Brooklyn’s Best: Our Noah’s Ark Puppet Designer

There's Chris, greeting me at the door to his studio.

Chris Green, at the entrance to the Red Hook studio suite.

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.

Isn't he just so serene and beautiful!

One of the gorilla heads in process; carved by 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. Continue reading

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Destined to Puppeteer: An Interview with Elizabeth Luce

Elizabeth's "Moon Lady."

Elizabeth’s Moon Lady.

Elizabeth Luce is a puppeteer, storyteller, writer. Her puppet performance “The Emperor and the Nightingale,” based on one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most beloved tales, will be performed at the Skirball’s second annual Family Puppet Festival on Sunday, April 7. I sat down with Elizabeth as she was preparing for the show to ask her about the magical world of puppetry.

How did you get started in puppetry?
I think puppetry and I were destined for each other, and would have come together no matter what, but my first important puppet experiences were because of my kindergarten art teacher, Mr. Blake. He would bring puppets out to talk to us. We were enthralled, sitting in a circle around his chair. There was a puppet show of his with puppets that lit up under black light, which made quite an impression on me. He also was responsible for guiding me to build my first real rod puppet (see below). Pretty funny puppet, right? That’s actually the “improved” version; a year later, I ripped off his hair and taped on smaller eyes.

Elizabeth's first puppet.

Elizabeth’s first puppet.

Also, the local library—hurray for libraries!—had a half dozen books on puppets and puppetry in the adult section. I checked them all out multiple times as a child. In particular, I loved the look of the Czechoslovakian puppets, and that has been a visual influence that’s stayed with me always: clean simple lines with nice stylization.

Which puppet or puppeteer captured your imagination when you were younger?
I loved, loved, LOVED “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie,” and to this day I think they are special. The show played during the early days of television (1947–1957) and Burr Tillstrom, the puppeteer, would arrive at the TV studio with only a loose plan in his head for the show, but mostly he just improvised, even though the show was broadcast live! This would never happen nowadays, of course. There was a set of puppet characters and also Fran Allison, a warm and gracious lady who often stood out in front of the stage and talked with the puppets. Although Fran served as “straight man,” she was what made all the funny puppet characters and their special world work so well. Because she believed in them, we did too.

Watch a scene from “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie”—Fran, Madame Ooglepuss, and Buelah Witch rehearse a song from The Mikado:

Where do you get inspiration for your shows?
Continue reading

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How Visions Connected with Voices: An Interview with Arnold Schwartzman

Arnold Schwartzman, Master’s Series 2012. Quote: Susan Sontag. Harold Grinspoon Foundation, West Springfield, MA.

Arnold Schwartzman, Master’s Series 2012. Quote: Susan Sontag. Harold Grinspoon Foundation, West Springfield, MA.

Arnold Schwartzman is the creative director of the Voices & Visions poster exhibition, in which compelling Jewish texts are graphically visualized by contemporary designers. The program was initiated and produced by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in West Springfield, Massachusetts, and we at the Skirball Cultural Center are excited to be the first institution to show this engaging poster series. In curating this exhibition for our Ruby Gallery I had the chance to meet and talk to Arnold Schwartzman about this project.

Arnold, you have two functions in the Voices & Visions exhibition: you are the creative director and you also designed a poster. Let’s talk about the poster first. You chose the quote by Susan Sontag, “Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech,” and came up with a simple, yet complex image of silent speech. How did you find the visual language for it? And why did you choose this quote?
As the creative director of the Voices & Visions project I had the advantage of being able to choose the pick of the crop of quotations prior to offering them to the other artists. I decided to select the Susan Sontag quotation as I realized that there are many ways to visually interpret speech. The challenge was which direction I should take, other than displaying a zipped-up mouth!

I have always been intrigued by sign language of one sort or another. I was once invited to design a poster for the revitalization of the city of Naples, Italy, in which I incorporated an engraving of the Neapolitan hand gesture for ”beauty.” On another occasion I designed the cover of the house magazine of a television network. I created the magazine’s name in nautical flag semaphore, a nod to the company general manager’s naval background. Or for the opening title sequence to my documentary on World War ll, Liberation, I spelt out the letter V for Victory in Morse code. I recall, as a child during the war, seeing the dot-dot-dot-dash painted on many of London’s street walls and air raid shelters.

After finally arriving at my concept, my next step was to decide on the technique and medium. At first I contemplated drawing the hands realistically, or perhaps in a more decorative style, then serendipity stepped in during a visit to my local art store—I finally found the answer when I noticed a display of wooden articulated hands. “Bingo, I’ve got it!”

