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L. A. County Arboretum’s ‘Moonlight Forest’ Brings Together People in San Gabriel Valley

A ‘Moonlight Forest’ display at The Arboretum. – Courtesy photo / Tianyu Arts & Culture, Inc.

By May S. Ruiz

Be transported to an enchanted evening wonderland when the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden (The Arboretum) in Arcadia displays hundreds of magnificent lanterns depicting exotic animals, shimmering flowers, whimsical pandas, soaring dragons, and other themes to create a mesmerizing ‘Moonlight Forest.’

The Lantern Art Festival celebrates the time-honored tradition of lantern-making and features Chinese performing arts and crafts. It goes on from October 26, 2018 through January 6, 2019, 5:30 to 10 pm.

Richard Schulhof, CEO of The Arboretum declares, “Our vision for the Lantern Art Festival is to commemorate this wonderful traditional art form from China and set the lanterns amidst the landscape of the L.A. County Arboretum. It’s nature meeting art and culture, and bringing together the different communities in Los Angeles.

“Spanning a mile’s path of travel, the lantern displays will begin from the lawn area, then goes into the forest and around the lake, and by our landmark Queen Anne Cottage. In addition to the lanterns, we’ll have traditional Chinese performing arts – acrobats, face-changing dancers, and jugglers. We’ll have food trucks and various libations.”

Richard Schulhof looks at some of the animal lanterns. – Photo by May S. Ruiz / Beacon Media News

‘Moonlight Forest’ is the culmination of a year’s planning and preparation. Relates Schulhof, “Last October, Tianyu Arts & Culture Inc., the American subsidiary of the international design and manufacturing company Sichuan Tianyu Culture Communication Co., contacted me to discuss a possible collaboration.

“I familiarized myself with the art form and the company’s work by visiting the different lantern festivals they were holding in Charlotte, Virginia Beach, and Las Vegas. I learned that lantern art utilized traditional materials that were used 500 years ago. The advent of new materials and construction methods allowed for an elaboration of this traditional art form and the lanterns you currently see represent that.

“The center for this craft is a town named Zigong in Sichuan, near the city of Chengdu, where this art form is still practiced today. Tianyu Arts & Culture creates festivals all over the world – Europe, Australia, and North America. It’s quite surprising that there has never been one of this scale in the San Gabriel Valley. And given the confluence of cultures in the region, particularly East Asian, it’s only fitting and natural to bring the lantern art festival here. We’re thrilled that this debut event is happening here at The Arboretum because I see this as a meeting place of cultures.”

The lanterns reflect three themes: Chinese culture – iconic images and traditional themes like the harvest moon feast; nature – animals and plants; and children – fairy tales and fables to delight kids and the child in all of us.

Schulhof’s excitement about this event is abundantly evident when he takes me on a tour of The Arboretum grounds where workers are busy setting up structures on which the lanterns will be installed. He explains that some of the exhibitions are quite complex and points to a large construction underway that he presumes will be that of the Forbidden City, which used to be the imperial palace in the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

A display of a man serving tea. – Photo by May S. Ruiz / Beacon Media News

As we approach a display of a man serving tea, Schulhof stops and gets out of the golf cart he’s driving to enthuse, “When I was in Kunming, in Yunnan province, I was hosted by the Kunming Botanical Garden and the server was dressed just like this. They carried teakettles with these long spouts and they could pour tea into your cup from six feet away. It was absolutely amazing to see that.”

At this point we’re attracting the curiosity of people who are on their morning walk at the garden. Schulhof very animatedly enlightens the little group about the lanterns with the enthusiasm and exuberance of a little boy showing off his prized toy collection.

We reach an area with the animal lanterns and there are lions, tigers, giraffes, pandas, and some animals indigenous to California – bears and coyotes. Schulhof points out little details on them, like the hand-painted eyes of the animals.

“And because this is The Arboretum, there will be a couple of peacock lanterns. They’re the most spectacular peacock lanterns they’ve ever done! People here have very high expectations when it comes to peacocks,” Schulhof tells a couple of ladies who are also inspecting the array before us.

Schulhof stands next to a terracotta soldier. Photo by May S. Ruiz / Beacon Media News

The lanterns of the terracotta warriors from Xi’an province are Schulhof’s particular favorite and he walks over to where the figures are clustered. He informs with confidence, “If you look closely you’ll see that the soldiers have different faces and when illuminated they are glowing, golden beams.”

There’s quite an interesting bit of Chinese history connected to the terracotta army. The first Qin Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who ruled from 247 to 210 BC, built this army of warriors, chariots, and horses made entirely of clay and were buried with him to guard him in his afterlife. They remained there undiscovered until 1974 when they were excavated by accident by local farmers. Today the Mausoleum of the first Qin Emperor is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Our tour ends at the lawn and fountain area, and Schulhof directs my attention to a tree, “The Arboretum was founded in 1948 and one of its goals was to bring new plants to Los Angeles to beautify the city. That is the silk floss tree from South America, one of our most successful introductions, and this is its peak blooming period. We have several of them all over the garden; so people will be enjoying the lanterns and our beautiful silk floss plants at the height of blossom all at once.

The silk floss tree. – Photo by May S. Ruiz / Beacon Media News

“Every year, 400,000 people visit The Arboretum. What they see during the day doesn’t even compare to what they’ll see at night during our ‘Moonlight Forest.’ The Lantern Art Festival, with its more than 60 exhibits and over 500 lanterns, gloriously demonstrates the artistry, craft, and skill of Sichuan artisans and will surely add some magic to the visitor experience.”

Schulhof is familiar with Sichuan province, where this craft originated. Back in 1997, when he served as Executive Director of Descanso Gardens, he was in Sichuan collecting camellias. But because he was in the countryside, he didn’t see any lanterns.

Starting next week, and for ten weeks thereafter, the lanterns that eluded Schulhof in Sichuan two decades ago will be the magnificent centerpiece at The Arboretum’s ‘Moonlight Festival.’ And he is hoping that not only do they bring delight and joy to those who behold their splendor, but also bring together the various communities in the San Gabriel Valley in one magical celebration.

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