As a Resident Adviser on Columbia’s campus, there are few things I get more excited about than the prospects of a program that I don’t have to plan. So when I first saw posters advertising Morningside Lights, I yanked one straight off the wall where it was tacked and hung it in my room. Free. Painstakingly planned by both artists and administrators. What could be better than that?
It was only when my residents and I entered for our session, though, that the beauty of this project overtook me. Before us, the usually austere front corridor was haphazardly and delightfully strewn with the odds-and-ends of lantern making – several wire forms curved their way towards the floor, suspended by a repurposed coatrack. We proceeded to the stage, where other forms were being stored. Perhaps because of the materials used to make the frames – a mixture of bamboo, rattan (a sort of grass that, when dried, is similar to bamboo but more pliable), wire, and coroplast (a plastic sheeting), each of them, even in their early stages, had a beautiful sense of both geometry and buoyancy.
The workshop began with an introduction to the basics in building with organic and inorganic sources. We learned that rattan made excellent circles, that bamboo was good for structural support, that coroplast could help an artist easily execute a two-dimensional vision, and, most importantly, that just as many girls as boys know how to use a drill by the time they get to college.
When it came time to decide what we wanted to build, we ran into a roadblock. It is one thing, of course, to poke your head into a workshop, marvel at the genius and ingenuity of others, and exit into the refreshingly brisk air of Morningside Heights. Committing to building something yourself is an entirely different business – especially when you’re originally considering trying to construct Spongebob’s pineapple house out of bamboo and wire.
Eventually, we settled on making a foray into hot air balloon territory. Our particular balloon of choice? The hot-air-balloon-house belonging to the surly old man from the Disney-Pixar heart warmer, Up. Once we had committed to a vision, constructing the frame followed naturally: from several crooked and poorly measured iterations of walls for the house (thankfully, one of my first-year engineers removed the ruler from my misguided hand), to burnt and cracked rattan, we finally succeeded in producing a frame that looked remarkably like a balloon with a cube on the bottom.
We dusted off our hands, left a note outlining what we felt should be done next, and left the project, excited to see in what direction some other artist might take it.
When I returned on Wednesday, I was shocked to find that nearly all of our instructions had been followed – the house, built from coroplast, had a newly added roof and chimney, and the balloon segment had been sensibly modified so that, instead of being stuffed with many balloons (which we had planned to model out of papier-mâché), the balloon had been pared down to a single, cheese-cloth-covered volume that would better suit its lighting needs.
Friday was the day I had most anticipated – I hoped the addition of colored tissue paper would make the balloon more obviously a balloon or, better yet, more obviously the balloon from Up.
I was a bit surprised to find that, instead of the multi-colored representation of the balloon we had been trying
to build, an artist earlier in the day had begun the framework for a more traditional, striped color scheme with black polka dot accents on the rooftop of the house.
But this is the organizing principle of Morningside Lights – not that someone will follow your vision, but that each piece can morph, from phase to phase, into a different artist’s vision.
I embraced the red stripes and tried to think of a way to amp up their effect.
And then it hit me. Watermelon slices.
Such was our experience of the artist’s process during the first annual MorningsideLights project.
It wasn’t without its challenges or unexpected turns, but the lantern looked luminous and joyful during the procession. Maybe next year, it will have to be a cantaloupe?
Laura Booth, CC’15