Marionettes: An Interview with René Zendejas

renes_marionettes The third annual Puppet Festival is this Sunday, April 13. From hand to shadow, marionette to pageant-size, all your favorites will be there! The Skirball is especially happy to welcome back puppeteer, storyteller, and puppet maker René Zendejas. René returns to wow families with a special animal puppet revue and performance, showcasing some of his best handmade animal puppets. I sat down with René as he was preparing for his appearance to ask him about his long career in the world of puppetry.

How did you get started in puppetry?
I started when I was in junior high school. My mother took me to see as many puppet shows as possible that were playing in L.A.

Which puppeteer captured your imagination when you were young?
I had already started in show business when I was five years old, so this wasn’t something totally new for me. One of the puppeteering teams that caught my eye was Walton and O’Rourke—the most fantastic puppeteers that I have ever seen. From then on, I was smitten. They’re long gone by now. They had the most beautiful marionettes and their manipulation was unsurpassable—except by me, of course.

How do you make your puppets?
First, the clay is sculpted using water-based or grease clay. Second, a plaster mold is made of the clay sculpture. Then you pour your final material into the mold, either plastic or latex. Then comes the finishing of the figure by sanding. Lastly, you animate it—if there is to be any animation in the eyes and the mouth—and paint it. Meanwhile, the body must be constructed and costumed. Continue reading

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What’s New in the Museum?

The Binding of Isaac, Torah Curtain and Valance, Austria, 1878. Silk with metallic and silk threads. Gift of Judge Michael Linfield in honor of his father, Seymour Linfield SCC59.97.a,b.

The Binding of Isaac, Torah Curtain and Valance, Austria, 1878. Silk with metallic and silk threads.
Gift of Judge Michael Linfield in honor of his father, Seymour Linfield
SCC59.97.a,b.

The Skirball is proud to announce the recent donation of a very rare Torah ark curtain and valance saved from destruction during World War II.

An American paratrooper during World War II, Seymour Linfield, found this Torah ark curtain in an abandoned synagogue in Austria, which had been in use as a stable. He rescued the curtain and passed it on to his son, Michael, who recently donated it to the Skirball Museum for conservation and posterity.

The curtain depicts the biblical episode of the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham, as portrayed in the Book of Genesis. The curtain and valance feature hand-sewn silk construction and intricate metallic thread embroidery. The Hebrew inscription at the top of the curtain, above the decorative fringe, reads “sound the shofar at the new moon,” which is derived from the New Year liturgy, when the scriptural reading from the binding of Isaac is read. This suggests that the curtain was specially made for the Jewish High Holy Days. The Hebrew abbreviation “Crown of Torah,” as seen on either side of the embroidered crown, refers to the sovereign authority of the Torah (the five books of Moses), which Jewish tradition ascribes to divine origin. The Hebrew inscription below the scene identifies the congregation of origin: Tagendorf (possibly a transliteration of Techendorf, a lakeside village in the south of Austria). The Hebrew numerical abbreviation just below that states the Jewish calendar year 5638, which translates to the secular calendar year 1878.

Before agreeing to accept this object as a contribution to the Museum collection, the Skirball contacted the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. (USHMM), for guidance on accepting items brought home by US soldiers during World War II. According to the USHMM, both they and the Library of Congress accept such items as long as the object is fully documented and thorough provenance research is conducted. Items looted by Nazis or their sympathizers, on the other hand, are repatriated as a matter of policy to community, synagogue, or family of origin. Continue reading

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But Did We Cut It?

The Skirball is one of the few institutions I know of where the exhibition designer takes an active role in the production and installation of the exhibition itself. One of the tasks of my job that seems to invite a lot questions is the production and installation of the exhibition text on the walls.

Here at the Skirball, exhibition wall text is made out of cut vinyl. The vinyl comes in a wide variety of colors and levels of transparency. The adhesive used to place it on the wall ranges from extremely temporary to nearly permanent. It’s versatile and looks clean, which is why it’s a favored material for displaying text and other graphic elements on walls.

Although I favor cut vinyl over other methods of displaying text (printed panels, handbooks, etc.), installing it is a fairly intensive process that involves many steps. First, the curators send me the approved text. I then decide on the right font and size (color is usually determined beforehand). “Draft” files are then sent to the plotter, which uses a small knife blade to cut the outlines of the letters into a sheet of thin adhesive vinyl.

