Autumn Lights Festival Shines at Lake Merritt

This festival illuminates the gardens with 40 artists’ works.


A sample of the 2013 show.

Ken Katz


This story from our October issue will be available online Oct. 15. Copies of our print issue are available by calling 510-238-9101.

Long after the picnic blankets have been cleared, the boats have docked, and the joggers have mostly headed home, there’s often a light burning inside the office of Oakland Parks Supervisor Tora Rocha, where she watches over the crown jewel under her charge—The Gardens at Lake Merritt, a seven-acre oasis of themed gardens on Lake Merritt’s north shore. 

“I work late a lot,” says Rocha, responsible for the parks and landscaping in most of north and west Oakland, “so I know how beautiful these gardens are at twilight.” Three years ago a light bulb went off in her head as she envisioned an annual fundraiser for The Gardens that would bring them to life at night with illuminated artworks.

The Autumn Lights Festival, sponsored by PG&E, will be held this year on the nights of Oct. 17–18. Forty artists, mostly from the East Bay, will install works across what Rocha calls “the whole spectrum of what art can possibly be”—lanterns made with origami, gourds and kitchen sieves; inflatable forests; a flame-throwing car direct from Burning Man; electric fireflies; gargantuan metal flowers; and lighting on everything from the towering trees to the waterfalls to the ancient specimens in the famous bonsai garden—all accompanied by live acoustic instrumental music.

Last year’s first-place winner of the People’s Choice Award, glass artist Kim Webster, plays up the dramatic architecture and colors of her favorite flora with blown-glass sculptures of serpentine agaves, eerily dripping bleeding hearts, and finely detailed foxgloves, all lit from within to create dreamy silhouettes of color against the surrounding darkness.

Internationally renowned sculptor and fine artist Keiko Nelson, a native of Japan and a Berkeley resident, took time off from her commission designing doors for a Kyoto temple to create her festival installation, “Prayer for World Peace.” Using thousands of chopsticks donated by an Oakland restaurant and bamboo grown at Lake Merritt, she has constructed a dreamscape universe of floating planets.

Husband and wife Susan Casentini and Kyle Milligan return to the festival each year with an increasingly elaborate Polynesian paradise in the lush Palmetum, a celebrated collection of Mediterranean and tropical palms, with Tiki lanterns strung through the trees, vintage Tahitian dancer movies projected on a palm trunk, and lacquered shrunken heads by fellow artist Emil Barber.

Local watercolorist Kevin Woodson paints close-ups of flowers in their natural settings as a daily meditation. He’ll transfer his intricate paintings onto vellum and encase them into a variety of Japanese-style lanterns.

The festival will also celebrate Parks Supervisor Rocha’s Pollinator Posse, a volunteer group creating pollination corridors and hand-rearing butterflies, with local filmmaker Susan Bradley’s video projection of the pollinators at work.

Some of the art installations will be available for sale, with additional pieces shown in an artists’ gallery. There will also be food and drink for sale, as well as an indoor space with DJ music and dancing.

Proceeds from the event will help the Friends of The Gardens at Lake Merritt fund garden improvements including the construction of a major new garden entrance on Bellevue Avenue.


Autumn Lights Festival

6–10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Oct. 17–18, 666 Bellevue Ave., Oakland, $20 adults ($25 at the door), $10 children 6–12 ($15 at the door), 5 and under free.

Add your comment:
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags

Big savings on local dining & more.

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags