This month, Boerner Botanical Gardens in Milwaukee’s Whitnall Park has taken on an exotic look. The visiting display called China Lights covers eight acres of the gardens. At night the display lights up.
The welcome gate pulls you through a world lined with peach trees. Just ahead flowers sparkle in a sunken garden. Turn your head to discover colorful lotus fairies, turn another direction and pandas at play appear.
And you’ve barely seen anything – including the 22-foot tall dragon.
Artist Ziming Luo created the show.
“First of all I classify all of the designs and then draw them on the floor; then I try to make it as 3D as possible and I have to pick out the colors. I decide how to do it and then we have a team of 28 people to help with the whole project,” Luo says.
The crew worked at Boerner for a month, welding together metal structures, adding silk covering. Later, they painted in details, and then added the lights.
The 28 year old says, at the foundation of it all is lantern-making, an art he began to learn as a young boy. Later, Luo apprenticed with a master lantern-maker in his hometown in southern China.
“Zigong is the city where lantern-making skills originated and have been preserved and more than 90 percent of all lanterns in the world are produced there,” Luo says.
While mentors nurtured Ziming Luo’s art, the voice you hear translating belongs to Huiyuan Liu.
She knew little of lantern-making and, in fact, grew up in a far-away province, but was intrigued when she noticed an ad about a potential trip to the United States.
“I happened to see the ad saying Chinese Lantern festival and I’ve never seen this before so I said yes,” Liu says.
Liu’s English-speaking skills proved essential, but the ability to communicate to fellow Chinese was important too. She and artist z-ming looy speak two different dialects.
“We do! He speaks a dialect that I don’t understand and I speak a dialect that he does not understand – but we both speak Mandarin, so that we can communicate,” Liu explains.
The Chinese team’s first stop was Spokane Washington, where Liu worked behind the scenes. That changed here in Milwaukee, where her responsibilities have multiplied.
“(I had to) to find accommodations for a group of 28 people, and do grocery shopping for 28 people every day,” Liu says.
Some of the team lived in a nearby apartment.
“And there’s a Boy Scout lodge as well and we have all the guys over there and the ladies on one side and they have to walk 20-30 minutes every day to come here to work,” Liu says.
And not banker’s hours!
“Oh we started really early every day. One week we started at 6 am and ended at 9 pm. Cause work was just too much and we had too little time. But now it’s better – now we’re done,” Liu sayas.
She now appreciates the elements critical to the world of outdoor displays.
“We don’t have that much wind so that’s very crucial for our set up as well and it’s really important to find out where the power is. You don’t want to put it somewhere you can’t get power, then you have to do the work all over again,” Liu says.
Artist Ziming Luo says the hours of meticulous attention to details pays off when he sees children standing open-mouthed as they drink in glowing pandas and - the giant dragon.
“This will serve as a chance for them to know a little bit about China and Chinese culture and that will make me feeling fulfilling,” Luo says.
Luo and Liu don’t have long to serve as cultural ambassadors, they’ll soon be off to Columbus Ohio to create its version of China Lights.