Free community workshops have always been an integral aspect of the All Souls Procession experience right from the very beginnings. Be it in someone’s backyard or in a warehouse space, there have always been these amazing opportunities for people like you and me to share their visions, their skills, their grief, and their love with each other. Perfect strangers meet, collaborate and bond in the process. Have you ever been? Then you know. Never been? Perhaps it’s time to find out. And if you think you’re not of the making or imaginative “type” to give it a try, well don’t let that stop you. All the support you could need is to be found there, and everyone is welcome.
Tucson native Mykl Wells has also been a part of the All Souls Procession from the very beginning. On the personal level, he’s an accomplished, prolific sculptor and painter of strange and delightful things. He’s also got a keen interest in sharing the creative process and inspiring others to find their own potentials. From 2012 to 2014 he headed up the All Souls Procession workshops.
In this interview with Mykl, we talk about the past, present and future of the All Souls Procession workshops.
Jhon: Tell me a little about your history with the All Souls Procession and how you got involved, so many years ago.
Mykl: In the early 90’s I was working menial jobs in Tucson– washing dishes, painting apartments, whatever– and whenever I had like $600 saved up I would just move to Mexico for a few months. It was really cheap to live, you could rent a little beach house or something and work on art or writing or whatever. So I would kind of go back and forth between Mexico and Tucson, and one year I went to Guanajuato. It was during their Day of the Dead celebration, where they take the Momias de Guanajuato out of the catacombs and parade them through the streets. They don’t do that any more I don’t think, but back then they would do this, and they would decorate the platforms with all kinds of flowers and palm fronds and stuff. They would parade them through the streets, and it was a really amazing spectacle to see this thing, and to be a part of it.
I loved the Mexican take on death. It was fun, it wasn’t this heavy “Oooh, Death is coming to get you”. There was kind of a connection to this sense of history. You put out food in a little shrine for Grandpa that passed away, and you put his favorite things there; there’d be a cigarette and a glass of tequilla or brandy or some tamales. There was something nice about that sense of connection to your past, and also to the future, because you knew that you were going to pass on. And also, just the light-heartedness of it. There aren’t many cultures that I know that really express light-heartedness about our own mortality, and that was refreshing. I really liked it.
So, when I came back to Tucson, I ran into my old friend Sue Johnson at the Cafe Quebec, or whatever incarnation it was back then. And I was like, “Sue! I just saw this fantastic thing down in Mexico!” and she was like “Dias de los what?! What’s that?” And so I told her about it, and I was like “Ohhh, we should do a parade here, we should do something like this!” Sue was interested, and I guess one time after that she went over to Theresa Dietz’ house where she found some old National Geographics that had Guerrero’s Dia de los Muertos in it, and she saw the photographs and was really amazed by the whole thing. After that she came to me and said “Mykl, I have a brilliant idea… we can do this Day of the Dead parade in Tucson!” (laughs). And I was like, “Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s go.” And that was kind of the spark that started it all, though it was totally Sue that made it all happen.
Around that time too, Sue was having some personal difficulties, and her father died, and she had some unresolved issues with her dad. And so the whole parade idea kind of got sucked into that whirlwind of activity, and it came together as more of a performance piece. It was kind of a cathartic thing that she did. But it kind of set the stage for the next year when we actually wrote the grant and we did the first “official” All Souls Procession. And a lot of the character of that original procession of Sue’s kind of flowed over into the All Souls Procession.
I was part of a group, and we were doing workshops for first Procession–that’s part of what this grant was for, was to do these workshops. And I did lantern-making, Sue did mask-making, Denise Bey did dance, and I wish I could remember the fellow’s name but he did kind of a drum and fife thing. We were modeling more after a traditional parade, and less after the freeform thing that it became. So, we had all these great intentions and stuff, but when it actually came time to do the parade–and it was a very small number of people, maybe thirty at the most–it just turned into a bunch of crazy artists walking down the street, scaring the natives and having a really good time.
