There is no better art party on Santa Barbara’s jam-packed calendar than Summer Solstice. Scratch that. There may be no better party, period. This weekend marks the 39th edition of the wonderful and whimsical creativity-fueled fiesta done in the name of the longest day of the year. And while Solstice has grown to become a three-day-long affair — complete with vendors and music and a ridiculously popular beer garden based out of Alameda Park — the main event remains, as always, the parade up State Street at high noon on Saturday. A fantastical people-powered procession of artistic wonderment, the parade is truly a celebration of Santa Barbara’s entire arts family, on display for all to enjoy and, better yet, become a part of.
As true a collaborative community effort as you can find around these parts, Summer Solstice is conjured out of thin air each year by scores of volunteers and a few key paid individuals, all of them artists and magicians in their own right. What follows is a spotlight on just a few of these ever-critical players, the All-Stars of Solstice, as well as a look at this summer’s hottest-ticket arts events. Welcome to summer, Santa Barbara.
“I actually just jumped into the parade my first time. Somebody went by carrying a costume that needed a person in it, so I put it on and joined,” explains artist Ann Chevrefils of her maiden Solstice experience more than two decades ago. Since 1994, this mask-making, Santa Barbara Public Library–working, three-dimensional art whiz has been a regular artist-in-residence for Solstice. “You either love it or you don’t. I guess I love it,” summed up Chevrefils recently with a warm laugh when asked what drives her commitment to the celebration.
Over the years, Chevrefils has evolved her assorted mask-making skills (which have long been a treasured commodity among S.B. theater circles) to include float building and some majorly impressive giant-puppet creating. To watch her sculpt foam with her quiver of custom hot-wire foam carvers and Sure-forms is to witness a master at work. Some of her past Solstice-specific handiwork includes The Santa Barbara Independent’s Trixie, an enormous pink poodle; larger-than-life Kong and Godzilla puppets; the Shiva that went on to live at the Santa Barbara Yoga Center; the Viking Ship float; and the massive Treasure Chest with the Octopus climbing out that infamously didn’t make it to the finish line of the parade a few years back.
For this year, taking her cue from the festival’s “Creatures” theme and adding her own late-night television/GMO–inspired twist, Chevrefils is leading the charge on the construction of some serious mash-up puppets including a cow and lobster combo named “Surf&Turf” and a chicken/fish hybrid she’s dubbed “William the Challenged Feline.”
The Junior Artists Program
Since 2002, Solstice’s Jethro Davis Memorial Junior Artists Program (named for the late son of former S.B. arts commissioner Patrick Davis and his wife, Nancy) has been bringing some of the best young artists around into the always growing Solstice family. Kids ages 14 and up apply for the honor every year, and depending on how much money has been fundraised for the program, anywhere from a couple of lucky teen creatives to a baker’s dozen receive the prestige and responsibility of being a “Junior Artist.”
Much like their older “artist-in-residence” counterparts, these up-and-comers not only earn a modest monetary compensation for their blood, sweat, and tears, but, more importantly, they reap the lifelong benefits of furthering their individual art skills in the whack-a-doodle creative classroom that is the Solstice workshop. “The Solstice arts are the arts of celebration: things like sewing costumes, building a float, using chicken wire and old Trader Joe’s bags to make something incredible. These are things that are not necessarily taught in school,” says Solstice Executive Director Claudia Bratton. “What we have seen [since the program started] is that this program can be a really formative thing for the kids. They often go on to do some very impressive things in the arts.”
For 2013, sisters Colette and Rochelle Zylstra, Madeleine Price, and Will Hahn are the official Junior Artists. Their handiwork, as well as that of their friends (bringing your buddies down to the workshop is a big part of being a Junior Artist), will be on display come parade time on Saturday. When you see the Wizard of Odd float or the throngs of masked dancers and float pushers (many of this year’s mask designs and actual papier-mâché masks are Junior Artists creations) making their ways along State Street, you can thank a Junior Artist for the marvel.
At this point, the massive inflatable nylon sculpture with a dancer or two inside that brings up the rear of the parade has become a de facto Solstice institution. Though what exactly this most unlikely of dance stages is shaped into varies from year to year (it has been everything from a silver comet to a fireball to a sea urchin), it is always the spawn of Pali-X-Mano, who, with his colorful hand-painted outfits and trademark hugs-for-help approach to getting work done, has been a key contributor for each and every Solstice since 1990. “It was an ad in The Independent looking for artists that first introduced me,” recalled the Hungary-born painter on a recent sun-splashed afternoon at the Solstice workshop. “I was responsible for the first and last assemblage in the parade that same year. I have been here ever since.”
A prolific and multifaceted artist, Pali, who dabbles in everything from abstract canvas painting and resin-based projects to illuminated art and dance performances, painstakingly reinvents the inflatable float and its supporting sea of costumed dancers annually, a task that requires not only a special type of unhinged vision-questing but also a serious amount of sewing and headdress construction. This time around, the parade’s closing act is a 27-foot “Solar Creature,” complete with 27 eyeballs (think big, colorful windsocks with googly eyes attached at the end), aerial dancers suspended from the ceiling, and a small army of similarly googly-eyed dancers moving about in what Pali describes as a “rhythmic, slow space dance expressing their cosmic delight.”