Ann Arbor Gets Ready For Festifools 2013

Festifools – happening on April 7th – is Ann Arbor’s homage to April Fools Day: an annual street parade featuring towering papier-mâché creations and various other hijinks. Today, photographer Benjamin Weatherston gives us a sneak peek at what we can expect at this fun event.

There are few experiences like spending time in the Festifools studio. If you’re not gazing up at the giant papier-mâché puppets hanging from the rafters, you’re marveling at the fine details going into the new creations. I quickly noticed that observation was not so simple a task anymore. Where else can you appreciate a panda king wearing golden shackles while standing next to a giraffe guitar? Have you ever seen a Tyranorexicsaurus (from the late Starveaceous Period) or played Where’s Waldo in real life?

It’s amazing to watch dedicated artists bring paper and glue to life. Almost as amazing as watching ordinary people become dedicated artists. But a 7-year tradition (by definition) doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t come about by the work of a single person. I got the wonderfool opportunity to look behind the scenes of how the entire city of Ann Arbor really comes together to cultivate this inspiring public art display known as “Michigan’s Mardi Gras.”

I first heard of FestiFools a few years ago when I saw the most amazing photos by Myra Klarman. She captured something that I had never seen and didn’t know was going on right down the street. I think it’s safe to say that many people learned about it through Myra’s images and Ann Arbor is lucky to have such a talented and well-connected photographer.

Mark Tucker welcomes the students back from winter break while I stand on a staircase overlooking the studio. His students design and build every sort of creation you will find in the studio.  History major James Nadel told me, “A lot of the work that I do in class is theoretical. I write long papers that take a lot of time and effort, but rarely is the product anything more tangible than an intricate idea. In Festifools, I am actually creating something physical. What starts as a vague idea will become a monument; something that I can feel, see and experience. It is as though my imagination, my idea, is slowly invading the territory of reality. Seeing that process happen right before my eyes has been remarkable.”

The process isn’t magical or mysterious, it’s the same stuff I did in elementary school art class. Lumps of clay on this table, cardboard scraps over there. Bamboo in this barrell,PVC in that one. The magic is that the studio is an environment where ideas are nurtured and encouraged to grow. But don’t let the whimsy distract you from the craftsmanship taking place. A group of students discuss how to paint skin and another consults Mark on wrist joint construction.  While there is an impression of “messy artist studio” it is very well organized considering the dozens of student and volunteer workers that are constantly using it. It’s definitely not a museum, everything is meant to be used.

In the midst of all this color and texture I find some very plain white mini-sculptures. Most Ann Arbor residents instantly recognize them as luminaries. One of the coolest things about Festifools is that it’s not just a single parade and Fool Moon is the dark side of the weekend experience. But don’t let that scare you because the only thing dark about Fool Moon is the night sky.  The Friday night before Festifools has quickly become cherished in the hearts of Ann Arbor families as parents watch their children’s faces light up at the sight of hundreds of glowing fish, turtles, and lollipops on display. Families even enjoy spending time together making them with the help of the luminary kits that are sold to help support the event. For $20 you get everything you need to create your own piece of art and join in the twilight festivities including wire, paper, templates, and LED lights. Please check out this video from last year! This year will even include musical performances and might start getting people in the mood for the Ann Arbor Summer Festival.

Jon Carlson and Greg Lobdell own Grizzly Peak Brewing Company and are a huge reason why Festifools is possible. As part of their sponsorship Grizzly Peak makes a unique craft beer every year just for the weekend called Fool Brew.  I got to meet Greg on a photo shoot in the brewery and was extremely impressed by his quiet and humble support. It was obvious that he loves Ann Arbor and the reward for such generosity in pure Fool form was a drink with Sarah Palin and Salvadore Dali. Greg said, “I am thankful that events like FestiFools and FoolMoon happen in our community.  It is so darn cool to see families getting together to be part of these events.  They are two of the best Ann Arbor events, and I am already looking forward to making luminaries with my kids.  I mean, families love being fools together!” Jon simply said, “I love this event and the craziness of it all!”

The board couldn’t be happier with the partnership said producer Shary Brown. “It’s a fooltabulous partnership which helps the Fools with a lot of the nitty gritty event stuff, food, and FoolBrew which frees us to do the creative and community bits and pieces.  It goes back to the beginning when they said, ’We’re in’ before we even got to explain the whole thing. All we could say is, ‘Wow, you really get it.’  Magic!”

When I asked Mark and Shary if I could get a picture of the WonderFool Productions board of directors I was hoping not to get a formal conference room shot. Their response was, “Can you come to the party Saturday night?” Fool House is a donor event that helps connect the philanthropic community members with their inner fool. I was able to get the board members together and was pleasantly surprised to see the likes of Harry Potter and President Obama. To say that FestiFools has community support is an obvious understatement once you spend an evening talking to the attendees at the Fool House fundraising party. The place was packed with people focused on how to help make each year bigger and better than the last. 

There are only so many things that a local government can do for a street parade and the city of Ann Arbor with mayor, John Hieftje, has shown that there’s more to regulatory support than just approving permits. I met Mayor Hieftje at the Fool House donor event and knew right away that he believed in the mission of Festifools. He invited me to the next city council meeting for a little foolish display. Every year Mark and the students make a mask of the mayor and include him in the parade. At this particular meeting he wanted to promote the event by inviting the “Mâché-yor” to sit in his place and create a bit of theater.

Clague Middle School is an active participant in Festifools. This year, Ms. Pentzien’s art students are creating papier-mâché puppets for the show and even working on a drum line performance. I immediately noticed a giant owl when I first walked in the room but, again it’s all about the details, I was informed that it was a zombie professor owl. Complete with monocle, top hat, and exposed rib cage. I got to see sketches of designs done weeks earlier sitting next to the piece under construction. The students just don’t start cutting, stapling, and painting. Ms. Pentzien encourages thoughtful planning and collaboration. Out in the hall an extremely large snake is coming together and the kids get to become impromptu engineers as they troubleshoot the rigidity of PVC frames and brainstorm how to carry it while playing their instruments.

For the last two weeks I’ve been watching the entire city of Ann Arbor come together to support this very unique display of public art. But what is most unique is the interactivity and willingness to open it up to everyone. Please visit their website at www.festifools.org for more information.

And if anyone is interested in spreading the foolish good cheer in their hometown, Mark and crew are very eager to share their knowledge and experiences. But before you start slinging paper and glue, make sure you get here April 5th-7th to see it for yourself.

Benjamin Weatherston is a commercial/editorial photographer in Ann Arbor, MI. He is the owner of Photo Studio Group and the photographer and photo editor for The Ann magazine. See his work at www.benjaminweatherston.com.