Squallis Puppeteers: Nora Christensen & Shawn Hennessey
Squallis Puppeteers is a collective of local artists and performers dedicated to the handmade and the homespun. They have been making puppets, performing, and teaching children (and adults) in Louisville, Kentucky since 1997. When Nora had her daughter, Stella, she decided that she (and her two other founders at the time) needed to start making money off of this thing. So in 2003 they became a non profit and received their 501 (c) status, got a board, and got all businessy. They began doing educational programming and working with kids— it was a lot of learning in the moment and answering the phone and saying ‘yes’ without really knowing what they were doing-- but they loved every second. Squallis is made mostly of volunteers who have a real passion for their mission, but is spear headed in business and design by Nora Christensen and Shawn Hennessey. It is their hybridization of the academic, folksy, philosophical, punk, and low-fi aesthetics (and in weird ways, visual characterization of Louisville, Kentucky) that have made them a beloved contribution to this city's charm. We got to sit with Nora and Shawn, as well as their Administrative Assistant, Julia Davis, and talk about their history and love for what they do.
Also, on a personal note, (Megan here, hi!) this was our first interview from outside of Cincinnati. I'm excited to be back in Louisville, my hometown. It's a weird place, and I forgot how beautiful that is. Now for our interview with Squallis Puppeteers.
Five-Dots: How long have you been in this studio?
Nora: A little over three years.
F-D: When you moved in here, did you have an idea for how you wanted to lay it out or did it develop organically?
Shawn: Kind of both. I spent a lot of time deciding where those huge tables were going to go and where all of the old shelving would end up; a lot of measuring and blue print work. If you look up you can see that this office was intended to be three separate rooms. At first we left one open so that we’d have one separate space; but then the first time that we made a big back-pack puppet we realized that it was dumb and we needed the length of the room. So we rolled the dividers into the ceiling.
F-D: How much of this building do you inhabit?
Shawn: There is this construction / office space, and there's the Co-Lab, upstairs. Then there is the mezzanine which they aren’t legally able to rent out due to fire code, so they let us use those to store the back pack puppets as well as camp instruction. We also have a large storage space in the garage.
Nora: To add, at the old space we had a whole floor of an old school building. So we had a different room for different activities; we had a wet room and a dry room, and so on. So when we moved in here we really had to plan and be thoughtful with the space that we did have.
F-D: And then you have another space in the Dolfinger Building in Portland; what is your goal for that space?
Nora: We have a classroom and then the gym, which is in pretty rough shape. Our goal is to have a community satellite workshop space in the classroom upstairs and then have a community center space out of the gym, but we aren't sure how long it will take.
Shawn: We have a long history of working with kids in the West End and in Portland. So it’s a sensible transition. We already have a network of people over there.
F-D: Has the location of the studio influenced your work in any way?
Shawn: We definitely changed a little. We always have to think about the scale of the things that we make. I know how big all of the doors are in the building because everything has to fit, or be able to be taken apart.
Nora: It also always has to fit in our car.
F-D: Do you have any plans of acquiring a van or truck?
Nora: You know, I guess it would be nice to invest in the company. But I like being scrappy, and I like that we haven’t really acquired much debt over Squallis. So we’d like to keep it that way. Right now we have our hatchback and Shawn's truck and we're doing alright with that.
Shawn: Also, puppeteering exists in a weird middle space in between theater and the visual arts. I like that world, but you have to be careful, I’ve seen a lot of companies try to get too big and then they’ll just shut down. This isn't related to that, but, we're so specific to Louisville due to the type of people we have in this town, the history of this town; and it's liberal history. There’s a sense of humor, and there is always a weird wish mash of stuff happening here. And I think that’s why we are able to do what we do.
F-D: Can you describe a typical day for yourself in the studio?
Nora: Uh, a lot of Quicken Books. A lot of administrative stuff and computer time. We try to balance business, talking together as a team, doing the shows, and then creating puppets.
Shawn: Actually, most of the time that we tell someone that we are puppeteers, we’ll be met with a "Oh, I want to make puppets all day", and I usually respond with a “Yea, I do too”! Making new pieces is generally what we do least. We really only make them when we receive a commission. The good part in that is: the group commissioning usually only wants the puppet a few times a year, and so we get to keep it, and continue it's use while it remains in our possession.
