawings (including some by the youngest of his two daughters) projected onto buildings with lasers. For weeks, his wife Ros, a high-profile Nelson surgeon, put up with exhibit parts filling their home.

JP, as he’s fondly known, could never have imagined how popular the now-biennial event would become. He says it wouldn’t have happened without the collective, which now numbers more than 200 people, including around 30 who are actively involved. That’s in addition to the trust, generous sponsors and an army of volunteers. They also now have a meeting place, thanks to local charity Community Art Works sharing their space in a centrally located building. 

“I hoped the community would take ownership of it, and it’s happening,” says Pochin, who’s received two “Local Hero” awards for his work with the festival and also as an advocate for cycling. “It’s not just an event, it’s about the journey, the people you meet along the way, the collaboration of ideas – it’s a two-year project that just happens to culminate in an event.”

Artists and creators from around the country submit entries to the selection committee and Pochin hopes more will get actively involved in future festivals, whatever their background.

“It blurs the boundaries between science, technology and art,” he says. “There’s something exciting and uplifting about light and even just by coming along to experience it, people will hopefully feel inspired.”

Light Nelson runs July 6-10.

This was published in the July 2018 issue of North & South.