By Juan William Chávez
Community artist Juan William Chavez discusses the importance of experiencing creation of art in the making of the lanterns as well as the ceremony in which they were employed and distributed. The following takes us through the lantern ceremony from conception through implementation.
Inspired by the Lotus Lantern Festival, The Lantern Project was a series of lantern making workshops with actors from Staging Reflections of the Buddha. The Workshops were led by Bob Hartzell and myself with the goal of creating an installation in the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts’ (PFA) reflection pool. Light Sculptor, Bob Hartzell, was the perfect collaborator and did an amazing job leading the actors in the construction of the lanterns.
“I’m so grateful to have participated in the lantern project and to witness how the Staging program affected all of its participants; it was a unique experience to be able to share in a small way how the Buddha works affected their viewers. The lantern project was especially gratifying personally – both in the representational interaction and seeing how months of work were disseminated to a community in a perfect moment of construction and communication.” – Bob Hartzell
After the workshop concluded, I led several conversations with the actors giving us time as a group to reflect upon the process and journey of the project. Inspired by the Lotus Lantern Festival, the lighting of a lantern symbolizes a devotion to performing good deeds and lighting up the dark parts of the world that are filled with agony. We discussed the studio practice and how meaning begins to develop when making an object. The actors one by one talked about their personal experience in the workshop and the meaning that their own lantern represented. It was a very powerful conversation, a conversation that could not have happened without experiencing these workshops.
“The lanterns represent togetherness, creating something from scratch as a group. Think positively that we can do something greater, seeing the light and following it into the future.”
-Lamonte Johnson, Actor
On the last day of the exhibition, seventeen lanterns were installed in the PFA’s reflection pool. Each lantern represented an actor that participated in the workshop and represented our conversations, collaboration, and progress as a group. Through the lanterns, the dark becomes bright, symbolizing the Buddhist belief in the power of enlightenment to dispel human suffering.
Part of this project was to also share the experience with the public. We created the Lantern Ceremony to honor the closing of the Reflections of the Buddha and the Staging. The public congregated inside the exhibition at the PFA with the Mid-America Buddhist Association that led viewers in a chant followed by a cavalcade outside of the building. The procession concluded in the courtyard behind the PFA where audience members were met by 200 glowing lanterns suspended from trees.
The crowd then gave their attention to five Thai monks that recited the Mangala Sutra (The Supreme Blessings) in Pal commencing the Lantern Dedication Ceremony. The dedication refers to both a dedication of merit to recognize all good will and works created by this exhibition, as well as the new relationships that have formed through the Staging process and performances.
Once the Mangala Sutra ended, actor Darryl Parks took the microphone and announced a moment of shared meditative silence where he invited the audience to think about the significance of the light in the lanterns and the hopes and dreams we share as a community. After a few minutes passed the mediation came to a conclusion with the sound from Tibetan Singing Bowls. Once the silence was broken, Darryl invited the audience to take home a lantern as a reminder to carry the light forward as a symbol of positive social change.
As an artist and cultural activist, it’s important to take a Zen approach to Socially Engaged Art programming. Being liquid in thought and process allows projects a certain type of freedom to go beyond any preconceived notions that often limit projects. This freedom can have surprising results and can be a powerful vehicle to address cultural and community issues in the city of St. Louis. The Lantern Project was the beginning of this conversation and encourages further discussions on how “we” as a community can create positive changes by working together and being Zen.