A Summer of Shadow Art

Last summer, we went on our first out-of-state tour, taking the shadow show Saudade to six different venues in Minneapolis. This summer, we haven’t performed any shadow work, but I did have the opportunity to see three very different shadow and silhouette based pieces of art in DC and New York City.

Back in the spring, we performed Saudade at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, for the opening of a new exhibit of contemporary and historical silhouettes called Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now. While I knew a little about the history of silhouettes, mainly that they were an inexpensive form of portraiture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was interesting to see more complicated compositions, such as this depiction of a magic lantern show by Auguste Edouart.

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A silhouette of a magic lantern show in the 1800’s cut by Auguste Edouart.

One of the contemporary artists featured in the exhibit is Kristi Malakoff. Much of her work involves the transformation of two-dimensional objects into three-dimensional artwork and her piece in the exhibit is this beautiful three-dimensional silhouette sculpture of children around a maypole.

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Kristi Malakoff’s silhouette sculpture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

In 2016, we had the opportunity to perform at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, an annual event that presents artists from all over the world. We performed as part of a section of the festival about migration, titled On the Move, but most of the festival focuses on particular regions or countries around the world. This year, the Smithsonian presented artists from Armenia and Catalonia, including several kinds of puppet artists. The Ayrogi Shadow Theater is a group of performers who travel around Armenia performing shadow puppetry. They trace their traditional storytelling back to the 1830’s and in contrast to more complex and colorful shadow puppets found in the region, use a simple style of puppet made from cardboard or leather.

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Shadow puppets by Ayrogi Shadow Theater from Armenia at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. 

Finally, I was able to visit the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City while I was there for work in early August. I’m very familiar with the DC museum but had never had an excuse to visit the Heye center in New York, housed in the Alexander Hamilton US Custom House downtown. I went primarily to see a new exhibit about Taino Heritage and Identity, but I also happened upon a set of rooms titled Transformer: Native Art in Light and Sound. Of course transformation is at the heart of all puppetry, and I was especially moved by the piece The Harbinger of Catastrophe by Marianne Nicolson (Kwakwaka‘wakw). The box sits in the middle of the room and the shadows it casts stretch to fill the entire floor and walls so that the viewer walks through and disrupts them as they move around the space. It was an immersive experience that I’m still thinking about. If you have a chance to see the exhibit before it closes in January, I highly recommend it.

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The Harbinger of Catastrophe by Marianne Nicolson (Kwakwaka‘wakw) at the American Indian Museum, NYC. 

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September Grab Bag

A round up of links, videos and articles we highlighted on Twitter this month: 

See #1. Photo from The Independent.

See #1. Photo from The Independent.

  1. A huge animatronic bear appeared on the streets of London this summer to protest drilling in the Arctic.
  2. The living doll artist in this article loves it when people ask “Is he real or unreal?”
  3. The otherworldly sculpture of our favorite artist Shaun Tan will seen be on view in this new book. If only we were going to Australia sometime soon!
  4. In a perfect world, we would collaborate with artist Jonathan Latiano to make some puppet dolphins, along the same line as this exhibit.
  5. Fair warning, this video short from France about shadow puppet artist and animation pioneer Lotte Reiniger is profoundly moving and may make you cry. You can read more about Reiniger’s life and work on our blog.

Sharing Stories of SAUDADE in Winnipeg

This is a guest post from Genna Davidson about our visit in May to Winnipeg, Canada. You can see more photos from the trip here.

This bentwood box by Luke Marston was commissioned by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Photo is from TRC website.

This bentwood box by Coast Salish artist Luke Marston was commissioned by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. It is a tribute to all Indian Residential school survivors. Photo is from TRC website.

At the beginning of May, Cecilia and I were warmly welcomed to Winnipeg, Manitoba for the 10th Annual International Storytelling Festival. Our days were spent touring Saudade, our shadow puppet and crankie show, about the immigrant experience in DC. We met a range of artists, storytellers and advocates of conflict resolution and peace, and we learned a lot about the local issues. We performed for college students, child and adult refugees, and staff at several community centers, places which help newly arrived refugees and immigrants to Canada. The children, particularly the Muslim girls, were excited to see a character in our show wearing a headscarf. One girl remarked “I liked the last character the best because she looks like me.” It was affirming and reassuring to hear the members of our audiences relate to the show and identify with the characters.

