by Molly Ross
I am sitting behind a tree, half in and half out of a giant Paul Bunyan puppet—ok, I’m hiding behind the tree & having trouble getting on the straps of the backpack puppet. The crowd is buzzing on a beautiful day in August 1995 in the Wisconsin North woods. About 200 people have gathered in the clearing at Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park. Not a bad turnout for this area. Kids are running around, parents are chatting with friends and anticipation is building. I’m nervous because I’m the reason those 200 people are hanging out on a Sunday afternoon. “!@%$#%@! What exactly am I doing?”
In her book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, Barbara Ehrenreich unfolds a captivating analysis of what she believes is our innate need to gather in groups and bond with strangers. I certainly have been building my career as an artist on a similar thesis, creating spectacles, pageants and cultural performances of varying scales in communities across the country.
Since 1995, I have served as Principal Artist and Director of Nana Projects (a.k.a. Theater Nana), a company of artists, musicians, technicians, lanterneers and visual alchemists inventing multi-media spectacle. Our mission is to create innovative artwork that draws people together in public spaces, strengthening their sense of community identity through shared cultural experience.
Our earliest projects were puppet shows and pageants at The Fred Smith Wisconsin Concrete Park in Phillips, Wisconsin. The concept was simple– to create work bringing people together celebrating their collective creativity and to find joy and ownership of public spaces.
Every Nana Project attempts to balance the grand with the intimate and the expected with the unexpected. The projects aim to engage people, transform space and make beautiful art. Through this practice, we seek to understand many views of the world and tap into the expertise and knowledge of communities to discover the impact we can have. As artists, we approach it as an opportunity to understand who we are as citizens by exploring where we are.
I have been asked many times to speak about my work in the larger context of what communities gain from community engaged art. This context has been labeled everything from Friend Raising to Creative Community Development (edging into the realm of Richard Florida and his Creative Class). No matter how it’s labeled, the basic question remains the same: “What does a community gain and why should they care?”
Robert Lavenda’s ethnographic studies of festivals and public culture in small towns in Minnesota point out the ability of event organizers to manufacture a vision of “harmonious community” which appeals to the desires of participants and can be used to achieve a range of goals. Similarly, my work can be questioned as an attempt to design a particular image of “community.”
The first Nana Projects explored the amazing vernacular environments in Wisconsin: Fred Smith’s Wisconsin Concrete Park, along with Paul and Matilda Wegner’s Grotto and Nick Englebert’s Grandview. I was new to community engagement, but as an artist, I had a strong desire to connect my work in meaningful ways to the world. I started with the spaces themselves, examples of how creativity can flourish in the most unlikely of places. The sites were the work of solitary artists – demonstrating not just creativity, but courage, and determination. My task, really, was to ask the communities that owned those sites to take a leap of faith, the same leap of faith taken by the artists, to have courage in their own creativity.
It’s not easy work, and only succeeds where there’s a critical mass of imagination and leadership within the community. I’ve been lucky to find many such places, and Nana Projects has developed a method to forge lasting partnerships in communities and expand the impact of our work in subtle and organic ways. The key elements, which came together in these early projects, became the core of Nana Projects’ strategies for community-based work: partnerships, artistic risk (having fun!) and involvement.
Each project begins by establishing partnerships with organizations such as the Price County Department of Forestry & Tourism, Friends of Fred Smith, the Monroe County Historical Society and The Pecatonica Educational Charitable Foundation. In each of these cases, the partner became a commissioning organization defining the need and personality of the community. These ‘communities’ are loosely defined by geography, and more specifically defined by self-selection and participation. Those who came became the community.
With these partnerships in place, we were able to create events for and with the community, and inspire people to take action defined by the interests of the partners: conservation of art environments, increased tourism, education, or activities to build stronger families. The partners had deeper connections to the individuals, organizations and resources unique to each area. Through them, we were able to gain the access and understanding needed to make meaningful work. Each project left seeds behind so that the community could continue to create work and draw inspiration from the experience. These seeds ranged from puppets and costumes to skills and inspiration.
In August 2007, Nana Projects had the joy to return to Phillips; it had been ten years since our last project at the Wisconsin Concrete Park. We taught a series of Parade Workshops –an expansion of our annual training program, Parade School, which brings artists & community organizers from around the world to explore the artistry of community-based parades. On our return to Phillips I was overwhelmed by the amount of stuff we had created in those early years – costumes, props, puppets – that were still there and still in use by Friends of Fred Smith.
Today in 2008, Nana Projects is best known as the artists behind Baltimore’s Great Halloween Lantern Parade. The success of this event and I think all community art projects relies on partnerships between organizations and individuals. For the past seven years three nonprofits have shared the commissioning & producing responsibilities: Creative Alliance, Friends of Patterson Park and Patterson Park Community Development Corporation. These partnerships serve many purposes, and their strength is probably the single greatest predictor of a project’s success. They allow artists to leverage resources unavailable or difficult to access, including fundraising, audience development, liaising with public authorities and volunteer recruitment.
As there is an increase in artists and organizations providing “community art.” I reflect back to Lavenda’s studies and wonder if we risk creating a culture of creative exploitation? Are institutions unleashing themselves on the frontiers of American communities with divining rods searching out those communities & issues not yet discovered?
I can’t help but consider the 38 ground breaking years of Welfare State International that were retired and archived just a few years ago, and John Fox’s seminal argument he put forward in writings such as Eyes on Stalks. Fox laments the movement of arts to a “goal-orientated corporate institution where matched funding and value-added output tick boxes destroy imaginative excess.”
