I Love “My Neighbor Totoro,” and You Should Too

My name is Megan Nevels, and I am a self-proclaimed, undeniable My Neighbor Totoro enthusiast.  I am a collector of all things Totoro, and I love sharing the beauty of this film any time I get the chance. I watch it regularly and never grow tired of it. But why, you might ask, would an adult feel so strongly about an animated film that she would fill every room in her house and even her desk at work with Totoro-related objects? This question has plagued many people in my life, but it is only ever asked by those who haven’t had the chance to experience the film. A common answer I like to give is that Totoro reminds me that imagination is necessary for life at any age.

Here are just a few items from my collection, currently on view at my desk. I hope the movie inspires some of you to start a collection of your own! If you do, show me! Share you pics on social media with #meganlovestotoro.

Here are just a few items from my collection, currently on view at my desk. I hope the movie inspires some of you to start a collection of your own! If you do, show me! Share you pics on social media with #meganlovestotoro.

Screening at the Skirball on Sunday, December 27, My Neighbor Totoro is an animated storytelling masterpiece by Hayao Miyazaki. The film tells the story of two young sisters who move with their father to a new village in Japan in order to be closer to their sick mother. The youngest daughter, Mei, discovers a creature named Totoro who takes the girls on incredible adventures. One can argue that Totoro acts as a coping mechanism for the girls, or that he represents the excitement for life that adults sometimes lose as they grow up.  However you read into Totoro’s existence, he is always magical, kind, and supportive.

My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro) © 1988 Nibariki - G

My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro) © 1988 Nibariki – G

This is a film that asks you to open your eyes a little bit wider and see what you’ve been missing all along. It asks you to listen better, to say yes rather than no, Continue reading

Puppet Talk with Joshua Holden and Mr. Nicholas

On stage with Mr. Nicholas. Photo by Shawn Patrick Higgins.

On stage with Mr. Nicholas. Photo by Shawn Patrick Higgins.

This year’s Skirball Puppet Festival is all about storytelling: the performers were chosen because of their talents as tale-tellers, the art projects will include making puppets to perform in a grand finale story, and a number of new large-scale performances will take place in the Skirball’s magnificent outdoor spaces. One of the most exciting story-shows featured at this year’s fest is by award-winning puppeteer and performer Joshua Holden, creator and star of The Joshua Show. In anticipation of the upcoming festival, I thought I’d find out a little more about this New York–based performer and his journey to puppet stardom. I sat down with Joshua and Mr. Nicholas at a small coffee shop in Park Slope, where we talked puppets, bow ties, and Mister Rogers.

How did you get started in puppetry?
I liked puppets when I was a kid, but the thought of being a puppeteer never crossed my mind until after I graduated college. I first stepped on stage at the age of seven to play the title role in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. I knew then that this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. In high school I studied acting at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts and later earned a BFA in acting from Chicago College of Performing Arts, Roosevelt University. I received a call from the Chicago Children’s Theatre asking me to audition to assist master puppeteer Blaire Thomas on a new puppet show of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant. After the weirdest audition I had ever been on, I somehow booked the job. Blaire was incredibly patient and giving. From there, people started hiring me as a puppeteer. I kept it secret that I had no clue what I was doing until I gained confidence and eventually fell madly in love with the art form! I moved to New York City and landed a role on the Broadway tour of Avenue Q. I also toured the nation with Peter Pan threesixty° as the lead puppeteer. Then in March 2012, I created a short ten-minute sketch for a puppet slam in Chicago that has grown into a full-length, award-winning nationally touring smash hit. (Wow, it feels really cool to say that.)

Avenue Q! Can you find me? Courtesy of The Joshua Show.

Avenue Q! Can you find me? Courtesy of The Joshua Show.