So we did that for a couple of years, and I participated in that and did the workshops. Sue wanted it to be much more of a traditional parade, and I was more like, “let’s just keep going with this, because this is really great”, and we would kind of rub each other the wrong way. So for the sake of the friendship I just kind of stepped back and let it go on, and didn’t really participate after those first three years. Then in about 2000, a friend of mine said, “Hey, you want to go down to the All Souls Procession?” and I was like “Are they still doing that?”
Jhon: It had been totally off your radar until then.
Mykl: Totally. Totally off. There was no or hardly any publicity about it back then. I’d kind of denounced art, and was trying to pursue a career and all of these things. What I didn’t understand then was that art has gravity and just kind of sucks you back in. You can’t really leave creative endeavors.
So anyhow in 2000, I go down, and it started over by the Time Market then, in the little alleyway that runs between there and the church, and there were like two thousand people there. I was just like, “Oh my god….it’s become everything I wanted it to be.” There were big puppets, and some guy at the front reading awful poetry, and you know, a group of kids dressed as skeletons playing ukeleles and singing goofy songs, and it was just this lively, brilliant thing. It had really exceeded my own vision of what it was going to be. I’d always seen it as sort of this freeform, fun thing, but this was even better. Because all of the cross-pollination and new ideas that everyone brings in because that it’s free and open form just really allowed it to blossom. And it was great.
So we walked the whole Procession that day, and it ended up down at Bevel’s place I think, and I think it was one of the first years that they burned something, a framework of a man maybe or something; they didn’t have the Urn yet. And there was a performance at the end, and it was all just amazing. It was small and intimate and cool but it was also big at the same time. There was a big party afterwards, and I reconnected with a lot of people. And after that I started participating every year, making something. The next year I made a big float that was a shrine, and at the finale I had people take ribbons that I’d brought and they could write the names of someone who had passed away and tie it into the roof of the shrine. It was built on a bike cart by me and a bunch of friends. Then I started doing some big-head puppet type stuff, which was really difficult to get through 4th Ave underpass: we had to bend over and have friends carry the head…
But I just kept doing these things, and then one year Paul Bagley showed up, and he’d done this beautiful wooden lantern, and he had photos of family in the lantern. And it really reminded me of that sense of connection that I’d experienced in Mexico, and I thought, “That’s a really cool project.” And I was thinking about doing some little workshops because a lot of my friends had participated in building things like the shrine float and the big-head puppets, so I thought that would be fun to do a group activity. That’s when I designed that cardboard lantern, it was based on Paul Bagley’s original design.
And eventually I started doing lantern workshops on my own, which was just a fun way to get out and interact with the public, share some creative inspiration. I did that for a while, and that’s around the time that Puppet Works (Tucson Puppet Works, who had been holding down the fort on the Procession workshop scene for some time ~Jhon) decided that they as a group wanted to go some different ways, and they stopped doing the Procession workshops. Paul Weir approached me then, and asked me about doing the workshops, and I said yes. And it’s been about what, two, three years now?
Mykl: When you’re doing it on that scale, as more than just one specific project like lantern-making, but also mask-making, floats, etc….it’s a lot of work to really organize it, put it together, and raise the money; all of the elements that come together to make it work are time consuming. It’s going strong and we’re getting lots of participation, but I’m finding it’s too big for one person to organize alone. I need someone who can sit down and help write grants, help make marketing materials, and other things, and it needs to be someone who’s in it for a longer haul than just a volunteer. It needs to be someone who’s got some passion for the Procession. For the actual workshops themselves, it’s really helpful having the student interns to help, because it’s a short period of time, and they’re getting the time they need for their class credits, but they’re not part of the organizing aspect.
Jhon: So in your most idealized vision of what a solid workshop-organizing crew would look like, how many people would you need on that longer-term, more ongoing basis? And I guess with regard to the bigger picture, what is your dream for where the workshops can go from here?
