The National Cherry Blossom Festival is back in person and prioritizing accessible events following pandemic delays that pushed the quintessential festival to an online format the past two years.
Meg Cohen, the festival’s director of marketing and communications, said festival organizers drew on remote and hybrid events from the past two years to make this year’s celebration increasingly accessible and immersive. We spoke to a collaborating musician and visual artist who said they are eager and “honored” to participate in the festival through hybrid events and experiential artwork.
“People feel really hopeful, and I think right now, everybody wants that,” Cohen said. “It’s something fun and light and something that brings us together. Now more than ever, we really want that sense of unity.”
The four-week long festival kicked off earlier this month, with events ranging from kite-making workshops to art exhibitions. Now that the cherry blossoms are in bloom, you can still look forward to the dozens of events to come, like the Japanese Street Festival and the classic National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade.
Cohen said one of the events to stick around from last year’s hybrid format, which accommodate COVID-19 guidelines, is Art In Bloom, a giant cherry blossom-themed scavenger hunt with statues placed all around the District.
She said in addition to continuing the outdoor scavenger hunt, the festival will put on a two-week-long Petalpalooza Art Walk of 10 “immersive” installations. The walk will display new interpretations of the blossoms across the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood, like Blossom Gazebo, a large, immersive sculpture that visitors will be able to step inside.
“We know that especially with COVID, everybody’s at a different place,” Cohen said. “Everybody has varying levels of comfort, but what we hope is unanimous is that everybody wants to celebrate spring and these beautiful blossoms.”
Cohen said one of the festival events, The Japanese Street Festival, is the largest celebration of Japanese culture in the country and will return for two days this year for its 60th anniversary. This street festival will offer activities like a culinary arts stage and sake tasting for visitors to experience Japanese culture.
Cohen said the festival will introduce “A Pop of Spring,” a new event in partnership with the DowntownDC Business Improvement District where guests can enjoy live entertainment, support local vendors or relax in swinging table benches, offering a similar atmosphere as D.C.’s reoccurring Downtown Holiday Market.
Yumi Kurosawa, a Brooklyn-based Japanese koto performer and composer who is performing at the festival, said she was originally slated to perform in a concert celebrating Japanese painter and calligrapher Tomioka Tessai before the onset of the pandemic.
She said she created a special ensemble blending Japanese and Chinese instruments to honor Tessai, whose work was influenced by Chinese art, and perform at a festival event in collaboration with the Freer Gallery of Art next week.
“It took me a little time to decide what kind of music I have to arrange and compose music for this ensemble, but it was very fun,” Kurosawa said. “And also this concert program music was inspired by Tomioka Tessai, so I also went through his life journey, and that was a really interesting process.”
She said the trio will perform some of her original new music commissioned by the gallery, as well as famous Japanese songs and Chinese music.
“I decided to do Japanese songs including Chinese instrument ensemble and Chinese songs including Japanese and Western ensemble,” she said. “So that’s already blending different cultures and elements, which I love, like a cosmopolitan type of ensemble.”
Lea Craigie-Marshall, the official artist of this year’s festival, designed the festival’s official artwork, including the kites at last weekend’s Blossom Kite Festival and the cherry blossom-themed Metro card available for purchase at the L’Enfant Plaza and Navy Yard Metro stops.
She said she collaborated with the festival at last year’s scavenger hunt when she presented Crane’s Dance, a sculpture inspired by the Japanese fabled belief that cranes carry souls to heaven, representing the lives lost to COVID-19.
Craigie-Marshall said her gazebo at the Petalpalooza Art Walk will allow visitors to step inside the work and supply a bench for meditation. She said the piece, which is a 3D version of her original artwork for the festival, provides a “sensory experience” for guests to immerse themselves in.
She said the Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant sculpture offers sensory stimulation like wind chimes, lights and the scent of cherry blossoms to ensure her sculpture was physically accessible to every participant.
“The whole festival is so accessible,” Craigie-Marshall said. “There’s so many different options that I feel like everyone is welcome and everyone’s able to enjoy it.”
She said as part of the Art Walk, she will also invite guests to live paint a paint-by-number cherry blossom sculpture with her at Petalpalooza on April 16.
“It’s just going to be really lively,” she said. “That’s what I wanted my art to be this year since we are back in person, finally able to be together. I think it should be a celebration.”
Lexi Plaisted and Nora Fitzgerald contributed reporting.