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MEDITATIVE JOURNEY: Floating lantern ceremony closes ‘Illumination’ exhibit at CAM

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Pate Conaway’s “The Winter Clef” (left); Leatha Benvie Koefler’s mixed-media, found-object sculpture, “My Michelle.” Courtesy photos, Cameron Art Museum

antern festivals abound worldwide throughout the calendar year. Every November India’s Diwali Festival of Lights praises the gods through lighting diyas (clay lamps). Thailand’s fall Loi Krathong festival includes the release of lanterns into the sky to symbolize new beginnings and good luck. The Chinese New Year (February 8) celebrates with bright lanterns of all shapes and sizes peppering temples, homes, schools and shopping malls to mark the beginning of spring and family reunions. Even Hawaii gets in on the celebration on Memorial Day at O`ahu’s south shore, where 50,000 people gather to float lanterns in remembrance of loved ones.

Cameron Art Museum began celebrating the art of remembrance, reflection and gratitude the lantern embodies five years ago with the exhibit, “Illumination.” Featuring handmade lanterns from local, regional and national artists, the 2019-2020 exhibit will close this weekend. Beforehand, on Sunday, January 12, from 4 p.m.-7 p.m., the museum will host a floating lantern ceremony and the public will be able to create their own lanterns.

“Our mission is to give everyone an opportunity to express themselves, to create an atmosphere of love, community and support,” says museum shop manager and special events coordinator Nan Pope. “Many will choose to honor a loved one by writing their name or offering messages to them . . . For some, it is a chance to contemplate their place in life or the year ahead, and show appreciation for people who are dear to them. The lanterns will be filled with names, images, messages and decorations.”

While the experience can be emotional, it’s also meant to be restorative. In the case of artist Leatha Benvie Koefler’s mixed-media, found-object sculpture, “My Michelle,” it embodies conjuring memories of family and friends. She made her lantern from 40 years worth of her father’s slides. Koefler sewed together, in the same vein of her grandmother’s quiltmaking, various images of her life. The outcome is a lantern shaped like a dress that represents the impact of her college roommate, Michelle.

“Each scrap of cloth and each slide represents a person and a memory,” Koefler explains. “I felt like I was sewing my family back together. I then realized how my experiences made me who I have become, and how each person in my life influences me. So I started making garments to represent the people in my life.”

Buttons, 35-millimeter film, crochet thread, zippers, plastic clasps, trim, fabric lining, boning, wire, Plexiglas, and slide carousels were used in “My Michelle.” Koefler pays careful attention to the delicacy of the materials.

“It takes about 20 minutes per button because I am not just sewing on a button,” she details. “I am creating a net-like structure to which I attach the film.”

Though the engineering proved tricky—specifically the bodice, which couldn’t be weighed down by the film, else it would tear—Koefler’s lantern took a year to complete. She hopes folks view the piece as a lens through which they can see their own lives.

“We as individuals are a reflection of our experiences, as depicted in my dad’s slides, and all of us value the same things,” she explains. “I hope they will see how much we are alike and that we are not alone but part of a common family.” 

Pate Conaway’s “The Winter Clef” consists of a junior guitar encapsulated by 400 feet of hand-crocheted laundry cord. Conaway’s background in performance and visual art (Chicago’s Second City Training Center; MFA in interdisciplinary arts from Columbia College, Chicago) coalesces to represent hibernation.

“I hope my lantern makes people pause,” the Illinois artist tells. “The poet Phillip Whalen described poetry as ‘a graph or picture of the mind moving.’ Perhaps my lantern is my mind moving, endeavoring to convey winter and what this season does. Conceptually, I like the idea of winter cocooning. With my lantern I have taken a common object and insulated it. The guitar is there, but suspended, hibernating, waiting.”

His concept evolved from scouring second-hand shops for a month to find familiar pieces that could resonate with many. He considered geography globes and even a mid-century coffee percolator before landing on the guitar for his lantern’s prototype.

“My first attempt went well, but I did not like how the electrical cord clashed with clothesline, so I spent more time and energy to find the right matching cord,” he describes. Construction took the longest since he crocheted everything by hand. “Then I went on a mad search for more laundry cord,” he remembers. “In creating this piece, I had to really trust my instincts.  . . .  what draws me to this process is how a shape can be manipulated and become something else.”

The lanterns on display in “Illumination” total 21, from upward of 40 entries. Each artist received a light kit from CAM, which included safe and energy-saving LED bulb(s) with a socket and cord.

“The most challenging component was figuring out how to get the light source into the guitar,” Conaway admits. “I had to drill through the base of the guitar and pull the plug and socket through the sound hole. The LED light had to be wedged between the guitar strings and screwed into the socket while inside the body of the guitar. The process was frustrating and gave a new meaning to: ‘How many artists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?’”

Sunday’s lantern-floating ceremony will offer participants a chance to decorate their own lanterns ($12 through Jan. 11 or $15 day of); supplies will be provided and candles will be handed out for illumination. The event will feature live music from Zach Hanner, Julie Rehder, The Casserole, as well Perry Smith, Diana Zaccaria and David Key. Mitzi Ito will create origami cranes from Japanese washi paper. It’s free to attend and CAM exhibits are open to wander through, including “Unfolding Noguchi,” featuring the 20th-century American modernist’s work and Akari lanterns.

When five loud gongs permeate the museum around 5 p.m., folks will head to the outdoor pond to begin the floating lantern ceremony. “There is an opportunity for people to take photos of their lantern, so everyone should bring their camera or smartphone,” Pope tells. A luminary path will guide the way (weather permitting) around the pond; fire pits will be aflame, with marshmallows for roasting.

“The outside area is quieter and has a more contemplative mood, with darkness allowing the lanterns to become a larger focus,” Pope says. “This is a more personal time if people are looking for a private moment. If weather allows, we will have a lighted labyrinth path in our courtyard—another opportunity for a meditative journey.”

Floating Lantern Ceremony
Sunday, January 12, 4 p.m. –  7 p.m.
Free • Lanterns, $12-$15 each
Closing of ‘Illumination’ exhibit
Cameron Art Museum, 3201 S. 17th St.

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