Mykl: I can see two or three people, including myself, involved in really putting the thing together. It doesn’t need to have a ton of people; it just needs a couple or three with some specialized skills who are better at certain things.
I’d like to see the workshops have a more permanent home. Every year I find myself scrambling for a month-long workshop that requires a big space, and storage and things like that. I’d like to see some sort of ongoing storage facility, because if you make a giant float, not everyone has room in their backyard to put the float away, and a lot of these things should have some longevity to them. They should have a life beyond just the one use, the Procession they were built for; it could go on and on and on, and it would contribute to a more vibrant Procession, because you would have as time went on more and more interesting objects that go through and have a life-cycle on the float. So one of the goals that I have in mind is to create storage and a permanent home for the Procession Workshops.
I would like to see the workshops have an artist-in-residency program. I think it would be great to be able to bring people in from other communities to do a workshop within our community. Like your Philadelphia Krampus people….they’re doing awesome stuff, and it would be cool if they came and did a workshop. Imagine if they could come and spend a week here doing a workshop and then participate in the Procession….there would be so much cross-pollination of ideas. I just sort of look at the workshops as a great platform for building community involvement and excitement, but also creating this kind of greater festival culture and helping to strengthen that in the United States. So I’d like to see a residency program evolve.
And I’d like to see the workshops get a more stable sense of funding, to have something that instead of scrambling for grants every year has got a little more solid footing somehow.
Jhon: How could we accomplish this, with regard to the funding?
Mykl: I can’t really say I’ve figured it out, I don’t think that anyone has.
Jhon: Really it’s the same thing as the greater issues of financing the Procession as a whole: if people see the value of what’s happening, and if everyone who participates in any capacity–even if it’s just a witness to the thing on the street who is impressed enough year after year to keep coming back, or inspired to come out once–that is worth a couple bucks, five bucks, something like that. And if everyone who is able to is doing that, then there is your funding.
So let’s talk about that: why any of this stuff is important or should be important to the average citizen here in Tucson, as opposed to say someone like yourself who makes a life out of creating such things year-round. Why does this matter, and where does the meaning that would drive this kind of community investment come from?
Mykl: Probably one of the key elements to a healthy and happy individual–a happy life, a good life–is….before things like health and food and shelter, is actually the efficiency of the community working together. Can people gather together around a common cause and do something about it? Can they organize? Can they work effectively together? And I would say that’s probably one of the greatest strengths in this, that it’s this intense community-building thing, and it really has this powerful ability to break down barriers between people. It doesn’t matter if you’re conservative or liberal, or this or that, whatever….everyone shares this stuff in common, this is universal. And in the workshops especially: when you come together to build things, the focus is on the project, it’s not on who you are or what you’re doing. It gives people this opportunity to work together and really bridge the gaps that occur between us. It brings our community much tighter together.
Those people, when they walk out of there, they have much more of an experience than just making a mask or whatever; they’ve worked with other people, they talk, they bond. I know lots of people who’ve made friendships in the workshops that have lasted for years. I also know that just seeing other people do these things is inspirational. “Oh…they just put together this thing and they did it. We could put together something and do it.” You see a lot of smaller cultural events popping up out of this greater Procession community. And that is the essence of building community, that right there.
I’m not very big on organizing people, but what I’m very big on is trying to spread a culture. To me it’s really about creating a culture of collaboration and creativity, and getting people excited about that. You don’t get sailors by offering them money, you make them yearn for the open sea, right? I’m paraphrasing there. But, so, to create this community you don’t do it by saying, “Okay! We’re going to build a community!” You say, we’re going to build an amazing Procession. We’re going to give you opportunites to create with other people. You create the incentive and the yearning to be part of something bigger and to work well with others. I don’t think I could have organized the workshops to function as well as they have if I hadn’t done it from a cultural approach as opposed to an organizational approach. Instead of trying to impose this rule on it, you instead create a culture of openness, and non-judgement, and creativity, and you show people how to do things but you let them make their own things. It pretty much self-organizes if you let it. People want to contribute to that. People feel like they’re getting something out of it. And they are.
