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From Fish to Giant Skeletons

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My first three months as The Cheerful Project Outreach and Events Officer.

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Image: Credit Jenny Caldwell

My first few months with Span Arts’ Cheerful Project have been a bit of a whirlwind where I’ve experienced two of the largest events I’ve ever been a part of organising.  My first official day of work involved the making of a beautiful flock of willow bird puppets and a shoal of glimmering fish in readiness for the ‘Narberth Carnival’ at the end of July.  That workshop in Maenclochog Community Hall was one of a series where the public could drop-in to create their puppets to bring along on Cheerful’s Mabinogion themed element of the Carnival float parade. Willow was wrangled into an assortment of bird and fish shapes, each one slightly different from the next either in shape or decoration, children it seems are very fond of glitter!

 

No sooner had the glitter settled however, than it was time to start planningRiver of Lights 2016.  Last year, before my time, The Cheerful Project, in collaboration with artist Toby Downing, The Lab, Haverfordwest and Confluence staged the first Lantern Procession in the County town as a chance for the community to come together to mark the changing season and to depict the story of ‘Skeleton Woman’.  The event was a resounding success prompting a commitment by all concerned to making this second year even more memorable.

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Image credit: Western Telegraph

For me it has been fascinating to be involved in and experience the evolution of the event, from the discussions around a theme to considering the minutiae of the risk assessment.  I have worked collaboratively in the past and love the energy generated by creative people discussing ideas and refining them into a finished ‘product’, it’s my favourite way to work.

 

The theme emerged, the procession was to be based around the medieval allegory of ‘The Danse Macabre’, an inspiration to artists and musicians for hundreds of years due to its powerful message that death unites us all and as a caution against being too bound up with material things.  Written like that it sounds thoroughly morbid whereas in fact the allegory tells of how Death plays his violin in the graveyard to awaken the dead for a huge, one night only, party!  Paupers dance with kings, children with bishops and wealthy landowners with labourers.  So, that’s what we aimed for, a beautiful party for the whole community lit by the light of their own willow and tissue lanterns and of course two 11foot articulated skeleton lanterns.

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Image credit: Jenny Caldwell

To expand the capacity of the lantern making we invited community group leaders to train to make the triangular candle-lit lanterns and then go back to their groups to deliver the making workshops.  So, one wet weekend in September representatives from Pembrokeshire College, Haverfordwest Scouts, youth groups, Action for Children, Pembrokeshire People First and others, came together to be taken through the process step-by-step by the endlessly patient artist, Toby Downing.  With my willow taming experience being limited to the birds and fishes there was a lot to take in and at times I wondered if I’d ever remember it all, in the right order and be able to teach someone else how to do it.  Needless to say, by the end of the day I had a beautiful lantern, with a secure candle, beautiful decoration and almost perfectly applied gluey tissue paper.

 

In thinking about the allegory we wanted to acknowledge and reflect the importance of Haverfordwest as the County town, to ensure that the theme was relevant to its inhabitants, the place people historically came to sell their livestock and produce and to conduct their business.  This was something we discussed with the community groups, wondering what, or who they would like to see returned to Haverfordwest.    We were keen to have several larger lanterns which would either be carried or set up at Fortune’s Frolic to mark the arena and the end of the procession.  Deciding the shape of the larger lanterns was tricky but we finally settled on building a series of large gravestones with epitaphs for that which has been lost and to symbolise the hope of their return.  Through his ongoing involvement with the people of Haverfordwest, Guy Norman of The Lab had heard much talk of the demise of a swimming hole along the river with the wonderfully enigmatic name of ‘The Gracious’, this was an obvious choice for inclusion.

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Image credit: Jenny Caldwell

Epitaphs were also made for local mayor architect William Owen who literally helped to shape Haverfordwest and Gogi John who used to run rowing boats on the river close to where The Lab is now, something else the locals are eager to see return.  Rowan and I made a rather large (around 8′) gravestone that seemed to take on a life of its own as it took shape.  We included a verse of ‘Cofio’ by Preseli poet Waldo Williams which reminds us of the transience of life and urges us to take time to remember.

 

After a frantic and exhilarating week of public workshops the day of the procession finally arrived.  Stewards and volunteers were briefed and from around 6pm lanterns were reunited with their makers.  Being posted inside The Lab I had little idea of the vast numbers beginning to gather in Castle Square, being entertained by pipes and drums.  Actually, I didn’t get a true picture of the size of the event until I arrived, with the last of the crowd at Fortune’s Frolic in time for the spectacular fiery finale.

 

My experience of the procession was probably very different from that of those who were led by the skeleton couple through the town, drawing interest and waves from the windows overlooking Quay Street and enticing the pub goers away from their pints for a look at the strangely magical procession.   They would have followed the animated lanterns over the County Hall footbridge and into the almost darkness of the park, lit only by their lanterns, way-marking onion lanterns and some helpful stewards.  For me, at the back I was initially struck by the peaceful nature of the procession, the way in which people occupied their time waiting to cross the footbridge by talking to their neighbour, complementing each other on their lantern making skills, adding quietly to the hum of Saturday night Haverfordwest .  Someone described it as very ‘calming’. The first sense I had that it was going to be a truly special spectacle was when I rounded the corner to see the procession crossing footbridge, seeing these little triangles of soft light moving slowly away into the darkness was quite captivating.

 

The atmosphere changed as soon as I arrived at the Frolic, the hum became a buzz backed by the drums and piper.  I could see the skeletons dancing together at the top of the hill and it was only then I got an idea of the scale of this event I had played a part in organising, it was beyond expectation.  People interacted with the giant lanterns while others looked over the temporary graveyard, reading the epitaphs and reminiscing.

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Image credit: Jenny Caldwell

A red flare drew everyone’s attention away from the hill to where The Pembrokeshire Fire Spinners gave a breath-taking performance which one small boy described to me as ‘phenomenal’ and I couldn’t argue with that!  A whizz of light lit the winged, fiddle playing, skeleton fire sculpture marked the end of this remarkable experience.

 

We now modestly estimate that over 1200 people participated in the procession itself but it drew in so many more.  What can I expect from the next three months?

If you would like to know more about The Cheerful Project, would like to participate, volunteer or get involved in anyway please email me at nia@span-arts.org.uk or call 01834 869323 or check out the Span Arts website http://www.span-arts.org.uk/

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Image credit: Jenny Caldwell

 

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Nia Lewis

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