By Tina Chadwick
Photos by Beate Sass

You couldn’t help but stop and watch as hundreds of lanterns bobbed and swayed during Decatur’s Lantern Parade on May 16. Neighbors of all ages and sizes carried a smorgasbord of paper, bamboo, tape and lights crafted into every shape you can think of — fish, puppets, over-sized faces, centipedes, dragons and whole illuminated solar systems. 

When Chantelle Rytter came to Atlanta from the rich parade culture in New Orleans, she saw opportunity — not in creating a parade, but in offering a way to improve the city’s health. In New Orleans, she worked at the Blaine Kern studios which builds a majority of the Mardi Gras parade art. What she learned, along with how to manipulate the materials, is that parades actually help define and improve the health of a city’s culture.

“Everyone is invited to participate. Not just in walking but in creating the art itself. It’s ultimately inclusive, giving everyone a common context to relate to one another,” says Rytter.

Lantern Parades are of particular interest because, as she points out, “It’s easier to up the enchantment when it’s nighttime.” To build a Lantern Parade culture, Rytter, together with Color Wheel Studio and Decatur Education Foundation, decide on a parade date and then held lantern building workshops to bring out the artist in the children who attend Color Wheel and also in the families and surrounding neighborhoods.

“At the workshops, you see everyone begin very reserved and quiet. Through the artistic process, you see everyone open up—by the end, you have a room full of artists all finding places inside themselves dormant for too long. As most tell me, they needed it.”

Rytter lights up herself when she explains, “It helps strangers speak to one another. Gives a reason for interaction that is completely inclusionary. If you look at the history of lantern parades, dating back 300 years ago in Asia then migrating to the UK and Australia you will see the social culture of those places growing and getting stronger—more entrenched.” Her views are supported by actual academic studies showing the linkage between participatory art projects and social health.

The Decatur Education Foundation notes the very real value of neighborhood art projects so they provided major funding and even brought in the Decatur Arts Alliance to support the effort.

When asked why he dons the 14- foot-tall gala of a Star Sister for the Decatur parade, Nick Madden, local artist and art teacher says, “There’s nothing like it in the word. It gets people out of their houses, cars and comfort zones.”

So, when you see the lanterns, it’s true, you can’t help but to watch, but there’s another force at work that makes you want to put your own light in the mix, too. And you are invited and encouraged to do just that.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.