It is dark and chilly and there's a steady huffing of autumn wind that keeps the dry leaves skittering along the walkways of Patterson Park. Ghosts and Halloween goblins lurk behind every tree. But then, suddenly, 4,000 people have sprung up around you, with handmade paper lanterns casting enough light to banish the ghouls from your mind. There is music—alternately moody and cheerful—and there are large illuminated skeletons and animals and fluttering translucent fabric sculptures. On a 40-foot screen is what looks a bit like an animated Edward Gorey film.
It feels so atmospheric, so cinematic, so natural that it's hard to believe that The Great Halloween Lantern Parade hasn't been bringing Baltimoreans, costumes, and candlelight together this way for centuries.
In fact, the parade has only been around since 1999. That's when artist Molly Ross came to Baltimore and founded (along with the Creative Alliance and various Patterson Park neighborhood groups) the October spectacle. Already a rising star on the arts scene in the Midwest, Ross had organized similar projects in Chicago and Wisconsin before being lured to Charm City.
Parades were a fairly normal part of life for Ross, who was born and raised in Arkansas. "There were a lot of them," she says. "Fourth of July, homecoming. That was sort of part of my growing up. It wasn't until college that I became interested in multi-disciplinary approaches to art and interested in community activist issues."
Ross studied theater at Northwestern and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago. In the meantime, she continued performing, including a two-year stint in the circus as an aerial acrobat. A legendary puppet and mask theater in Minneapolis, In the Heart of the Beast Theatre, began to influence her artwork and, in 1993, she founded Theater Nana (now Nana Projects, having outgrown the "theater" label).
"It was a matter of taking the tradition of 60's activism and the rich history of early pagan celebrations and community gatherings, and merging it and blending it. And, hopefully, coming up with something new and original and current."
Now, Ross and Nana Projects are in full swing for almost the entire year with their "cultural performances"—working out of the old Baltimore Electric Light Company building in Roland Park, ironically enough. Part of this summer was spent back in Wisconsin on a major magic lantern show and parade at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. And in June, they hosted their first Parade School, a weeklong study of parades, from stilt-walking to organizational and crowd skills, plus guest lecturers from In the Heart of the Beast Theatre and the Backstreet Cultural Museum in New Orleans.
"It was the first time anybody had done anything like parade school," Ross says. "Advanced 'makers' wanted to improve and to have what they're doing be validated in a sort of academic environment. But we also had local community activists here in Baltimore who didn't have parade experience but were interested in using it in their communities as an organizational tool."
Ross also now teaches occasional puppetry and sculpture classes at MICA. And rather than decompressing this December, Nana will be touring with the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange.
But come Halloween, Ross will be simultaneously creating two different lantern shows on the night of the parade. Inside a small white tent, hunched over an overhead projector along with two other projectionists, Ross will move painstakingly illustrated transparencies and colored plastic across the screen to create animated "films" set to live music and shown on a huge screen.
But outside the tent, on a much larger scale, the parade itself and the bubbling sea of light created by the revelers and their paper sculptures is a performance all its own—chaotic and free-flowing.
"We can do all this work, but if no one shows up, there's no parade," says Ross. "That's why it's so powerful."
"Her work presents an interesting conundrum because people don't think of it as being produced by an artist," says Jed Dodds, Ross's husband and the Creative Alliance's artistic director (it was that job opening which brought Ross and Dodds to Baltimore in 1999). "Beyond puppet work and lanterns and organizing, she's crafting a mood. She's really finely tuned to a sense of atmosphere and wonder where people will suspend their cynicism or day-to-day lives and allow themselves to be taken up in a magical experience. That's her artistry, working with the imaginations of communities."
Ross doesn't have to look far to find one of the parade's biggest (and littlest) fans. Her 3-year-old daughter, Sadie, can't get enough of the lanterns and costumes and giant paper dragons.
"Right now, she's fascinated," Ross laughs. "But I'm sure there will come a time when she's, oh, 13 when she won't be fascinated. And I'm totally prepared for that."