FoolMoon and FestiFools – two related, celebratory community art events (produced by Ann Arbor nonprofit WonderFool Productions) that happen each year during a single weekend in early April – have a long history of sneaking up on, and delighting, people who aren’t familiar with the events.
“Years ago, we were at the Food Co-op – we’d stopped for lunch – and I heard drumming,” said realtor/business owner Linda Lombardini. “So we went and stood outside on Fourth Avenue, and I said, ‘What the hell is all this craziness?’ as (the first-ever FestiFools parade) came down the street. … Soon someone involved in it ran up to me and put a headband on me, like I used to wear in the ‘60s, when I was a big old hippie, and I looked at Sandy (Smith, Lombardini’s wife) and said, ‘I think I’ve found my next volunteering opportunity.’”
Several years later, Emerson School’s art teacher, Julie Cohen, remembers having students involved in FoolMoon’s annual, Friday night processional walk to downtown – carrying light-up sculptures they made themselves – when a U-M men’s basketball game ended, and fans drove and walked past, trying to figure out what was happening.
“Some people just stopped in their cars,” said Cohen. “ … There were lots of people in town who don’t live in our community, they were here for the game, and many of them rolled down their windows and asked, ‘What’s going on? This is so amazing.’ They were just completely blown away by these beautiful creations.”
Originally the brainchild of Mark Tucker, who teaches a public art course for non-art majors within U-M’s Lloyd Hall Scholars Program, and Shoshana Hurand, then a U-M graduate student, FestiFools first came to life in 2007 when Tucker’s students, along with a few classes’ worth of U-M Stamps Art School students, were asked to design and build large, Carnival-esque, papier-mache puppets (with the community’s help) before winter semester’s end.
Which is to say, around the time of April Fool’s Day – so irreverent whimsy was in the event’s DNA from the start.
The plan was that Tucker’s course would conclude with a public celebration in downtown Ann Arbor, starring the larger-than-life puppets, carried and animated by the students and community volunteers.
The first outing was reportedly a bit chaotic, but many locals who witnessed the Fool-fueled chaos fell in love with it, anyway, including then-mayor John Hieftje, who encouraged Tucker to make FestiFools an annual event.
Thus, a beloved local harbinger-of-spring tradition was born.
And it quickly grew, both in terms of its audience and the number of community members wanting to get involved. From the start, volunteers were invited to come into the FestiFools studio and help construct the students’ puppets, which take months to build, and carry the puppets in the parade. But organizers soon recognized that what really wanted was to build something (that requires a smaller time commitment) themselves. So in 2011 – after a commissioned project involving lighted paper sculptures fell through – Tucker’s team added FoolMoon as an annual Friday night precursor to Sunday afternoon’s FestiFools parade.
FoolMoon became a pretty instant success. Community members attended free workshops, or learned online, how to build their own luminary sculptures – the simplest take no more than a couple of hours to construct – and meet up at one of three locations around town (Kerrytown, Slauson Middle School, U-M Museum of Art) to be part of a sunset processional that ends in a big street party downtown.
“Six years ago, we were just getting out of the economic downturn, which marked a huge turn of events in my life, being in real estate,” said Lombardini. “I was struggling to stay alive, professionally and personally, and this was one of the first things I saw that made me think, ‘Maybe we’re getting back to happy.’ … You saw this look on kids’ faces, and just the whimsicalness of the whole thing. … I followed along for a while and thought, ‘I need more of this in my life.’”
And there’s something pointedly poetic about different groups literally coming together from different locations.
“You go down Mullholland and Murray Avenue, and you’ll see families sitting out on their porches,” said Cohen. “You realize they’ve been anticipating getting to watch this magical procession go down the street. There’s this sense amazement and wonderment. … And when you come to the intersection (downtown) and come upon this incredible street party that’s happening, there’s so much joy. … There are all ages of people in costumes, with luminaries of all levels of complexity – it’s just utter joy.”
“That mixing, where everyone comes together to do this crazy thing – it really reinforces a feeling of neighborhood spirit,” said Laura Raynor, a youth and adult services librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.
Because 2018 will mark FestiFools’ 12th annual occurrence (on April 6), and FoolMoon’s 8th (on April 8), “you know what it is, but it’s always still new, and … it always offers a fresh way of seeing something, and experiencing it with new eyes,” said Cohen. “It might be the way something creates movement, or the use of unexpected materials, or, with the puppets, the scale of things. … But whether it’s freezing cold and raining that day, or one of those magic moments where the clouds separate, and the sun comes out, there’s always a sense of celebration.”
Raynor, for her part, started planning library programs in conjunction with FoolMoon and FestiFools in 2009, when she saw a co-worker, Amanda Schott, in the FestiFools parade with 826Michigan kids in robot costumes.
“We had one of those perfect moments where we looked at each other and said, ‘You’re as crazy as I am about FestiFools as I am,’” said Raynor. And when co-founder Hurand joined the AADL staff, it seemed like fate.
Each year, the library hosts free programs for designing and making costumes, puppets, and noise makers for the Fool festivities – but Raynor confesses that she and her fellow Fool fans at AADL start making their costumes in the dead of winter.
“For me personally, it’s a highlight of the year,” said Raynor. “It brings together everything I love. … There’s so much music, creativity and color. I just think it’s a wondrous event. And people, especially right now, are so hungry for the opportunity to just be about joy, and be about a sense of play for a while. … It really symbolizes for me what Ann Arbor is all about.”
Photo credit: Myra Klaraman