Continue reading

Lost and Found: A Noir Adventure

In November, children and their families participated in “Skirball Playdate: Mildred’s Purse,” a morning-long adventure offered in connection with the exhibition Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950. The program included a special performance by Skirball educator Anna Dresdon, who played the title character based on the 1945 film noir Mildred Pierce. Having lost precious items from her purse, “Mildred” asked the children to help her do some detective work. Armed with special hats and magnifying glasses, they all worked together to search the exhibition for the missing items.

Before heading out into the galleries, the young detectives made their own 1940s-inspired hats. SkirBlog_Mildred's Purse_1

 

What’s this? A clue on the red carpet? SkirBlog_Mildred's Purse_2

 

I found it! One little boy discovered Mildred’s lost Oscar inside the office of Hollywood agent Paul Kohner, which is re-created as part of the Light & Noir exhibition. SkirBlog_Mildred's Purse_3

 

Beads from Mildred’s prized necklace were discovered rolling around in the Casablanca section of the exhibition.  Continue reading

Artful Penguins: A Gift from a Noah’s Ark Visitor

During my days staffing the Noah’s Ark Store, I know I work in a magical place. I’ve seen toddlers take their first steps. I’ve seen children who don’t know each other and don’t speak the same language play together. I’ve seen eighteen-month-olds negotiate their parents up from one toy purchase to three. I’ve seen good parenting and bad parenting, tantrums and delight, joy and sorrow, excitement and disappointment. And sharing. Lots and lots of sharing.

In celebration of Penguin Awareness Day, let me tell you about my good friend Aiden.

Aiden is nine years old. A cute red-haired boy, he comes to Noah’s Ark regularly with his family and has been drawing the animals aboard the Ark since he was four. I took special notice of him because he always came with a drawing pad. Eventually, Aiden began showing me his drawings after his visits to the Ark. He told me that he dreams about one day opening up his very own exhibit—re-creating the animals, adding attractions, and even creating items for his very own gift shop.

A few of Aiden's sketches and the Noah's Ark animals they are modeled after—this is one talented kid!

A few of Aiden’s early sketches and the Noah’s Ark animals they are modeled after—this is one talented kid!

One day last year when Aiden was visiting, I asked if he would draw a picture for me. He was happy to oblige! He asked me what my favorite animal on the Ark was, and I said the penguins. He agreed to bring his picture the next time they visited. Many months passed and I didn’t really expect him to remember. Continue reading

Yarn Bombing the Skirball

<i>Forest, For the Trees</i> at the Skirball. Photo by Martha Benedict.

Forest, For the Trees at the Skirball.

On select dates from January 15 through 25, visitors to the Skirball will be able to experience Forest, For the Trees, a unique and beautiful installation by local collective Yarn Bombing Los Angeles (YBLA) and the Arroyo Arts Collective. YBLA have been creating public art with fabric in Los Angeles for a number of years—from community projects to guerilla “bombs”—in locations all over town. Perhaps you’ve seen a parking meter wearing a sweater or a museum façade covered in afghans? I sat down with Carol Zou, YBLA’s self-described “head poncho,” to discuss this whimsical environmental installation that will live (and grow!) in our Family Art Studio for a brief but lively and colorful period.

What exactly is a yarn bomb?
Yarn bombing is a form of self-initiated public art using knitting or crochet. A yarn bomb transforms any item in a dull, drab environment by wrapping it in a colorful crocheted or knitted yarn piece.

What is it about working with yarn, felt, and other fiber-based materials that appeals to people? It seems like, right now, people of all ages and stripes are knitting or doing needlepoint and macramé. Are we just in the midst of a crafty era or is there something about these practices that appeals to people universally?
There’s a couple of answers to this question, and I think it all has to do with the tension between tradition and technology. With the rise of a digital and virtual world, people are starting to become nostalgic for activities that involve working with their hands in a tactile way. Working with traditional technologies such as knitting or crocheting is also a response to the development of new technologies—an individual, handcrafted object becomes really special in this age of mass production. Additionally, people participate in knitting and crocheting in order to connect to past generations. During our workshops, people inevitably start talking about their grandmother or their aunt who did this type of work. If we look at this trend as a larger metaphor, I would say the renewed interest in fiber arts is about people’s ability to find their personal identity in a hyper-digitized world through connecting to their family traditions and handcrafting an individual object.

