Once upon a time, an artist mom sewed three hand puppets representing her son and two daughters. When one daughter turned fourteen, she took a local rec department class in puppetry. She gleefully holds up her puppet in a grainy 1976 photo in an Ann Arbor News feature about the class. Twenty-five years later, this past January, Naia Venturi opened the Dreamland Theater in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town. This small but lively theater showcases offbeat original puppet shows, puppet improv, open-mike nights, musicians, invitation-only art film screenings, and, this month, an exhibit of fifty-five of Venturi’s arresting puppets.
Venturi made — by hand — about half of the marionettes and rod, shadow, and hand puppets in the exhibit, which range from menacing to campy to wonderfully weird. She assembles some from found objects such as vintage doll heads and colorful ribbons of industrial wire, but most are built from scratch.
Six or seven grapefruit-size, moonlike heads staring fixedly from a cluttered desk in Venturi’s Ypsilanti studio-home reveal various stages of puppet evolution. She roughs out heads from claylike Model Magic or a built-up ball of ropy sprayable foam. On some heads she layers cut strips of plaster bandages to build up cheekbones, eyebrow ridges, and other facial features. After constructing and painting a body, Venturi sews outfits for her creations that range from the Mardi Gras-lurid costume festooning a Punch puppet representing President Bush to the torn and stained sweater hanging on a wild-eyed Unabomber character.
Other handmade puppets in the exhibit include two gaunt figures representing Ignorance and Want, a cheery giant potato chip, and a sexy female postal worker with glass cat eyes. (The postal worker played the sweetheart of the Unabomber character in Venturi’s recent show Chemical Traces.)
Expressive, emotional faces, delicacy, and a tone of appealing weirdness shading into the sinister characterize Venturi’s puppets. I liked a wacky lamb with a skewed, Picasso-perspective face that Venturi named “Suretogo,” as in “Everywhere that Mary went . . .” A white shadow puppet of a snowy hill with a bare tree comes from a recent collaborative art project with local poet Arwulf Arwulf. When Arwulf read a line about how the snow was full of eyes, Venturi whisked away a shield masking the hill so that light streamed through the two dozen eyes she’d cut into the snow.
The show also includes puppets Venturi’s collected over the years, including pouty kewpies and a glaring Indonesian-style man plucked from eBay, and you can see the three puppets Venturi’s mom made a generation ago, including the pigtailed girl in an orange-brown dress representing Venturi as a girl (photo, lower right corner), displayed with her “brother” and “sister.” The show continues at the Dreamland Theater through July 13, by appointment only; call 485-3454.