This Bolinas Artist’s Lanterns Are an Intricate Labor of Love

David Jaap van Leeuwen spent 30 years teaching shop at Bolinas-Stinson School. But once school was out, you would have found him in Myanmar. The country’s 2021 military coup has prevented his return, so at home in Marin, he funnels his passion and years of travel into a new project: elaborate, six-foot-tall lanterns. 

What are these lanterns?

These very colorful, ornate, and decorative lanterns are electric, weigh over 250 pounds each and are made mostly out of wood. When the lights are on they become even more amazing and beautiful and somewhat magical too. I didn’t realize this would happen until I saw the lights on for the first time. I made these lanterns large, over six feet tall, because something that is large carries a greater presence, than something that is small. I see my lanterns as works of art, and so each of my lanterns are signed and dated, etched in brass. These lanterns are well built and made to last, but need to be protected from the wind, rain and sun. Weather over time would only slowly destroy them.

What is the process for making them?

There are many steps that it takes to complete my lanterns from start to finish. Each step requires an understanding of the sequence and the process that needs to be followed. I made patterns, templates and jigs which helps to simplify making the next set of lanterns. The geometric lattice parts that make up most of the overall design are laser cut. I job out the laser cutting to a company located in Santa Rosa called Light Wave Laser. These lattice parts are precise and perfect and so my lanterns reflect that precision, which is something that I like. After a lot of painting, finishing and detailing, and after the installation of the electric cords and light bulbs, the lanterns are finally completed. It takes about four months to finish a set of lanterns. Luckily I enjoy the process and so the time it takes doesn’t matter. Making them is a labor of love.

Jaap van Leeuwen's lanterns in front of the concrete Myanmar Buddhist monastery gateway that he made in Bolinas
Jaap van Leeuwen’s lanterns in front of the concrete Myanmar Buddhist monastery gateway that he made in Bolinas.

How do you choose the color combinations — are they traditional?

My many trips to Southeast Asia and my appreciation for Asian art and art history has influenced me in so many ways. I have experienced the exhilarating feelings that one gets upon entering a golden temple with exquisitely painted murals on the walls. I realized that this sense of awe is what I want viewers to feel when they see my lanterns.

My lanterns do have a jeweled like appearance. They could be seen as extensions of the gold jewelry I used to make. I especially appreciate the color gold because gold makes my lanterns look valuable and precious. Gold works with all of the colors on the color chart, from the blacks, grays, blues and reds. I hope use different colors and combinations using gold in the future.

How did you start making these lanterns?

I have been a jeweler, a metal sculptor, an art teacher, and reproduced Asian art in concrete. I have always made art in some form or another. Now I am very focused on making these beautiful exotic lanterns. I made my first a set of lanterns for myself, just for the fun of it. I am always looking for new ways to enhance and beautify my personal space and environment.

I made my first set in a very Chinese traditional style and color, using the color red. Feeling very pleased and satisfied with how they looked, I found myself making 12 more (six sets) using different colors, shapes, and sizes. It took me one year to make and finish those lanterns.

I had a showing of all 14 lanterns at The Bolinas Gallery later that year. Now when I look back on those 14 lanterns, I see them as being the practice pieces that brought me to where I am now.

When did Southeast Asia start influencing your life?

When I was a boy, about 12 years old, I met U Thant, the general secretary of the United Nations. U Thant was Burmese man. I later realized that he was the most famous person I had ever met. Meeting him created a strong impression and planted a seed that stayed within me.

When I went to Burma (now known as Myanmar) for the first time as an adult in1985, I was excited by what I saw and experienced, and only wanted to return again. I went back to Burma in 1995, and every year since then until 2020. Traveling to Southeast Asia every year became something I did and became a part of who I was.

I originally went to have woodcarvings made for my concrete reproduction business. I made rubber molds of those woodcarvings then cast copies in concrete and sold them as garden sculpture back in Bolinas. In Myanmar while I was waiting for my woodcarvings to be finished I taught English and also taught rubber mold making to children who lived in Myanmar monasteries. That led to returning with donated money every year to fund humanitarian projects that led to the non-profit charity Sharing Merits that I founded and directed. Projects were funded mostly in Myanmar schools, and included building wells, water holding tanks, hiring vocational training teachers, land for growing food and much more.

I had become a philanthropist and found great feelings of satisfaction, joy and purpose. Those were the best years of my life. My many trips to Asia must have influenced me and the art I am making now.

Does living in Bolinas influence your art?

I moved to Bolinas in 1972 when I was just 19 years old after traveling for one year. I volunteered in the Bolinas-Stinson School’s art shop program and loved teaching. I was a college student at the time, getting college credit for my volunteer work. The next year I was hired to teach metal shop: lost wax casting, mold making, lapidary work and silver soldering.

I retired from that job after about 30 years of teaching, about 10 years ago. Retirement meant that I had the time to focus on other things like traveling to Myanmar and staying longer each year. The last time I was in Myanmar I stayed for one year. Bolinas has been really great for me in so many ways, and I love Bolinas. It’s a very special and unique town surrounded by National Parks and the Pacific Ocean, but honestly, Bolinas has not been not been the source of my creative inspiration. The true source of my creative inspiration comes from my many trips to Southeast Asia and my interest in Asian art and Asian history.


See Jaap van Leeuwen’s art on, and his nonprofit work at He invites those who want to see his lanterns up close to email him at [email protected]