How did your collaboration with the Grinspoon Foundation actually come about?
My wife, Isolde, who is my collaborating partner, and I had the opportunity to meet with philanthropist Harold Grinspoon and Madeline Calabrese, the campaign’s project manager, in New York City in March 2011. But my involvement with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation began earlier with a telephone call from venerated graphic designer and educator Louis Danziger. He was one of the artists who visually interpreted well-known quotations for the landmark advertising campaign Great Ideas of Western Man that was produced by the Container Corporation of America (CCA) between 1950 and the 1970s. Harold Grinspoon’s idea was to take the CCA concept and translate it to a Jewish perspective by selecting significant quotations by Jewish luminaries throughout history, each representing a Jewish value, and have them interpreted by Jewish artists. And it was Danziger who asked if I was interested in the project as he wished to recommend me as creative director.

Our first task was to come up with a name and logotype for the project. I finally proposed the name Voices & Visions as it not only expressed the coming together of the two entities of words and images, parallel to this I discovered that by strategically placing the two Vs together they form a Star of David.

Indeed, that is a wonderful “coming together.” Could you talk a bit more about the process, about the making of Voices & Visions?
Certainly. A team of scholars chose the quotations, after which copyright clearance was obtained prior to sending invitations to the prospective participants. With the knowledge of the unique styles of each of these artists, we carefully chose quotations that we thought would stimulate their style and thinking. This approach produced unexpected results—some predictable, some surprising.

In June 2012 Isolde and I spent a week in Springfield, Massachusetts, supervising the print check on the large run of the eighteen V&V posters, printed in several formats. After a period of eighteen months we now find it most gratifying to see the fruits of our labor so beautifully displayed at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Isolde and Arnold Schwartzman in front of Arnold’s Visions & Values poster. Photo by Doris Berger.

Isolde and Arnold Schwartzman in front of Arnold’s Voices & Visions poster. Photo by Doris Berger.

Actually, the title Voices & Visions makes me think of the Skirball’s permanent exhibition called Visions and Values, for which you created an amazing audiovisual kaleidoscope of Jewish contributions to humanity as well as graphic decade panels of notable events. Both of those works feature a multi-perspectives approach­­, and so does Voices & Visions. Continue reading

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Sticking Not Stuck

Simon Ford takes notes in front of the Rainbow Arbor, where a “Red Sea” scene will be.

I took this photo of our graphic designer, Simon Ford, as he jotted notes in front of the Rainbow Arbor, where a “Red Sea” scene will be.

Following up on my last SkirBlog post, I wanted to share more about the design of Exodus Steps, but time, time, time! We’ve been working away at it late, late, late. The story’s so big, and the Skirball campus is so full of possibilities, we’ve gotten carried away with ourselves. This is going to have to be fast.

Since agreeing with the Skirball we were going to make Exodus Steps, we have (cutting out all the tedious administrative/visa waiver stuff that no one wants to hear about, least of all me):

  1. Re-read the book and identified all the must-have, could-have, and don’t-need scenes.
  2. Written a draft script.
  3. Decided who needs to say how little to make the story function and have some degree of character/humanity. (Remember, we’re cutting all the text into vinyl speech bubbles, so no one is allowed to soliloquise.)
  4. Thought about what objects the audience needs to see/interact with to tell the story and make the thing look attractive. (As in most movies, we’d like the story to be told by sight and action rather than words.)

    Footsteps in the courtyard, ready to be followed.

    Footsteps in the courtyard, ready to be followed.

  5. Designed most of the props, including feet. As this is the eighteenth edition of the Steps Series we have a fairly extensive archive of designs from previous shows so cow, sheep, dog, and horse footprints don’t need designing. Simon Ford, our graphic designer, has created a new line of footwear for Exodus Steps as we aspire to show gradations of social class/wealth in ancient Egypt through the footprints—which admittedly is a little ambitious (the Sherlock Holmes stories were amongst our inspirations for the series). Continue reading
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Planning the Exodus

Years ago I was thinking about “teach-yourself-to-dance” floor mats and how it was unfair that dance had these but theatre didn’t. I imagined that with some ingenuity we could right this wrong. All we needed was an organization to allow us to plaster their building with adhesive vinyl.

In 2008 mac birmingham, our local arts centre, was looking to commission a piece to mark its closure for rebuilding. We pitched the vinyl idea to them, and given that much of the building was due to be demolished anyway, they figured we couldn’t do too much harm.

Stan’s Café Dance Steps. Photo by Ed Dimsdale

Stan’s Cafe Dance Steps. Photo by Ed Dimsdale.

