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‘It’s just a sweet, magical little event’: Autumn Lights Festival unites artists and gardeners

on October 15, 2021

This year’s Autumn Lights Festival brings together over 300 artists and 70 illuminated light displays ranging from carved-out gourds to a steampunk-esque snail car fully equipped with pyrotechnics. 

The festival, which is celebrating its 10th year, opened to a sell-out crowd Thursday at The Gardens at Lake Merritt. Aside from art, it also gives space to local food vendors and live musicians.

Director and founder of the festival, Tora Rocha, said the garden gives local artists an opportunity to show their work outside of galleries and around the trees, shrubs, and ponds of Lake Merritt. 

“It’s a beautiful thing where a community of artists rally around a community of gardeners. And they do it for the community of Oakland,” said Rocha, 59. “It’s just a sweet, magical little event that I think right now we need more than ever. If I can bring three days of joy to Oakland’s community, then I feel like I’ve done my job.”

Some installations, like Clive Brown’s “The End of Doubt,” which shows a virus-like molecule being impaled by a 5-foot-long vaccine syringe, had folks talking before its light display had been switched on. 

“I love the way people are taking what’s going on and making art out of it. But would that encourage people to get the shot if they haven’t already? I don’t think so,” Risa Nye laughed.

Psychedelic Ancestral Lanterns

Autumn Lights Festival

When: 6-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Where: The Gardens at Lake Merritt

Tickets: Sold out


Artists Ryan Pearl and Peter Tjeerdsma approached their design, “Fibration,” mathematically to construct a torus shape (colloquially, a donut) out of 12 illuminated and interlocking hoops. Tjeerdsma, 57, explained that sometimes art isn’t about communicating emotion but rather presenting ideas and playing with perception. 

“Symmetrical and asymmetrical geometric patterns really trigger interesting things in the brain,” said Tjeerdsma. “We’re not saying anything in particular here. We’re actually just presenting these beautiful mathematical constructs and letting people just open their perceptual systems a little wider. You know, I’d call it digital drugs in a way.”

Erin Jackson, a beekeeper and the lead artist of “Telling the Bees,” an interactive piece that allows participants to send messages via light to communicate with our insect pollinators, recognizes the value of the Gardens at Lake Merritt to the Oakland community and beyond. 

“I love that there is a very open feeling to this place. And I think that you sense that a lot tonight,” Jackson said.

Toward the end of the night, a short award ceremony recognized artists such as Filma Collective for their piece, “Wormhole,” and Oakland High School Visual Art Academy’s collective student work, “Lantern Light Scape.”

G. Harold Duffey, the Oakland Public Works director, took the stage at the ceremony and expressed admiration for the event coordinators and artists alike. 

“Where there’s light, there can’t be darkness. And what a beautiful display of light,” Duffey said.

The story was published in collaboration with The Oaklandside.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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