This April Fool’s weekend, Main Street will be awash in loud, living, moving and maybe even breathing giant puppets, propelled by their gangly, paper maché limbs down the street by loyal puppet handlers and the cheers of a crowd that loves them.
Since 2007, hordes of giant puppets, amateur puppeteers, musicians and community members have descended upon Ann Arbor each year in a colorful celebration known as FestiFools. This Sunday, from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., the fanciful puppets and their puppeteers (along with DJs, musicians and community members) will once again grace Main Street.
The street festival is the brainchild of Lloyd Hall Scholars Program art teacher Mark Tucker, who wanted to bring democratic, interactive art to the masses by harnessing the talents of not only art students, but of students and community members who don’t generally have the opportunity to create art on this scale.
The story of FestiFools starts with Tucker’s art class for non-majors, “Art in Public Spaces.”
“The class never focused on creating artists, but on creating an environment where people can make art and access that creativity used to make murals,” Tucker said.
But after the class’s mural was complete, the vibrancy of the grand opening had faded and the community members and musicians streamed out of the building, Tucker was left yearning to contain that energy in a more substantial and sustained way. When Tucker’s class designed sets for a community theater production using puppets, he realized he had found the perfect vehicle to capture that spirit of the mural’s debut all semester long.
“We had these two puppets that came down through the audience, and they were so effective, they really frightened small children, who just bolted from the crowd,” Tucker said. “And we thought, what happens if we make 50 of these puppets? And what happens if we can create our own performance on the street?”
Tucker’s class turned its focus to making giant puppets for the newly minted FestiFools. Bucking the notion that art is simply for artists and elite consumers, Tucker not only embraced non-art students at the University, but welcomed community members too. Anyone can volunteer to help students work on puppets, but Ann Arbor residents can also make their own projects and participate as puppeteers on the day of FestiFools.
“A lot of people in the community got involved — the idea of making this giant performance with giant sculptural puppets grew out of that need to make something that was bigger than themselves,” Tucker said, gesturing to a community volunteer working with students in the class. “And it took more people to make and to operate the puppets, so we’re drawing more people into the whole process rather than just the class itself.”
Tucker’s “Art in Public Spaces” class is populated with students who come from a wide variety of majors and Tucker views his students’ inexperience with art as an asset.
“Everything is a complete and utter mystery for them … this is way outside their comfort zone,” Tucker said. “These students bring a wealth of different interests and a broader understanding of the world with the type of things that they’re studying. What are they gonna do? You know what art students are gonna say, but you never know what these guys are gonna say.”
Tucker has seen every ragtag group of non-art majors commit to their giant puppets and find their voices using only paint, paper maché and a lot of trial and error. And when the puppets finally make their debut on the streets, they take on lives of their own.
“(The puppets will) probably have a message, so we just need to figure out how to harness that and discover along the way what that message really means,” Tucker said. “And they won’t really discover it until they get out on the street and connect with the audience, and the audience starts to connect with their piece. When you get the puppets out there, they become alive — they become these animated spirits.”
Tucker’s students echo his belief that art can take on whole new meaning with the addition of the “fourth dimension” of the public.
“I like the idea of art in public spaces because a lot of the time art seems like something you would find in museums, and not very open to the public,” LSA freshman Zoe Stahl said as she added another layer of gluey paint to her sprawled-out puppet. “I like that it’s a fusion of art and community.”
Stahl and her partner in puppet-making, LSA freshman Susie Robinson, decided at first to build a mouth so they could send a message about food, since both are vegetarians. They eventually settled on making a massive Kool-Aid puppet, as Robinson acknowledged the puppeteer’s overall vision shifts a little bit everyday.
“We want to show how people drink the Kool-Aid, or follow the crowd, like buying into agribusiness,” Robinson said. “It’s supposed to make you think about the ingredients you’re putting into your mouth because the ingredients in Kool-Aid are pretty much a different language.”
The puppet partners pointed to the various sculptures suspended from the ceiling of the studio and described the various points the individual art pieces were trying to convey.
“It’s nice to think that every puppet has a deeper message, so if you take the time to actually think about it you can learn something about us and the world, and what is going on right now,” Robinson said.
FestiFools is branching out this year: On Friday, Tucker is coordinating another street party called “FoolMoon.” This moonlit festival will populate Ann Arbor’s streets with luminous sculptures crafted by Ann Arbor residents and artists alike, as participants weave their way throughout streets in Ann Arbor to create a cinematic experience that ends in everyone dancing and celebrating in the street. The spectacle, which starts at “dusk,” (around 7 p.m.), will have a beer tent, music and shadow puppet shows on Washington Street. The nighttime street party will give Ann Arbor residents a taste of what’s to come this Sunday.
“Festifools is a way for people to get away from your more generic jobs, and just be able to enjoy intrinsic work for what its worth,” Kinesiology freshman Max Moray said.
Kinesiology freshman Jason Schwartz explained that the puppet-making experience is more collaborative than his other classes, since students get to know each other outside of a big lecture setting.
“This class requires that we take a different path,” Schwartz said.
And though the studio was abuzz with energy as Tucker threw out suggestions to eager, fledgling artists (“Well, the gorilla should be lots of different colors”) and gluey paste covered nearly every surface, the giant puppets won’t come to life until they crawl out of their cramped quarters and stretch their newly animated limbs on the street this weekend.
“It’s like an Ouija board. You get three people on the puppet and it starts to move, and you believe that you’re giving it life when the puppet actually has a life of its own and you’re merely following it,” Tucker said. “Are you moving that? Am I moving that? That’s the ultimate end of puppetry, that disbelief.”