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Wendy M. Levy/The Commons

From left, Rocio Cancel, Cynthia Parker-Houghton, Ben Bornstein, and Meg Wilson test out their masks.

Town and Village

Time to make the puppets

Bread and Puppet Theater shows how they create the magic at Fulcrum Arts’ annual Birthday Bash

BRATTLEBORO—To celebrate their second year in their West River Road studios, ceramicist Natalie Blake and glassblower Randi F. Solin threw a party on Sept. 26, complete with a mask-making class, live music, combination bonfire/corn roast, a chocolate station, and a fire-spinning presentation.

During the afternoon, while staff members pulled huge burlap sacks of corn through the studio to prepare for the evening’s festivities, the huge tables where Natalie Blake and her crew normally create pottery were transformed into a mask-making workshop.

Members of the Bread and Puppet Theater came down from Glover in their colorful passenger van to teach attendees the secrets of making oversized papier-mâché masks.

The Bread and Puppet Theater, founded in New York City’s Lower East Side in 1963 by Peter Schumann, is known for its politically-aware presentations, which typically incorporate hand-made puppets as tall as houses. Since then, the troupe has moved operations to the Northeast Kingdom.

One of Bread and Puppet’s tenets is, art should be accessible and cost very little. Their “Why Cheap Art Manifesto” announces, “People have been thinking too long that art is a privilege of the museums and the rich. Art is not business!” and “Art has to be cheap and available to everybody.”

On Friday, this principle was in evidence.

Joe Therrien, who led the workshop with his colleagues Ben Bornstein, Rocio Cancel, and José Sanabria, told attendees, “We’re going to sculpt with cardboard.”

Cardboard is ubiquitous, they said. Visit any liquor store and one can obtain piles of it for free.

At the workshop, students learned how to cut, bend, and staple pieces of cardboard to form their mask’s foundation. In the center of the tables, the Bread and Puppet team placed big boxes — made of cardboard, of course — of various lengths of cardboard strips.

Lisa Blake, Natalie Blake’s mother, began stapling bits of cardboard together and announced, “I’m going to be an elephant.”

“Some of these cardboard strips are too long,” she said, as she worked on the elephant’s trunk.

“If they are too long, you can just rip them,” Sanabria pointed out to her.

“Cardboard has a grain, like wood,” Therrien told the students, adding, “you can use that to your advantage” when deciding if a piece should provide flexibility or rigidity.

Therrien then picked up a thin, stretchy strip of black rubber, demonstrating another cheap source of mask material.

He instructed students to ask their local bike shop for discarded bicycle inner tubes.

“They’ll give you a bunch for free,” Therrien said. “They’re super useful.”

Sanabria grabbed a handful of foam strips and brought them to the tables. The foam was rescued from “old couch cushions,” Therrien said, noting just one free or cheap source of the material.

“Use the foam on the inside, and it makes the mask so soft,” Sanabria said, as he touched his face and smiled.

Across the table, Meg Wilson began constructing a mask that quickly took on the shape of a bear’s head.

“My face is too puffy,” she complained.

Cancel consoled her, and said, “there’s never too much anything.”

“I prefer to exaggerate,” Cancel added.

Seemingly satisfied with her instructions, Wilson resumed stapling.

Abram Newton, age 7, took a break from stapling his toothy-faced mask to see what the other pupils were up to.

Seeing Wilson’s mask, Newton said, “That’s total bear!”

About a half-hour into the stapling portion of the mask-making workshop, Therrien announced it was time for the papier-mâché part of the day’s instructions.

“For papier-mâché, you need two things: paper and mâché,” Therrien said, noting that some papier-mâché instructions recommend buying fancy paper to rip up and soak in the mâché solution.

“You can use any thick paper, or burlap, or any porous fabric or material,” he said.

One can also use cardboard.

The Bread and Puppet troupe pointed to a collection of five-gallon buckets stuffed with squares of cardboard soaking in water.

They pulled pieces out while Therrien explained how to turn cardboard into papier-mâché.

“Soak the cardboard for 15 minutes,” then remove, and peel the layers apart. The exterior sheets are mostly used because they are flat and smooth, but “use the ribbed interior if you want texture,” Therrien said.

The mâché is simple cornstarch and water, Therrien said, noting he has tried other solutions but this one has worked the best.

“Use cornstarch — it’s cheap,” he said.

“Mâché lasts,” he said, pointing to a table filled with colorful masks from Bread and Puppet’s collection, brought to serve as examples.

“These masks have decades of use,” Therrien noted.

He also told the story of a truck he once drove while performing in Puerto Rico with the Bread and Puppet Theater.

“The dashboard was made of papier-mâché,” he said, sharing the thrilling experience of driving around San Juan in that truck, noting it also had no rear-view or right-side mirrors.

He said to make the mâché, fill a pot holding approximately ten gallons five-sixths full of water, and bring to a boil. In another pot, mix very cold water and “about two yogurt cups full” of cornstarch together to form a sludge “almost like a pancake mix, maybe a little thinner.”

Then, slowly pour the slurry into the hot water, stirring or whisking vigorously the whole time.

“You want it as smooth as you can,” Therrien asserted, noting lumps were bad.

Lisa Blake, who said she is an experienced cook and has dealt with lumps, said, “You can use a strainer to get out the lumps."

Then, when the mâché is mixed, begin soaking the paper or fiber pieces in it.

Therrien told students to first rip each edge before dunking the cardboard in the mâché solution, though.

“Never use a straight line,” he said. Irregular edges are necessary to encourage the fibers to mesh.

“Use small pieces for detail,” Therrien said, adding students can use newspaper or masking tape to round out the edges.

As the students applied the soaked-through cardboard pieces to their masks, some noted how long the process took.

“The first layer is the slowest,” Therrien said. “The next layers go faster.”

He said to use at least two layers, and add more depending on the puppet. But, he also said it is important to allow each layer to dry before adding another. That process can be hastened by working in a very warm room, or setting the masks outside in the sun.

Because of the time it takes to dry, and because the workshop only lasted three hours, workshop attendees would not be able to complete their masks that day, but the Bread and Puppet crew encouraged them to work on them at home.

Therrien told the students the best way to add colorful details to their completed masks.

“We paint them with house paint,” he said, sharing the Bread and Puppet technique. Therrien said their paint comes from clearance shelves at hardware stores and yard sales.

“You can water down paint, as long as it’s water-based,” he said.

When an attendee asked if the Bread and Puppet passenger van parked in front of Fulcrum Arts was adorned with house paint, Therrien confirmed it was.

Although this class was part of Fulcrum Arts’s Second Annual Birthday Bash, others are sure to follow.

“This is the start of Natalie’s workshops,” Lisa said, explaining her daughter hopes to have more opportunities to open the studios to the community.

“You can take a glassblowing workshop” with Solinglass, too, Natalie said, noting participants get to make their own colorful glass paperweight.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #325 (Wednesday, September 30, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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