The Food of Love: Morningside Lights Celebrates its 10th Anniversary with Shakespeare and Duke Ellington

Emily Johnson
November 05, 2021

On October 26, 2021, campus walk was illuminated by the lanterns of the Morningside Lights festival once again, its colorful shapes and marvelling spectators charging the fall air with wonder and excitement.

Since 2011, Alex Kahn and Sophia Michahelles of Processional Arts Workshop have been sharing the art of lantern making with the Morningside community. 

Produced in collaboration with Columbia University’s Arts Initiative and Miller Theatre, the annual Morningside Lights festival brings together students, families, and neighborhood residents in creating structural paper lanterns for a night-time processional. 

For this year’s 10th anniversary of the art-making event, Morningside Lights took the theme Play On! 

The theme engages with Columbia’s upcoming campus-wide festival Ellington Plays Shakespeare: Love and Power, in conjunction with Columbia’s Center for Jazz Studies, and is inspired by Professor Robert O’Meally’s study of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s 1957 Shakespearean suite “Such Sweet Thunder.”

Participants incorporated Shakespearan quotes into their lanterns, reinterpreting and illustrating the playwright’s words with images of the city, jazz, music, and their own daily experience—a bust of Ellington, a violin, a good old fashioned boombox, a cheerful corgi.

“There are many new people who have joined over the years, and some people have been with us for ten years,” Michahelles says, in the celebratory video.

People of all ages put their creativity and care into the lanterns, guided through the process virtually by Kahn and Michahelles in Zoom workshops. 

Kahn and Michahelles were concerned about the effect that distancing requirements would have on the event, when participants could no longer gather to learn and build. But partners like the Friends of Morningside Park stepped in to help with the transition to a new format.

The 2021 video shows the participants in their improvised home workshops, with paste and paper spread out across dining tables and floors. Lantern-building kits included papier-mâché supplies and sheets of colorful tissue, and crafters turned these humble materials into works of incredible detail, whimsy, and wit.

Visual puns are big with this crowd—some delightful examples include the Midsummer Nights’ Dream line “Ill met by moonlight” blazoned on a yellow moon, across which a burglar is making an escape; Romeo’s exclamation “What light through yonder window breaks” tags a window broken by a baseball.

There was a purple and red COVID-19 virion, depicting a mask, hand-washing, and social-distancing, accompanied by the Hamlet quote “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”

Resolve in the face of COVID-19 was a prominent theme—one lantern depicted the Statue of Liberty wearing a mask, shoving away the virus, and the As You Like It quip, “I do desire we may be better strangers.”

A personal favorite: “Defer no time; delays have dangerous ends” over an image of the A train—a riff on a classic Duke Ellington song, and a fixture of life that any Harlem or Morningside resident will recognize.

Such specificity and universality exist side by side in the art works of Morningside Lights, and one can’t help but feel that this is part of what has made the festival a popular tradition for the past decade.

“How does one invent a tradition?” the Processional Arts Workshop website asks. Kahn and Michahelles have worked with other communities to create site-specific pageants, and beyond consistency, creating tradition involves asking residents to call forth what is local, what is distinctive about their community. 

The lanterns created through Morningside Lights are vessels which distill “fragments of vernacular culture that define a community’s identity,” in Processional Arts’ terms. 

A light in the darkness is a perennial symbol of hope and resilience. As we still struggle with being so far apart, this community processional, featuring such marvellously local works of art, feels like an important and beautiful exercise in togetherness.