"My mother is a master puppeteer" isn't what you usually expect to hear from someone. "My mom's a nurse," or "my mother is a lawyer," sure, but puppeteer? Never. Yet that's exactly the case for Heather Rose Johnson, owner and operator of Charleston Garment Manufactory.
Quirky shock value aside, when you think about it, puppetry is quite the profession — the art form has hung in there for almost 5,000 years. Now Johnson plans to make it accessible to budding puppeteers, or the artistically curious, this month by hosting her mother, April Karlovit, in an open studio artist-in-residency program with workshops and performances open to the Charleston public May 12-18.
For Johnson, puppetry is the art of her childhood. Unlike so many kids today who sneak off with iPads or iPhones to play the latest electronic games, Johnson helped her mother create stage sets, dolls, and puppets and performed alongside her in schools. The experience launched Johnson's budding interest in textiles and the arts, a trajectory that led her into the world of fashion where she thrives today with her design studio above Sweet 185 on King Street. She teaches, freelances for designers in the United States and Canada, and consults to wannabe fashionistas, helping them design and develop new product lines.
So, you might ask Johnson why, given her busy career in fashion, she would host a puppetry workshop. For her, it's obvious. Puppetry, textiles, and visual storytelling are interdisciplinary. Johnson feeds off of the creative stimulation of collaborating with other artists and designers.
"Puppets have been used for fashion, or dolls have been used for fashion, forever," she explains, turning to a book on her studio shelf titled Theatre de la Mode, that her mother gifted her a few years back.
The book documents the true story of haute couture Parisians who refused to let World War II destroy their industry or their spirit. Realizing that they had neither materials nor a market for their fanciful creations, they chose to keep their art alive on a miniature scale, designing intricately detailed dresses, gloves, hats, and shoes, and fitting them on tiny wire-made frames. Some even had to use bicycles to power the sewing machines. Artists, set designers, and theatrical lighting experts jumped on board to design elaborate stages and backdrops, creating tiny dramatizations in the face of tyranny and oppression. When the show went live in March 1945, Parisians were more than ready for a little fantasy and distraction. Nearly 100,000 visitors flocked to see the touring theatre of dazzling "models" less than two feet tall. Theatre de la Mode traveled from Paris to London, Leeds, Barcelona, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Vienna, and New York.
"It was a way to keep fashion alive," says Johnson, who admits to shedding "happy tears" when she pours through the book's pages, admiring the passion and attention to detail the puppeteer used. Pointing to a perfectly framed stage of figures against an operatic backdrop, she exclaims, "If this doesn't scream 'puppets in theater,' I don't know what does."
To that end, Johnson and her mother are collaborating during the artist-in-residency
on the construction of large marionettes to be used in a 2015 fashion show, and to be photographed once a year in a fashion catalogue Johnson is designing titled Made to Measure, Cut to Order. She plans to invite fashion designers to contribute. The designs, rather than being eclipsed by the pout of a supermodel, will come to life in an art-forward setting. "You can see the proportions, and where it hits the figure. Then if you like it and you want to order it, it gets cut to your measurements, cut to order. That's my long-term daydream. I want to experiment with how fashion is presented. I want to shake it up."
Workshop participants will get their own chance to shake things up learning to make simple hand puppets, viewing a slide show by Karlovit, and having a chance to work in short improvisations using hand and rod and tabletop puppets. Post puppetry workshop, Johnson and her mother will give a short performance of Chaim's Dream on the long porch outside her studio. The two plan to animate the puppets in a way that allows guests to observe the "tricks" of the craft. Rather than disguise themselves in pure black, or hide behind a stage, they plan to wear all white and use minimal staging.
"Sometimes we each operate individual puppets," says Johnson, "but the magical thing is when we actually move one puppet together, using four hands instead of two, so the puppet really comes to life and has so much movement and expression."
There is no dialogue, no musical accompaniment, just a choreographed story told by movement alone, a vividly refreshing alternative to our society's onslaught of multimedia.
"It's a dreamlike and riveting art," concludes Johnson. "I've been doing puppetry with my mother all my life. We've rehearsed." She pauses and laughs. "But there's improv. We don't always know what's going to happen."
For more information on the week-long residency, children's puppetry workshop, and live puppet performances, visit chsgarmentmanufactory.com.