Posts Tagged ‘park slope’

Michael Leach and the Hand of God

August 8, 2010

Michael Leach is the chief puppeteer of the Puppetworks in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Below is an example of the work that he and the troupe do.

Puppets are obviously not as expressive as human actors. And they can’t do the things that animated characters can do. So what do they do best in terms of offering unique creative possibilities? Nothing. That’s why I tell people who come to shoot a commercial with us that they should just do CGI. It’s easier. That’s the crabby answer. The better answer is that they engage us on a deeper level because people know they’re inanimate. They’re doing things that people who are alive wouldn’t do. In a way, it’s like an actor playing to the fourth wall. Puppets do that. The secret is already out when you go to a puppet show. It’s called a show. Right away we’re saying, “It’s not real. These things are not alive.” There’s not the belief that’s hard to get away from in live theater where you sort of always imagine that what you’re seeing is real. We pretend all along. Because of that, puppets affect the imagination in a unique way. You can almost think of puppets as a toy for the audience.

How did you get involved in puppetry? I was an industrial color matcher. I’d started as a lowly pot washer. I was a real go-getter. And what happens is that go-getters eventually get a twitch in their eye and pain in their chest and say that no amount of money is going to be worth the amount of work they’re putting in. I had no life. It was all work. Then I saw in ad in the Village Voice saying that Macy’s needed people to help out with their Santaland holiday display. So some friends and I thought we’d apply and all go be elves for a month. It turned out that I was the only one who went through with the joke. My job there was helping to run the puppet theater. One day like Pinocchio I snuck backstage and saw the puppets. I asked if I could try it out. I picked up a marionette and worked it like I’d been working it forever. That was 20 years ago.

As a puppeteer do you feel like you’re primarily upholding a particular artistic tradition or do you feel more like you’re forging a new one? Oh, there’s nothing new under the sun. If I had to pick one of those two options I’d say I was upholding tradition. You can always do something different, though. The first caveman who waved a stick and grunted and pretended that the stick was something else — there was your first puppet. Man’s ultimate creative aim was to fashion something that was going to be alive. There are so many possibilities for how you can do that. And the way things are going only serves to make our theater more unique. The more CGI the better. We do traditional marionette shows. That’s our niche. Being in a niche is what keeps us alive.

Do puppets have a life of their own? I’ve got to be careful about answering that question. You can get into puppet bullcrap. People accept it if you say that a certain guitar has an attitude. Say that about a puppet and people think you’re a crazy. You can also get into that artist crap where puppeteers — it’s usually ones who are new — say they can feel the puppet’s energy coursing out of their fingertips and controlling itself and all that junk. Puppets have attitudes and characteristics the same way that a car does. There are things that certain puppets want to do and things they don’t want to do. They’re tools. A great puppeteer, Paddy Blackwood, said that you find out what the puppet wants to do and what you want to do and then you find a compromise and have a show. I think that sounds about right.

What was the last creative thing that you did? I made myself an egg cream, which is the highest art there is. In the puppet field, I’m one of the best. I’ve done 800 shows over 20 years. But a good egg cream? That’s the hand of god.


George Horner Signals from Union Street

April 19, 2010

I’d noticed that someone was putting colorful signs adorned with quirky phrases in the window of an apartment near where I live. So I dropped an envelope in the mail slot that I thought belonged to the sign-maker. In it, I included a message asking to talk with whomever was responsible for the signs. A man named George Horner responded.

