It was a Thursday evening and Charlie Zidar and a group of visitors were weaving their way around half-dressed skeletons of dragons with horse bodies, giant flowers filled with lightbulb-topped filaments and headless, man-sized birds feathered in silk.
“This is the staging area,” he said, standing near two white tents that took up a good portion of a parking lot on the grounds of the Missouri Botanical Garden. “You have to watch where you’re going.”
Charlie, the Garden’s construction manager, was leading a special tour in an area gated off from the public. It was hard to figure out where to look. In one tent, discarded bits and pieces of metal rods were underfoot. Welders’ masks were piled near chalk drawings on the asphalt that showed designs they needed to create.
In another tent, yards of silk hung in strips from a pole and a fantastical tree with fan-shaped leaves soared to the ceiling.
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Back outside, resin-covered baby elephant figures stood waiting by a side flap, trunks raised. A Chinese emperor who stood at least 15 feet tall was encased in protective wrapping.
Welcome to behind the scenes of the making of “Lantern Festival: Magic Reimagined” at the Missouri Botanical Garden.
It’s where Chinese artisans, engineers and designers use ancient methods more than 2,000 years old. Where tons of steel rods and wires are shaped and bent and welded by hand on site, turned into three-dimensional characters and structures, filled with lights (and this year, water hoses), then covered by thousands of yards of vibrant silk, trimmed in gold braid — all durable enough to last in the Garden through a St. Louis summer.
The 2015 Lantern Festival opens May 23 and runs through Aug. 23.
But right now, you can take a tour or just stop by in the daytime and see what goes into creating 3-stories-tall, water-spouting dragons, a pagoda made of porcelain plates, cups and bowls, and giant pandas made of recycled water bottles.
Sue and Sam Sivewright, of Highland, said they saw the 2012 Lantern Festival and were eager to take this special tour.
“You don’t really understand what’s all behind it until you see this,” said Sam.
Charlie, who oversees the logistics of getting the event set up and running (it’s really too simple of a term to use to explain all that he does), said work is a bit behind schedule.
“I think in the next couple days we’ll have everything we need,” he said. The last Lantern Festival at the Garden in 2012 was the first of its kind in the United States created by LanternFest, a company that builds lantern displays all over the world. It is headquartered in Zigong, called the lantern-making capital of China.
“We only produce lanterns in our town,” said the company’s founder, Spencer Tan. “It is generation by generation, all handmade. ... Lanterns were originally made of bamboo, then became steel. It became an artistic expression.”
Chinese employees, who will create the 22 lighted sets to be erected throughout the Garden, set up housekeeping in nearby apartments and are working steadily. But a dockworkers’ strike late last year in Los Angeles caused a backlog of shipments. Five cargo containers destined for the Garden from Zigong had arrived by last week; three were still in transit.
“We’ve had 30-plus workers here a month and have yet to complete one set,” Charlie said, sighing.
Inside the tent, two women in blue coveralls brushed glue from small pots onto the metal frames of leaves the size of Chinese hand fans. They then stretched green silk carefully across it, making sure there would be no wrinkles. A lighter shade of green would go on the flip side. Gold trim would eventually cover any seams along the edges, and an artist will add decoration where needed.
“They are so skilled,” said Charlie as he watched them work. “They are so quick at what they do.”
Called “skinners,” only women do this type of lantern-making work in China.
“Their training is from when they are young,” said Spencer.
Four women are doing the “skinning,” along with 16 welders who work in shifts of eight to build the metal skeletons.
Spencer pointed to the bottom of a 10-foot-tall, half-finished bird. Variously colored silk pieces were knotted on the frame: Green in three places, orange in two, red along the side and blue spotted here and there.
“This is how (the skinners) know which color of silk goes where it should,” he explained.
As sets are completed, they will be moved to their Garden locations. Electrical work will be finished and tested. Energy-saving bulbs and LED rope lights are being used exclusively.
The sets are not meant to travel, so when deconstruction takes place, the metal, glass, plastic and porcelain will be recycled and some of the silk will be repurposed, said Charlie. Some objects will be sold to visitors.
Of course, the magic happens as darkness falls and the lanterns are lit. Each set will have a story to tell. Plus, Chinese acrobats will perform.
And, if Charlie has anything to say about it, there will be another spectacle.
“If the fire marshal allows me to do it, you’ll see some pyrotechnics.”
Behind the Scenes: Lantern Festival in Progress
What: A daylight look at how Chinese artisans create the lanterns
Where: Missouri Botanical Garden. Meet at the Ridgway Center Ticket Counter.
When: 6-7 p.m. May 4, 5, 7, 11, 12, 20. Check for availability.
Cost: $21 members; $25 nonmembers.
Reservations: Must be made in advance to www.mobot.org/classes
By the numbers
Lantern-making: 2,000-year-old tradition in Zigong, China
Number of sets at the Garden: 22. One-third of the scenes require use of a construction crane
Materials used: 75 tons steel, 100,000 feet of silk, 15,000 feet gold trim, 125 tins of glue, 150,000 pieces of porcelain, 75,000 glass bottles, thousands of feet of LED rope light, thousands of energy-saving lightbulbs
Chinese workers on site include: 16 welders, 4 women “skinners” to cover frames in silk, 1 full-time chef, 1 artist, 3 electricians
Lantern Festival: Magic Reimagined
What: 22 lighted lantern sets erected throughout the Garden
When: 6 to 10 p.m. Thursdays to Sundays, May 23 to July 31. Open nightly Aug. 1-23.
Tickets: Evening admission May 23 to July 31 is $22 adults, $11 members, $10 children (ages 3-12), $5 members’ children. Evening admission August 1-23 is $26 adults, $13 members, $10 children (ages 3-12), $5 members’ children.
Information and tickets: missouribotanicalgarden.org, the Ridgway Visitor Center and 314-678-7442 or toll-free, 844-461-4655.
Note: Daytime viewing is included with regular Garden admission ($8, adult; children and members free) throughout the festival.