Autumn Lights Festival Celebrates 10th Anniversary

by C. J. Hirschfield

The 10th annual Autumn Lights Festival, a popular “only in Oakland” event that benefits the Gardens at Lake Merritt, will take place October 14–16. Thousands of visitors from around Northern California are expected to come to experience the festival’s immersive, interactive interplay of art, light, and nature. Over the garden’s seven acres, guests can explore the work of 50 artists, all of whom are donating their time and talent, and many of whom have created works that reflect the highs and lows of life during the pandemic. All ages are welcome, and the evening festival will once again feature the talent and creativity of young Oakland artists. The festival will also feature musical performances, fire art dancers, children’s activities, and an art market, as well as libations and food trucks.

Last year’s event was forced to be virtual, which had its pros and cons. “It was the hardest thing I ever did,” says event founder and director Tora Rocha. On the plus side, one night attracted an international audience of over 15,000. But because the event was offered free of charge, donations to the gardens were not as robust as they have been in the past. Rocha could not be happier about the return of the live event to the gardens and about the new installations no one has seen before.

Two new groups of young people will be participating for the first time:

— 24 kids from Studio One Arts Center’s Teen Tinkers’ Corner after-school STEM camp will build and install native bee condos using ultraviolet ink and UV lights to invite humans to see what bees see.

— 200 students from Oakland High School’s Visual Arts Academy will join together to light up the garden’s graceful old Hornbeam tree with a luminous installation created from 250 lanterns shining among the branches. They will also assemble glowing beacons made from Dura-Lar matte film and recycled plastic water bottles at the festival.

Also new to the festival this year:

Ancestor’s Grove: A Space Journey is based on an AfroFuturist vision that represents the intersection between ancestral legacy, nature, and technology, as well as the bond between humans and the spirit world. Created just for Autumn Lights by lighting designers/visual artists/ scientists Stephanie Anne Johnson and Kevin Myrick, the piece will feature three baobab tree sculptures built from raffia, wood, and found materials. African masks and hand-crafted seed pods will be suspended from the branches. Solar lighting will illuminate the masks, trunks, seeds, roots, and sky.

— Inspired by his Asian ancestors, artist (and former fire dancer) Blitzy will display huge lanterns that were originally made for a temple he built at the Burning Man Festival.

Valentino Byrd, channeling his love of Oakland, will combine urban art and anime in his installation of 2-D and 3-D light boxes. 

All of this will delight visitors, as well as LED fish, dinosaurs, and an installation that uses the energy of plants to light up and play a synthesizer.

The festival welcomes two new sponsors this year—Cityside (publishers of and and the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. The event will again be presented by Niantic Inc. (creators of Pokemon Go) in association with the City of Oakland, with support from a host of sponsors such as Oaklandish, Square, The Urban Farmer Store, Malibu Compost, East Bay Magazine, the East Bay Express, and BART.

Also new to this year’s event will be health and safety protocols: all attendees (including ages 2–12), artists, performers, vendors, and festival personnel will be required to provide proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test. In addition, everyone onsite (age 2 and up) will be required to wear a mask both indoors and outdoors unless actively eating or drinking (all of the art displays are staged outdoors and the art market is indoors). All transactions will be cashless, and hand sanitizer will be available throughout the festival grounds.

In addition, be advised that attendance capacity has been reduced by 40 percent, and tickets are selling fast.

 “Everyone’s just happy we’re back,” says Rocha. “The virtual experience just isn’t the same as being immersed in the art.” She also notes that art will be for sale, and that the event supports the efforts of scores of Gardens at Lake Merritt volunteers, including year-round gardening projects and capital improvements, and helps keep the gardens free to the public.

Autumn Lights Festival 2021 will be held in the Gardens at Lake Merritt in Oakland October 14–16, from 6 to 11pm nightly. For tickets and event details, visit The festival is BARTable; the closest stop is Oakland’s 19th Street Station.

Editor’s Note: For more info about Tora Rocha and the earlier incarnations of the Autumn Lights Festival, please check out this 2020 Splash Pad News article, also written by C. J.

C. J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel, and advocated on behalf of the industry. She has penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, and now writes regularly for The Oaklandside, EatDrinkFilms and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University. Hirschfield currently lives in Adams Point and serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film Series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.