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As I write this I am flying back to the UK after 16 days of volunteering with Processional Arts Workshop (PAW) in New York City. I worked alongside them as they created a daytime and a nighttime  procession, one in downtown and one in uptown Manhattan. I was Funded by The Artists international Development Fund from Arts Council England and The British Council to  participate  in both Astor Alive and Morningside Lights . It was a luxury to be a participant rather than the lead artist, workshop facilitator. Rather than hold a vision I had the opportunity to watch as others held a vision for a processional arts event, it allowed huge reflection on my own practice.

One of the great joys for me was the luxury of really focusing on why individuals got involved in the project. Attendees were valued and named ‘volunteers’ and ‘artists’ which as makers of the work, they are. Workshops were very well preparared and planned with start times rigourously stepped to avoid the lead artists sending themselves mad through explaining the project on a constant loop. I found New York full of talkers, very friendly talkers both on the projects I was working on and away from them. Whilst I do meet and chat to participants through my work in the UK it is mainly centred (by necessity) on the workshop in hand. As a volunteer myself, I relaxed into chatting at length with other volunteers while we worked and I had the time to discover what led people to get involved in the events. Answers ranged from;

  • Taking the opportunity to be creative.
  • Therapeutic reasons.
  • The sense of belonging to a community.
  • One participant had dropped their catholic faith and the only thing they missed was the act of procession.
  • Some were students at the university (not just in the arts) wanting to get involved.
  • Some had a tradition of lanterns in other countries they had resided in.
  • Learning the craft of puppet and prop building
  • Some enjoyed both the make and the performance and had followed PAWs work for years,
  • others had just discovered it and got addicted and excited.

The majority of participants were adults, I got the sense nearly ALL of whom would be back. If not at PAWs workshops at another community arts event. Some, like me had travelled a great distance from the uk also or (just!) San Francisco to be part of PAW’s work. Some as I was leaving had arrived to become involved in the annual ritual which is the build for PAW’s most celebrated work the Halloween Parade though NYCs East village (I hope that to be me too one day)

And how did the participants tell the stories of the processional performances? 

In different ways for each event.

For Astor Alive it was very much about the individual participants experience of NYC’s east village. Whilst the artists had a clear idea of the uniformity of aesthetic they wanted to achieve and visions for themes for the starting points of about 5 or so of the puppets, much of the imagery used was crowd sourced.
The narrative at Morningside Lights which was celebrating 100 years of Pulitzer Prizes was created very differently. Centring on the Pulitzer Prize for poetry Alex Khan and Sophia Michaelles had immersed themselves in award winning poetry new and old and collected many lines of about 100 characters or so. These were pasted on the workshop walls as starting points and participants were invited to bring in their own favoured lines or dip into books provided. The visions then created were totally up to the participators in the creative experience. Images were united by the poetry and the illuminated ribbons of verse attached to each lantern of which there were about 40. The process was described as the making of cooperative creative collaborations . One participant may have started the work at the beginning of the week and others took on that vision later in the week. Over 300 separate pairs of hands made 40 medium scale lanterns in one week.

Processional Narritives, participation and the making of the work are designed and delivered and most importantly held closely by one dynamic and very organised team. Storytelling is the thread which pulls everything together within which individual creativity is allowed to flourish in a guided way. Planning time and preparation is everything.
The majority of participants were adults, ALL of whom would certainly be back if not at PAWs workshops at another community arts event. Some, like me had travelled a great distance from the uk also or just San Francisco just to be part of PAW’s work. Some as I was leaving had arrived to become involved in the annual ritual which is the build for PAW’s most celebrated work the Halloween Parade though NYCs East village (I hope that to be me too one day)

I have much more reflection to do on this amazing opportunity and I will continue to blog about it as it reaches my life and work as an artist here in Bristol, UK.

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