Just in terms of civic interaction, here in our city, I think the All Souls Procession, the workshops, all of these small cultural offshoots that are happening, are just creating this intense civic participation. That’s got to be good for our city. That’s creating the efficiency that will make all of our lives better. I think it’s actually hard to quantify those kinds of benefits. But they’re there. You can see them. You know they’re there, I know they’re there.
I think probably one of the great strengths of Tucson is that, for example, you have an opportunity to create something that would be great for the community, and this community here will come together then and will support you in that effort, and you in turn support your community through it. I just see that as being one of the core strengths of Tucson and why this city is as cool as it is.
That’s pretty much why I think it’s important.
Jhon: And so we could say that even for people who don’t necessarily plan on ever attending a Procession workshop, just giving some small support to its continued existence is worth it for them and for all of us in the long run, because it’s contributing to the greater well-being and cohesion of the community that they live in.
Mykl: Pretty much, yeah. And there are other reasons to contribute. For one thing, the Procession itself is an attraction in the city. A couple years ago, I ran into Japanese tourists who came to Tucson specifically for the Procession. They flew here from Tokyo to watch the Procession. They barely spoke any English….only one of them really did. But they conveyed to me that that’s why they came out here, and they thought it was awesome. They thought there was nothing else in the world like this. If word of the Procession has reached Japan, and the cool art kids from Japan are coming to witness this, that’s a pretty remarkable thing that also has a huge economic impact. I know that MMOS recently completed their tax study, and there was something like $17 million in economic activity related to the All Souls Procession that benefits our city. That’s an incredible amount, and I’m not surprised to hear it considering how many people show up for it. Lots of people spend lots of money, making their costumes, making their floats, all sorts of wonderful stuff….making music, whatever.
It’s a huge economic engine and it’s not even really recognized in this community as such. If I’m a business owner, I’d throw some money into the All Souls Procession, just because I know that people are going to come there and spend money on some 2×4s or whatever, they’re going to be contributing to business. A stronger community is also economically stronger. In all this community-building and creating efficiency and getting things done, you have people interacting more, and more interaction is economically stronger than places where there is none. Why do you think they have malls? It brings people together to these places and the economic activity is stronger. People are most attracted to other people. Places where people walk around and interact, they’re just much more vibrant economically than places where it’s all spread out, and people just drive. So anytime you bring community together, you create that civic strength, you’re also helping your economy, you’re improving the economic output for the place.
If you’ve got 45,000 people down there walking around in the parade, and you’ve got another 45,000 watching it….that’s a lot of cohesion, that’s a lot of activity, that’s a lot of people interacting. A lot more beers and food are sold that night, and those businesses should chip in. All of these little businesses should realize that this is a healthy, good thing for Tucson, and do their part to support it.
Jhon: Do you have any thoughts on what the stumbling point on that is?
Mykl: They don’t have to. In the last few years there’s been much more of an effort to make a campaign to get people donating a little bit of money, to raise awareness that it isn’t paid for by the City, it’s just paid for by private donations, and that’s helped. But people just sort of see it as this thing that happens, they don’t see all of the year-long organizing that it takes to put it together, they don’t see all the little fundraisers you have to do, they just see the Procession happening and it’s this fun thing. Oftentimes when I tell people that it’s not funded by the City, they’re surprised to hear that. There’s kind of an assumption that the costs are covered.
Jhon: It just happens every year after all. Whether or not they’re contributing, it’s still there regardless, so it’s just not something that even occurs to lots of people I don’t think.