Making Dance Steps was tricky, as we didn’t know how “teach-yourself-theatre installations” worked. We’d never met one before. We had to make up the rules ourselves. We had to learn the art of applying vinyl stickers, which in some cases is more complicated than it sounds (though in other cases my three-year-old daughter was happy to help and couldn’t believe sticking stickers was my JOB!). Continue reading

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Abraham Lincoln: A Living Myth Comes to Life

Abraham Lincoln’s personal portfolio, 1861. Lincoln’s cabinet members had matching leather portfolios with their names stamped in gilt. Lincoln’s was saved from souvenir hunters on the night of his death by his son Robert. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Abraham Lincoln’s personal portfolio, 1861. Lincoln’s cabinet members had matching leather portfolios with their names stamped in gilt. Lincoln’s was saved from souvenir hunters on the night of his death by his son Robert. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

 

Skirball Registrar, Cynthia Tovar holds Abraham Lincoln’s portfolio. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Skirball Registrar, Cynthia Tovar holds Abraham Lincoln’s portfolio. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

I have worked in museums for close to twenty years and have visited them all over the world for longer than that. I have personally handled ancient pottery, figurines, weapons, furniture, and art objects—everything from Egyptian funerary relics to Civil War uniforms. While I won’t deny that I consider being able to have a hands-on relationship with these objects an extraordinary benefit of my career, I have to say that I am rarely “touched back” by them. However, when our registrars called me to let me know they were unpacking Abraham Lincoln’s valise for our “Lincoln Spotlight” exhibit, I knew this time was going to be different.

A task of our Museum registrars is the inspection and assessment of each object as it comes into our care (and as it leaves as well). Then we have to figure out the best way to display the object while protecting it from any further damage. On the surface there was nothing spectacular about Lincoln’s valise—it’s made of old leather that is quite worn and somewhat brittle and it lacks any decorative quality; it’s a utilitarian object meant to carry papers and books. Even having Lincoln’s name stamped on the front is not that interesting in and of itself. However, knowing that it most likely once carried the Emancipation Proclamation made it worth having here as part of the exhibit. At least that’s what I was thinking as I rode the elevator down to our Collections area to take a look.

page 1 of Positive Photostat of handwritten Emancipation Proclamation on four leaves, signed by Lincoln. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana.

Page 1 of Positive Photostat of handwritten Emancipation Proclamation on four leaves, signed by Lincoln. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana.

 

 

 

What I wasn’t prepared for was how deeply moved I was as I watched the portfolio be unwrapped. In that instant, Abraham Lincoln became a real human being to me, rather than a “living myth.”

The Man Behind the Myth

My earliest recollection of the personage of Lincoln was the penny in my loafers—that face on the coin that fit into my shoe. Of course, my impression of him changed somewhat once school started and I learned that he had been my president.

Not long afterwards, my hometown of Safety Harbor, Florida, held a beard-growing contest. Continue reading

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Anne Frank Redux: From Concept to Course

I am a cultural consumer. I like to attend movies, concerts, plays, and museum exhibitions. I read multiple publications, both print and online, in order to know what is happening around town. All of this cultural consumption helps me as I plan for the courses offered through the Skirball’s Learning for Life program. These courses do not emerge from thin air—there is a lot of thinking, researching, discussing, and planning that goes into the offerings. So when I come up with something out of the box, such as our upcoming course Anne Frank Redux, I thought it might be interesting to share a little bit about how this course came to be.

First, I love the writing of Shalom Auslander. I have read all of his books and have listened to him on This American Life. Auslander is certainly an acquired taste. He can be caustic, angry, and hilarious at the same time. One of his common tropes is exploring how he, a formerly ultra-Orthodox Jew, navigates America’s freedoms without getting caught up in feelings of guilt for abandoning his faith. He worries about how to raise his children and seems to spend a lot of time dissecting his own neuroses. He raises questions about contemporary society with a unique voice that may at times sting, but always leaves me ruminating. Not for the faint of heart.

Hope: A Tragedy (2012) is Auslander’s first full-length novel. It presents the reader with the absurd notion that Anne Frank didn’t really die but is living in the attic of a New York farmhouse, trying to write a memoir that will outsell her famous The Diary of a Young Girl. Auslander’s book forces deep consideration of how contemporary American Jews and non-Jews think about the Holocaust and its aftermath. There is even a series of trailers for the book in which Auslander calls some of his fellow writers and asks if, in the event of another Holocaust, they would allow him to hide in their attic. Continue reading

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Be Still My Bleeding Heart

Champagne and roses may be synonymous with Valentine's Day, but this year, we recommend celebrating with Say the Word!

There’s a bit of a lull after the flurry of celebrations and activities of the holiday season, until suddenly, thoughts of Valentine’s Day begin to come into mind (or loom ahead, as the case may be).