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How did YBLA get started? Continue reading

Harvest and Hospitality

sukkot2_skirball

Stop by the Skirball’s sukkah October 8–16, except October 9 and 13, to enjoy some snacks from Zeidler’s Cart or to just spend a quiet moment.

The Jewish holiday of Sukkot begins this evening. Lasting seven days, Sukkot commemorates the fall harvest and the desert sojourn of the Israelites following their liberation from slavery in Egypt. Like many Jewish holidays, it also connects Jews to the cycles of nature. During Sukkot, Jews traditionally spend time enjoying meals with friends and family in temporary shelters called sukkot (sing. sukkah), the Hebrew word for “tabernacle” or “covering.” The sukkah is built of natural materials such as bamboo, wood, and tree branches. Its temporary, fragile nature reminds us that the bounty of summer is behind us and that the autumn season will soon bring the shedding of leaves and the dying of greenery. As summer turns to fall in Southern California, we can also take this opportunity to focus on what it means to live in a drought-stricken area—hoping that nature will bring much-needed rains to us soon. Sukkot is a time to acknowledge climate change—be it the annual cycle or the pressing issues facing the world’s population today. Continue reading

Mini-Muse

The color of Peter’s bright red-orange snowsuit is what stands out in this illustration from the groundbreaking book The Snowy Day (1962). This and dozens of other original artworks by Keats can be seen in the exhibition The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats, now on view at the Skirball. Ezra Jack Keats, “After breakfast he put on his snowsuit and ran outside.” Final illustration for The Snowy Day, 1962. Collage and paint on board. Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi. Copyright Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.

The color of Peter’s bright red-orange snowsuit is what stands out in this illustration from the groundbreaking book The Snowy Day (1962). This and dozens of other original artworks by Keats can be seen in the exhibition The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats, now on view at the Skirball. Ezra Jack Keats, “After breakfast he put on his snowsuit and ran outside.” Final illustration for The Snowy Day, 1962. Collage and paint on board. Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi. Copyright Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.

Up in the gallery just a moment ago I overheard a teacher instructing his group of first graders: “Remember to use your ‘library voices’ in the museum.” I smiled and thought, “Good luck with that,” and then took a moment to reflect on how much has changed for museums in the last decade or so and how much my own approach has changed when it comes to developing exhibitions for the public—the whole public, kids and all.

Museums used to be sanctuaries of art and artifact where you would expect typical visitor behavior to include thoughtful reflection and quiet awe. Here the height of the art from the floor and the level of scholarship exhibited in the text might both be well above the heads of most children. The, shall we say, exuberance of children used to be wholly inconsistent with the notion of providing profound encounters with art, not to mention the “do not touch” policy necessary in most art installations. Increasingly, though, museums are adapting to the needs of children and the special ways they learn and view the world, and they are offering kids opportunities to experience art, history, and culture in ways that are meaningful to them. As it happens, I work for such an institution.

Above left: Artwork from The Snowy Day (1962) is hung at both a child’s and parent’s eye-level on walls painted with iridescent green, pink, purple, blue, and yellow snowflakes. Visitors can also make tracks in the special “snow” feature seen here in the foreground. Above right: The second gallery of the exhibition is a haven of participatory activities, such as story writing and collage making.

Above left: Artwork from The Snowy Day (1962) is hung at both a child’s and parent’s eye-level on walls painted with iridescent green, pink, purple, blue, and yellow snowflakes. Visitors can also make tracks in the special “snow” feature seen here in the foreground. Above right: The second gallery of the exhibition is a haven of participatory activities, such as story writing and collage making.

