“Tora! Tora! Tora! Tora!” a crowd chanted, surrounded by illuminated feats of constructed artistry, as they applauded for Victoria “Tora” Rocha. Without her, the Autumn Lights Festival wouldn’t exist.
Rocha, a park supervisor for the downtown and Lake Merritt districts, is the visionary behind a festival that continues to grow each year. What started as a single-night affair has grown into a four-day enchanting experience that Rocha says highlights the “fusion of art and nature.” Under nightfall, the Gardens at Lake Merritt light up—sometimes with fire shooting from the eyes of an iron-cast snail and sometimes from the twinkle of lanterns hanging from redwood trees.
Rocha’s bottom line for submissions were pretty simple—installations had to, in some way, light up the garden. Or, as she called it, they had to accomplish “G to the third power—for the greater good of the garden.” The 1,700 paper bag luminaries that lined the dirt paths were just the beginning. Along the maze of the the twelve mini-gardens sprawled across seven acres were LED sculptures, glowing glass botanicals, and a jumbo pulsating extraterrestrial creature that doubled as an entrancing lounge, to name just a few.
The lifelong gardener encouraged people to “come lit” so that they could be a part of the art too. Children with crowns of lights around their heads walked with their parents. A father of three sported a pair of sneakers whose LED-filled soles changed colors with each step.
“It was her idea, it was her inspiration, as soon as she spoke of it, we were all on board with it,” said Donald Cooper, president of the Friends of the Gardens at Lake Merritt, the volunteer organization formed in 2004 to maintain its grounds and to keep the gates of the garden, which has been a part of Oakland for over a half of a century, open.
This year’s “four full nights of lights,” which runs through Saturday, features light installations from over 40 local artists, five different awards, local food trucks and beverage vendors, live music performances and a shuttle from the 19th Street BART Station directly to the gardens.
Bre Gipson’s nostalgic installation, reminiscent of a fantastical childhood blanket fort, won the Mayor’s Award, presented by District 4 councilmember Annie Campbell Washington, on behalf of Mayor Libby Schaaf. A combination of sheets, lamps, feather boas and Christmas lights, Gipson said she wanted it to be an, “imaginary space in real life, using all the different textures to bring together a collection of memories.”
Doris Saben is one of 30 ceramics artists from Laney Community College whose pieces are showcased throughout “Mud Garden.” Situated around the garden’s Ripple Fountain, the collection of ceramic sculptures are named after the clay used to make the pieces. A trail of lanterns fashioned out of glass jars with the names of each artist lights the way through the oval enclave that is framed by plants and trees. According to Saben, her piece—an illuminated, open-chested ceramic figure—is a “symbol of opening up and letting frustration come out,” that reflects her frustration “with the whole world.”
Saben fled Iran 25 years ago and has been teaching pre-kindergarten in Oakland since then. She started taking ceramics classes 12 years ago, where she met Martha “Mo” Storm, a ceramics artist who teaches at Laney. Storm put out an open call for submissions then organized the group of faculty, staff, and student ceramics artists. “I absolutely love this show. It’s one of our highlights,” said Storm. “We get to play with ceramic and light, which often isn’t something you get to do.”
It’s the group’s fourth year and their installation, “Mud Light Lanterns,” has been in the works throughout the year. “Ceramics is often seen as functional or something so very solid, and this way we really actually get to explore light with it,” added Storm.
Meanwhile, Franco Calma couldn’t stop dancing. He bobbed his head to an inaudible beat, jamming to the sounds coming from an illuminated headset he rented from by Zero dB, a silent disco company that’s been bringing the funk to the festival for the past three years. Instead of using speakers to play music, the DJ broadcasts a signal to wireless headphones that sync to the tunes coming from the turntables. Some people, like Calma, danced their way through the grounds. Others, like the many couples on date night, stole kisses underneath the color-changing inflatable space plants that doubled as cozy lounges for cuddling on the brisk night.
Russ Megowan, whose DJ name is Hitori Rave, took over the company when its original owner passed in 2012. During the festival’s VIP night on Wednesday, he was spinning a mix of dubstep, trap and juke music. “When I first came here, I had maybe 150 headphones—I didn’t have nearly enough,” said Megowan. “This year we have 1,200 headphones, so we’re hoping we have enough.”
Headset rentals were free of charge that night and for the rest of the festival, Zero dB rentals were only $5, compared to typical fees of $15 or more. Megowan donated his team’s services the first night and lined up a “rotating cast of local DJs.” He said he was happy to hear that festivalgoers from past years told organizers that they wanted to rock out at the silent disco again. “I like being able to do something that helps them with their fundraising,” added Megowan of the group that supports the garden. “I love the garden. I definitely come through here on bike rides and runs.”
“It’s something that grows larger every year,” said Marsha Peterson, a commissioner for the City of Oakland’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission (PRAC). Peterson is one of 11 appointed commissioners who review permits for the city’s parks. She stood mesmerized by a pyramid made out of colorful neon strings, illuminated by a black light.
“This is such an unusual display of artistry. People often think that art is maybe sculptures or oil or watercolors or things like that. Here you have an expression through lights,” added Peterson.
According to organizers, over 8,000 people attended the festival in 2015. This year’s numbers are on track to exceed that; according to festival organizers, over 7,000 pre-sale tickets were already sold as of Wednesday night. Admission for through Saturday is $25 in advance for adults and $7 for children; admission to the gardens is otherwise free.
During the first four years of the festival, the group raised $200,000 that will be used to finance a new main entryway for the garden, improved sidewalks and fencing, and “drought-tolerant irrigation” systems by 2017, according to their website.
Their next fundraising goal of $400,000, which launches with this year’s event, is targeted at revamping the grounds’ garden building, comprehensive exterior fencing and creating a permanent educational exhibit teaching the life cycle of butterflies.
“This is the best iteration of the event that we’ve done so far. I think every year we get better doing it,” said Cooper. “I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished and I’m very hopeful of what we can do for the gardens and for Oakland.”
To purchase tickets to the Autumn Lights Festival and learn more about the Gardens at Lake Merritt, click here.