Talking over art, collaboration, festival and renewal with the fabulous Molly Ross of Baltimore’s Nana Projects

by Julie Ferreira

photo by Mitro Hood
photo by Mitro Hood

In their own words, Nana Projects of Baltimore, Maryland “is a company of lanterneers and visual alchemists inventing innovative artwork that draws people together in public spaces, strengthening their sense of community identity through shared cultural experience”.

During her time on the east coast, our friend Julie Ferreira dropped in to have a chat on our behalf with studio head and festal culture fellow traveller Molly Ross about the transformative power of art, group effort and public celebration.

Julie: Can we talk a little bit about your background and what brought you to all this, and the origins of the Great Halloween Lantern Parade?

Molly: I’ve been in Baltimore since ’99, and I’d come here from Chicago where I directed and designed a Halloween parade for Red Moon Theater in 1995, which went on to be a hugely successful event for them. And I also had done several other lantern parades in rural Wisconsin; the last one I did was actually in May of ’99. So then I relocated to Baltimore thinking I was only coming for a year, and as soon as I’d got here someone heard about the lantern parades I’d done in Chicago and said, “oh, well, we’ve been wanting a Halloween event; what would you like to do?” And to be honest, because I’d thought I was only going to be here for a year, I was like, oh, I’ll just do something easy that I know how to do and I know will be successful. We had maybe a hundred people the first year and it was really lovely and sweet, and every year after that it’s just kind of exploded with its success.

That’s really about as simple as it was. It was three non-profits who came together that were interested in really transforming a park called Patterson Park that had at that time very persistent urban problems: crime, drugs, prostitution. One was a community development corporation that was investing in housing, but also in cultural things throughout the area to make the community better, and in diversity in terms of economics for a healthy, holistic community. One was a friend’s organization that was sort of a support organization for the park itself, made up of people who lived around it that really wanted to make the park cleaner and better. And the other one was an arts non-profit. So all three of them were talking about things they could collaborate on and just invited me into the conversation and said, ”well if we do something, what do you think it could be?”. And Halloween Parade was it. And it doesn’t seem like it’ll be stopping anytime by Brian Sloane

Patterson Park: photo by Brian Sloane

It’s interesting because those organizations were all pretty new at that point and now they’re much more established, so things are shifting a little bit. It’s been this really amazing, organic partnership, and unique that there were three non-profits partnering together that were sharing responsibilities for things like fund-raising, volunteer recruitment, marketing. And also each one of them had their own constituencies so we were able to tap into a really diverse group of people; people that weren’t necessarily even arts people, maybe more like softball-people who play in the park were getting recruited through Friends of Patterson Park. So it was really great for that reason.

Julie: Is that still how it happens?

Molly: It’s still how it happens, but we’re bringing on additional partners now; another community development corporation this year, and some of the others are sort of shifting their roles and responsibilities. And now that Nana Projects has grown –we’re a non-profit also– we’re taking on more responsibility, in terms of volunteer recruitment, some fundraising, insurance, all of that kind of stuff.

Julie: Could you tell me something about your interest in lanterns as an art form?

photo by Mitro Hood
photo by Mitro Hood

Molly: You know what’s funny is that it’s not so much that I’m so fascinated with lanterns; it’s more that I’m very interested in involving people in public spaces, and the lanterns are just a really lovely form. To be honest, the first time I did lanterns, it was really just that I needed to do an event at night-time. I’d been doing puppet pageants in the day-time, but at night of course you can’t really see them without it being illuminated, so we did some big lanterns and paraded those around. So it was really just problem-solving.

Obviously lanterns have a lot of magical, mythical qualities for people, illumination and a lot of metaphors and everything, but they’re also just a really lovely, fun thing. The making of multiples I think is really great. For me what’s exciting about it is everyone’s making the same thing, but each one becomes very individual, and even though people invest individually in this thing, it’s only when they come together as this giant procession that the magic really comes to life. Of course everything is beautiful on its own, but when you put 1500 of them together it’s really dramatic and stunning. So that to me is the most exciting thing.

