ANN ARBOR—Mark Tucker, art director and head puppeteer for the University of Michigan Lloyd Hall Scholars program, doesn't just throw parades for fun.
He first dreamt of what would later become Ann Arbor's beloved Festifools event on a visit to Viareggio, Italy, nearly 25 years ago. There, he learned the art of cartapesta—or papier-mâché—while working as art director at the Detroit Thanksgiving Parade (now titled America's Thanksgiving Parade).
"When I first saw the Carnevale Viareggio and its elaborate, larger-than-life, moving puppets and caricatures—it was striking, so different from the corporate nature of parades here," Tucker said. "From that point on, I knew that I wanted to figure out a way to replicate that experience in the U.S."
Having returned to Ann Arbor 20 years after earning his MFA in painting at U-M, Tucker began teaching art to non-art majors, and in 2006, his idea to present an American Carnevale resurfaced.
"It was a confluence of ideas and experiences over many years that led me to that point," he said. "I wanted to get the students in my 'Art in Public Spaces' class more involved in the community, so I decided that they would take the lead on puppet production for what we were hoping would be a fantastic parade, an event that would coincide with April Fools' Day."
Each January, the class begins the process of making their "three-dimensional kinetic sculptures" for Festifools. By the time they march through the streets in April, most students have spent more than 80 hours conceptualizing, constructing, plastering and painting their whimsical creations that float 15–20 feet above the crowds.
"I've definitely learned patience," said U-M freshman Kaitlyn Moore, who is working on two puppets that demonstrate diversity in color and beauty in African-American women. "I'm a perfectionist, so Mark has really taught me to go with the flow. If one thing doesn't work, try something else."
As the original plan intended, the project has become deeply embedded into the community; not only have they worked with elementary schools in Ann Arbor and Detroit, but some 300 volunteers join students each year to help them construct their puppets throughout the course of the semester—so much so, that they have had to put a cap on their Saturday morning volunteer shifts.
The overwhelming community response was a catalyst for FoolMoon, an event added five years after the original Festifools parade, that starts at dusk the Friday night prior.
"We imagined what the parade would look like at night, and that's where we got the idea to make illuminated sculptures," Tucker said. "It has added another dimension to our involvement with the community. The luminaries take less time to make, so more people can get involved, even children. We hold workshops and sell 'do-it-yourself-kits' at local businesses leading up to the event."
Through all of the foolishness and merriment, however, Tucker says that many of the projects presented by students and community members at the parade are often very personal.
"To me, the event is kind of like candy on the outside—it's supposed to be a fun and entertaining," he said. "But on the inside, the purpose of it is to promote visual literacy within the community that we live and encourage the students to learn how to communicate through art. Over the years, students have made artistic statements about a variety of difficult subjects ranging from abuse to racial discrimination."
Freshman Luis Gago took inspiration from Bill Cosby this year.
"I loved him and looked up to him growing up," he said. "After hearing about the recent rape allegations, I'm not really sure how I'm supposed to feel about this aspect of my childhood. So I decided to give him two faces that represent both personalities, both sides of the story."
Another project by freshman Jasmine Womack will feature two personified shoes: a Louis Vuitton heel and an Air Jordan basketball sneaker with teeth and blood.
"It's about consumerism and obsession in our culture," she said. "Why do people need to wear a certain pair of shoes or a certain brand to feel whole? People have died over these shoes."
For many of the students, this is not only their first introduction to the Ann Arbor community, it's a lesson in self-expression.
"He's really taught me not to hold back," said Kevin Yu, a U-M freshman whose puppet is inspired by negative influences of reality TV on society. "I was actually being very conservative with my original ideas. I didn't realize that I had surrounded myself with so many rules. Mark kept asking, 'Why not?'"
According to Tucker, the students' grade is not only determined by their conception and completion of the project, but also their final performance and interaction with the crowd.
"In the end, it's about bringing their sculptures to life in a fun, accepting community setting," he said. "How does their art speak to the people that they interact with? What might it mean to someone else?"
The ninth annual Festifools parade will take place 4-5 p.m. Sunday, April 12, on Ann Arbor's Main Street, following the sixth annual Foolmoon event Friday, April 10, from dusk until midnight on Washington Street.