The “Toranado” That Created Oakland’s Autumn Lights Festival

by C. J.Hirschfield

Fairyland Blog Photo

When Tora Rocha was growing up, Oakland’s Lakeside Park was a godsend. “We were poor,” she says, and the park’s nature center, ducks, free gardens, and Children’s Fairyland provided many hours of joy and communion with nature. Fast-forward to grown-up Tora, who, after a stint as elephant trainer at the Oakland Zoo, returned to her beloved park—first as an animal keeper at Fairyland, and ultimately, on Earth Day in 2010, as an Oakland Park Supervisor. And although Lakeside Park was only one of her trusts, her office was located inside of the Gardens at Lake Merritt, and it felt like coming home. With its bonsai, Mediterranean, palm grove, sensory, pollinator, children’s and other gardens, it is an urban paradise. But she observed that the dedicated Friends of the Gardens at Lake Merritt nonprofit was struggling to raise money to ensure the grounds’ health, shore up its aging infrastructure, and guarantee free public access. She recalls working into the evening hours, noting that this was the park’s most magical time. What a shame that no one was able to enjoy it. How about an evening event at the gardens that would not only enchant but raise much-needed funds for their upkeep?

Now, at this point it is necessary for me to share with you Tora’s superpower, before I explain how she created and grew one of Oakland’s premier events—the annual Autumn Lights Festival (ALF), now in its 9th year and going virtual from October 16-18. “Toranado,” as many of us lovingly refer to her, has the ability to bring together scores of likely and unlikely partners who cannot refuse her in the face of her overriding enthusiasm for nature and commitment to its preservation and enjoyment.

So when Tora first raised the idea of an evening event in the garden—magically and artistically lit—people showed up and wanted to help. Morcom Rose Garden volunteers. Friends. Artists. Students from Merritt College’s horticultural program. Parents from the toddler garden. And so many more. “I’m passionate, and passion is contagious,” she says.  “And if you’re willing to share it, it can fuel anything.”

The first year of Autumn Lights Festival—2012—was held over one night, and 700 people showed up. There were 20 interactive installations around the park, including lanterns, a fire-spewing snail art car, and a tropical paradise. Over the years, the event grew in attendance, in the number of art installations, in funds raised in support of the gardens, and to three nights. “The word just got out!” is Tora’s understatement. In recent years the event grew to 50 installations and 10,000 guests over three nights, which proved overwhelming.

Many tough lessons were learned—most importantly, that the event’s popularity now necessitated a professional event production company to manage crowd control, food trucks,  traffic, and security.

Tora and team took all of this into consideration when 2017 rolled around, and she considers this year a real turning point. In addition to tighter management, San Francisco-based Niantic appeared as a major sponsor. Niantic, Inc. is a software development company best known for developing the augmented reality mobile games Ingress, Pokémon Go, and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite.

Turns out that company founder John Hanke is a huge fan of the Gardens—they actually inspired him to create games that get people outside, and exploring their communities. Volunteer Niantic teams had previously worked on park projects for Tora, so the deepening connection felt perfect.

This year Niantic is covering all of the festival’s production costs, so the three-day virtual event can be offered for free (although donations are gratefully accepted). But this year ALF will have a different focus: the artists themselves.

For years they’ve generously donated their time, talent, and art to Autumn Lights. Observing that they’ve been hit hard by COVID-19, Tora says “We want to help them like they’ve helped us.” There will be much art for sale directly through the artists, with San Francisco-based Square helping them easily process transactions. “We really need art now,” says Tora.

The event will bring upwards of 40 locally-produced, illuminated art displays to life through video, demos, music, and live chat, treating audiences to a vibrant, behind-the-scenes experience with both longtime and new artists of Autumn Lights. Each of the three nights (one hour each night) of Autumn Lights Festival has a theme, music, and a special host, with artists lighting their art in their own backyards, or at other outdoor venues. And Black Lives Matter will be incorporated—in LED neon, and in other ways. Expect everything from luminous origami butterflies to a synchronized drone show with 30 drones creating images over Jack London Square, to shimmering LED icicles over North Beach in San Francisco.

Here are some of each night’s highlights (each event begins at 7PM PST):

Friday, Oct.16: TECHNOLOGY. If you loved the Burning Man art at previous ALFs, this night’s edginess is for you. The host is Kin Folkz, founder of Oakland’s Queer Arts Center collaborative. Music will feature the LED Luminescent Grand piano performed by William Cenote.

Saturday, October 17: FAMILY NIGHT. The evening will be hosted by Children’s Fairyland Executive Director Kymberly Miller and will feature much kids’ art. Expect participation from Oakland’s Pollinator Posse, which fosters appreciation of local ecosystems through outreach and education, and which Tora co-founded. Music will be provided by local hip-hop artist Amani Jade.

Sunday, October 18: FINE ART. Hosted by charismatic landscaper Ahmad Hassan, two of the featured artworks will be Kim Webster’s fabulous blown glass crystal campfire, and Grant Patterson’s, “Flow State,” a real-time collaboration of interactive art on a shared, fluid canvas—which happens to be a tree. Naturalist/biologist/healer/sage grower Tara Linda will perform on Tibetan bells.

Tora says that her role is to keep the event about the Gardens. In each of the last couple of years, the festival has raised over $100,000, and Tora says “every dime” is used to underwrite such things as the cost of aging infrastructure repair, the installation of new gates, irrigation, replanting, and future docent and internship programs.

“The Gardens at Lake Merritt needs to stay open and free to the public so anyone can get a little Zen time when they need to,” says Tora. Recalling her childhood, she says that “not every kid is athletic, or into gaming. Some of us are nature nerds.”

She may have retired in 2017 after 36 years of civil service to the people of Oakland, but the Toranado ain’t done yet. “When I committed myself to nature and its sacred spaces, I created a vortex,” she says.

It’s clearly one in which we all are happy to enter.

To register for the 2020 virtual Autumn Lights Festival, visit their Eventbrite page.

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 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.