The students rifled through the pile of fabric scraps dumped onto the floor.
They unspoooled yarn and draped dreadlockian strands on puppet heads made of crumped newspaper, corn starch and glue.
“Kids love it,” puppet maker Donovan Zimmerman said of the free-wheeling process. “There’s something really exciting about a big mess.”
And not just kids, because Zimmerman’s students this day weren’t kids but their teachers, art instructors in Chapel Hill-Carrboro elementary schools learning puppet making from a master.
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The workshop, funded by a $1,600 Chapel Hill Artists in Residence grant, marks the first time the program has focused on teachers. Previous projects have paired local artists with students, often creating a public art project at their school.
“It’s a great program,” said Jeffrey York, public arts admninistrator for the town. “We try to do things in schools they wouldn’t normally be able to do.”
And the puppet class is a bargain.
Zimmerman is cofounder of Paperhand Puppet Intervention, best known for its mythic, magical shows featuring larger-than-life puppets each summer at UNC’s outdoor Forest Theatre.
In two workshops Zimmerman showed teachers how their student can turn grocery store paper bags into rod puppets – puppets in a stick – for $50 or less.
That’s $50 total for each elementary school’s entire fourth-grade class, usually 100 or more students.
They’re making a puppet, but it’s all part of this whole large experience of collaborating and imagining.
Alder Keene, teacher
As teachers painted a unicorn, bearded pirate and purple walrus last week, they talked about what they’ll bring back to the classroom.
“I know as a student I was better at 3D (art) than 2D,” said Deb Cox, of Carrboro Elementary School. “Some kids can’t draw at all, but give them an object they can manipulate (and) they can see it.”
“Some kids will be a designer,” she said. “Some will be a builder.”
Alder Keene, of Northside Elementary School, was painting the purple walrus, though she didn’t know that’s what it would be when she started.
“I was building the head, and it started to take a walrus form,” she said.
Keene said puppets connect art and storytelling as each puppet character becomes a personality, encouraging students to build skills in different areas and work with one another.
“It gives them a good entry point,” she said. “They’re making a puppet, but it’s all part of this whole large experience of collaborating and imagining.”
Zimmerman hopes to continue working with the schools, maybe do a residency.
“How cool would it be if this region became known for its first-class puppetry,” he said.
“It’s just great working with teachers who are all engaged with their students in a very real way,” he added. “It’s a hard job.”