The summer solstice is the longest day of the year, and a day to honor the sun at its zenith. It is also a magical time when downtown Santa Barbara becomes a community playground and State Street transforms into a big canvas where everyone can paint, dance, and express themselves playfully and creatively. 2008 marks the 34th Annual Santa Barbara Summer Solstice Parade, which began as a quirky event initiated in the 70s by Michael Gonzales. However, since 1990, the self-described “art shaman,” Pali Szilvassy (also known as Pali-X-Mano) has been one of the core masterminds involved in developing the themes of each solstice parade. The Hungarian-born artist in residence is the conceptual genius who designs and brings to fruition the whimsical inflatable sculptures that provide the symbolic “money shot” at the close of each year’s parade.
In preparation for the 2008 Summer Solstice Parade – which will commence this Friday, June 20 at 4 p.m. in Alameda Park and resume at noon on Saturday, June 21 at State and Cota Streets – the prodigious Mano and his fellow sun-worshipers have been hard at work at this year’s Solstice Workshop Headquarters (631 Garden St.). With Executive Director Claudia Bratton and Artistic Director Ricardo Morrison helming the event, and six other artists in residence working on individual concepts and floats (Gloria Liggett, Ann Chevrefils, Diane Stevenett, Ruben Pedregon, and Stacie Bouffard), the workshop has become a hotbed for creativity. Miniature maquettes, coaxial cable armatures waiting to be covered in papier-m•che, and cosmologically themed banners and drawings fill the compound, all envisioning the fanciful floats and celestial costumes for this year’s celebration, the theme of which is “Solar Flair.”
Mano’s masterpiece for 2008 is an inflatable sculpture and performance art ensemble which he calls “Pali’s Solar Outburst.” “It’s a giant 27-foot diameter inflatable sculpture with flaming tentacles using partly red-orange and partly yellow rip-stop nylon, and multi-colored silks, as well as clear vinyl for the ball part of the solar outburst,” he explained. “Inside there will be suspended silks and a sexy aerial acrobat. Ninet Palome will be dancing inside of the big balloon, interacting with artistic Director Ricardo Morrison and L.A. actor Tobi Shaw.“
“Meanwhile outside, some sort of sun spot aliens from a faraway galaxy, dressed in extremely crazy costumes and giant, exaggerated headdresses will be dancing around and interacting with each other and with the audience.” He also plans to have about 35 Afro-Brazilian and djembe drummers and 45 Solar Flair Dancers. “We hope to create immense joy and delight for the audience,” Mano emphasized.
Gazing at the sketches of Mano’s sublime solar flair and its attendant personages (all of which are tacked to a wall in the wizard’s workspace), it becomes easy to admire his vision. Elements from Federico Fellini’s hedonistically surreal film, Satyricon cross-bred with French feminist artist Niki de Saint Phalle’s Nana drawings find their way into many of Mano’s designs. His work also brings to mind famed 60s pop artist Claes Oldenburg’s plastic soft sculptures.
From conception to birth, Mano’s Solstice ideas take several weeks to gestate. He first puts a big, detailed drawing down for the inflatable components. Next, he makes a model, the construction of which takes several days. He then uses patterns from the model to create something that can be printed, blown up, and used to cut enormous pieces of fabric. After cutting, the pieces still take about ten days to sew, with the overall process taking about a month and a half to complete. He sews about 75% of the inflatables himself. A seamstress by the name of Yoshiko Nester – who he usually calls upon for help – is assisting him this year. Also on board is a Russian graduate from the University of Culture in Moscow named Lidia Zinchenko, who helped create many of the fantastic headdresses and costumes. Fourth-year volunteer, Christine Hartman, has also been assisting Mano. Then there’s the 24-foot-long float with a platform, made by Ken Yamamoto, which will carry “Pali’s Solar Outburst.”
After the inflatable is conceived, Mano makes about 15-25 headdress and costume designs. Some of this year’s costumes and headdresses include a silver space-web headdress made from a recycled lampshade and mesh netting, a space warrior helmet made with giant silver Christmas tree ornaments and silver dryer vent duct hoses, and a stardust Mohawk headdress, which boasts sleek aluminum “feathers.”
Picking up a magnificent headdress, Mano elaborated on some of the other head gear he and Zinchenko have created for the event: “Here’s a silver, spiked helmet created from cut, rolled, and recycled grocery store bags, tinfoil, and other items,” he laughed. “And here’s a delicious cosmic bride headdress made from recycled netting, tubing wire, and plastic mirrors. Lidia Zinchenko made this one, and she’s made many other original pieces. She’s very talented.”
When asked how the intergalactic images gleaned from the Hubble Space Telescope might have shaped his constellation-themed collaboration, Mano exclaimed, “Of course I am a big fan of the idea of intergalactic travel. I think there must be beautiful beings out there in deep space that have a highly developed culture. It would be great if they could see us during the solstice and be turned on by our appearance as alien solar creatures, and come and join us,” he continued. “Myself, I am an ex-alien. I came from Budapest, so for many years I was an alien from innerspace,” Mano joked.
“Budapest is a very avant-garde city and we have lots of kinetic movement theaters. I participated in some in the ’80s when I was at the Academy of Applied Arts. I was in a performance art piece where I played the role of an alien who was being dissected.”
There is definitely poetic beauty in that the solstice headquarters occupies the grounds of the former Santa Barbara Recycling Center, for as Mano put it, “We take so-called junk and create fun assemblages. I make use of a lot of recycled materials – Styrofoam, thread, fabrics, paints, aluminum foil – and I put a lot of time and energy into this.” He also uses silkscreen acrylic paint. “That’s why I silkscreen my own clothes too – to amuse people when they see me as a ‘Living Art Man.’ I like it when I can make people smile, because smiles extend life. My paintings and prints express my philosophy that life is beautiful and that we should all be happy people and give each other joy and love and make each other smile.”
“Inside everybody there is a beautiful shining sun,” Mano emphasized. “So we try to encourage and enhance this inner feeling of the public. We want both the participants and the audience to feel and imagine the possibilities.”
For more info on Solstice, or to volunteer, visit solsticeparade.com.