Brendan Whitt


My First Parade the Circle

I have been a resident of the historic Newton Avenue for 21 years. Newton Avenue is just a stones throw from University Circle (UC), the rapidly growing cultural center in Uptown Cleveland. Since my childhood UC has grown exponentially. UC is the home of The Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals , Case Western Reserve University, The Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) as well as the world renowned Severance Hall which houses the Cleveland Orchestra.

One sunny afternoon during the summer of 2014 I went on a museum trip with my girlfriend Laina. On our way through the CMA’s Arts Garden. The arts garden is a beautiful space that overlooks Wade Lagoon, a duck pond that is situated outside of the CMA’s former entrance.

The entrance to the 2014 tent

“What’s that over there?” Laina said. I assumed the tent was for a social event seeing as how UC’s summer is packed full of events like Wade Oval Wednesdays and the Summer Solstice.

After walking around the museum Laina and I decided check out the tent. Despite my previous assumption, I thought the tent was housing some sort of junk sale. The floor was littered with wood and cardboard and even a pair of old canoes. “What a bunch of cool looking junk,” I though to myself.

As I looked around the tent trying to make sense of it all an older woman greeted me with a wave and a smile. When I walked over to her I noticed a group of cabinets that wrapped around a section of the tent. Above them was a sign that read “Workshop”.

A shot from inside the 2014 tent

Suddenly the little light bulb in my head went off, “Is this for Parade the Circle?” I thought to myself. I had learned of Parade the Circle when my neighbor and friend, and then Children’s Librarian Kevin Ray invited me to volunteer with the Cleveland Public Library when they were chosen to contribute to the 2013 edition of the parade. I helped the staff make costumes and decorations for a float for several weeks. Unfortunately on the day of the parade I overslept and missed the entire festival.

When I asked the woman what the tent was used for she confirmed my final guess that it was indeed for Parade the Circle. This wasn’t just a tent. This was a pop up art studio\warehouse. Carpenters, painters and sculptors were all nestled into this makeshift work space that sat behind the CMA.

Raff's 2016 float

At the time I was barely a week out from college graduation. My professor Anup Kumar had restored my love for journalism. I observed and noted everything I saw. I got to know Ann who was a professional artist from New England. She was working on a giant monkey. Raff, short for Rafael, was a Cleveland transplant from South America. He was working on a “moving opera piece” as he described it titled ‘Love, Life, and Lust’.

Sadly due to my fragile state of mind at the time I was discouraged from continuing my story and observations due to the unfriendliness of an artist hard at work. Maybe I was fighting my own doubts as a writer. I often found myself wandering around the tent feeling like a hack of a journalist. Was I even good enough to write a narrative piece like John Updike when he reported on watching Ted William’s final game with the Boston Red Sox? Sadly my Parade the Circle Experience was cut short.

In 2015 Parade the Circle wasn’t even on my radar. I was still searching for work, growing as a writer and as a person overall. I hadn’t even heard any news about it at the time. It’s funny how life unravels itself to us. Sometimes your future spouse was the girl or guy you never even acknowledged despite you guys knowing of each other for years.

The PTC wood shop

For me this moment was a calm walk around UC. I was taking pictures to hone my photography skills when once again I stumbled upon that white tent. This time I knew exactly what it was. This year the tent was in the old Cleveland Institute of Art building parking lot situated in Wade Oval situated across the street from The CMA. I walked into the tent and saw that the construction for the parade’s floats had already begun.

The wood shop was stocked and ready as a hat made of moss sat wrapped in plastic. The first person I saw was Ian. A local carpenter and Parade the Circle veteran. He remembered me from 2014 when I introduced myself. We spoke for a while as he filled me in on this year’s parade that would celebrate the CMA’s 100 year anniversary.

After we caught up I bid my farewell to Ian for the day. As I walked home I decided right then and there that this would be the year I finally captured my white whale. I wanted to attend Parade The Circle

When I returned to the white tent a week later all of the artists were hard at work. The tent had once again blossomed into beautiful and creative space. Artists from all over the world had convened upon this rented tent as they painted, paper mached and woodworked their creations to life. The tent was calm and peaceful but equally frantic and unnerving. As some artist’s children ran around the tent and played, another artist’s dog made herself at home under one of the work stations.

Robin Van Lear, PTC Founding Creative Director


During my time covering the parade I never got to learn how this annual tradition began. I was then directed in the direction of Parade The Circle’s Founding Creative Director, Robin Vanlear. The dog was hers and the children running around were her grand daughters. Robin said the parade began when word got out about her work with Santa Barbara’s Summer Solstice festival.

Robin was looking to relocate but couldn’t figure out where. One would have to admit it must be pretty hard to want to relocate away from America’s Gold Coast. “I was a bit resistant to Cleveland but a friend had an opportunity” she said. The CMA was getting ready to celebrate it’s 75th anniversary.

During the summer of 1989 Robin and her family, including her daughter Story who was also working in the tent at the time of our interview, packed up and moved to Cleveland. It would be a bittersweet occasion due to the fact that Robin’s father, who lived in Cleveland at the time was battling cancer.

