Light Night Leeds: Meet the couple with an undimmed passion

Face Britain Projection on the frontage of Buckingham Palace.
Face Britain Projection on the frontage of Buckingham Palace.
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Ross Ashton and Karen Monid have worked on light displays from Buckingham Palace to hotels in Las Vegas. Now set to bring their breathtaking art form to Leeds, the couple talk to Neil Hudson.

There is little doubt what will be the highlight of the 13th Light Night festival. More than 40 light-based art events will use the centre of Leeds as a canvas next Thursday and Friday but the piece de resistance will be a dramatic audio-visual display at the Civic Hall. This year, the honour of creating the main display has gone to Ross Ashton and Karen Monid, from the Projection Studio, which was set up by Ross 25 years ago.

There is little doubt what will be the highlight of the 13th Light Night festival. More than 40 light-based art events will use the centre of Leeds as a canvas next Thursday and Friday but the piece de resistance will be a dramatic audio-visual display at the Civic Hall. This year, the honour of creating the main display has gone to Ross Ashton and Karen Monid, from the Projection Studio, which was set up by Ross 25 years ago.

“That was back in the analogue days,” Ross, 56, reminisces. “We were cutting up film and taping it together. It was all very hands on.”

Karen, 46, who cut her teeth as a sound engineer working on West End musicals but then migrated into projection work, also recalls those early years. “We both started in the pre digital era, it was before computers. Since then, we’ve come through this whole digital revolution, so you change, you adapt, there are more things possible now. That’s a constant challenge but one thing is true: you never stop learning.”

The husband and wife team met in 1999 after Karen emailed Ross looking for possible job opportunities. It was right time, right place and after seven years of working together, they tied the knot. Their chosen career has taken them all over the world, from working on light displays for the London 2012 Olympics, in which they displayed images onto the Houses of Parliament, to hotels in Las Vegas and even ancient shrines in India.

Sheffield-born Ross says: “We have just come back from the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, where we had a projection onto the castle and later this year we will be working at Blackpool Tower and also in California. But this is our first time in Leeds. I’m a Yorkshireman and I hardly ever work here, so it’s significant and it’s something we’re both looking forward to.”

He says hardly but the pair did work on projects in York in 2010 and 2013. The former involved projecting the image of a rose onto York Minster as part of the Illuminating York Festival, while the latter saw them transform Clifford’s Tower with a mesmerising light display called Triquetra.

Ross also holds two Guinness World Records, the main one being for the most people used in an artwork, after pictures submitted by 203,000 schoolchildren were turned into a “living mosaic” to create 32 images of the Queen called Face Britain, which was then projected onto Buckingham Palace in the build-up to the 2012 Olympics.

The other record, which was set in Sussex in 2014, saw him work with a magician on the world’s largest card illusion, the results being projected onto the side of a building.

“We know this a very prestigious event and there was stiff competition for it so we were really pleased to get the commission. We don’t want to give too much away but what I can say is it will be bright and fast moving,” adds Ross.

The couple have spent about three months preparing for what will end up being a 10-minute display entitled Out of the Aire and that meant going into museum archives to wheedle out tidbits of information about the city.

“It’s nuggets like Roundhay Park Lake being used to test torpedoes during the war and the world’s most successful (still) mouse trap, Little Nipper, being invented here. Leeds has a lot of industrial heritage – the man who invented the term ‘civil engineering’, John Smeaton, is from Leeds and so we’ve used some of this history in the display.”

Karen is also at pains to stress how much local musicians have been involved, with tracks from up-and-coming Leeds acts Sam Airey, the Marsicans, Hope and Social, together with a host of volunteers who lent their voices to the piece.

“One of the things we wanted to do was to have a piece where Leeds told its own history but particularly with the sound, to include the voices of those who live in Leeds,” she says.

“Leeds is full of variety, with its population, its history, so that is reflected in the piece – there’s a huge variety of music in there.”

Ross finishes: “We design everything with a view that it has to be acceptable to everyone on some level, so we’re happy with kids running about in light beams and also with adults who just want to stand there. Throughout history Leeds has been a magnet for all kinds of innovators, from people like Louis Le Prince to great industrialists. We want to capture some of that variety.”

Light Night will take place at venues across Leeds next Thursday and Friday. Whatson.leeds.gov.uk/lightnight

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