Got Art? A Chat with FestiFools' Mark Tucker

Public art isn't just the stationary whirligig in the plaza that takes ten grand and years of wrangling decisions by committee. It can also be a mix of the visual and performance, such as Ann Arbor's FestiFools, a parade of puppets set to make its sixth annual march on Sunday, April 1. The festival's pre-party, FoolMoon, a luminaria processional, rises at dusk on the Friday before.

FestiFools arose out of U-M's Lloyd Hall Scholars Program Art Director Mark Tucker's "Art in Public Spaces" class. Every year, over 200 U-M students and hundreds of other community volunteers build papier-mâché figureheads and then march them down Main Street.

Unlike commercial parades, however, all puppets are retired each year to keep the faces fresh for the next fest. 

"I think there's a life and an energy that comes from the transformation of this object to an actor on the street that is required to make the magic happen," Tucker says.

But as with every art venture, funding is an issue, and FestiFools is no exception. Concentrate's Tanya Muzumdar talks with Mark Tucker about the state of public art in schools and the community, and the future of FestiFools, which by no means should be taken for granted.

You're an advocate for public art funding, and of course Festi Fools arose from your "Art in Public Spaces" class at U-M. Is Ann Arbor where it should be in terms of support for public art?

Well, the definition of what is public art is still being hashed out, I think. The Public Art Commission, I think they did a lot of great work in getting the Percent for Public Art developed for Ann Arbor and you know, the jury's still out on what are the permanent pieces of public art, how they're going to develop, and whether or not it's going to live up to its vision. The kind of public art we're interested in getting funded is more ephemeral, and it's more temporary and it's performance-based and obviously this is the kind of thing we do...

It's difficult to impress on people just how much it costs to put the logistics of an event like this together. We do a good job of making it look like it's fun and like any good fun party, usually there's a lot of planning behind it. But getting funding for that is tricky territory, both from the university point of view -because they want it to meet its scholarly mission- and from the community's point of view. People just kind of expect these things to happen for free.

Why is that?

The nature of it is, when I used to work for the [America's Thanksgiving Parade], we would work year-round to produce a three-hour television event. That's just not unusual. That's the norm. And I don't think people realize that. And also I think the pieces we make have this kind of feel and look like "Ooh, if I'd only gone to my garage last night, I could've put one of those thing together." And we like that kind of feel that says, "Hey, come on in, you can make one of these too." But the reality is, there's a lot of work that goes into them.

...It's not dissimilar from any other kind of arts creation. It's just that we not only produce everything that we make, but we also organize it. A lot of the other groups in town are basically presenters. They'll hire in the acts. The art fairs, for instance, all of the artists are imported. It's essentially a retail set-up. So when you want to keep it pure and make it not be a commercial event, it's twice as hard to figure out how to fund it.

But we're working on that. We're starting a non-profit that should soon be legal. It's going to be called Wonder Fool Productions and I think it's going to help us to attract private funders and to get grants that we can't do right now under the university umbrella...

One of the reasons [for the non-profit] is we have a whole educational mission that we really want to pursue with a vengeance, and that is helping out school systems and districts that have completely abandoned the arts for their kids. We see our kind of art as being attractive to younger audiences. And I think we're a good segue, a good way for a community to develop an arts program around an event as opposed to whether or not they can hire certain teachers and staff. So the concept is that we would go and show people how to start a public art event and let them figure out what they want it to look like and what they want to say through this event, and how they want to put it on every year.

How do you see the state of arts programming in the region's public schools, and what improvements can you suggest?

I have a son who's in third grade at a pretty well-established, well-funded school in Ann Arbor, and he gets 50 minutes of art a week. And that's in a really good school. Everything else is less than that. That's pretty discouraging. There isn't a silver bullet for this, but I do think that if we don't try to find a way that the arts can be highlighted, even if it's only for a once a year event at a given school or through a given school district, then people can quickly forget that the arts are important. And then we'll pay the price of that loss of memory, several generations down.

But that's me as an artist speaking. I don't know what I would've done if there hadn't been an art center in my town or if I hadn't been encouraged to do art in school. I didn't have the kind of brain that could do all of the other kinds of things that other people did so easily. So I'm interested in those kids that we're losing because they're not necessarily all left-brain thinkers.

It makes me think of the time and effort that schools put into Halloween. Think of how many Halloween parades there are and the kids are mostly in store-bought costumes. Instead, that could be redirected, and maybe they do a parade where everyone has to make something to wear.

In some way I think Festi Fools can be compared to something like Halloween. Everyone dressing up and doing something, but I think the difference is exactly what you've pointed out, which is we stress the creative aspect of it and the handmade aspect, as opposed to the store-bought.

I have great hopes that April Fools weekend will be one where people wake up on April Fool's Day and think of themselves as creative participants in our society, at least for one day or one weekend.

So rather than consuming what's been done by others, it is empowering to be able to do that yourself.

Particularly with the bombardment of consumer products now that essentially give you an ersatz sense of being creative when in fact the software is doing most of the work for you. But we can see it on a daily basis. Last weekend we had 66 volunteers that came in the FestiFools studio just to get their hands sticky with papier-mâché and a paint brush. You can just see the need for people to use their hands and to connect with the visual product in a tactile way. And I don't think that's ever going to go away...

When you see a small child with an iPad that used to be a coloring book and a crayon, you think, well, there's not much difference there. But the difference is miles apart. And we really won't know what the outcome is going to be to that kind of hard wiring that's taking place at such an early age. It's going to take a while to find out if that's a positive thing or a negative thing, but I have my guess.

Festi Fools is now in its sixth year. How do you see it evolving for 2013 and beyond?

Someone who has started a lot of interesting things in Ann Arbor said that when you get to year seven – I don't know what's so magic about year seven – then you know that you can continue to do it every year. This is a watershed year for us. It's a tough one. We'll know after this Festi Fools whether or not we're going to be able to continue to do it. It's one of those things that takes a lot of energy. You can burn out your board. Ours is a steering committee that will soon become a board. And whether or not the audience is still excited to come and see it again.

Getting business support is going to be crucial in the next year. We've gotten some really nice sponsors to come on board, the kind that do not care about having their name attached right to your pieces but just understand that it's really important to support these kinds of things for the complete well being of our town ... So the scale of Ann Arbor is something that will determine whether or not there's enough of these very generous folks to go around. Then the question is always whether or not the university can afford to support us the way they have in the past. There's a lot of things in the balance this year.

Are you brandishing a puppet this year?

Usually I have to work the event, where we do what's called art repair, and so when things break down in the middle of the event, we're there with the duct tape and the zip ties. I can't actually be under one but sometimes I'll get to make one.

What will you make?

I have these businessmen all ready to go if I can get them finished in time. But they're kind of like the one percent and I want them to come down the middle of the road and check out this audience and kind of look them over, see what they think of these people from Ann Arbor.

Tanya Muzumdar is a freelance writer and the assistant editor of Concentrate and Metromode. Her previous article was "The Ann Arbor Greenbelt, Then and Now".

All photos by Doug Coombe


Mark Tucker at the FestiFools' studio
Mark Tucker at the FestiFools' studio
A view from the FestiFools' studio
A view from the FestiFools' studio
A view from the FestiFools' studio
A view from the FestiFools' studio
A view from the FestiFools' studio
Meryl Waldo with a luminary kit at the FestiFools' studio
Meryl Waldo at the FestiFools' studio
Ruth Marsh at the FestiFools' studio

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