Tinika Ossman-Steier was busy working on a giant insect ensemble for this year’s Solstice Parade as she remembered the pangs and joys of the event’s birth from way up inside her creation. For those too new to remember, the time was 1974, and the place was a building on the corner of State and Ortega streets (now the Fithian Building), which was a warren, a home, a coven of performance artists who haunted thrift stores for inspiration and lived to celebrate. At first, Solstice was conceived as a birthday party for artist/mime Michael Gonzales, but it became a gaudy excuse to greet summer’s freedoms.
“It was the Park Theater then,” said Ossman-Steier, a current festival artist in residence, who was drawn into the free-spirited throng, though she lived up past the Mission in those days. “There still was a theater there, and it was Mime Caravan and [parade founder] Michael Gonzales and [his partner] John Burnett who showed us slides — that’s what we used to do back then, look at slides,” she laughed. “And it was pictures of what Michael wanted [the party to be like], pictures of Mardi Gras and Carnaval down in South America. This was the introduction to the parade.
“We didn’t talk about being pagans back then, but that’s what it was, pagan with a lot of creativity and no politics, and no words and no dogs,” Ossman-Steier continued over lunch recently at Jill’s Place, around the corner from the current Solstice HQ and not far from the old Park Theater. “I think they made me in charge of banners.”
Tinika Ossman-Steier had a different name in those days; she was Tiny Ossman, better known as the woman who brought belly dancing to Santa Barbara via the Plaka (a Greek taverna also gone). On Sunday nights on KTYD, she hosted a pre–World War II music radio show with her then-spouse, David Ossman, a poo-bah of the Los Angeles–based comedy troupe Firesign Theatre, and their Mission Canyon home was famed for counterculture gatherings. She famously went as a Hudson hood ornament to the mostly notorious Fellini Party at the home of neighbors Jon and Zig Knoll.
Ossman-Steier on her own kept busy as an Ensemble Theatre costumer and coordinator of the city’s first arts festival. “I was hired to introduce the community to its own cultural wealth,” she said. After she left Santa Barbara (and David) in the late 1970s, Tiny (born Maria Veronica Rosza) became the more formal-sounding Tinika when bosses at her Smithsonian Institution job pressured her to drop the diminutive nickname. It was while attending the 1980 International Conference on Celebrations that she first realized her lifelong drive: “Who knew I was a celebration artist?” she said. Until last year, Ossman-Steier coordinated an ecological/educational/celebrational All Species Festivals in her current hometown, Cottage Grove, Oregon.
But she didn’t come back to Santa Barbra to run anything; Ossman-Steier returned to Solstice to work on a performance piece (she’s also a fabric artist and, as she put it, a junk sculptor), fitting her big bugs into the parade’s Science-Fiction theme. “You know that District 9 movie? That’s the idea,” she explained. “I called the Solstice people up and asked them if I could just come and be a resident artist.” She thinks maybe old friends on the board put in a good word, but it’s clear from her space in the workshop that she still fit in perfectly, even without the banners.
“It’s a lot different than my day, Solstice. The scale is bigger now, and sadly, I don’t see a lot of my old friends. And three days in the park, wow. But the other day, I saw a woman come running in and give a choice piece of cardboard she found to someone else. That part is the same. The creativity and the camaraderie are great. I’m fortunate to be here,” she said, “surrounded by all these wonderful people.
The Santa Barbara Summer Solstice Celebration takes place Friday, June 19-Sunday, June 21, at Alameda Park. The parade is Saturday, June 20, at noon. The participants gather at Cota and State streets before traveling up State Street to Alameda Park. For more information, see solsticeparade.com.
Editor’s Note: This story was revised to note the Fellini party took place at the Knoll home, not the Ossman’s.