By Wickham Boyle | The Villager
Urban Shaman is not an easy job title, or even a moniker that can be absorbed facilely at cocktail parties or class reunions. But after three decades of producing public artwork, this is how Donna Henes describes herself. “It’s been 33 years now and I see myself as a shaman… a person who intercedes between the community and the spirit world. The shaman goes back and forth to make sure that the community — in this case, NYC — is connected.”
Henes was trained as an artist and educator, but was always drawn by multi-cultural ceremonies, rituals and rites. So it is only natural that she would lead and bless the Annual Greenwich Village Halloween Parade.
In an email invitation to join her in her latest endeavor, Henes wrote: “I have been asked to lead the Village Halloween Parade with blessings. I will have a troupe of blessers, all wearing white. We will lead the parade the entire route and bless the streets of NYC and all of the participants and audience with blessings of connectivity, community and peace. Our ceremony will transform the secular city into sacred space. We will do the blessings with smudge (fire, earth, air) and bubbles (water) as well as glitter and bells. Sweepers who will literally sweep the streets clean of negativity will follow our blessing troupe. It should be wonderful.”
According to Ralph Lee, the founder of the Halloween Parade, sweepers were a mainstay of the event when it began in 1973. “I’m glad to see that the sweepers are participating in the Halloween parade. For many years we had a group of nine sweepers who were performers dressed as ancient crones on stilts at the head of the parade, sweeping the bad vibes out of the street and making room for good ones. Thanks to my old friend Donna Henes this tradition is being continued.”
Being an Urban Shaman means that Henes is constantly attempting to gather people in a positive way, a theme that is echoed in her original artwork. “When I began as a performance artist, and sculptor, I was creating webs — creating installations that were actual physical webs that the audience could be in. Then I segued to making conceptual webs as a performance artist — these were like communication networks. My work now is about connecting the community with positive energy that has the same symbolism.”
Donna Henes is perhaps most well known for her “Eggs on End” event, which was held on the plaza of the World Trade Center for 18 years and hosted as many as 10,000 people annually. According to lore (and I have witnessed this enumerable times) at the precise moment of planetary alignment on the Spring Equinox, raw eggs can be made to stand on end, due to the unique gravitational force exerted. Henes used this physical event to welcome the change of season and push hapless audiences to perhaps be a witness to their own inner balance and seasonal change. Henes felt a special loss after September 11 as her “spring altar was also consumed.”
Henes has written numerous books on creating rituals in everyday life, and she operates a business in, as she says, “exotic Brooklyn” where she offers classes, drumming circles and sells charms, herbs and the power of hope (www.Donnahenes.net). Says Henes, “We have a real dearth of spiritual terminology in our modern lives. And I feel it was my assignment, if you will, to create connections among people. That was my assignment almost 35 years ago and it put me on the path to create connections among people… to access their own best selves and perhaps for them to connect with the cosmos.” According to that mission, all of Henes’s events attempt to operate simultaneously on all three levels.
Jeanne Fleming has been the artistic and producing director of the Village Halloween Parade for 27 years, and calls herself a celebration artist. “I feel the sweepers were important for the safety in an incredible night of release in the streets before winter sets in. It is an amazing night of creativity where all revelers look into their imaginations and come out. And we continue in an iconic way to bring this creativity into the avenues. The sweepers open the path, they clear the route of the work energies and open the path for the people of the city of New York to play in their city.”
According to Fleming, “There have been many incarnations of the sweepers. Rich Thompson made 13 for the 13 moons of the Native American moons [that] also honored the Celtic tradition that he works out of as a Celtic priest. Now the sweepers are no longer on stilts — they are now walking with brooms. These groups have all understood their ritual purpose.”
This year the parade’s theme is Wings of Desire, and Fleming decided that Donna Henes would be involved in an obviously ritualistic way, so it is clear that there is a blessing of the route and the community.
Henes see being a shaman of the streets as “a big important ritual and that the city is really the future of the world. We New Yorkers see that vividly. Here there are hundreds of nationalities living together in total peace and I see that as the future. I think the true transformation in urban ritual occurs person by person as they open to that experience.”