Blog: Mark Tucker

Mark Tucker grew up in Rutland, Vermont. Instead of learning to ski, he amused himself by riding a unicycle, juggling, and performing magic and ventriloquism. After receiving his BFA in Art at Ohio Wesleyan University and an MFA in Painting at the University of Michigan (including a post-grad year in Germany), Mark began his artistic career building parade floats for America’s Thanksgiving Parade. Later, he moved to Boston and became a freelance scenic painter. For ten years he painted sets for opera, ballet, television, TV commercials, and movies.

After moving back to Michigan with his wife Trish, and their three sons, Mark began teaching art (mostly to non-art majors) through the Lloyd Hall Scholars Program at the University of Michigan. In 2006, while trying to find a way to bring undergraduate students from his "Art in Public Spaces" course together with community members to make an exciting piece of public artwork, the Street Theater Art (START) Project was born. FestiFools is START’s very first public art venture.
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Mark Tucker - Post 3: Festifools

I started FestiFools 4 years ago (with enormous help from Shoshana Hurand, from the School of Social Work, and fellow art professor Nick Tobier) with the primary intention of increasing my student's visual literacy. Shoshana helped us to create a stage for showcasing the effect that visual literacy can have on a community (and visa-versa) while Nick raised the bar on what a group of students could produce given ample imagination and substantial educational preparation. Naturally, I also wanted a project that was both challenging for my students and involved passionate community participation, while being understood and appreciated by a broader audience.

Now the greater Ann Arbor community is acting as our Petri dish for developing effective ways to replicate a successful model of community/university engagement through the visual arts.  Ultimately, Ann Arborites are also helping to develop a simple cure for visual illiteracy--in effect, a cure for what may ail us all.

Since the FestiFools mission has always been educational, we're particularly interested in improving visual literacy education and delivery methods in the schools. We've just started to launch our "Fools in Schools" arts education outreach program in the region, by going to K-12 schools in southeastern Michigan to engage students in the same activities we set up for our college students. But, we are really just starting to get our bearings between what is fun to dream, with what is actually feasible when it comes to arts education programming in the K-12 arena.

FestiFools is a way to offer kids and schools an appreciative public venue for showing off their student work, as well as a possible way to help schools offer this kind of opportunity to their students. Making work for FestiFools raises the bar and enthusiasm for students who then go on to make some really great stuff--which in turn creates some really special ways for kids to view themselves as important, creative individuals. This spirit of creativity benefits our event, while FestiFools acts as a catalyst for helping kids learn and appreciate their new-found visual literacy skills.

In the end, we hope this will end up making for healthier, more imaginative, kids, and hopefully, healthier happier communities will result as well.

If anyone is interested in learning more about our program and how you could become a part of our mission to help bring visual literacy to the broader community, please drop us an email at

Mark Tucker - Post 2: Curing Visual Illiteracy

Most people understand the far-reaching negative consequences created by high rates of verbal illiteracy, but many of those same people are completely blind to the enormous impact that visually illiteracy also has on our lives. Think about it. Of all our senses, our sense of sight is always on, full blast, unless we have a visual impairment. We're able to ignore or block out sounds, tastes, and touch when necessary, but our brains are constantly recording, filing, sorting, filtering, and responding to visual stimuli (and remixing and replaying much of it while we sleep). As an art teacher for mostly non-art majors at the University of Michigan, I've found that when my students discover that they have the capacity for visual literacy, it's like giving sight back to the blind. It doesn't change one's intelligence, per se, but it removes the blindfolds on their imaginative capabilities. In short, they can finally "see," and have brand new access to their "inner vision" as well.

Because we haven't measured rates of visual literacy, we've probably been suffering for a long time without knowing it. Worst of all, we're passing on our visual illiteracy, and all of the ills that come with it, directly to our children by offering minimal or zero arts programming in our public schools. Consider this: In the BEST public schools in the country, kids only get about 50 minutes of art per week. And of that 50 minutes a relatively small portion of the time is actually spent in the creative/imaginative mode.  In the worst schools, it has been years since they've had any art programs whatsoever.

