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Community Conversations: Puppets in Paradise,
a very Solstice Interview with Robby Robbins

Robby Robbins with a Community Arts Workshop
Solstice CAW Mask created by artist, Violet Bast.

Bursting with morphic Styrofoam creations, bright colors, and the sounds of construction, you cannot help but notice the flurry of activity inside The Community Arts Workshop (CAW) located on the 600 block of Garden Street in Santa Barbara, California. The Solstice Workshop lives here and inside these walls community members from all walks of life become artists, architects, and engineers. Together they toil to create puppets, floats, and other works of art for the Summer Solstice parade. One notable and familiar face in the workshop is 11 year veteran Robby Robbins, Operations Director for the Solstice Workshop. Santa Barbara Foundation Communications Officer, Jordan Killebrew, sat down with Robby to talk about his journey with Santa Barbara Solstice.

Jordan: Where are you from?

Robby: Kentucky.

Jordan: Wow! Kentucky? Tell us about your journey.

Robby: Yes, I know I am a long ways from Kentucky. All of my family lives in rural Kentucky. I am sure I would of had a very different life if I were to have stayed there. I was also an army kid and my family moved a lot.This house that I live in currently here in Santa Barbara is my 40th house and I moved here when I was 40 so essentially I have averaged a house a year. Its funny, I am always a rolling stone, but it has made me adaptable. I feel like I can really talk to anyone.

Jordan: How long have you lived in Santa Barbara?

Robby: 11 years. Quite possibly the longest I have lived in one place which is very different from my upbringing.

Jordan: Do you feel like you have found comfort in Santa Barbara?

Robby: I love this community. I feel more at home here than I have any place than I have been in my life. A wonderful, small community with big city offerings. You get all the cool stuff that you get of Los Angeles without having to deal with Los Angeles.

Jordan: What originally brought you to Santa Barbara?

Robby: I have a BS in biochemistry and had dreams of being a veterinarian and come to find out that the veterinarian school only took 8 people and let's just say I was not number 8 or less. So I got a job in advertising with the newspaper industry with a weekly publication called the Independent in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina to which I was then recruited to the Santa Barbara Independent. There is no correlation except they are both weekly publications.

Jordan: What was the first connection that you made outside of the Santa Barbara Independent?

Robby: Solstice. Solstice was my first plug in to the community. I moved here in the fall of 2006, and I started hearing about the parade because the Independent had been an avid supporter. But I discovered that the Independent had never participated in Solstice. So I got a wild idea that I wanted our organization to be in the parade. So with the theme of Solstice being stars in 2007 I was thrown into the creation of Trixie the angry poodle, known for our weekly column and kinda the mascot of the Independent. This was my first large scale puppet I created along with Ann Chevrefils who was the assigned artist for the Independent. The idea was that Trixie was taking over the Santa Barbara Mission. So we made a replica of the SB mission with bones and fire hydrants decorating the edifice. A rule of Solstice for environmental reasons is to refrain from cutting any wood, it can be used again, so our float ended up being 16’ wide by 16’ long. This was one of the largest floats ever built in the workshop. And for the parade we had little kids dressed as poodles having them run in and out of the mission to a smoothie bar inside, all the while playing ‘who let the dogs out’. It was a great time! I have fallen in love with the Solstice Workshop and Parade and nearly every year since 2007 I have created a puppet.

Jordan: In this process did you realize your artistry?

Robby: No, I would say not at the time. Riccardo Morrison, our Artistic Director, made me realize four or five years into the parade (it’s been 11 years now), as he would over hear people asking about my role in the parade and I would mention my work on the Board of Directors, building floats, etc. And Ricardo finally said, why don’t you tell them you are an artist. And at first I was like, really Ann created the puppet. But Ricardo rebutted, you took the puppet that Ann created, brought it to life and performed for 100,000 people on State Street. You are an artist. And well since then when people ask me what I do, I tell them I am a large scale puppet artist and my artistry has expanded beyond Solstice. I have taken my puppets everywhere. They have been to the Lucidity Festival and the kids parade they have on sunday of the festival, I have taken them to Los Angeles for gaming conferences and various events. I do my best to get them out of storage as much as possible.

Jordan: What are the origins of Solstice?