Many of the local issues facing Canadians in Winnipeg surround the dark legacy of what they call residential schools. These were boarding schools for First Nations children, used until the 1990s to attempt assimilation of the indigenous Canadians into the mainstream white Canadian culture. Many of these places had rampant incidences of abuse. The victims are now sharing their stories through a truth and reconciliation process. It’s a hard reality to look at, but from what I could see it was clearly important that people are heard. So many families were broken up and destroyed by the practices of assimilation. As one could guess, there are higher levels of alcohol and drug abuse in the indigenous population too.

It was particularly interesting to me that we repeatedly encountered stories of First Nations people (Inuit, Crees and Metis to name a few groups) and at the same time heard stories of refugees from countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia among others. For many immigrants it is a struggle to keep family together. As I was talking to a friend recently about the juxtaposition of these stories, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what struck me as so apropos about the parallel stories. He pointed out that it is striking because the indigenous Canadians are refugees in their own home. “Yes! That’s exactly it!” I remarked. Their land was taken from them as well as their culture and many were forced to take on the culture of European immigrants. It’s a story that I don’t like looking at, but again, it’s important we give voice to these stories and give these storytellers room and space in which to be heard.

When I think about our region’s own history of the American Indian genocide, I feel sad. I also think that most of us don’t get to hear those stories much because the people are gone, scattered or simply not given enough space to share their stories. These stories are an important part of our history, however shameful and horrifying, and like in Canada, they should be part of our national conversation in art.

~Genna Davidson

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has been working for many years to gather statements on the residential schools. They published their findings and held closing events this month. For more information on this important work, please visit their website

April Grab Bag

A round up of articles, photos and links we shared on Twitter this month. 

See #5. Photo by Mister Finch.

See #5. Photo by Mister Finch.

1. Another profile, this time of puppet-maker David Haaz-Baroque.

2. Pat has seen this from Peru and really likes their work. Too bad we couldn’t go up to NYC for the show!

3. Beautiful unique puppets from Vietnam.

4. More cool creations, this time by Matt Hopkins from Portland, OR, shared with us by our friend and Malevolent Creatures collaborator Nikki Martin.

5. The toadstool spirits here reminded me of some of the Malevolent Creatures characters.

Sneak Peek: Malevolent Creature Designs

In a few weeks we’ll gather a team of performers to start creating material for our show Malevolent Creatures. But the process of designing the puppets has already started, beginning with research on British folklore and the selection of a cast of supernatural creatures. We gave descriptions of those creatures to artists from across the US and asked them to create images to inspire our puppet-building. Here is a sneak peek at two of them. Both were created by former students at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). The Selkie (a seal that can transform into a human) was created with scratchboard technique by Jordis Brier, an artist originally from Hamburg, Germany and now living in London. Black Annis, a cannibal witch with connections to nature spirits and goddesses, was created in watercolor by Amelia Gossman, from Maryland. We are incredibly excited to turn these images into puppets and we hope you enjoy this beautiful, imaginative art!

Selkie, artwork by Jordis Brier

Selkie, artwork by Jordis Brier

Black Annis, artwork by Amelia Gossman

Black Annis, artwork by Amelia Gossman

What Was the Point of That?

Our Personal Puppet Show, whose point is to make you smile, and wonder a little.

Our Personal Puppet Show, whose point is to make you smile, and wonder a little.

This is Washington DC, so the first question you usually get upon meeting new people is “So, what do you do?” When I say I’m a puppeteer, two words are frequently heard: “Really?” and “Why?” A few weeks ago, performing the Personal Puppet Show at Fenton Street Market, a gentleman who sat down to see the show asked me afterward “What was the point of that?” At the time, I responded “To get you to smile–hey, look, it worked!” but I’ve continued to think about his question, as it’s one that I think many people seem to have about puppets and art in general.

Does art have to have a point? Can art exist on its own, free of any agenda or intention? Is that even possible? I wonder, because it seems that so much content created nowadays (digital and otherwise) is meant to make us THINK. Entertainment for children includes Important Information To Know and newspapers and websites abound with infographics and charts and statistics which will help you better understand the world around you. Not to say that any of this is bad. But sometimes, I think it’s important that art gives us a little break from all that. A space to smile, and let your mind wander. That, for me anyway, is the point.