Mykl: Yeah. And it’s hard to give up your five bucks that you were planning to go out and spend on a beer at the bar with your date that you think is really cute and give it to the Procession instead, but we’ve got to look a little beyond the immediacy of it and realize that it’s a significant cultural event, not just in Tucson but in the world, and it makes our lives richer and better in a lot of different ways.
Jhon: Probably more so than that beer and cute date.
Mykl: I would think so (laughs). You know, for the cost of one coffee drink, you could be supporting the Procession.
Jhon: That’s half a movie ticket.
Mykl: Mm-hmm. So I’m all for spreading that word. I think the Procession is at a point now where it’s really grown so big that the management and the organization and the fundraising and all the non-profit entity aspects need to move to a new level. That in itself is a difficult chore when you’re operating in debt. You have to get out from under the weight of the financial responsibility a little bit in order not to be just reactive, not to just be responding all the time, “we have to take care of this bill and that bill”; to look forward a little bit and say “okay, how can we do this differently.”
It’s an amazing event, and I think it will succeed in all of these endeavors. It will have to. So, I don’t worry too much about it; I make my contribution, I try to help spread the word and create the understanding in our community that it’s not free, that you should contribute.
The only thing I can say is that when I’m at the workshop, and an old Mexican grandma comes in and makes a shrine and she’s never made anything before in her life, and she’s covered with glue and glitter and paint and she’s made some beautiful little flowers and stuff, and it all comes together at the end, there’s a moment there of….”Oh my god, I made this.” And that is really magical. It’s not quantifiable. It’s this powerful, powerful experience. That’s why I do this. Beyond all of the other things, that moment, the sharing of my passion for creativity, and seeing it all come together, that’s why I care. The rest of it almost in some ways is secondary.
Jhon: There are a couple things I want to ask on that note. Talk about who you see coming in to the workshops: what diversity of people do you see there, where are they coming from, what are their backgrounds? And the other thing is, there are many people who don’t consider themselves to be creative, to have any kind of imagination even, but then many people who take a chance on the workshops and come down and make something are surprised to discover that, yes, in fact, they do.
Mykl: Yeah. So, one of the principles of my workshops first of all is that everyone’s invited, everyone’s welcome.
The earliest workshops all those many years ago, they were populated by friends and people within the arts community downtown; it was mostly that group of people. When MMOS asked me to take over the workshops, I realized that I wanted to do more outreach to different communities and bring more people in. So, one of the things I did was take out an ad in the Spanish-language newspaper on the southside of town. I did that, and it worked really well, I got a lot of people. They love the Procession and they come to it, and a lot of them participate by setting up small shrines along the Procession route. A lot of these abuelas have a grandson or a nephew who was killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, so a lot of them have reason to be there to acknowledge the passing of somebody. And a lot of them set up shrines and do things like that, so that became an aspect of the workshop that I wasn’t actually expecting to do but ended up creating just to work with those people who had that need. And a lot of them had been participating in the Procession before but just didn’t know about the workshops, and so that was a great and successful outreach. Last year I wasn’t able to put that ad into the budget, but they still showed up, because now, that word had gotten out into the Hispanic community, and they’re coming. So that’s awesome.
Tucson has got this large Hispanic community, it’s got the Foothills community, it’s got the college crew, it’s got the Downtown thing, it’s got all of these little communities, and so I would like to see of course the diversity increase. And right now we’re getting lots of college students, we get lots of people from the Hispanic community, we get lots of arts community people, downtown people, and that’s about it. I’d like to see people from the eastside down there, and I’d like to see people from the northwest side of town coming down. Part of it is class, part of it is economic. And part of it is just location.
I think if the workshops can get onto a little more firm ground financially, having storage, having a more permanent home, then you could do outreach programs where instead of them being in just one location you could also send a crew out to high schools, you send one out to Park Mall to do a workshop, and then you’re making it easy for people, to help them to come in and build things. So that would be part of it. I think there’s still a lot of potential to grow that way, having weekend workshops where you take it to a location, and you have a very specific thing to make, like mask-making, which is very popular.
