Daytona Beach News Journal

On October 27th, 2005, The Daytona Beach News Journal covered a residency I was part of at the Atlantic Center for the Arts and the event in which I performed a scene from Growing Up Linda.

At the residency, I assisted Janie Geiser on her performance-installation Spider’s Wheels. For my own project, I created the second installment of Growing Up Linda, Birthday Trauma 

More from Melanie Stawicki Azam

New Smyrna Beach  – In the pitch black of the Atlantic Center for the Arts theater, Greek soldiers – looking like they stepped off the side of an ancient vase – appear behind a lit white screen

“OK, here we go!” yells ACA master artist and puppeteer, Theodora Skipitares.

The music starts and the shadow puppets become animated, like cartoon characters, in a scene from Homer’s The Odyssey.

Through the black gauzy material under the screen, one can catch a glimpse of the half dozen puppeteers, eyes upturned and hands furiously moving the slender rods attached to each puppet.

“This is really a lot of complex stuff,” says Skipitares, a New York City multimedia artist, involved in puppetry since the 1980’s.

ACA’s campus has been abuzz this month with puppets – and these animated characters aren’t for children. These puppets are targeted for adults, doing political commentary, making sexual jokes and pushing the boundaries of reality.

“It’s more performance art; it’s more geared towards adult themes,” says ACA director Ann Brady. “I think it’s great, because it really expands people’s minds and horizons.”

ACA Master Artist Paul Zaloom, award-winning puppeteer and performance artist, says puppets have been used all over the world as an adult medium. Particularly in more repressive societies, they have been used to safely poke fun at political figures and tackle sensitive issues like religion, sex and bigotry.

“An actor couldn’t do in many countries what a puppet can do,” Zaloom says.

Nancy Lowden Norman, ACA’s director of advancement, said the idea for the puppet residency in part came out of a conversation she had with Heather Henson, who was here for last year’s ACA kite artists’ residency.

Henson, 34, who lives in Orlando, is the daughter of the renowned Muppet creator, the late Jim Henson. Henson is back at ACA this month, working with master artist Janie Geiser, an internationally recognized theater and film artist.

“Under my dad’s style,  (puppetry) was much more of a team,” Henson says. “This is really individual.”

Her experience at the ACA residency has been infused with a mix of different artistic styles and craftsmanship, she said. For her, puppetry is a fin art expressing ideas, visions and a multitude of topics. Henson is currently working on a puppet film about the Florida Everglades.

“I do sincerely love this world of this puppetry,” Henson says.

Next to Henson, Rhode Island artist, Marsian De Lellis […] is making marionettes for Geiser’s presentation, based on the obituaries of silent film stars.

A little farther down the studio, Bonnie Duncan is mixing her experiences as a professional dancer with puppetry. She has cardboard and doll-like puppets, but also wears costumes to inject herself into the scenes.

“It’s been very interesting, because we’re all very involved in our own work, but socially we all come together,” Says Duncan, 30, from Boston.

Take Chris Lin, 23, a Taiwanese-born artist whose work is all over campus. He has made more than a dozen “cardboard buddies” modeled after other artists and even three people from the community.

Cardboard is cheap and light-weight, he said, making it an art form that’s more accessible to the general public.

“I guess I just started with making helmets with cardboard, then heads, then whole bodies,” he says.

Lin, who now lives in Vancouver, adds unique features to the life-sized puppets, but their owners decide where to put them on campus and how to position them.

“The center is populated by these cardboard figures (so) you’re never alone,”  Henson says.

The 20 associates working with the three master artists-in-residency – Geiser, Skipitares, and Zaloom – come from all over the U.S. and abroad. Melinda Berkenwald, 33, from Argentina, is a visual artist, who came to the ACA residency to learn more about puppetry, movement and sound. Paolo Bertocchi 37, from Italy is a performer and visual artist, working on a video involving a robotic puppet.

“We try to stay on the cutting edge of what’s going on in the contemporary art world,’ says Brady.

“There’s a large number of artists who are doing a number of innovative, exciting things (with) puppets.”