How long have you been putting your signs in the window? Well, ever since we bought our house here in Park Slope in 1991. But I’ve been making the posters for longer than that. I studied art at graduate school at the University of Chicago and the city had a large flea market on the south side that was sort of interesting. I’d go there and I would see these posters tied on to telephone polls and that sort of thing. They were mostly for blues clubs — “Bobby Blue Bland at the Starlite Lounge” or something. They were really beautiful. That was back in 1979 and ’80. I started collecting them; they just had great visual appeal. I thought maybe there was some way that I could incorporate these posters in my own art production. At first, I sort of took the style and used it for posters announcing art shows that I had in Chicago. Eventually I started doing phrases or things that I heard: Things that my family said; something my brother said. The signs become these personal statements. Or maybe private statements made public. I guess it’s cathartic or something. I sometimes get the feeling that I’m an artist and the signs are an extension of my studio. You put the stuff in the window and it becomes street art and you’re accessing an audience that you don’t have access to normally. You’re giving an aesthetic experience to people who don’t seek it. I work at a gallery in Manhattan called the Shafrazi gallery that’s run by a guy named Tony Shafrazi. He was the one who walked into the MoMA and spray-prainted Guernica. It was a very radical approach. It was art on top of art; not really vandalism. The stuff I do tends to be lighter and more humorous. Like, I was in Chicago and I was hanging out with a friend and it was gorgeous outside and I said, “It’s really nice out.” He turned to me and said, “Why don’t you keep it out?” He actually died a few years ago in an automobile accident. That was tragic. Really a nice guy. I did a poster in his honor. So one of the posters says, “It’s nice out, I’ll keep it out.” A huge majority of the posters are these phrases that amuse me. I just figure that maybe someone else will get some kind of enjoyment out of it. It’s different experience than going into an art gallery. I enjoy that. It’s also — I grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and there’s a long history of Mexican artists working in the cement industry. I think the Alamo Cement factory is in San Antonio. So you come across these humble homes that have fantastic cement animals or a big cement sombrero wishing well in the front yard. It’s like they don’t have the money to have a nice house so they embellish it in another way. I always think about that also. It’s nice to come across these things that are unexpected. I think that’s why I put my signs in the windows. Is that answer okay? I ramble sometimes.

Do you have a favorite sign? I had a young boy on my block come up to me once and say he remembered seeing a sign that changed him. That’s really powerful for this young Puerto Rican kid to say that a poster that I put in the window changed his life! The sign said, “Enlighten up.” Just a simple pun changed his way of thinking. My mother died about three years ago and we were very very close although she continued to live in Texas and I’ve been in New York for 25 years. But the things she said are quite dear to me. There was a very funny one that I put out often put up around Christmas time that says, “I always wanted to watch for Christmas.” I was talking to my mom once and I’d told her that I’d finished a biography about Andy Warhol. I told that I’d read that as a child Warhol developed St. Vitus Dance, which is a nervous disorder that makes it painful to be touched. I think that’s why he liked to be voyeuristic; why he liked to watch rather than touch. So my mom turned around and said, “I always wanted to watch for Christmas.” Whenever I put that sign up people will ask me if I got that watch I wanted — they don’t get the joke. I love that.

What do you do with all the signs you’ve made? You must have hundreds. Down in my basement I’ve got a big stack of them. The company that I order from is the Tribune Showprint Company in Earl Park, Indiana. I think it’s the oldest continually operating printing company in the United States. I just call ’em up over the phone for the most part. I’ll be specific about the colors, but I let them include whatever images they think are appropriate. It became a surprise to me what I was going to get. I think this is like no big whoop to them. They never blink an eye. There was one that my mother said — My mom grew up in Shawnee, Oklahaoma. It was very strict. It was kind of a “You can’t screw standing up because you might start dancing” kind of place. But she must’ve been a wild child. She once said the phrase, “Stop it / Again / Quit it / Some more / Pull it out / deeper.” I love stuff like that. A friend of mine said something not too long ago: Good from far, but far from good. I loved that one. I think he was talking about some girlfriend he had that was a butter face.

What’s the last creative thing that you did? Well, I curated the Keith Haring show at the Shafrazi gallery that’s up right now. That was a very satisfying thing. But that’s kind of work. Lately, one of the things that I’ve been doing is making these things called dummkopfs — German for “dumb head.” I had a bunch of drum heads that I had laying around and I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away because there’s something nice about them. So what I did was paint a bunch of images on these drum heads; mostly found images. There was this artist that was putting stickers of Bob Saget everywhere, putting them on newspaper boxes and things like that. I took a photo of the sticker and I painted that on one of the heads. It’s a head on a head. I also help take care of the community garden near my house. I just cleaned out the dogshit and planted some hostas.