Give It Up for the Lanterns: Morningside Lights Returns to The Park

Emily Johnson
October 12, 2022

There was a crowd at 116th and Morningside Drive when I arrived, and streams of people down the steps into Morningside Park. Another crowd waited along the park procession route below; students, parents and children, couples, and groups of friends, all leaning over to get a glimpse of the lanterns gathered down the path. 

After two years away, the annual Morningside Lights festival returned to its traditional route through Morningside Park, and residents turned out by the hundreds to witness the spectacle: an evening procession of giant handmade lanterns, constructed by volunteers during a week of free public workshops. 

The festival is directed by artists Alex Kahn and Sophia Michahelles, of Processional Arts Workshop (PAW), both of whom originally conceived of the idea for the festival. The event is co-produced by Columbia University’s Arts Initiative and Miller Theatre. For its 11th year, the festival took ‘The Reimagined Monument’ as its theme—a tribute to how collective memory is formed in public spaces, and how communities and individuals memorialize.

“In a week of collaborative workshops,” Khan and Michahelles described in their artist statement, “we ask our community: “How might a monument transcend the convention of figurative statuary, to highlight untold histories in everyday objects, personal images, and cultural touchstones? How might we put the U and ME back in “monument?”

Two side-by-side photographs of people working on creating paper lanterns

Glowing cheerfully in the evening darkness, colorful paper sculptures drifted past us, carried aloft by volunteers walking to a whimsical, analogue midi-mix soundtrack, like a videogame score. 

As always, lantern-makers demonstrated an imaginative range of interpretations of the theme. A phoenix, a globe, ice skates, a jukebox, a pigeon, a boom box, and a slice of pizza entitled “Pizza Cheese God” floated past the waiting crowd. Each lantern incorporated its own pedestal, marbled with blue and brown paper, each with an ‘inscription’ naming the subject being memorialized. 

An impressively detailed monarch butterfly, its wings dappled black, white, and orange, floated as a tribute to the endangered migratory species, and Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring. One side of the pedestal featured a quote from one of Carson’s letters: “But most of all I shall remember the monarchs…”

Many lanterns were created in the spirit of acknowledging climate emergency, and the changes that rising temperatures are bringing to our warming planet. One memorial was for the disappearing ‘Glacier Blue;’ another was titled ‘Humpback Hello,’ depicting a grinning humpback whale about to slap its tail in greeting. One globe on its pedestal was dedicated to ‘Stewards of the Earth.’

Some volunteers created monuments to unsung heroes, like ‘Sanitation Workers,’ proudly sporting a garbage truck atop a bed of yellow flowers, and ‘Delivery,’ featuring a lone food delivery cyclist with a pizza box. Others created tributes to features of New York City life, like the Marcus Garvey park drum circle; an assemblage of buildings celebrating Midtown.

I caught up with one lantern depicting a tree, intriguingly entitled ‘The Lost Home.’ I got the full story in speaking to the young artists Zinnia and Eva: the piece represents a tree that was once in Zinnia’s best friend’s yard, but was cut down. Zinnia’s two deceased caterpillars are represented by the caterpillar wrapping itself around the tree, which had a delightful purple tissue paper fringe for its many legs. 

Zinnia told me proudly that the texture of the paste used to layer paper onto the lantern is ‘like slime, but I got used to it.” Nine-year-old Eva, the older of the two, told me, “I loved the part with the wire and the board and putting it together, putting my ideas out there.”

There were a host of small lanterns too, circular and white, on which people had drawn or painted slogans like  ‘For the cats,’ and ‘For their families.’ One mother and daughter team carrying lanterns illustrated with a saxophone and trumpet and drums told me that they had found the paper templates on the Morningside Lights website. “You print them off and decorate them, and they give you the light and the stick [at the beginning of the procession],” the woman explained.

As the procession filed slowly onto College Walk, shepherded by encouraging leaders with megaphones, I caught up with the ‘Humpback Hello’ lantern. I asked the person holding it what the inspiration was for his creation. He and the friends he was walking with laughed appreciatively. It turned out he wasn’t the artist at all.

“Some guy asked me if I could hold it for some little girl,” he said, “And I thought he meant for a few minutes. Then he started strapping me in.” He gestured to the kind of sling around his neck that balanced the lantern pole. He had carried it for over an hour in a pure gesture of community spirit. 

It wasn’t the only example of someone taking up a torch for someone else. I spoke to a woman carrying one of the small white lanterns, which was inscribed to ‘Departed Family and Friends.’ She explained, “There was a young woman who made it, she had to leave early, she had to go back to Brooklyn, and I said I’d carry it for her.”

Cheers went up as the lanterns assembled in the center of College Walk. Hundreds of people lined the steps and along the avenue, and lifted their phones to take photos. Near me, people exclaimed at the intricacy and beauty of the lantern construction.

Miller Theatre Executive Director Melissa Smey, about to lose her voice but still shouting jubilantly into a megaphone, thanked the volunteers, Processional Arts Workshop, and the crowd for coming out to celebrate art. “Make some noise for Morningside Lights!” she said, “Give it up for the lanterns!”

A selection of handmade lanterns will be on display until October 31 at The Forum at Columbia University's Manhattanville Campus. This free, public exhibition is available for viewing seven days a week from 8 am to 8 pm. Learn more about the exhibition and the Morningside Lights project here.