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Paperhand Puppets inspire Chapel Hill teachers, kids through art program

Paperhand production illustrates the life of a single water droplet, following it in full circle from raincloud to raincloud and everything in-between.
Paperhand production illustrates the life of a single water droplet, following it in full circle from raincloud to raincloud and everything in-between.

When you are the puppet master of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, you have to take on grasshoppers eventually. 

Paperhand Puppet Intervention co-director Donovan Zimmerman took on 11.

In this year’s Artists in Residence program, the Chapel Hill Public Arts Commission is taking a step up by connecting more than one school with a local artist. 

Unlike previous programs in which only one area teacher was connected to an artist, all 11 in Chapel Hill/Carrboro are involved in the program, which started this summer.

Dan Cefalo, a chair member on the Chapel Hill Public Arts Commission, said the arts commission decided last year that it was time to connect to more teachers and students than ever before.

“The idea came up to a program where we can actually teach teachers a way of doing a particular art that they may not be use to doing or something they weren’t doing in the classroom traditionally,” he said. “The school board cooperated with us, and we were able to get all 11 art school teachers from Chapel Hill and Carrboro to meet with the head of the Paperhand Puppets.”

Hannah Murphy, an Ephesus Elementary School art teacher and participant, said the workshop has really given her confidence in a new skillset that she's excited to use in the classroom.

“Not only is it a great experience for us as artists to be working with this company, but we really wanted to be doing something that was comfortable and pragmatic that we could take right back to the classroom to teach right away,” she said. “The kids get really into the storytelling, and it taps into their imagination and they just sort of go wild when they get the opportunity to have that voice behind a puppet they created.”

Cefalo said after the two workshops, the teachers will have the choice of putting on their own production with the kids at their schools or bringing back the work to Paperhand Puppets to show how they applied what they learned. He said this matchup is important for future programs with other local artists and their community.

“Our big push with this, more than anything, was expanding the scope and reach of these teachers and what they are doing and give them something that reaches back out to the community," he said. "(Zimmerman) has such a great program that he is running, it was a logical marriage."

Zimmerman said the variety of puppets possible made it necessary to narrow down what was to be taught in the workshop and, eventually, to the students — and rod puppets became the prime choice. During the first workshop, the teachers were taught how to make paper mache heads, Paperhand Puppet style.

“We just use recycled material except for the tape, we find old newspaper and paper bags for the paper mache and cornstarch and the bamboo sticks are fairly cheap,” he said. “Each person made their own puppet head which included a unicorn, a shaggy monster, a walrus and few other characters that the teachers made." 

Zimmerman said the art of puppetry helps form connections to humanity and the people in the community.

“I think it is important to foster ways that help you connect with things instead of devices like video games. It's an interesting art form because it brings different types of art together,” he said. “You sketch it, you sculpt it, you paint it and, when you are doing a mask, it involves dance and theater, and it includes writing and storytelling. I find that that synthesis of art is what draws me to puppetry and that’s why it’s good for everyone. “

Murphy said that what she learned in the workshops will go directly back to the students and get their creative juices moving.

“(The workshop) has given me another tool in my tool belt and another process that I can teach the kids," she said. "There are always new ideas and they are great to have — I am always looking for new inspiration and this is just one other thing we can use to get the kids excited about the visual arts."

Zimmerman said the program is a great way to get people engaged with the unique art form of puppetry and one another.

“I care about this community and I care about the art form that I have dedicated my life to," he said. 

“So it was a natural thing to connect with the local art teachers to spread some of that puppet love to the students.”


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