We (Nana Projects) go back and forth in terms of describing exactly what the company does. We sort of specialize in parades and lanterns and these magic lantern shows, but we really consider ourselves multi-disciplinary and we try to look at every situation fresh and develop what’s appropriate for it. So we may not always do lanterns, but because it’s a skill that we have it’ll probably always be someplace in the project. It may not be the first thing, it may not be the essential thing, it may be something else.

Julie: The lantern is more of a vehicle for a community process.

Molly: Yeah, absolutely.

Julie: Could you talk a little bit more about your ideas of creativity and community participation, bringing people out into the public spaces?

Molly: If I think back to when I first started the work….I mean it really started from a very personal place. I was young, I wanted to know about the rest of the world, I wanted to connect with people. I knew I wasn’t the kind of artist that was happy working solo, I needed ensemble and collaboration. As I’ve gotten older and seen the importance that the work can have on a larger scale in terms of transforming communities that I actually live in, and not just going off to learn about, I think it’s become in some ways maybe more complex as far as the intent and the mission, but also much more important. Like I look at the Halloween Parade, and in the last nine years, the park has been completely transformed. The communities have been completely transformed. And this year I felt really strongly that we needed to sit down and do a re-visioning of it, and have a strategic plan as far as where has it been and where is it going. The first commission and mission for it has changed, because the park is not so scary anymore, the crime is not so bad. It’s certainly still there, but it’s less about, like, you know, “taking back our park!” in this political kind of way and more about celebrating what we have done in the community that we want to continue living in. So that’s been interesting in terms of the shift of it. Yeah. I’m trying to get older and wiser. I’m not sure if I have yet, but….(laughs).

photo by Mitro Hood
photo by Mitro Hood

Julie: And your background as an artist: you were doing puppets before you came to lanterns.

Molly: My original training was in theater as an actor and a director. But I was very interested also in design, and in traditional theater training you kind of have to choose your path; you have to decide if you’re going to be an actor or a director or a designer, and that’s your path. You go and get in the unions and you do that whole thing, and I knew that was not exactly what I wanted. So I started exploring, and I discovered puppetry, which was this world in which you could kind of do a lot of different things. I came to the visual part of what I do a little bit later. I ended up getting a masters in sculpture at the Art Institute in Chicago and really building my visual base a lot more later on. But now I think we absolutely approach everything from the visual first and then we fill in the performance aspect of it to bring the visuals to life in some way.

Julie: Tell me about the Parade School.

Molly: Yeah, Parade School is great!

Julie: Second annual….

Molly: Oh my gosh, it’s so much fun. That started where we were just around the studio wanting to learn new techniques and wanting to bring together people that we thought were really amazing, and we were like, “well, if we want to do that, other people are going to want to do it, too.” It started simply from that.

Parade School: photo courtesy of Nana Projects
Parade School: photo courtesy of Nana Projects

So we began organizing it, and we were kind of blown away by the interest from the very first year. And we decided to try to keep it as a small group, like a maximum of about thirty people. So it’s this intensive training program, four days long, and we do a variety of things. We have our Parade 101 in the beginning, which is history and logistics and presentation. And then we have hands-on building, we do large puppet construction. We also do what we call make-and-takes: quick projects that you can do in multiples that can be used in large-scale workshops. We teach stilt-walking, and we do a parade choreography where we talk about movements of people and arrangements in processions and parades. And it becomes just like a big networking opportunity. We also do these discussions where we talk about issues that people want to get their heads around: everything from how do you make the call on weather and practical things like that, to more sort of theoretical things like talking about the parade as a river and the audience as the bank and all of these kinds of things.

