Tag Archives: america

Feeling Minnesota

Pardon my relative silence on this blog, but these last couple months have been a swirl of personal and professional goings on.  The catalyst of this particular swirl is my big move northward to Montreal.  The very thought of relocating oneself geographically has always triggered in me a deeper examination of the now, a reminder to take stock in absolutely everything.

I’ve moved away from my beloved hometown for love and study.  In the fall, I’ll begin an interdisciplinary PhD in the Humanities at Concordia University in Montreal.  The thesis proposed is continued research and apprenticeship with the traditional Chinese shadow puppet makers remaining in hopes or validating their work in a broader context of China, folk arts and inherited practices as well as working towards a best practices for a living archive of their process.  It’s a five-year program.  You’re probably thinking I’m bonkers right about now.  You’re probably right.

But, these giant leaps of faith towards love and passion become a necessity instead of a choice at some point in one’s life.

So, off I went – northward into the land of maple syrup and socialized medicine.

As a little treat to myself, knowing I would be leaving so soon, I spent my last few months in Minnesota following up on a trail of Chinese shadow puppets right in my beloved hometown of Minneapolis.  Partially, to satisfy my curiosity and partially to establish a relationship should I ever be in need of a collection to study.

I contacted the new curator of Asian art, Yang Liu, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art awhile back letting him know I was the local Chinese shadow puppet hunter and I’d heard a few old rumors that the MIA might be in possession of some.  He said he wasn’t sure, but would I like to come chat with him?  Of course I would.

Yang’s office is tucked into a cozy corner of the MIA’s back offices.  His office is small, neatly kept and predictably stuffed with Asian art books.  Yang is a warm and attentive art enthusiast with nothing but helpful ideas and generosity to share with a young puppet hunter.  Within an hour of sharing stories, we confirmed that there were some puppets in their vaults and I was welcome to come take a look.

I returned on an otherwise depressing day of April snowstorms and was whisked straight away to the collections’ holding room by Ken Krenz who somehow manages to keep track of the museums countless objects.  Just being in the back halls of the museum had me breathless.  Without hesitation, he brought out a small package of shadow puppet heads wrapped in tissue paper.

lady head






IMG_2200The imbedded hair follicle pattern in this leather tells you it’s most likely Donkey hide.

The collection is miniature in comparison to some I’ve seen; a hundred or so shadow puppet heads from the Northeast region of China.  They’re most likely from the 1900s, perhaps even from after the Revolution.  But, still.  They’re always beautiful, always educational, always motivating.  I poured through them carefully, taking more nuanced notes and feeling giddy at their touch.  I also marveled at the difference in my work and level of connoisseurship compared to even six months ago.  I knew what I was looking for, what notes to take and what to snap photos of.

Because the museum has known so little about these objects, not even sure if they were Chinese in origin, I’ve offered my services in exchange for a relationship with them.  I’ll come back and check on them every now and then and offer additional information when it arises.  There is something comforting about having a place to return to and a collection to familiarize myself with in the place I have always considered my home.  If nothing else, it’s helping to preserve the things I love in the places I love.

Someday, Minneapolis, I hope I can share these and so many others with you.  You’d love ‘um.

Thanks for reading~


A ChineseAmerican Shadow Play

As a theatre artist who researches, I see no better way to put my discoveries and theories into practice than through performance.   Setting up a project centered around my year of research before I had even left for China last year may seem presumptuous, but luckily I presumed right.  It is my next best step.

I’ve thought about my little shadow show continuously for the past two years.  The seed of it has been there for much longer.   Carrying a living idea around in your pocket is such a good way to enrich the fieldwork experience.  Those chaotic and quiet moments were calmed or enthused by reorienting my research around this little idea.

And, as much as I probably could have used a break this spring, there is no better way to start this process of unraveling the experience – no matter how messy or impossible it may seem.  And it certainly is unraveling.

With a story outline in hand, my trusty collaborators and I dove into our first session of intensive rehearsals a few weeks ago with the objective of simply tearing the story apart and putting it back together again.  What started out as a simple story of a shadow puppeteering Grandfather’s journey through 1930’s China up until present day has become a much richer, much more dimensional story in just two weeks.   We’ve intentionally left it an adolescent 3rd draft in order to give us more room to play when the puppets have arrived.

For these three weeks, I’m in the studio day and night finalizing designs, cutting puppets, assembling lights, ordering projector bulbs, assembling the shadow puppet screen, painting, scenery building (etc, etc) to begin visually assembling the show.   This is the part I’m used to and comfortable exploring inside of.  I could sit in the dark making things dance with light all the day/night long.

Testing shadows in larger scale on the overhead projector.

I was a bit nervous setting up my first cutting studio in the US.  After my 2008 apprenticeship, I tried to cut a few times at home only to realize that I hadn’t learned enough.  I was so frustrated in the first 2 attempts that I gave up indefinitely.  My intention during my Fulbright apprenticeship was to get to a place where I could continue studying completely on my own, and – big sigh of relief – I think I’m there.

My modest puppet cutting station.  It’s usually a lot cleaner than that (sort of).  Oh and I’m not drinking Mountain Dew – that’s my Chinese-style sharpening stone water container with a hole punched in the cap.

While I still have years to go before I’ll get anywhere close to mastery, my hand-cutting puppet skills have already improved in the two weeks I’ve been cutting daily.  I’m realizing just how different the cowhides are (handmade, machine made, top-cut, second layer, color, finish) and how they determine the moisture content before you cut.  And the blades, the blades! My first attempt to sharpen my knives at home proved to be, yet again, hair-greying.  I had brought home two coarse sharpening blocks that were so soft, they ground down with each stroke, leaving me a concave groove in exactly the wrong place.  I felt doomed.  I fretted and bought every sharpening stone in Home Depot only to find they all had the same problem. Finally, after I told myself to give it a rest for a day or two – I stumbled upon the one red block I’d purchased in Xi’an somewhere.  I tried it and exploded with a trail of happy expletives.   This was the stone!  I could sharpen on it without sharpening it into a sandy mess.  And with it, I’ve been slowly honing my hand-sharpening nuance.

We’ve still got along way to go: another intensive rehearsal period of integrating text with the visual world and then another break to finish up things on the production side.  Performance dates/venues are still in flux, but the show will be performed sometime in May/June in Minneapolis.  Of course, I’ll post about it here.

Thanks for reading~

Some of the puppets in progress~

Note: while the my designs draw heavily from contemporary Cultural Revolution puppet design from China, they are all original.The young mother character: unpainted and unjoined.  Handcut cowhide.  14″ tall.

The central Grandfather character as an older man.  Unpainted and unjoined.  Handcut cowhide. 14″ tall.

Just a note about funding for the arts: I’m quite sure Minnesota’s arts funding opportunities is much of what makes our arts community (and henceforth our city) so vibrant, interesting and diverse.  This project has been funded by an Artists Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, a Next Step Grant from the Minnesota Regional Arts Council and a Puffin Foundation Grant.