In the same way that verbal literacy leads to the development of higher-level cognitive skills, learning to draw, paint and sculpt leads to the development of higher levels of creativity and imagination--attributes that are harder to quantify, but no less essential to our well-being.  Seeing yourself as a creative being, rather than a consumer of someone else's creativity, is crucial to one's self-esteem and self-identity. Being the originator of an idea, rather than the recipient of someone else's ideas, can't help but make you feel more positive about yourself, and about your future possibilities. Without creative outlets, lack of self-confidence and feelings of inadequacy -- of "ordinariness" -- can take over.

FestiFools may not be the cure I alluded to earlier, but it can certainly act as a litmus test for whether or not a community functions better,(i.e. is happier), as a result of being exposed to this visually stimulating and, hopefully, more visually literate set of experiences.

Mark Tucker - Post 1: What's Your Visual Literacy

I'm writing this just a few days before our 4th annual FestiFools event takes place again on Main Street in downtown Ann Arbor.  On the surface, this town/gown event has become a combination Spring social outing and Giant Puppet public art extravaganza (this year FestiFools takes place Sunday, April 11th from 4-5pm).

However underneath this fun, exuberant exterior exists a unique mission of public art creation and accessibility. A mission which takes a merely decorative idea --"Let's make a giant puppet!" -- to a more imaginative level by using tools of visual literacy to deliver a message, or variety of messages (as opposed to just making a pretty object) through the creative medium of large scale puppetry or "animated actors".

When Jeff Meyers called me up and asked me to write a blog for this publication, I was hesitant. I rarely blog, and I really didn't think FestiFools was a bloggable (is that a word?) topic. I mean, where's the controversy? But when Jeff said this was an opportunity to write about any kind of "Big Idea" that I might want to open up for discussion, I took the bait. I've always wanted to address a topic that's rarely discussed, but which formed the basis for one of the main reasons why FestiFools was created in the first place; to help shine a spotlight on visual literacy. Or more accurately, to help find a cure for visual illiteracy. Yes, a cure.

Visual literacy has never been measured on a large scale in the way that verbal literacy has, and I don't know why, especially since it's so easy to do. For instance, here's a simple visual literacy test that almost any 5-12 year old can accomplish with ease: Pick up a piece of paper and a pencil or crayon, look in the mirror, and draw yourself. Most adults, however, will balk at this request and say something like, "I can't even draw a stick figure." (Sound familiar?) I've even heard professors and deans at the university level say this. What they think they are saying is, "I don't have the hand-eye coordination, nor 'talent,' to be able to accomplish this task (but I applaud those who do.)" In fact, what they are really saying is, "I am visually illiterate."

Conversely, if a disproportionate number of top brass at major universities were to stand up and say, "I don't know how to write a complete sentence (but I admire those that can)," I guarantee you that this would get some attention. In fact, if just one president of a university were to claim to be verbally illiterate, it would be unfathomable. But mention visual illiteracy and most people don't even know what you're talking about. Just like someone who can't read or write would have difficulty imagining what it must be like to get lost in a book, people who aren't able to understand their visual surroundings cannot begin to comprehend the vital parts of their imaginations which they are simply not able to access.

FestiFools is a tool through which  community members and students get together to create and appreciate the magic that takes place when one's growing visual literacy spurs the imagination necessary for traveling to uncharted creative territories. Creative tools, like FestiFools, are necessary more than ever now that arts programs are being eliminated from most school budgets and individual and collaborative creativity in our communities continues to dwindle--all of this makes fertile ground for corporations who make creative "stuff" to swoop in and capitalize on our innate need to "own" creativity, even if we can't make it ourselves anymore (or don't think we have the capacity to do so).

Instead of actually being creative we're trading in our true creative potential, abilities, and identity for an imitation creative experience (via  expensive plastic boxes, controllers, and video screens, for instance).

Handing over our creative potential to someone else can have long term damaging effects. FestiFools sets out to try to steer the creative boat in the opposite direction, to give back to our community our creative ability to speak, to express things about our culture that are important to us, and to hopefully cure the ills that occur when we only allow others to "speak" for us.