In my role as a curator, I still adhere to the notion that quiet contemplation is a form of “visitor engagement,” but as a mom, I am grateful for museums that not only tolerate my toddler Liam’s high energy and propensity for distraction, but actually respect his ability to perceive, appreciate, and learn from art. It is a challenge to develop content for a target audience who may be just starting to develop their language skills, who will last maybe thirty minutes in a gallery, and who might very well have other media competing for their attention while they’re in the museum space. These are challenges that I faced most recently while organizing the Skirball’s presentation of The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats. For this project, I found inspiration in my three-year-old mini-muse, Liam, and in the beautiful art and stories featured in the exhibition itself.

In Goggles! (1969), Peter, his dog Willie, and his friend Archie outwit a gang of bullies in order to keep the discarded motorcycle goggles they have found. Here Archie triumphantly tries on the goggles exclaiming, “Things look real fine now.” Ezra Jack Keats, “Archie laughed and said, ‘We sure fooled ’em, didn’t we?’“ Final illustration for Goggles!, 1969. Paint and collage on board.  Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi.  Copyright Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.

In Goggles! (1969), Peter, his dog Willie, and his friend Archie outwit a gang of bullies in order to keep the discarded motorcycle goggles they have found. Here Archie triumphantly tries on the goggles exclaiming, “Things look real fine now.” Ezra Jack Keats, “Archie laughed and said, ‘We sure fooled ’em, didn’t we?’“ Final illustration for Goggles!, 1969. Paint and collage on board. Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi. Copyright Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.

 

Liam modeling a pair of yellow “goggles” while visiting momma at work. These goggles are available for visitors to try on in the exhibition to encourage closer looking and to help see things from the character’s perspective.

Liam modeling a pair of yellow “goggles” while visiting momma at work. These goggles are available for visitors to try on in the exhibition to encourage closer looking and to help see things from the character’s perspective.

Children live in a highly visual world. Liam’s eyes perceive so much more than mine do—he can easily point to the tiniest speck of an airplane in the sky long before I am remotely aware of its existence. Continue reading

President’s Greeting: May/Jun 2014

2009.8.8_Rhythm Child Amphitheater_Mitch Maher (154)As a child in school, I loved field trips. Is there a child who doesn’t? The chance to escape the confines of the classroom and meet the wide and wondrous world was always a thrill. In the State of Israel, where I grew up, field trips were unforgettable adventures. Not only were we exploring a glorious landscape, we were seeing the sites of history inscribed there. One of my favorite sites was the famous Roman amphitheater in Caesarea. It was built two thousand years ago, and it is miraculously well-preserved. I was so impressed by its design: grand and spacious yet circular and intimate, and not a bad seat in the house. Music, dance, and drama performances are held there to this day. You sit not only side by side but face to face. Even better, everyone in the audience can see each other.

Enjoying the Skirball's Ziegler Amphitheater with one of my wonderful grandchildren.

Enjoying the Skirball’s amphitheater with one of my wonderful grandchildren.

The amphitheater is both a cultural space and a communal space. That is the ideal that inspires us at the Skirball—to be a place where both culture and community are celebrated.

As the school year comes to a close Continue reading

My Top Ten Puppet Festival Moments 2014

This past Sunday was my first time attending the Skirball’s annual Puppet Festival, and as soon as I reached the parking lot, it was obvious that everyone in attendance was filled with excitement and anticipation. Moms, dads, friends, and relatives were actively engaged in conversation while their children—many dressed in colorful costumes—were skipping with joy at the thought of seeing the myriad of puppets. Throughout the day, I observed many memorable moments; fortunately, talented photographer Peter Turman was there to capture some of them with his camera. The Puppet Festival was a full day of celebrating families, friends, and puppets! Click through the slideshow below to catch a glimpse of the day as seen through my favorite ten of Peter’s photographs.

All photos by Peter Turman

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