Giant puppets exhibit silent opposition

The comment book for one Duluth Art Institute exhibit runs the gamut of responses: "Awesome!" "A little creepy ..." "Not my cup of tea," "This is a fabulous show," "Beautiful," "Scary!"...

Political puppet art form
(Clint Austin / News Tribune) Mary Plaster of Duluth, the curator of a show of political masks and puppets at the Duluth Art Institute galleries, stands with five puppets representing Vietnamese women. They were created by Peter Schumann in 1966 for performances by Bread and Puppet Theater that protested the Vietnam War. The exhibit, called "Effigies of Peace and Protest: The Art of Social Activism," runs through Nov. 4 in the John Steffl Gallery.

The comment book for one Duluth Art Institute exhibit runs the gamut of responses: "Awesome!" "A little creepy ..." "Not my cup of tea," "This is a fabulous show," "Beautiful," "Scary!"

When I walked into the gallery, curator and puppet-maker Mary Plaster was paging through the comments and laughing softly. She was happy to read the range of peoples' reactions, and saw it as a sign that the show was doing its job: stirring people's feelings, engaging their minds.

For those who are unfamiliar with the giant-puppet art form, this exhibit could be startling. Ten-foot-tall papier-mache owls and animals, ambiguous masks, radiant madonnas, quiet, grey mourning faces of women dressed in black: this group of beings is like nothing you've ever seen. It's like a crowded street in a dream, where the unlikely forms of natural forces and feelings are personified.

The show is an excellent brief history of the art form: Plaster, a local artist and activist, has been involved in the movement for a long time. She has included photos with it, too: the one that surprised me was a picture of a giant puppet -- a maternal skeleton, a "deathly mother" wearing a swastika, from a 1938 anti-Nazi parade in New York. I'd thought the protest-puppet art form was a product of the 1960s. But Plaster says it's far older than that, and has its origins in the street art of European Punch-and-Judy shows -- often making boisterous fun of the political leaders of the day.

About the curator


Plaster recently spent a summer at the world-famous Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont, working with its founder, Peter Schumann, a kind of grandfather of the form in the United States. When she left, she asked Schumann if she could bring a puppet to Duluth for this show. He responded by telling her to fill her van with puppets, and so the show contains wonderful examples of B&P works from the early 60s on -- see the moving group of Vietnamese women toward the center of the show.

Plaster also has worked over the years with Sandy Spieler. Spieler's Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater in Minneapolis has sent some tremendous puppets that have been in processions and performances, including "Prairie," a lovely woman whose long hands cradle a bowl of grain and flowers, and "Woods," a handsome and mock-frightening owl-like figure. Spieler, whose theater is a beloved tradition in South Minneapolis, will speak tonight in the context of the show.

The Art of Peace group in Duluth, now on hiatus, made some of the work in the show; and some of Plaster's puppets, recently used in the Liberty Parade during the Republican Convention in St. Paul, also are here.

The 46-year-old Plaster came to Duluth almost a decade ago from Minneapolis. She was born in Birmingham, Ala., at the time when Martin Luther King was in jail there. Her family left soon after and ended up in the Twin Cities, where Mary fell in love with all the great theater there: Heart of the Beast, Children's Theater, the Guthrie and many more.

She studied at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and worked across the courtyard of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in the Children's Theater prop shop, then transferred to the University of Minnesota to earn degrees in theater and art.

Puppets and politics

Recently, Plaster took her Gandhi puppet to participate in protest parades during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul.

The Liberty Parade -- one of the processions Plaster's Gandhi was in -- was organized by the Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Intermedia Arts, Forecast Public Art and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. It was meant to provide a place for all sorts of people to voice their opinions.


The activist Backbone Group produced puppets for that parade and other events during the convention. Chris Lutter, a Twin Cities artist who works with Backbone on puppets, said on Marya Morsted's "Art is Patriotic" KFAI radio show: "Puppets are useful in political action ... puppets are more engaging than people, and can be funny and poignant. People look for something larger than themselves ... [and puppets are] more endearing than politicians."

Backbone Group's artistic director Bill Moyers said in an interview last week, "We're using imagery to help the progressive movement make the transition from being defined by what we oppose, to being defined by what we propose.

"It's easier to be clever and cynical, and harder to be beautiful and propositional. ... We want to demonstrate that progressives have a beautiful vision for the future, and that being part of a movement is not dreary. It's a fun and exciting thing."

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