11th Annual Autumn Lights Festival The Best Yet

by Sarah Van Roo

The Autumn Lights Festival at the Gardens at Lake Merritt drew the curtain across its garden stage on Saturday evening, October 15. Over three evenings, 11,000 festival-goers enjoyed a peaceful, vibrant event. Families with young kids, the hip and hip-replacement crowd, and everyone in between mingled happily in the fantastic fall weather.

This year’s garden glow drew in over 300 artists, with more than 90+ installations incorporating LED lights, creativity, and sparkling innovation in film. Many artists who participated brought huge installations to us from Burning Man. All of these creative spirits donate their time and incredible talent to make the festival what it is.

This was the eleventh year of the festival, which started as a dreamy concept by then-park supervisor Tora Rocha. Collaborators included Susan Casentini and Kyle Mulligan, Mary Mortimer, Bruce Cobbledick, Karen Cusolito, Brooke Levin, the Departments of Public Works, and Parks and Recreation. Many others helped bring the local artist community into alignment with Tora’s dream, the goal of which was to raise funds for infrastructure and other projects to keep her beloved gardens vibrant. Tora worked her way through the complexity of the Oakland City Departments that manage the Gardens while the non-profit board of the Friends of the Gardens at Lake Merritt became the sponsor and provided hard-working hands that made it all happen.

After several years of searching for the correct fit for event management, Heart of the Town Events management came on board, starting a long and successful collaboration. The choice of food trucks expanded, and the food court became a lovely outdoor grassy area instead of a dank, back parking lot. The art market and musicians added to the ambience, creating the event that is now the kick-off for the fall social season in Oakland and beyond.

Over the past ten years, the hundreds of thousands of dollars raised have been used to replace the aging garden cyclone fencing with elegant black mesh fences, paving projects, bridge and pond repairs, and other garden maintenance projects–all projects that could not be funded by the city during lean budgetary times. The elegant new gates to the garden, designed by iron artist Shawn Lovell,  were another addition created in collaboration with the Friends and with funds from Measure DD.

There were three awards nights this year, some of which were presented by the fabulous sponsors who helped make the event possible and such a success.

  • Oakland Parks & Recreation Foundation Award: Watchagonnado by Armelle Le Roux
  • Marqeta Sponsor Award: The Glass Garden by Kim Webster
  • Oakland International Airport Sponsor Award: Holosphere by Michael Singletary and Gabriel Levy
  • Council President/District 2 Councilmember Award: SubQuercus by Aimee Baldwin, Logan and John Daniel
  •  Oakland Parks & Recreation Foundation Award: Laser Light Lava Lamp by Sarinda Newell and Ranjeet Tate
  • Mayor’s Award: Serpent Twins by Jon Sarriugarte & Krysten
  • Oakland City Council District 3: Charismatic Metafauna by Majorelle Arts
  • PG&E Sponsor Award: Ferdinand by Joe McDonald
  • Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission Award: Fairy Circle by Ryan Rawson
  • Oakland Parks & Recreation Foundation Award: Laser Light Lava Lamp by Sarinda Newell and Ranjeet Tate
  • Oakland Public Works Director’s Award: Dream Pipes by Clody Cates
  • Lake Merritt Breakfast Club Award: Faces of Oakland by Oakland High School’s Visual Arts Academy
  • Oakland Soul/ Roots Soccer Team Award: Lightsichord by Grant Patterson
  • Niantic Sponsor Award: Sun Seeds by Toby Schachman, Monique DeSalvo, and Ryan Alexander
  • Friends of the Gardens at Lake Merritt Gold Standard Award: Helga Mahlmann, current treasurer of FGLM, for overall outstanding work
  • Friends of the Gardens at Lake Merritt Garden’s Fairy Godmother Award: Brooke Levin, former director of the Oakland Department of Public Works, for overall outstanding work

You’ll find additional photos and background information on the Gardens at Lake Merritt website which also includes links to their Facebook, Instagram and other social media accounts.

Sarah Van Roo is a Lake Merritt resident. A retired journalist and attorney, she now tends the Bee Garden Hotel at the Gardens at Lake Merritt and manages social media for the Gardens. She previously authored the wonderful 2017 profile of Mary Jo Sutton, Splash Pad Park’s “Plant Whisperer.”