Jennie Miller studied fashion design in college but wasn't finding much use for her skills teaching English in Taiwan.
Then a friend told her about the Dream Community (夢想社區), an artists' village in Syijhih (汐止) that hires artists from around the world to teach workshops and develop community art projects.
“It's one of those things you always hoped would be in the world,” said Miller, who on a recent Sunday was cutting fabric for a samba dancer's costume in a workshop at the Dream Community.
Her costume will be used in the fifth annual Dream Parade, a procession of puppets, floats, dancers and stilt-walkers. Last year's procession through the streets of Syijhih attracted several thousand viewers. This year's parade gets underway next Saturday, Oct. 21, and will follow a new route along Ruiguang Road in Neihu.
Dream Community founder Gordon Tsai (蔡聰明) said the purpose of the parade — which draws teams of ordinary volunteers from the local community and the rest of Taiwan — is to foster a sense of community in the surrounding neighborhood and inspire creativity and imagination throughout Taiwan.
“My job is [to be] like a bridge,” said Tsai, who urged his family to leave space for a cultural project when they developed their farmland a decade ago. “We learn the skills [from abroad] and keep them in Taiwan,” he said. “Foreigners learn traditional [Taiwanese] skills. This is a very good cultural exchange.”
Half a dozen apartment towers now rise above what used to be the Tsai family's rice paddies. The artists' village occupies an office and three workstations in the courtyards below. There are two restaurants open to the public — one serves international dishes and gets its cheese from three goats housed in a nearby shed — and an old-fashioned bakery run by Tsai's sister, who studied French techniques in Provence.
Families who buy apartments here sign contracts in which they agree to abide by the Dream Community's values. One requirement is that they travel overseas and take part in a parade or art spectacle like the Burning Man festival before they move in.
“I was attracted by the idealism of the project,” said Patti Smithsonian, a puppeteer from Colorado who was helping a family construct chicken costumes for the parade. “It's kind of like being on a college campus.”
Smithsonian is one of 26 foreign artists currently in residence at the Dream Community. They get free food, lodging and a US$100 weekly stipend and in return teach art classes and help create floats and costumes for the parade. The next group of artists will offer music workshops and stage Blues Bash, a blues concert scheduled for Nov. 4 and Nov. 5.
Miller, who quit her English-teaching job to become an artist-in-residence, said she plans to continue volunteering for the Dream Community after her full-time work there ends next month.
“I love the world of art and chaos and teamwork and coming up with things on the fly and making them on the fly,” she said.
Plans for next Saturday's parade — the theme is “Dream of Formosa” — have been finalized, but anyone can show up at any time to help build floats and make costumes. Those who are interested can apply the skills learned by joining in next year's parade.
Organizers say 4,000 people, including students from 22 schools and 500 samba drummers and dancers dressed in Aboriginal costumes, will participate in the parade. Last year's parade had 3,000 participants and roughly the same number of spectators.