A wall quote ready to be cut.

A wall quote ready to be cut.

The plotter begins cutting.

The plotter begins cutting.

 

The parts of the vinyl that aren’t used are then loosened and pulled away in a process called “weeding.”

The negative spaces left after letters are removed.

The negative spaces left after letters are removed.

 

Since the width of the roll of vinyl is limited to the size of the cutter, really large sections of letters are done individually or have to be pieced together directly on the wall.

Skirball_exhibition prep_cut vinyl

 

After the weeding is completed, a low-tack adhesive “transfer” sheet is applied on top of the vinyl and its backing sheet (or “release paper”).

Skirball_exhibition prep_cut vinyl

 

I then apply the different versions to the wall to determine which style to choose. It doesn’t usually require putting every version up to get a sense of what works best.

Skirball_exhibition prep_cut vinyl
The letters or sections of letters are taped the wall and the backing is removed, leaving only the vinyl and transfer sheet. Continue reading

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Intersections between Architecture, Math, and Science

When I look at anything, I see mathematics in it. There is not an object or natural phenomenon that does not seem mathematical in nature to me. According to cosmologist Max Tegmark—as quoted in the July 2008 Discover story Is the Universe Actually Made of Math?—”There is only mathematics; that is all that exists.” Though the way I see the world may be strange to some, I am not the only one who sees it this way!

Taper Courtyard pond at the Skirball. What principles of geometry apply here? Photo by Thomas Amiya.

Taper Courtyard pond at the Skirball. What principles of geometry apply here? Photo by Thomas Amiya.

Every exterior and interior of every structure at the Skirball Cultural Center has a mathematical aspect, as well as a cultural purpose—from the geometry of the slate tiles in the Taper Courtyard (where music fans gather for Sunset Concerts and other programming) to the “tent of welcome” in the Ziegler Amphitheater.

Recently, I’ve been working to create a Math Trail through the Skirball, a walking tour in which students and teachers use the sights and sounds of the campus to complete mathematical challenges. The project is inspired by the Skirball’s current exhibition, Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie. One example of math in architecture that we’ll be using on the Skirball Math Trail can be found in the Ziegler Amphitheater.

Ziegler Amphitheater, on the south side of the Skirball campus. Photo by Thomas Amiya.

Ziegler Amphitheater, on the south side of the Skirball campus. Photo by Thomas Amiya.

Slope = rise/run = change in height divided by distance moved forward = 5.5 in/12.5 in = 0.44 = 44/100 = 11/25

Slope = rise/run = change in height divided by distance moved forward = 5.5 in/12.5 in =
0.44 = 44/100 = 11/25

Problem: Begin at the stage and measure the height and depth of a stair step. Estimate the slope of the stairs. Describe your process. Continue reading

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Architectural Centerpieces (Florals Are So Last Year)

At a recent donor dinner at the Skirball, these sculptural centerpieces showcased beautiful photographs of our campus, designed by Moshe Safdie. You can also spot one of the vivid green metal art panels off the Taper Courtyard, created by Vera Ronnen.

At a recent donor dinner at the Skirball, these sculptural centerpieces showcased beautiful photographs of our campus, designed by Moshe Safdie. You can also spot one of the vivid green metal art panels off the Taper Courtyard, created by Vera Ronnen.

A common feature of Moshe Safdie’s projects is his integration of open-air spaces into his very monumental concrete and granite buildings. [In this ArtInfo interview, Safdie explains how the landscape influenced his design for the Skirball campus.] Here at the Skirball, Safdie created a series of courtyards that harmoniously link each building so that as you work your way from Winnick Hall (home to Noah’s Ark at the Skirball™) at the south end of our site toward Ahmanson Hall and Herscher Hall at the north end, you encounter blue skies and lush landscapes. As the Skirball’s founder, Uri D. Herscher, has said, Safdie “married his architecture to the hills.” The natural is as important as the architectural in creating the open, welcoming environment we have at the Skirball.

