by Sarah Van Roo

The Autumn Lights Festival returns each October to The Gardens at Lake Merritt in Lakeside Park as a marker of Fall’s arrival in Oakland.  This year, the sixth annual festival takes place Thursday October 19 through Saturday, October 21. 

The festival is a fundraiser for the Friends of the Gardens at Lake Merritt and this year’s proceeds will help fund installation of new gates and entrance landscaping.  As anyone, who has walked or driven through the park, can attest, these gardens are easy to miss, with scant signage.

That all changes during Autumn Lights!  Over 100 Bay Area artists bring their best work forward, creating art infused with light.  Since many of the Burning Man artists house their pieces and work in Oakland, their enormous pieces are well represented from art cars to laser art.  There are exquisitely small works, like tiny glass houses floating in luminous fountain pools and ceramic lanterns glowing in the Sensory Garden created by the ceramics community at Merritt College. 

Tora Rocha on Left

The Autumn Lights Festival’s success has been due, in large part, to Tora Rocha, the long-time Park Supervisor who oversees all of the Lake Merritt and Downtown districts’ public landscaping including City Hall, the libraries, senior centers, parks, medians and, perhaps most importantly, the Gardens at Lake Merritt, as well as the historic Morcom Rose Garden. 

Tora has a deep connection to the local arts community and they gladly participate in the festival just because she asks.  Days of advance planning plus three more days at the festival is a lot to ask of the artists but, each year, Tora has drawn in more of the best light artists in the area. 

This year is particularly significant for the Lake community as Tora is retiring in December.  Oakland Parks Services has been fortunate to have benefited for the past 30 years from her passion and skill as a horticulturist extraordinaire, butterfly whisperer, and as founder of the Pollinator Posse.  It was for these traits that the East Bay Express recently named her as the “Best Garden Whiz”.

Her successor has not been selected, but most of us know Tora can never be replaced. Early in her career, she started out shoveling elephant poop at the zoo and was later a gardener at Fairyland.  For Act IV, we can’t wait to see where she hitches her star power.

Tickets can be purchased in advance on THIS LINK.