And we bring in guest artists who are very inspirational who present their work. We’ve had Sandy Spieler from In The Heart Of The Beast (Minneapolis), we’ve had Sylvester Francis from Backstreet Cultural Museum to talk about the Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans which are unbelievable, we’ve had American Visionary Art Museum talk about the Kinetic Sculpture Race, Macnas from Galway, Ireland talked about their work. So it’s been kind of amazing over the last few years, and we are looking forward to it being an annual thing.

We now sort of have other versions of Parade School. Like we have our summer June professional training Parade School, but then we have Mini-Parade School or Parade School Jr. that we’re doing in summer camps for kids. We also did a mini-version in north-central Wisconsin at the Fred Smith Wisconsin Concrete Park. And then I’m going to do a teacher training on the arts integration, showing teachers how to integrate float-making into their curriculum so if they want to do a science project on simple machines they can build a float and then build simple machines on it. And we’re going to go to Alternate Roots, which is a community arts organization in the south, and they have an annual meeting where we’ll do a four-hour Parade School intensive for community artists. So that’s Parade School. It’s very cool.

photo courtesy of Nana Projects
paper lantern workshop: photo courtesy of Nana Projects

Julie: Can you explain the Nana Projects emphasis on community, and what the intersection of community and creativity is, and how you think the two work together?

Molly: That’s a really great question, and I hope I can respond to it in a good way. This is where it all gets kind of intangible to me a little bit and it’s hard to verbalize, but creativity is so much about problem-solving, and problem-solving in inventive ways. And in terms of community, and if you’re looking at broad, almost global issues of community, then having strong creativity and unfettered imagination hopefully provides opportunities for people to look at problems in the world and in their daily lives in more unique ways to solve them. Because obviously things change, and you need to change with them and figure out new solutions to the problems, but also, some of our solutions have not been working, so I think that there’s something kind of essential and political about creativity and community.

Then, on the other level, there’s also this thing of it bringing a sense of fun and joy to everyone’s lives, which I think is incredibly important; that moment of collective joy, these exclamation points in our lives where people come together and it’s just this fervor is really important. It makes living matter on some level. It gives us hope. So on the festivity part of creativity, I think that’s really important. But both of those things are kind of intangible and complicated.

Julie: That was a beautiful answer. Now you should tell me a little more about Nana. We’ve been talking around it…

Molly: It’s gone through a lot of evolutions. There’s a lot of different stories about where the name came from, but I think the one that gets told the most is that when we were trying to come up with names as a collective of artists, and it was late at night and everyone was shooting out all these names and being like, “nah, that’s stupid, nah, nah, nah, nah”, and it was just kind of stuck there. And then everyone was like, “let’s just pick a nonsense word”. So Nana (pronounced nah-nah) was what it was. But then the Projects, because originally we were Theatre Nana, but we started doing more eclectic kind of work. So Projects because we do a variety of different things, there’s a lot of potential to what we do.

We were originally founded in 1993 as an ad-hoc collective of artists in Minneapolis to do performances –puppet pageants– at the Fred Smith Wisconsin Concrete Park in north-central Wisconsin. So we would come together in the summertime. It then evolved from that to doing shows throughout the upper mid-west, and in the end a lot of people moved on to other things but a lot of the original people still come back on to work with things, different projects. I ended up being kind of the last one standing as far as the actual original collective goes and administrating things. So when I relocated here in ’99 is when we began to more formally establish it. Actually ’95 is when we switched the name to Nana Projects, and then in ’99 we incorporated here in Maryland, and 2006 is when we went non-profit. We’ve kind of drug our feet on exactly what we were doing for a long time (laughs). But now it seems to be going really strong, and it’s great.

GHLP magic lantern show finale: photo courtesy of Nana Projects
GHLP magic lantern show finale: photo courtesy of Nana Projects

For more information on Nana Projects, Parade School, and the Great Halloween Lantern Parade of Baltimore, go to

For more inspiration, check out the Nana Projects channel on youtube:

Special thanks to Mitro Hood and Brian Sloane for kind permission to use their photos. These and more great pics from the Great Halloween Lantern Parade can be found on Flickr.

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