Have you ever wondered where Oakland’s Burning Man artists go to unwind? The answer: to the Gardens at Lake Merritt, where every autumn, they display their wildly creative inventions in an oasis-like setting that’s a world apart from Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, where the Burning Man event takes place. And they invite the public to join them.

Oakland’s Autumn Lights Festival, which this year will be held the evenings of October 17 and 18, is a showcase for fire spinners, illuminated dancers, video and glass artists, sculptors, musicians, cosplay (“costume play”) fans, and dazzled spectators of all ages. Now in its third year, this fundraiser for the nonprofit Gardens at Lake Merritt has grown each year, attracting more artists of every stripe and building community along the way.

Illuminated costumes for all ages are encouraged at the upcoming Autumn Lights Festival at the Gardens at Lake Merritt.

Illuminated costumes for all ages are encouraged at the upcoming Autumn Lights Festival at the Gardens at Lake Merritt. Photo courtesy of Children’s Fairyland.

“This is a chance to see one of Oakland’s treasures in a completely new way,” says Tora Rocha, the park’s supervisor and fairy godmother. She is known around town as town as “Tora-nado” for her ability to rally locals to volunteer on urban gardening projects. The results have been transforming the city and introducing neighbors to one another.

One of the artists who’ll attend Autumn Lights this year is Karen Cusolito, a metal sculptor who figures she’s brought hundreds of tons of art to Burning Man over the years. She founded and now runs American Steel Studios in West Oakland, whose 170 tenants include artists, innovators, tinkerers and other makers.

Karen says Autumn Lights is the best local venue for large-scale art and fire art. “We’re happy to be in the same city where all of our art is made,” she told me. “The gardens are just stunning,” Karen says. “I love it when we can feature Oakland in this way.” Last year, Karen created three giant metal leaves for the festival; Tora was so enamored that she didn’t encourage the artist to remove them once the event was over.

The illuminated sculpture Karen’s bringing to this year’s event is 18 feet tall and 20 feet in diameter, with seating inside. “If Dr. Seuss was a metal sculptor, he would have made this,” Karen says. And speaking of Seuss, it’s worth noting that Autumn Lights is a family-friendly event. (For grownups, there will be beer, wine and art for sale.)

As a spectator, Karen enjoys seeing illuminated costumes at the event. “I also love to see how people interact with the art,” she says. “It can be a really intimate or jubilant experience, depending.”

Also coming from American Steel Studios will be local artist Kyle Milligan, who has been part of Autumn Lights’ planning team since its beginnings. The East Bay Express has said his sculptures “display an insouciant eccentricity combined with a mastery of traditional sculptural techniques.” This year he’s creating lanterns with butterfly patterns rendered in wood and mica.

“I definitely got caught up in the Tora-nado,” he says. He likes the fact that here at Lake Merritt, unlike in the Nevada desert, the art works accentuate the gardens.

I attended the first two Autumn Lights events and can guarantee you will be caught up in the magic of this public botanical garden after dark. Surprises lurk around every corner: glowing waterfalls here, flaming art cars there, electrified fireflies over yonder. Last year, a family of albino raccoons put on an impromptu floor show, frolicking in the park’s Japanese water feature.

If you want to enjoy a little taste of Burning Man—without the sand, heat and dust, but with the whimsy and community—consider the Autumn Lights Festival, taking place at what has been called “the green heart of Oakland.” For tickets, go to https://autumnlights.eventbrite.com.

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