New Haven Registrar (Press)

On  April 8, 2006, The New Haven Registrar characterized my work at the Guilford Art Center with a “wicked humor and edginess”.

At the time, I was showing an installation from Growing Up Linda in Art in Motion exhibition. Growing Up Linda was an ensemble actor-puppetry performance in which a woman who believes she’s the daughter of a famous ice cream mogul must come to terms with her troubled past.  In Birthday Trauma, a scene from Growing Up Linda, Linda recounts the events of her fifth birthday when she first started communicating with food.

From “Guilford Art Center exhibit offers chance to see marionettes as the works of art they are” by Judy Birke:

GUILFORD — Who hasn’t, at one time or other, been enchanted by a puppet show?

Whether the memory stems from those backyard puppet shows of one’s youth, the wacky Punch and Judy shows on early television, the brilliant artistry of Jim Henson’s

Sesame Street productions, or the sophisticated theatrical productions like “The Warrior Ant,” in which larger-than-life puppets are manipulated by visible puppeteers, the art of puppetry seems to hold an endearing and enduring place within the greater pantheon of performing arts.

The current exhibit at the Mill Gallery at the Guilford Art Center brings back all that enchantment, taking one on a fun-filled tour of the world of puppetry.

“Art in Motion” is a wonderful exhibition in which 17 of the top puppeteers from the Northeast were invited to show their wares and introduce viewers to the art and craft of puppetry. The show’s emphasis, however, is not on performance, but rather on the artistry of puppetry, revealing the particular beauty of puppets as handmade works of moveable sculpture that, although they must perform practically in performance, are also art objects in their own right, visually appealing and skillfully crafted.

The show offers one a rare opportunity to observe these fascinating figures close up and personal, to consider the technical skill of their construction and to get an understanding of just how all those strings are pulled in order to deliver the desired embrace, pat on the back or punch.

Focusing on all sorts of configurations, sizes and character types, the presentation includes fine examples of all the major puppet styles — shadow, rod, hand, mask or string marionette. Each individual puppet in the show is well worthy of high praise.

Most puppeteers are both artists and performers, possessing an ability to tell stories that can be understood by all ages in all languages, and although the primary focus here is on the individual figures, there is sufficient referential material to allow one to comprehend and imagine the expressive content of their context, all adding to the show’s fun

The presentation reveals puppets as very thoughtful fellows with all sorts of interests. Many are concerned with social issues, the context of their narratives often based on history and folklore.

Jim Napolitano’s (North Haven) hand-held table-top puppets, “Three Strong Women,” based on a folk tale, are substantive figures who draw one into their world as they tackle issues of gender, strength, size and power. New Haven’s Leslie Weinberg and Robert Bresnick’s touching figure, “James Mars” is part of a presentation that tells a coming-of-age story about a black slave from Connecticut. Elisa Hevia’s (Brooklyn) elegant “Geisha,” created in the traditional Banraku style that originated in 10th-century Japan, ponders the conflict between social obligation and human emotions.

Some puppets have concerns that strike a contemporary note.

Mary Hildebrand Nagler’s (Storrs) hand/rod puppet, “Gwenderfigg,” an Icelandic troll that tells stories that encourage the viewer to care for the natural world and each other, has a real physical presence. Bonnie Berkowitz’s (Bloomsbury, N.J.) “The Bard” has political concerns. Armed with a golden pen, the hand/rod table- top puppet considers issues regarding the news coverage of the Iraq war.

Some puppets conjure up original narratives.

Eric, Brian and Robin Torbeck’s (Bar Harbor, Maine) “Captain Cutie” is a playful hand-held puppet, one of the figures from “Tales of the Nest,” a collection of fairy tales narrated by three slightly neurotic, newly hatched birds.

Marsian De Lellis’ (Pawtucket, R.I.) “Linda Carvel, Heir to the Throne of the Carvel Cake Empire,” portrays the quirky life and times of a fictitious character, with wicked humor and edginess.

Some puppets are just plain beautiful in their aesthetic appeal.

Frederick W. Thompson’s (New Haven) stunning works, for example, range from the lyrical legance of a velvet-costumed “Pierrot,” a full marionette, to the emotion- laden “Hag,” a head-and-shoulder marionette. “Old Lady” by Ulysses Jones is a convincing vision of self-contained solitude. And Bobbi Nidz’s (Niantic) marionette “Magic Bird of Fire,” displays a languid foray of color and agility.

Some puppets, like Sarah Frechette’s (Georgia) marionettes, “Billie and the Butterfly” and “Gruff Goat,” and Bob Fappiano’s (New Preston) “Gillus” and “Dulsee,” have a whimsical energy that bring a smile to one’s face.

In one work, “New York City Scene,” Marc Weiner (Stamford) creates a mini- environment in which the stage is designed for the head of the puppeteer to be inserted as a puppet head which interacts with the other performing characters.

It’s an engaging, enchanting show that is a treat for all ages. Judy Birke of New Haven is a freelance writer and art consultant.