Finally in 1990 the first test run of Parade the Circle commenced with approximately 125 participants. The next year that number shot up to around 700 participants with one year capping at over 2000. “And here we are,” she said, “26 years later .” What is it that has made Parade the Circle so special? The “low technology and light materials”. No float is allowed to have any mechanical parts.

Robin also said she prefers to have the parades with fewer participants. They tend to make for “more elaboarte” floats and creations versus where “too many people complicate things.” Most of the Cleveland artists aren’t even form Cleveland like Rafael. I enjoyed my time with Robin and Story. I got to learn about how this thing came to be.

When I asked her about her favorite part of Parade the Circle she said, “the community of artists.” The professionals like Ian can help the amateurs like Mitch, the art student I met from Bay Village who goes to art school in Baltimore. Robin called it a “very rewarding” and “inspiring” experience.

“It (inspiration) comes from places you don’t expect. It isn’t the always the artists necessarily. The things a community group or school can do. Sometimes you can be humbled as an artist.”

I had already invested more time and energy into it than I did in 2013 as a volunteer or in 2014 as a hopeful writer forcing a story that wasn’t there. Now I was more determined than ever to cover this parade.

I’m not sure if it was my first time at the CMA, but my earliest memory of visiting was when my dad and uncle took my cousin and I when I was eight. Dad always loved and still does love to quote antiquity philosophers like Plato or Aristotle. I remember when he pointed out a replica Van Goh in the Cleveland Clinic hospital room my grandmother was staying in in 2006.

Of course the CMA was a popular field trip destination growing up. My final field trip there was in the 11th grade. The more I grew as a writer in college, the more I began to frequently visit the CMA in my spare time. Even if was just to read in Wade Oval or Wade Lagoon.

My favorite gallery quickly grew to be the S. Mueller Family Gallery of Contemporary Art. I like to look at the paintings and photographs and create my own stories in my head. Many of my creative writing pieces in my compilation If I Wrote A Hip-Hop Album were inspired by pieces in The CMA’s collection like Pablo Picasso’s ‘Harlequin With Violin’.

The CMA's birthday cake float progression

Sadly, the Monday before Parade the Circle I missed my dear old friend’s official 100th birthday on June 6th. Luckily I live only that stones throw away. That way I can visit whenever I please, if operating hours permit of course.

So the day had finally arrived. June 11th, 2016. I finally made it to Parade the Circle. On my way over I ran into one of my elderly neighbors Ms. Jean, on her way to the parade. She told me about her experience participating in the parade one year when she was working at the Phyillis Wheatley Association here in Cleveland.

It was very warm and humid out. Everyone in attendance was trying to find a place to sit that gave them plenty of shade. Luckily there was an occasional breeze that provided us with brief moment of relief.

Wade Oval was full of energy. It felt like a Wade Oval Wednesday but had the excitement of a multicultural festival. There were floats representing India, Brazil and even Burkina Faso. Drummers and trumpeters from several organizations and community groups kept the crowds clapping as children looked on in amazement at the all of the floats and performers on stilts and unicycles.

The vibrant and lively procession circled the entire Oval starting off in front of the CMA and making its way past the workshop tent, stopping in front of a crowd lined up along the Cleveland Music Institute and CWRU Law School and continuing around the Oval past the Western Reserve Historical Society and ending up back in front of the CMA.

Once the Parade ended the lines for the food vendors quickly filled up. Country rock band Gringo Stew kept the crowd entertained as they opened the stages for multiple acts including traditional Indian and African dancers. By the end of the day I was exhausted, mostly because of the heat.

Chris Ronayne addressing the crowd

As I walked around taking pictures for the story I ran into Robin’s son in law, a Trinidadian immigrant by the name of Callalou. After I introduced myself he remembered that my girlfriend and I accompanied  by her coworker once visited his bar in the Waterloo Arts District. He offered me a beer as we caught up. Callalou was also involved in the parade as a drummer. It was his 14th year as a participant and said that he enjoyed it. “I wish it was longer” he told me. “All of that for one day isn’t enough.”

Parade participants from all over the world including

India, Brazil and Africa.

Before I headed home I bumped into my dear friend and President of University Circle Inc. Chris Ronayne. We caught up over a beer and hotdog as I asked him what he thought about the parade’s outcome. Not only was the parade kicking off the 100th anniversary of the CMA it was also celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Cultural Gardens. “We build and sustain,” Chris said.

Chris believes that we as a city have to expand the culture out into all of Cleveland. “Events like Wade Oval Wednesday and Parade the Circle reflects the multi-culturality of Cleveland…These events build and develop our city.” He quoted Dr. King in saying that “If we do not work as brothers, we’ll perish as fools.”

Parade the Circle displayed those words perfectly. All of these different people and cultures had worked together to pull off a perfect parade. My long road to Parade the Circle was a fun one. I got to witness first hand the amount of effort and cohesiveness that goes into such a unique experience.