Recently the Skirball hosted an evening gala for our founding donors to celebrate the completion of our campus. The sculptural centerpieces we produced for the event are a love letter to the Skirball’s architecture. We worked with designer Gabe Gonzales at Astek Wallcovering—the firm that created the whimsical wallpaper for our recent exhibition Gary Baseman: The Door Is Always Open—to develop the build of the sculpture. Essentially each centerpiece features thirty-four interlocking round disks. Twenty-six of them display a different image on each side. Depending on how you look at the double-sided disks, you can see four different sets of images. Here are the other three views of the centerpiece: Continue reading

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Architect Moshe Safdie Likes Legos (Breaking Bad Fans Do, Too)

Here’s my attempt to build Habitat ’67 out of Legos like Moshe Safdie once did. My preschooler wanted her Duplo® back… and I longed for stronger spatial skills.

Here’s my attempt to build Habitat ’67 out of Legos like Moshe Safdie once did. My preschooler wanted her Duplo® back… and I longed for stronger spatial skills.

If you’re a parent of a young child, like I am, you likely have LEGO® in your house. With some relief—since Legos are a fairly wholesome, harmless distraction—and maybe even pride, you’ve watched your kid stack and lock those distinctive bricks of plastic for hours on end. You’ve probably gotten down on the floor to join the fun. [Less fun: stepping on a Lego.]

Lately it feels like I encounter Legos in more places than my living room. In early summer, I kept hearing about an exhibition, The Art of the Brick®, on view at a surprising venue: Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. At its hilltop museum, my family and I eyed thirty awe-inspiring sculptures by “brick artist” Nathan Sawaya, who used thousands of Legos to handcraft each work. A few weeks later, two separate groups of friends reported that the new hotel at LEGOLAND was actually pretty cool. In mid-July, I stumbled upon a story on NPR.org probing why the Danish toy company had launched a product line specifically for girls. The reporter concluded with the right question: “Would it be so hard to develop—even market—toys for girls and boys to enjoy together?” On his “Thinking Brickly” blog, David Pickett studies the Lego gender gap more closely.

As summer waned, Legos continued to pop up in my life. Lost in a Breaking Bad internet vortex as the series finale drew near, I learned that a Lego imitator, Citizen Brick, quickly sold out of its controversial “Superlab Playset,” featuring “minifigs” of Walt (in yellow lab suit), Gus (in Los Pollos Hermanos button-down), and Mike (sporting grey stubble but looking far less hard-boiled as on TV).

Walter White and Jesse Pinkman’s underground “office” = totally disturbing plaything

Walter White and Jesse Pinkman’s underground “office” = totally disturbing plaything

Eventually Legos became a topic of conversation at work, as we geared up for our fall exhibition, Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie, opening October 22. As it turns out, the renowned architect, who has designed and built our Skirball campus in four phases over thirty years, used to toy around with Legos early in his career. In his book The City After the Automobile: An Architect’s Vision (Westview, 1998), Safdie describes how he began to develop a new concept for urban housing:

I began constructing large models out of Lego, stacking plastic blocks representing houses one on top of the other, each one forming a roof garden for the unit above…. This would lead two years later to Habitat, a project I designed and constructed as part of the 1967 world’s fair in Montreal.

Each of the units kinda does look like a Lego, huh? Habitat’67. Construction view. Image courtesy of Safdie Architects.

Each of the units kinda looks like a Lego, huh? Habitat ’67. Construction view. Image courtesy of Safdie Architects.

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Kicking Off Sunset Concerts with The Belle Brigade!

Summertime at the Skirball means Sunset Concerts—FREE Thursday night performances of the best in American and world music! To celebrate, each week a different member of the Skirball’s Program Department will preview the upcoming performer, giving a little insight as to how and why they were perfect for this year’s series. Read about the band, view photos, watch videos … then make your way here each Thursday to see the band live and in person in our magnificent outdoor courtyard. First up: indie band The Belle Brigade, this Thursday, July 25, at 8:00 p.m.

The Belle Brigade. Photo by John Peets.

The Belle Brigade. Photo by John Peets.

I saw The Belle Brigade for the first time in April 2011, when they opened for k.d. lang at the Troubadour. I hadn’t heard of them before then, but the buzz began in the line to enter the venue. We happened to be standing next to some of their family friends who were excited to see the performance. These enthusiastic, proud friends talked up the band’s folky pop, Fleetwood Mac sound and gorgeous harmonies—reminiscent of the Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel. I admit to being somewhat skeptical, despite sibling bandleaders Barbara and Ethan Gruska’s impressive musical lineage: their father, Jay Gruska, is an accomplished songwriter and their grandfather is legendary composer John Williams.