In the ongoing workshop that I do, we do big projects in there too. We do things like floats. Last year we had a woman who had no creative expertise at all, never built anything before in her life, and she had started a foundation to teach nurses how to treat traumatic motorcycle injuries when they come in…the triage part of when somebody’s been in such an accident. And she herself had been riding on a motorcycle with her fiance when he was killed in a terrible accident. She ended up building an 8 foot tall green motorcycle as a memorial to her fiance. And that was an incredible project. She came in every weekend, and some weeknights, and worked on that piece for a month. That’s what we do there. We make it possible for people if they have an idea and they want to try to execute it, we are there to help them see it through to the end. And we did, and it was an amazing piece. They’ve since used it in some other parades. They took it to the Veteran’s Day parade, and it’s great for them because it’s helping them raise awareness too for their foundation.
She was motivated not by the desire to make something creative but to honor somebody, and that’s a good reason to come and just try. And once you get in there and you try, you’ll find that you can do these things. Between me and some of the other people who come and help facilitate these workshops, there is so much expertise there that there really isn’t anything you can’t make. Just as long as you have some time set aside to do it, and you’re willing to make an effort. And I think that’s a really good reason: it has to be meaningful to you, it has to be a significant thing. If you just want to have a mask because it’s cool and stuff, that’s a great reason to come in, too, there’s nothing wrong with that. But we’re there to help you express yourself, and if your expression wants to take the form of a giant green motorcycle, we’ll help you do that. It’s pretty cool, really.
We’ve made a lot of floats, and we’ll probably make a lot more. And I hope that people will come in and do that, that would be really exciting. For me, you get to work more intimately with people over a longer period of time, and so the bonds that you make with those people are just stronger.
Jhon: I was going to lead back into that, because I wanted to emphasize what you were saying before, that the workshops are a safe space for people to explore their imaginations and their emotions. There may be a certain amount of reticence or intimidation just on that basis, if they’re a bit afraid of doing this among other people for whatever reason. So if you can talk again about the benefits of doing this with other people maybe. Because there’s nobody there that’s going to judge, or…
Mykl: There’s no judgment. In fact, going back to creating that culture, one of the important keys there is that there’s a certain kind of almost irreverence you could say or casualness to the workshops. Not to how you feel or what you’re making, but more that, “Hey, you messed that up? Just do another one, it’s not a problem, let’s just knock it out.” There’s not this sense of preciousness, it’s not fine art, there’s no distance between you and what you’re working on. It’s fun, it’s light-hearted. I think a lot of times you have people coming in thinking “oh, well, we’re honoring the dead,” and there’s a certain kind of feeling that it needs to be reverential and solemn. The workshops are focused on making things. If you’re drawing on that solemnity or sense of loss or connection, that’s fine, but the workshops themselves don’t focus on that, they focus on the creation of things. And it’s fun, it’s light-hearted, and what better way to get things done and work within your community. It’s a very honest way to approach it. I find with people generally that their own worst enemy when it comes to making stuff like this is themselves and their own fears. And we’re really good at knocking the wind out of that, and just getting stuff done.
Jhon: And a lot of the benefit that comes out of this has more to do with the process than the finished product.
Mykl: It does. You know, years ago I lost a really dear friend of mine, she committed suicide. And one of the pieces of advice that somebody gave me was to take breaks from grieving and do something else. He said there’s time to get back to the grief, and it will work its course naturally. There’s also nothing wrong with living your life a little bit and being part of that.
In a strange way I see the workshops kind of being that breath of fresh air that gives you the space to be yourself and to do what you want. Everybody’s welcome, you can do whatever you want in the workshops, as long as it’s constructive and towards the final goal of having something for the Procession. We’re not there to tell you what to do, we’re there to help you do what you want to do. It’s a pretty cool place.