Shine a light

Bryhanna Greenough makes a lantern for the Victoria Park Lantern Festival.

All that remains of the swimming pool in Victoria Park is a rectangular outline in the grass. There the vegetation struggles to grow, only managing to sprout in uneven tufts.

The Cascade River once flowed through Victoria Park, but it too has been covered over.

The old pool house, however, is still intact. A heavy steel door seals the entrance, giving a vault-like feel. Its a few minutes before 7pm on a Thursday and someone has arrived with a key and turned on the lights.

The interior of the pool house has been converted into a giant workshop. Makeshift tables are set with lantern making essentials: margarine containers for glue, calligraphy brushes made from horsehair, scissors and spools of wire. Sheets of coloured tissue paper drape over chair backs. In a corner, someone is methodically breaking apart an old set of bamboo blinds.

The Friends of Victoria Park is a non-profit, volunteer based organization which hosts free summer rec programs for kids and teens and has been opening the old pool house to the public for several weeks now in preparation for the Lantern Festival, a massive public art installation which involves hundreds of lit homemade lanterns in Victoria Park.

Inside the pool house, inspiration hangs from the ceilings. A red spaceship lantern spanning about six feet in diameter floats among some carefully engineered varieties of fish. Nearby, a row of balloons clad in tissue dangle pleasingly. No two lanterns are exactly alike.

According to Kate Dunbar, second-time coordinator for the festival, the Friends of Victoria Park formed when the City of St. John’s made Victoria Park into something that might have been overlooked otherwise.

“After [the City] filled in the pool and covered over the river, the community came together to keep the park alive,” she says.

People are showing up to make lanterns and the room is alive with activity. Everyone who has come tonight obviously want to be there.

A mom and tot sit on the floor and glue pieces of tissue paper onto a bamboo form shaped like a star. Beside them, someone is learning first-hand about architecture while reinforcing a large ‘house’ lantern in layers of white glue. Behind him a long strip of bamboo is being eased onto a giant suspended globe. I overhear that all the continents will be recreated in tissue paper.

The guy next to me is making a hotdog lantern, but it’s proving tricky to get the colour of the wiener just so with the tissue paper.

My lantern isn’t very fancy, and my goal is to finish in a single night. After looking at the handwritten instructions posted in the entranceway, I bypass the bamboo frame and simply inflate a balloon and plaster it with six layers of tissue paper and glue. It looks like I’ll have to come back after it dries to cut off the base and make a little candle holder to set inside, but I look forward to it. It’s relaxing to follow the project through with my hands, and it’s a lot easier when someone has gathered all of the materials together.

I ask Kate why she thinks people are attracted to the Lantern Festival.

“It’s really spectacular and its pretty much the only event of its sort in St. John’s,” she says. “And its free, so its accessible. It’s a participatory event that anyone can be a part of.

“I’ve heard from so many people say it’s become the new Peace-A-Chord.”

Many people begin the Lantern Festival with an afternoon picnic on the grass, and maybe taking part in free workshops on drumming, juggling, and stilt walking. As evening approaches giant puppets have been known to appear, as well as belly dancers, fire spinners and other folks in costumes…

Once the sky darkens, hundreds of handmade paper lanterns light up the park. The Cascade River which used to run through the park is recreated from blue jars, each lit with a candle. Finally, percussionists lead a procession.

I ask Kate if she thinks the Lantern Festival is political.

“Most people don’t understand what we have to go through every year just to get it up and running,” she says. “Every year we face struggles with the City and obstacles that come up… Over time the festival has grown but there are still the same kinds of obstacles to overcome—just to get the City to understand and see the benefits of it, of community building.”

Victoria Park’s 7th Annual Lantern Festival is set for Saturday, July 28 (Rain date July 29). Lantern workshops are from 7pm to 9pm every Tuesday and Thursday leading up to the festival. Or complete DIY lantern instructions can be found online at www.fovp.org.

Illustration by Kira Sheppard.