Once inside, my husband and I rushed to the front—we made it to third row, center stage—to position ourselves for k.d.’s set, still more than hour away. When The Belle Brigade took the stage, I thought, “Okay, let’s see what these guys can do.” Continue reading

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Take Five with Hunter Hunted

In just a few short months since forming, Hunter Hunted has already made a big splash, including a nationally televised gig on Conan, a raucous set in front of a packed crowd at the recent Make Music Pasadena festival, and upcoming dates with Weezer and Fitz and the Tantrums. The duo, made up of Dan Chang and Michael Garner, writes songs with soaring melodies and intricate harmonies mixed with a slightly hard edge. (Their music video for “End of the World” shows them running for their lives in a post-apocalyptic landscape.)

On Friday, July 12, come watch Hunter Hunted perform in the Skirball’s outdoor courtyard during Into the Night: Secrets and Truth, a late-night celebration of the exhibition Gary Baseman: The Door Is Always Open. The night also features the band Harriet, a special art performance created by artist Gary Baseman and choreographer Sarah Elgart, and other activities.

Hunter Hunted recently took a break from recording to answer a few questions from the studio:

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Let Us Show You Around

Skirball_Mural-1243-cropped

Photo by Bebe Jacobs

Skirball_mural_titlewall

Photo by Bebe Jacobs

When I began my job as a curator at the Skirball in summer 2012 I was asked to rethink the exhibition program in the Ruby Gallery, which is not only an exhibition space, but also the most communicative and communal space at the Skirball. I thought that we should find ways to work with these parameters and not against them. When I began to reflect on my own experiences at the Skirball, I remembered that I immediately felt welcome and, to my surprise, I found out that the notion of welcoming is an important part of the Skirball’s mission statement. So it seemed like a perfect first idea—to create a large piece about welcoming as seen through the eyes of insiders and outsiders. By “insiders,” I mean everyone who works here (staff, docents, volunteers) and by “outsiders,” I mean artists that weren’t familiar with the Skirball. I had already worked with Antje Schiffers and Thomas Sprenger a few times before in Germany and knew they would be a perfect fit for such an open yet specific idea. So I contacted them and asked if they could imagine developing a project about the idea of welcoming that includes all the people who work here. They were excited about the idea. Antje and Thomas spent two weeks in residency at the Skirball, interviewing the “insiders,” and then they returned home to process everything they’d learned. The final result is a smile, they said, a mural consisting of wall painting, text, and paintings on wood, now up in the Ruby Gallery through September 1. The exhibition has been up for a few months now, so I felt it was time to catch up with Antje and Thomas, and reflect on the fascinating process that led to this wonderful mural.

Let’s start by talking a bit about the process, about how this project gained shape.
Thinking about the Ruby Gallery, our first impulse was to work with its functions, not to insist on it being just an exhibition space. We knew very quickly that we wanted a big mural. And it was clear that we would include the voices of all the insiders—all the people who work here—in that mural.

welcoming-officeWe talked to people from the security department and administration as well as to Museum curators, docents, and volunteers. For that purpose we opened a ‘welcoming office,’ which most of the time was a physical office in the Museum department. But it also was a traveling office; we met the kitchen staff in the kitchen, Continue reading

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Building Baseman’s House

How exactly did we build Gary Baseman’s house in our Getty Gallery for the exhibition, The Door Is Always Open? It probably would take about fifteen separate blogposts to describe it and I’d still be leaving things out. So, by sharing some behind-the-scenes images, I’ll try to show how we went from this:

IMG_2956…to this:

IMG_2903…to this:

IMG_3688Hopefully, this will help explain why we decided against this:

(The initial design plan called for using pre-made movie set flats such as the one shown here)

The initial design plan called for using pre-made movie set flats such as the one shown here

…and opted for this:

(he design team used period furniture and windows along with home moulding and trim to create their own “sets”.

The design team used period furniture and windows along with home molding and trim to create their own “sets”

There are so many good discussions to have it’s hard to know where to begin. From how best to use the furniture from Gary’s parents: Continue reading

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