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LanternAsia returns to Norfolk Botanical Garden, transformed with new pieces inspired by coastal Virginia – Virginian |

LanternAsia returns to Norfolk Botanical Garden, transformed with new pieces inspired by coastal Virginia – Virginian

When LanternAsia came to Norfolk Botanical Garden for the first time two years ago, the massive, colorful displays transformed the landscape into an outdoor gallery of exotic and whimsical Asian art.

This year, when LanternAsia opens here Friday, it is the exhibit that has been transformed by the garden and its environs.

Many of the 35 new pieces were inspired by coastal Virginia, including sea creatures and plants, said Kelly Welsh, marketing and communications director for the Norfolk Botanical Garden.

One installation in particular grew from a visit last year by the president of Tianyu Arts Culture, the China-based company that produces the exhibit. While touring the children’s garden, he was so enthralled by its carnivorous plants that the company built its lantern version of the Venus’ flytrap included in this exhibit.

“This is a custom show. There’s not been another show exactly like ours. It was really designed with our garden in mind,” Welsh said.

LanternAsia will continue daily through May 13, covering a mile-long walking route. It can be viewed during the day, but at night the fabric lanterns take on a colorful glow when lit. Also new this year will be performances by Chinese dancers.

While much of the exhibit is new, some crowd favorites from 2016 have returned, Welsh noted. Those include a massive dragon, panda bears and a white pagoda made of plates and other dinnerware.

Welsh is expecting the 2018 exhibit to surpass the success of the 2016 event. Although the garden has had to shut down to visitors for more than three weeks while the exhibits are constructed each time, the 2016 event more than made up for the loss of normal garden traffic. With the cost of the exhibit fully underwritten by sponsorships, it generated more than $1.3 million in ticket sales and 2,000 new dues-paying members, according to the garden’s 2015-16 annual report. Of the more than 100,000 people who came to the exhibit two years ago, 37 percent were from out of state, Welsh noted.

The report gives credit to LanternAsia’s “spectacular success” for $2.75 million in renovations and repairs now under way at the garden.

“It was such a success story, so our 80th anniversary was a perfect time to bring it back,” Welsh said.

A $25,000 grant from the Virginia Tourism Corp. Marketing Leverage Program has enabled the Garden to extend its marketing efforts for the event beyond the local area and bring broader awareness of the garden.

In early February, more than a dozen trucks began rolling in, carrying pieces that have since been unpacked and assembled by about 30 Chinese artisans. Welding, gluing and tying, they follow intricate assembly directions. “They take great pride in what they’re doing,” Welsh noted.

An opening party will be held Thursday, the night before the exhibit opens to the public. The event includes live entertainment, local Asian fare and a preview of the exhibit. Tickets to the party are $100 per person.

Throughout LanternAsia, works by local artist Caroline Garrett Hardy will be on display in Baker Hall. Her colorful kimonos and collages are constructed of hand-made Japanese “rice” paper, as well as discarded paper of various textures, some containing fragments of text from rubbings she has done.

Now living in Williamsburg, she gained an admiration for the “Japanese flair for unexpected combinations of patterns” during a trip to Japan in 2012.

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