It was 12 years ago that Sharon Holnback pulled the trigger and moved from Tucson. Little did she know that Tucson would soon be paying her a visit one weekend each year.
What was originally intended to be a small gathering of like-minded artists in a quaint desert setting—which just happened to be at night, and coincide with an intensely bright full moon—has been transformed into one of Southern Arizona's most unconventional art festivals.
"It's definitely been an adventure," Holnback says of the evolution of her GLOW Festival, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this weekend. "I just got the idea that I could combine being out in the desert at night with the full moon. I invited a handful of artists that I knew from Tucson, and from Oracle, that I had met. The intention was, the first one was just sort of an art party with illuminated sculpture."
"People really responded to it," she said. "It's grown every year."
The 2013 GLOW Festival runs from 7 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Sept. 20 and 21. Each night, a chunk of Holnback's 50-acre Triangle L Ranch in Oracle is transformed into a vibrant, colorful and magical celebration of her loves of art, nature and illumination.
Located just north of state Route 77 on the north side of the Santa Catalina Mountains, the Triangle L Ranch, one of Southern Arizona's first dude ranches, is now a quaint bed and breakfast most of the year. The history of the property is part of what drew Holnback in the first place, but once she got there she realized she had a lot of usable space.
"I had done an iron-garden art business in Tucson and had done some lit pieces, which gave me the idea," she said. "I really enjoyed going out and creating a pathway in the desert."
That pathway, leading from Oracle Ranch Road, is lit up like a glowing runway for Santa and his reindeer to follow. Once inside the festival, the glow is everywhere: through various types of artwork and sculpture—more than 40 artists will have works on display—as well as from magicians and fire dancers. Even the musical acts have incorporated light into their sets, Holnback said.
"There's everything from really subtle art pieces to multimedia," she said. "The theme is light."
Timing the festival with a full moon came from Holnback's discovery early on that the nights can be really dark in Oracle. The glow from a desert moon helped ignite her creative spark.
"I've always tried to coincide with a full moon, and I've stuck with the one in September for the last five years," Holnback said. "It's so magical to have the moon rising."
The desert setting and omnipresence of fluorescent colors might give the impression that the GLOW Festival is a rave. Not in the slightest, Holnback said.
"I know there has been that perception by some, but that was never close to the intention," she said. "It's an all-ages event. We're not selling alcohol. For people that really aren't aware of what it is, there's sort of that judgment. But it's really far from that."
The event is expected to draw more than 1,000 people each night. At past GLOWs, Oracle Ranch Road has turned into a parking lot, with vehicles lined up on both sides of the road.
Not this year, though. Holnback said she went through "great expense and negotiations" to secure an off-site parking lot, complete with a free shuttle that takes visitors to the start of GLOWs illuminated path every 10 minutes.
"We're asking people not to park along Oracle Ranch Road this year," Holnback said. "The neighbors in the past have had an issue with that. It just got too congested."
Because the Oracle community has embraced the event—providing most of the 100 volunteers, the food for sale, and even the town's unofficial house band, Mother Cody—Holnback said her relationship with her neighbors—other than over the parking issue—has been amicable.
"It's become a real community event for the people in Oracle," she said.