Procession of the Species: 20 years and going strong

Thousands will gather to watch, take part in celebration of natural world, human creativity

Contributing writerApril 25, 2014 

Procession of the Species founder Eli Sterling has long said that it was his aim to produce 20 of the annual events, which celebrate both the natural world and human creativity.

The procession, which draws about 3,000 participants and 30,000 spectators each year, is a traveling spectacle of dancers and marchers in mostly handmade costumes as well as festive bands and human-powered floats.

Saturday is the 20th procession. Sterling has met his goal. What’s next?

There’s no big celebration planned, but there will be a procession next year, and it’s not too surprising that Sterling will lead it one more time. But Sterling does say he’ll move into a consulting role in 2015.

What is changing: The Procession Studio — the year-round art space at 311 Capitol Way N. in downtown Olympia — will shrink after the procession, with enough room remaining for office space and some storage. After four years of holding the space full time, the time is right to let it go, Sterling said.

He said he and the board of Earthbound Productions are asking themselves, “Is a central art studio really necessary for the production of the procession? Or after 20 years, is there enough energy out in the community itself?”

Next year, there will most likely be a temporary studio, open for seven weeks before procession day. “The original vision was that we would find a vacant warehouse every year,” he said. “We’re looking at going back to the original model.”

This year, procession organizers have offered few art workshops, studio hours have been shorter, and there have been fewer art supplies in stock. Perhaps as a result, fewer people have been using the studio, Sterling said.

Yet the studio is still staffed by volunteers with plenty of art-making expertise, Sterling included.

On a Wednesday morning more than a week before the procession, the studio was abuzz with activity as a class of students from The Evergreen State College and another from McKenny Elementary School prepared for the big day.

It’s clear that the studio has continued to create a culture of creativity and cooperation.

“I wanted to be part of the procession after being at the studio and being around the people who make it happen,” said Simon Calcavecchia of Olympia, who’s participating for the first time this year.

Calcavecchia came to the studio with two visions: one of a huge three-headed dragon that he could drive from his motorized wheelchair and another of expressing himself through art and helping others with physical disabilities do the same.

Calcavecchia has neither feeling nor mobility below the chest since he broke his neck playing rugby in 2002. He has larger-than-life ideas and a large group of friends who are willing to work hard to bring his visions into being.

What he found at the Procession Studio was more than additional help and technical know-how: It was a new community, and a new vision for his dragon.

While mythical animals are welcome in the procession, the heart of the event is a celebration of real elements: flora and fauna, particularly endangered species.

“I wasn’t really in tune with what the procession was all about,” he said. “Eli was enthusiastic about my idea, and at the same time, he wanted to try to get me to be more in the spirit of the Procession of the Species.”

Impressed by the help and advice he received from Sterling and others at the studio, Calcavecchia decided to celebrate the Komodo dragon, an endangered species.

“I’ve seen the procession once or twice,” he said, “but I didn’t have the connection with it that I have now. It really changes things once you’re down in the studio and surrounded by the community that’s there.

“It’s a really special place, and we are very fortunate to have it in Olympia.”

Moving the school bus-sized Komodo dragon will be a group effort: Calcavecchia will pilot the body, and others will move the head and rolling feet. Other creatures from Indonesia’s Komodo Island will accompany the giant lizard.

And after Saturday, Calcavecchia has another big project to work on: He plans to found a nonprofit to help people with physical disabilities express themselves through art. And his experience at the Procession Studio has shaped that vision, too.

“It’s given me a lot of purpose and passion and excitement,” he said. “I want to bring that to our community and to people who are unable to do that for themselves.”

Procession of the Species

What: The 20th annual procession celebrates the natural world through music, art and dance. Spectators are invited to create chalk art in the streets before the procession.

When: Starting at 4:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Downtown Olympia. Registration begins at 3:30 p.m. Participants assemble on Legion Way and Cherry Street between Jefferson and Chestnut, and the parade route, which ends at Heritage Park, is on the Arts Walk maps available free at local businesses and The Olympia Center.

Admission: Free. Donations to the Thurston County Food Bank are encouraged.

More information: 360-705-1087 or procession.org

Also: No motorized vehicles, except wheelchairs; no live animals, except service animals; and no words are permitted in the procession. Procession organizers also ask that no candy be thrown.

Luminary Procession

What: The procession before the procession celebrates the element of spirit.

When: 9:30 p.m. today.

Where: Begins at Fifth Avenue and Washington Street in downtown Olympia, and proceeds to Capitol Lake

More information: 360-705-1087 or procession.org

Also: The event is weather-dependent, because the illuminated art can’t withstand heavy rain.

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