Brooklyn is cool. Way cooler than I am (47, married with child, driver of a Volvo, living in Brentwood—you get the picture). And even cooler than Brooklyn in general is a particular artist’s enclave in a particular section of Brooklyn called Red Hook that is the workplace of designer/puppeteer Chris Green. Chris is none other than the visionary creator of thirty-five-plus kinetic animals—some freestanding with moving parts and others full puppets in the bunraku tradition—that inhabit Noah’s Ark at the Skirball™. Designed in collaboration with the Noah’s Ark creative consultant team led by Alan Maskin and Jim Olson of Seattle-based Olson Kundig Architects, Chris’s life-sized creatures, from Japanese red foxes to South African zebras, are absolute icons of Noah’s Ark. Their beautifully carved wooden heads and outlandish bodies are fashioned from discarded items as diverse as whirling air ventilators and wooden sake cups.
Hence my excitement over visiting Chris in his Brooklyn studio while on a family trip to the East Coast last week. My mission was to check in on a new family of animals that Chris is working on: four mountain gorillas who will be coming aboard Noah’s Ark permanently this June. These adorable gorillas have movable arms and hands, and bodies made from repurposed material. Their heads, made of basswood, are carved by Chris’s gifted colleague and studio-mate, Eric Novak.
Each time I’ve visited Chris’s studio over the past seven years I’ve felt like I was entering Geppetto’s workshop, and this time was no different. It’s a magical place, with dusty tools and gadgets of all sizes and puppets of every conceivable style—some created by Chris and others by Eric or one of the other designers who share the two-story workspace, capacious by New York standards.
Not much light enters the bottom floor and the air smells a bit musty. (Chris points to a thigh-high water line on the metal front door that remains from the recent flood that Hurricane Sandy brought, which left them stranded and without power in Red Hook for weeks.) But somehow, the studio feels cozy and welcoming, with the puppets silently ushering in visitors from the wall on which they hang. As Chris describes the effects of Sandy, I think of the Noah’s Ark flood story and coincidentally glance up at a fanciful wooden boat suspended from the ceiling, which clearly weathered the storm unharmed. Maybe Chris is a little bit Geppetto and a little bit Noah.
On this particular visit, amidst the other puppets and sculptures, I spot early prototypes of animals that made their way into Noah’s Ark when it first opened in 2007: the metal frame of an East Asian Sika deer hanging casually on its side near a computer, a coyote model on a worktable amidst a small cast hand. It’s all a bit surreal, in the neatest possible way.
And at the epicenter of the studio experience for me is Chris: this lanky, gentle, and quietly phenomenal artist whose soulful, whimsical puppet creations have moved us deeply since we first encountered them in 2005, introduced by our Noah’s Ark exhibit developer, Marni Gittleman. Chris—in his Red Hook studio surrounded by a chocolate factory, a fish smoker, a welding company, and other makers and artisans—is the real deal. He’s the best of Brooklyn.