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Return of the “Procession of the Species”

On April 26 and 27, Olympia’s downtown will be a joyful jumble filled with creatures of the air, land, fire and sea as the Luminary Procession and Procession of the Species celebration returns after a 4 year interlude caused by the COVID lockdown.

The free community art studio that is at the core of Procession opens March 2 with a volunteer orientation at the Olympia Armory Creative Campus at 515 Eastside St SE.

Procession is “SO OLY”

If asked what makes Olympia special, many residents are likely to respond “Procession.”   What is it about Procession that enchants so many people, drawing 100s of participants and 35,000 viewers?  Why is it so beloved?  Why were people demanding that Eli Sterling, director of Earthbound Productions which has put Procession on since 1995, return and do it again after 29 years?

Procession is not a parade, despite being voted best parade in the country by Reader’s Digest in 2009, and while it is very entertaining, it is not an entertainment event .  At its heart, it is an expression of community and love of nature through art.  Its uniqueness lies in the principles it was founded on – acceptance, kindness and an appeal for all to recognize and protect the miracle of being on this planet.  When thousands of people together joyously celebrate the wonders of our earth,  we awaken the possibility of a different way of life in which each person contributes to a shared identity that becomes the community of Olympia.  This identity, one based on sharing and creativity, is what makes Procession so beloved and why people say Olympia is a good place to live.

Procession’s three Rules – No Words, No Pets, No Motorized Vehicles – guide participants to follow those principles and despite many challenges to them over the years, still hold.

There have been objections that the “No Words” rule is not doing enough politically.   “But that’s the absolute opposite,” says Eli.  “By not having written words, you don’t place people in the context of comparative reality, like your identity is this and not that.  Procession presents itself in the street and the studio.  No one is comparing themselves to each other.  They’re only being inspired by what others do.  And on the street, they’re limited from presenting themselves as performers as opposed to ‘look at the world around you.’  So people contribute to an identity that is community.”

Procession took its inspiration from an experience Eli had while traveling around the Middle East as a young man.  After spending the night at the top of Mount Moses, he awoke at dawn and had the uncanny, exhilarating and profound experience of seeing the earth turn towards the sun.  His reverie was interrupted by a clamorous group of 30-40 people who prayed, ate lunch and then totally trashed the mountaintop with litter.  Eli spent another night on the mountain to pick up and burn the mound of trash he collected, each piece attached to someone’s prayer.  The juxtaposition of humans of all religions praying to the infinite without thought to their place in it led him to dedicate himself to environmental concerns that transcend the human drama.

 Creating a Cultural Tradition

In its 24 years, Procession has provided a free art space for hundreds of families, dozens of school groups, and social service providers like Big Brothers and Sisters.    Working with kids has always been an integral part of Procession, and this year, Meadows and Madison Elementary and Avanti, River Ridge and Lincoln High Schools are participating.  The beauty of working in Procession is that kids work alongside adults, contributing to a tradition in the making that they have the opportunity to carry on.  Unlike school trips sponsored by Weyerhaeuser that take kids to a tree farm and then give each kid a plastic hardhat, children who work in Procession and make their own masks have their own artistic creation celebrating the beauty of life that their Moms will save for decades.

Procession does not compromise its values.  One year, Weyerhaeuser offered it $10,000.  After discussions with other volunteers, Eli wrote back to them stating they would be happy to accept their money after Weyerhaeuser paid outstanding fines to the Department of Ecology and Fish and Wildlife, as they were not willing to erode regulatory agencies’ capacity to protect the environment.  Weyerhaeuser never answered.

Creation vs. Consuming

Procession 2024’s theme, “The Rise of Reflection,” reflects Eli’s concerns that Procession continue to evolve as a cultural event.  “The intent and meaning has to be lived, experienced and shared.  We can’t just hope that by doing it again, all the other things that were done for 20 years will automatically happen again.”  He compared it to holidays that can become hollow of meaning without active participation, or to reenactments of ancient rituals.  “Those rituals were layered over time.”   Procession, he says, also needs a constant layering of  participation that generates anticipation ”for a day that we accept who we are and recognize our capacity in the most positive way,”  instead of relying on peoples’ expectations from past Processions.

Realizing that capacity is the mission of the free community art studio.  The hope is that after walking through its doors, people will leave behind the commercial world based on discerning, consuming and discarding and open up to a mindset of imagination, creation and sharing.

“There’s no slow lane of culture anymore that allows everyone to be appreciated.  We’re not prepared for AI.   Procession is hands-on.  You know it’s real.  I made it.  On the street, it’s your personal experience.  I did Procession.  I contributed to the identity and behavior of my community.  We are all making this community. “

“In Procession, you give away your identity when you share, but that’s what advances the entire community.  This aspect of getting people to share, with no personal outcome, is exuberance.  It works because nature works for everyone.”

“The idea of Procession is to elevate human dignity.  If it’s just entertainment you can discard it.  The thresholds of discarding have escalated to the point where we are okay with discarding thousands of people in Gaza, Ukraine and Somalia.  I can see why people want Procession back.  How do we generate these relationships where the final product is shared?  That initial relationship happens in the art studio.”

 A Free Community Art Studio for All

This year, the studio has only 12 weeks to occupy the Armory.  The first 2 weeks were for set up, then 7 weeks of creative work with 3 weeks to clean it up by mid-May.  Earthbound Productions is grateful for its collaboration with the city of Olympia in the persons of Valerie Roberts, who is in charge of the Armory, and Angel Nava, who directs Olympia Arts Walk.   Together they are working to show what an artistic center can provide to the community.  With so many arts organizations seeking funds, setting up a new model of collaborative relationship with the city has the potential to provide unique opportunities that can help support a year-round community art studio and event space.  Eli hopes that Procession’s values of  kindness, acceptance and artistic synergy become part of the Armory’s mission as well.

Procession’s core staff of about 25 people divided into 6 teams meet weekly.  About 100 people have signed up to volunteer, about half of whom are new.  After a long talk about Procession’s purpose and studio protocols, they are told their job is to help other people have a successful experience, and the studio has a long track record of doing just that.  The volunteer form asks for name, a physical address and phone number.  Participants are also asked to sign a liability waiver and supervise their children, as safety is a top priority.  The art studio “is a space where we trust each other with appropriate behavior and our success.”  Donations are welcome, but no one is turned away for lack of funds.   During studio hours, at least 4 crew members are present making sure everything is going smoothly.  Those who are working on personal projects or behaving inappropriately to the success of the studio are asked to leave, but inclusivity is the norm.

Processions Past & Present

Looking back, Eli recounts the 10th Procession as particularly special.  “The sun was out, we were all in synch, there was music and full on energy.  Seven intersections had huge chalk mandalas and it was the first time we coordinated with Arts Walk for a full 2 day event.  I felt like ‘we’ve arrived, we’ve entered the promised land.’”

Earthbound Productions has also produced other large cultural events like the Illuminated Ball and celebrations for the winter and summer solstices.  After 9/11, the winter solstice celebration was held in the Capitol Rotunda and 1000 candles were given to people to hold as they walked down to Capitol Lake.

When asked what a successful Procession this year would be, Eli replied,

“That every individual who saw it or was in it walked away and said ‘Wow, this is a cool place to live.’”

For more information, visit the Procession website


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