Robby: This workshops cuts right through our community, from folks that support us financially to people that live in their van, we all come to CAW for the workshop portion of Solstice to create art and then perform the day of the parade. All in honor of Michael Gonzalez.

Michael Gonzalez, local gay painter and mime, had extravagant birthday parties on May 1st where folks would get dressed up, drink adult beverages, and overflow onto State Street. This is where the party would become obnoxious and really would be a surprise for some to see in public, especially State Street. Obviously authorities would let Michael know he really couldn’t do this. So Michael got the idea to get a permit from the city to create a parade.

Well, this was 43 years ago in the era of Caesar Chavez and gay rights, so here comes this gay latino artist mime guy that wants to have a party in the street, authorities essentially told him yes you can do this but you can’t have any signs. They were of the impression that he was going to protest. And Michael, being a mime without the need of signs, agreed. And since then we have honored Michael with the no sign rule. Which kinda makes monetizing off of the parade rather difficult. However, the rule truly makes it about the art.

I think it’s important for the public to know that you can come to CAW pay $45 and join a team to create. You do not have to be an artist, you don’t have to have an idea. There are people thinking what to create and people can come and learn skills, learn how to build, learn how to sew, maybe even create giant puppets.

Jordan: I am curious to the organizational structure, how is Solstice set up?

Robby: When I started we had an Executive Director, Claudia Bratton, she was on board for 15 years. She inherited a parade that was kind of ad hoc, where volunteers would get together and decide every year who would run the parade, and that person would be in charge of administrative items, the parade, etc. that year. The workshop was even at different locations throughout the community, one year it was at Bebop Burger where it was so wet we were concerned that the floats would not dry in time for the parade. So basically, the workshop roamed around town to find whatever works. However Claudia, brought some stability to the workshop and parade. Bringing the workshop to CAW, we have been here for a few years now and it has been a huge help. She also grew and expanded the festival part in Alameda Park because we needed to make a little more money, so we added a beer garden and tabling opportunities.

Two years ago Claudia stepped down as Executive Director, finances were tough with a $350,000 a year budget. We are a 501c3 and employ quite a few bit of people seasonally. It’s quite a bit for one person to take on. Robbin Elander had applied for the Executive Director position however, she had never been in the parade. I had been very involved within the workshop, the parade, had been on and off the board for a few years. Thus they added me to the mix as the Development & Communications Director for my first official title for Solstice.

Which in this role, I learned very quickly about the challenge for the parade. How do we make more money to sustain our costs. Most pressing was that we do not have any signs to promote a business for the parade and the for festival in Alameda Park, well companies do not see us as new so we have to work harder to get these endorsements - most people already see Solstice as a staple in the community and we are working to have folks realize that we still need endorsements to make this happen. Essentially, our ad hoc beginnings are kinda working against us because we didn’t set up any consistent funding.

I have enjoyed being a part of Solstice it really has become my hobby, obsession, and passion. I am very sad to say that I will be leaving this beloved community of Santa Barbara in August. So this will be my last Solstice living here. I am truly going to miss this parade and hope that maybe I can come back with my puppets.

 


 

With a theme of Celebrate Unity the 2017 Solstice Festival kicks off Friday, June 23 through Sunday, June 25th in Alameda Park in Santa Barbara. The Solstice Parade, where you will find Robby Robbins performing with his large scale puppets, is Saturday, June 24th at noon on State Street. To learn more about Robby and Solstice please see solsticeparade.com.

The Community Arts Workshop has been supported by the Santa Barbara Foundation through their Community Grants Opportunities. A vision of city leaders since the 1980s, the CAW provides a permanent home for the Solstice Workshop three months out of the year, and then the rest of the year provides affordable workspace for theatre rehearsals and performances, art classes, gallery shows, artist residencies, and much more. Due to the generous support of the City of Santa Barbara, the City’s old recycling center at 631 Garden St. is in the process of being transformed into this hub for the arts by the Santa Barbara Arts Collaborative. Fundraising is underway and much work remains to be done to finish out the space, including permanent restrooms, doors, and lighting. You can find out more about the CAW and the exciting work happening there at sbcaw.org.

Santa Barbara Foundation | 1111 Chapala Street, Suite 200, Santa Barbara, CA 93101
(805) 963-1873 | info@sbfoundation.org |