At the Skirball we’re excited to celebrate Valentine’s Day with a special edition of our popular Say the Word comedic reading series entitled Bleeding Hearts, a little twist on the typical hearts-and-flowers motif. Whether you love Valentine’s Day or dread it, there’s something for you in this show. Say the Word: Bleeding Hearts is February 8—about a week before Valentine’s Day—so you have time to find a date!

I asked our Say the Word host, resident comedy maven, and goddess of love, Beth Lapides, to share some of her insights into the holiday and the Bleeding Hearts program.

Valentine’s Day: fake holiday or important day dedicated to expressing love?
Totally fake. But also, a very important day for expressing love! So, both. And that’s what keeps us interested in Valentine’s Day or any of the other Hallmark holidays—the contradiction of the authentic urge and the repulsive fake commerciality. The trick is to find ways to satisfy the one part while making fun of the other. And Say the Word is all about combining the heartfelt and the ironic twist. So, speaking of Cupid, it’s a match made in heaven!

I have one theory about Valentine’s Day. It’s actually a manifestation of our desperate longing for red in the midst of winter bleakness. Continue reading

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Protest Poster or Valentine?

Decades of Dissent installation shot. Photo by Christina Williams.

“Dear Erin” began a letter I received almost one month after the opening of Decades of Dissent: Democracy in Action: 1960–1980. The letter continued, “You can imagine my surprise and amusement on finding my Gay-In poster reproduced in the Los Angeles Times. Produced 42 years ago, the poster had minimal exposure or impact. Today, it serves as a reminder of the time when gay people were beginning their journey to full equality.”

The letter was from Bruce Reifel, who had created one of my favorite posters in Decades of Dissent. With affectionate couples set against a bright background, Gay-In announced a gathering of gays and lesbians in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park in 1970. The event, organized by the Gay Liberation Front, was revolutionary. During a time when gays were expected to confine their social activities to private spaces, they asserted their right to inhabit public space.

Gay-In, Bruce Reifel, Silkscreen, 1970, Los Angeles, California

I had learned these things about the Gay-In poster in the process of curating Decades of Dissent. What I had missed, however, was the fact that Bruce had made it. The label I had written for the poster attributed the piece to the Gay Liberation Front. When Bruce’s letter arrived, the historian in me was extremely excited. Not only would I have a chance to correct my error, but I would likely deepen my knowledge of an object and the story behind it in the process. Continue reading

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Making a Case (or Three) for Creating the United States

From the outset of planning for Creating the United States, the Museum team and our design partner, Fred Fisher and Partners, hoped to take a non-traditional approach to designing an exhibition of documents and objects usually displayed in small cases high off the ground. Due to the fragile nature of most of these items, we knew that light levels would have to be kept low. This low light combined with the need to lay the rare documents and objects back at an angle (positioning them upright would damage them) could potentially make it difficult for viewers to read or even see them clearly.

Our approach was to get the viewer as close as possible to the objects as we could and to create a color palette that would allow the eye to take in as much available light as possible by making the background “disappear.”

Initial concept design drawings by “FFP,” Fred Fisher and Partners. The cases are shallow so that visitors can get as close as possible to them without having to bend over a case.

Initial concept design drawings by “FFP,” Fred Fisher and Partners. The cases are shallow so that visitors can get as close as possible to them without having to bend over a case.

Once the case structure was decided upon, the (somewhat daunting) task of laying out the locations of each object began. Each object was color coded by lender, type (original, copy, or facsimile); light level required; and hierarchy.

Layout schematic.

Layout schematic.

Schematics are printed and placed into position in the casework.

Schematics are printed and placed into position in the casework.

 

Adjustments are made for a wide variety of reasons: curatorial narrative changes; matting and framing decisions; lighting requirements; and more.

Adjustments are made for a wide variety of reasons: curatorial narrative changes; matting and framing decisions; lighting requirements; and more.

Casework plans are drawn up… and sent to be fabricated.

Casework plans are drawn up… and sent to be fabricated.

Steel case armatures are delivered.

Steel case armatures are delivered.

As always, we start with an empty space. Remember that this is the same gallery where we installed Houdini: Art and Magic, Women Hold Up Half the Sky, and many other exhibitions.

As always, we start with an empty space. Remember that this is the same gallery where we installed Houdini: Art and Magic, Women Hold Up Half the Sky, and many other exhibitions.

Wooden cleats are installed to hold the steel armatures.

Wooden cleats are installed to hold the steel armatures.

While the cases are being constructed, our team builds the various pedestals and mounts for books and three-dimensional objects.

While the cases are being constructed, our team builds the various pedestals and mounts for books and three-dimensional objects.

The mounts are placed in the case.

More diagrams.

Placeholder objects help keep it organized.

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