Mike White, Senior Research Fellow in Arts in Health at the Centre for Medical Humanities and St. Chad’s College, Durham, writes: Our Lantern Parade Conversation in January at The Wolfson Research Institute on Durham University’s Queen’s campus brought together a dynamic mix of community artists, academics, arts managers and leading health professionals, with teaching staff and parent volunteers from two schools-based lantern parades.
Professor Sarah Atkinson, a friend to and champion of our arts in health work extended a hearty welcome to all. The conversation was made possible through support from the Wolfson and the Institute of Advanced Studies. It was a contribution to the latter’s 2014 theme of ‘Light’, and its linkage with CMH’s core theme of ‘human flourishing’ produced some rich insights and proved a cracking DIY example of CMH doing what it says on the tin – achieving purposeful inter-disciplinary dialogue with a public engagement focus. Of course we were all ‘up for it’, but we could not have processed so far in this aim without the adept facilitation of Mary Robson, CMH’s Associate Artist for Health and Education, assisted by Dawn Williams of Sage Gateshead. Mary drew everyone out of their professional shells into an open workshop atmosphere akin to that of a lantern-making space where creative conversations flow; a setting that was further enhanced by the sharp shadows of paper-cuts from Southwick Primary that covered the windows of the Wolfson’s seminar room, temporarily transforming it into a giant lantern.
I experienced the Conversation as a 24-hour walk in heart and mind so I was tired but contented by the end. I feel we got the results we had hoped for as together we came up with an inventory of ‘what works’ for community-based arts in health events, some philosophical underpinning of the lantern parade phenomenon, the framework for a research bid, and several publications-in-waiting. For me, it was great to re-connect with several veteran lantern-makers who share a common point of origin in the Welfare State theatre company of the 1980s and to sense the genealogy of an extra-ordinary offshoot of community arts practice that now reaches worldwide. By also drawing in insights, possibly for the first time, from a wide range of academic disciplines along with the reflexive narratives of participants in these celebratory events, we became indeed a lantern parade ourselves in the course of the conversation.
The conversation was structured in three sessions; ‘Framework’ (how do successful lantern parades evolve?), ‘Covering’ (what is the philosophical reach of lantern-making activities?), and ‘Illumination’ (what might research discover that adds value to these events?).
In the first session, we organised our responses to a guiding question of “what are the key ingredients of annual community-based lantern parades?” into seven clusters that I now venture might be headed as follows: creating congenial space, having a motivating aesthetic, ensuring inclusivity, making new traditions, keeping attention to safety, providing quality conditions for shared celebration, and enabling transformations of people and places.
For the second session CMH Director Professor Martyn Evans gave us a rumination on light and wonder that spurred us to see lantern events anew in respect of the metaphorical connections and actual relations they create, their unfolding phenomenology in both affect and materiality, and their provocation of wonder and well-being – all succinctly expressed by one participant as “the wow”. In the final session we laid a pathway (literally) of emergent themes and reflected on the research potential of these in discussions groups under the headings of ‘lantern stories’, ‘the elemental nature of light as both thing and event’ and ‘inter-relationships of art, community and social context’.
Mary worked with artist Gilly Rogers and the Nawrouse family to make a cocoon lantern that was made and decorated for the occasion that encapsulated (exactly) the spirit of our conversation and revelations to come. Delegates added their own delicate tissue-paper papercuts, and the completed lantern was gifted to Tilery Primary. The school is our community partner in an annual lantern procession (now in its sixth year) for the housing estates that are in nearest proximity to Queen’s campus. This year’s parade, however, is unavoidably postponed due to a major refurbishment of the school, so the cocoon holds the aspirations of this now traditional event until its imago emerges in the next manifestation. It has been the focal point of a ceremony in the school grounds earlier this month to commemorate this blip in the timeline and assure the children and their families that lanterns will continue to mark their social well-being and the diversity of their community.