Where is the joy in that?
Remember Barbara Ehrenreich and her “History of Collective Joy?” Her book dives into the long history of public festivities and those that try to repress them. She concludes that collective joy is something “encoded into us” just as basic as the ability to love.
A project like The Great Halloween Lantern Parade exists on an edge between a mob and a choreographed dance. I have been asked many times—is my work political. Isn’t it inherently political for several thousand people to walk together at night in public space? However, the artistry of what makes this a Nana Project and what resonates throughout the community is our ability to create a mesmerizing experience in a mass of people. This is what makes it joyful.
Nana Projects does belong to the corporate climate of arts and we attempt to qualify the impact of our work. We hand out evaluations—lots of evaluations. However, as an artist, I use the response to the work as my primary means to understand the impact. Parades are easy to evaluate. They don’t exist without participation. When people show up, I know the event has made an impact; what happens after that is more esoteric. All of Nana Projects’ work intends to make subtle changes in how people interact and how they perceive themselves in the world—this is what we leave behind in the communities.
As we are part of the professional non-profit culture, Nana Projects also conducts strategic planning and through this process, we continue to reinforce the importance of artistic risk and fun. To continue the work—which is traditionally underpaid, overworked and quite often frustrating—the artistic process must be nurtured. Nana Projects is multi-disciplinary and we experiment with forms, materials and processes—we invite new artists, technicians and musicians to join us on projects and work very hard to nurture talent and artistic growth through our apprenticeship and internship programs.
As an artist, I understand that there are many ways to take risks and we are always looking for ways to help people make the leap of courage & creativity and find their place in the projects. I’ve found that it is essential to locate different ways for them to get involved. Nana Projects uses a unique model to plan the projects. We have three distinct groups of participants– the maker, the joiner, and the watcher.
I’ve refined this approach with The Great Halloween Lantern Parade, which brings thousands of diverse residents together into an urban park at night, creating a breathtaking public spectacle. Entering its eighth year, the Parade is one-of-a-kind and now an established event. Each Parade is preceded by over a month of lantern building workshops, which draw a broad spectrum of community members. The Parade has played a significant role in the rejuvenation of this Park at the heart of Southeast Baltimore.
One of the goals of The Great Halloween Lantern Parade is to give ownership and voice to the many populations – from the new immigrant populations to the committed urban dweller – that call Southeast Baltimore home. The parade provides an easy and accessible way to involve large numbers of people on their own terms– watching, making a lantern, or just joining the procession and walking alongside the parade.
The impact of The Great Halloween Lantern Parade happens when neighbors come together as a group, meshing into a new and broader community. That community walks into the center of Patterson Park at night, reclaiming as a group what they would be unable to do individually. One of the largest symbols of Southeast Baltimore is changed perceptually and physically. The Park at night, once a symbol of fear, becomes a place of magic, warmth and community. The power of these symbols—the lights in a thousand painstakingly created lanterns—the march of hundreds of feet on grass and path—change our community for the better, helping foster a sense of ownership of our public spaces and building hope and excitement about the future of our community.
I’m hiding, this time inside a 26’ panel truck and I’m putting on my white ‘parade boots.’ The crowd is buzzing. It’s October and there are several thousand people gathering. My big secret is I’m always amazed anyone ever shows up. Quite often, it’s cold, rainy or windy. Yet, everyone is smiling (except for the kid up past his bedtime). I have to make my way through the crowd to the front of the parade, and everyone else is already at their posts beside bands, school groups, giant lanterns and the buckets filled with kazoos. We are crafting memories. They come because they are intrigued but they stay because they too are amazed everyone showed up. Maybe Ehrenreich is right. There’s not always an obvious “point” to this work—no “religious overtones, ideological message, or money to be made.” Nevertheless, the acknowledgement that we are in this together, as a group, as diverse as we are, is something to celebrate.
Molly Ross is principal artist and director of Nana Projects, a boundary breaking multidisciplinary nonprofit in Baltimore, MD. From 1993-1999 Ross directed a series of community engaged pageants in rural Wisconsin which became the foundations of Nana Projects. Ross received an MFA in Sculpture from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a BS in Theater from Northwestern University. Since 2006, she has been an adjunct faculty member in the Interdisciplinary Sculpture and Foundation Departments at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Ehrenreich, Barbara Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy 2006
Fox, John Eyes on Stalks 2002 Methuen
Lavenda, Robert H. “Festivals and the Creation of Public Culture: Whose Voice(s)?” Museums and Communities Ed Karp, Kreamer and Lavine 1992 Smithsonian Institution Press
Lavenda, Robert H Cornfests and Water Carnivals 1997 Smithsonian Institution Press
Fred Smith’s Polka Party & Puppet Show (1993-1997) directed by Molly Ross and presented by Nana Projects (aka Theater Nana) and Friends of Fred Smith Phillips, WI
The Paul and Matilda Wegner Grotto Celebration (1995) directed by Molly Ross and presented by Nana Projects (aka Theater Nana) and Monroe County Historical Society Cataract, WI
The Great Grandview Lantern Parade (1999) directed by Molly Ross and presented by Pecatonica Educational Charitable Foundation Hollandale, WI
The Great Halloween Lantern Parade (2000-2007) directed by Molly Ross/Nana Projects and presented by Creative Alliance, Friends of Patterson Park and Patterson Park CDC Baltimore, MD