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Vermont Lantern Parades Punctuate the Darkness


Published February 18, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.

Waterbury's River of Light - COURTESY OF GORDON MILLER
  • Courtesy of Gordon Miller
  • Waterbury's River of Light

Town by town, Gowri Savoor is lighting up Vermont — literally. Since 2010, the Vermont artist has been one of the guiding lights behind Waterbury's annual River of Light parade, a winter event in which residents promenade through town carrying illuminated homemade lanterns. The project is part sculpture, part performance and wholly community based, and it's catching on. This year, Savoor will lead similar community events in Montpelier, Burlington, Ferrisburgh and Randolph — with parades in the first two towns coming up this week.

Skilled in painting and drawing as well as sculpture, Savoor specializes in an unusual field: lanterns. She's currently in residence at Montpelier's Union Elementary School, where she teaches students to craft lanterns from various materials. Kindergarteners and first graders work with balloons, yarn and coffee filters, grades two and three with vellum and watercolors, and grades four and five with willow branches and coffee filters, the latter donated by Waterbury-based Keurig Green Mountain.

Savoor, 42, describes herself as "a teaching artist," and her involvement with the lantern parades has educational as much as artistic motives. A resident of Barre Town, she collaborates on her lantern projects with her husband, sculptor and Norwich University art professor Angelo Arnold; and with her friend MK Monley, also an artist and teacher.

Monley, an instructor at Waterbury's Thatcher Brook Primary School, conceived of the first River of Light in 2009 and sought out artists for the project. Lantern parades originated in the United Kingdom, and Savoor, who's from Manchester, England, had prior experience working on such events. She jumped at the chance.

The lanterns that Savoor and her students make take many forms. Some are figurative artworks shaped like birds or dragons; others are more geometrical or fanciful. Once illuminated from within and carried in procession, they call to mind a fairy-tale celebration.

The notion of making art accessible runs through Savoor's practice. "I've grown up in a tradition where people should not have to pay for art," she says in a phone conversation with Seven Days. "It should not be exclusive to those with money." With support from arts grants, Savoor leads free, public lantern-craft workshops in each town that holds a parade.

A Stuck in Vermont Video of the parade:

Three such workshops held on January weekends at Burlington City Arts were "overfilled," says BCA education director Melissa Steady. Steady was delighted that more than 60 people turned out for the daylong craft workshops. Once fitted with LEDs, many of the lanterns created there, she hopes, will be featured in Burlington's inaugural lantern parade this Saturday, which commemorates the 150th anniversary of the city's incorporation. "I think [lantern making] is a wonderful way to connect a broad audience of participants to actually mak[ing] something and hav[ing] it have a purpose," Steady says. "And a parade is such a wonderful way to gather people."

Kristina Kane, the visual art teacher at Union Elementary with whom Savoor has been leading workshops, attended Waterbury's River of Light parade in 2014 and was inspired to contact Savoor about a residency. By its conclusion, all 485 students will have had two lantern-making sessions, and they will carry their finished works in Montpelier's upcoming parade. It, too, celebrates an anniversary: the school's 75th.

Referring to last year's parade in Waterbury, Kane voices sentiments that echo Steady's. "It was such a unique experience to be walking through the nighttime with hundreds of people carrying lights," she says. "It was just magical to see so many people come together for this celebration of art and community. It was pretty powerful."

Fragile as they are, Savoor's and her students' lanterns can last a long time. But the artist also specializes in a more ephemeral art form. Rangoli is an Indian folk art in which materials such as colored sand and grains are used to create geometric patterns on a floor; the finished works resemble Tibetan mandalas. Savoor has completed two Vermont residencies in rangoli: one in 2014 at Burlington's Integrated Arts Academy at H.O. Wheeler, and the other in 2013 at Essex Middle School.

The lantern parades themselves are ephemeral, lasting for just minutes. Savoor is drawn to such impermanence, saying viewers who are physically present at such events bear witness to their artistic power. "A feast for the senses," she calls them in an email.

More than that, Savoor continues, "It's also empowering for young people, having the opportunity to proceed through the streets at night, feeling a tremendous sense of ownership while celebrating with friends, family and strangers in a safe, supportive environment."

Ever the teacher, Savoor sees the lanterns as a kind of "gateway" project. After a student builds one of the willow-and-coffee-filter "pyramid lanterns," she says, "they can build anything. The pyramid is just a beginning. Once people start to grasp that, the possibilities are really exciting."

Union Elementary School lantern parade, Wednesday, February 18, 6 p.m., in downtown Montpelier. Burlington lantern parade, Saturday, February 21, 5:30 p.m., on Church Street. Ferrisburgh lantern parade, Friday, March 20. Randolph lantern parade, Friday, April 10.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Vermont Lantern Parades Punctuate the Darkness, Illuminate Community Spirit"