F-D: How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
Shawn: Art is for everyone. I think our puppets reflect that. You can tell how they are made: they’re made well, but their construction shows. I’d rather tape laundry detergent bottles together and see what we can make out of them over spending $300 on new supplies like latex and plastic.
Julia: That’s one of my favorite things about teaching the workshops for kids. We get to show them that they can make puppets out of anything.
Nora: That wheel gets to spin. It teaches them problem solving and other skills that are important no matter what you are doing.
Shawn: The idea that creativity is always in arms reach. You can find something to be creative with. You don’t have to go to the art supply store. You don’t have to have a bunch of money.
Nora: We’ve always had things to say with our shows: with The Chicken Show, we discussed how it’s messed up to inject chickens with hormones and make them twice their natural size; and with The Crowning the main message was that it’s messed up to treat women like pieces of meat in an over industrialized hospitalization complex when child birth is the most empowering thing that can happen to a woman. So all of these things. . . They need to be said and I’m going to say them with puppets because it is weird and it will stick in [everyone's] heads.
F-D: What mediums do you work with?
Shawn: What mediums don’t we work with?. . .
Nora: Uh, fabric. We have so, so, so much fabric.
Shawn: People donate a lot of fabric to Squallis. Nora is the seamstress. I can sew. . . but I always joke that I am to sewing what Sid Vicious was to the bass guitar: I can make it work, but it’s not necessarily very pretty. I’m the mechanism guy: tubing, PVC, zip ties. . . that’s my thing. Nora does all of the sculpting. We both do a lot of the paper mache.
Nora: There’s also a lot of thrifting. I’m also just the type of person who will take any reason to go to a thrift store, so. . .
Shawn: We actually start a lot of puppets around things that we find. For example, in our Great White Shark puppet (note: the shark is actually life-size) we were having a hard time trying to figure out how to make that small curve of the nose. If you look up and into the interior of the shark’s mouth, you’ll see that it’s a cafe chair. I placed the PVC around the chair and then we went from there. It’s just about looking at an object side ways and figuring out how you can use it.
Nora: We also use paint, like; mixed-up, messed up house paint that we can get on the cheap, and boas, and glittery stuff.
Shawn: We use all of the same materials that the kids use in our kids programming. Our Ferdinand the Bull show, which fits inside of a suitcase, has felt, fabric, cardboard rolls, hot-glue, and tape. I did that on purpose because I wanted the kids to see that all of the materials that they were using were also in the show.
F-D: Can you tell us more about your process and how it has evolved?
Nora: Make a lot of mistakes.
Shawn: Yea, learn as you go. There aren’t any instructions. We’ve been getting better at making things lighter. So that’s been a huge change in our process. Um. . . Nora always jokes that everyone makes a torture device.
Nora: Yes, everyone will make a puppet that is really, really painful. But it’s humbling, and I don’t mind being humbled and learning [from it]. You’ll always make it better next time.
Shawn: We work really well under a deadline, now.
F-D: Do you have narratives in mind for each piece?
Nora: The storyline is the weakest part for us: the hardest point for us to get to is getting the kids to say, “Yea! I get that! I feel complete!”
Shawn: It’s funny, The Emperor’s New Clothes doesn’t have an ending. There’s a climax but no resolution. We realized that Hans Christian Andersen did that intentionally. We realized that the question of “do you agree with this guy” is more important for the kids, than a solution.
Julia: It’s important for the kids to get to that point where the have the question, too. They get to take that home with them, and they can ask their parents about it.
F-D: Do you consider your work to be autobiographical at all; does personal history work its way into your art?
Nora: Oh, heck yes. When we do Rage-O-Saurus Rex, it is Shawn and I’s marriage.
Shawn: And we have a tendency to use the same voices at home that we do in the shows. I think Nora has a tendency to be much more narrative driven while I am more in the abstract. I think that's just, you know, art school. My [studio] work outside of Squalls affects that as well. I don’t always want an answer or resolution.
Nora: I think us being parents affects the shows too. Stella [Shawn and Nora’s daughter] is in middle school and there is no sex ed. So while we were making The Sex-Ed Show we’d ask her, like, "What do you think if we say this in the show? Does this freak you out"? By the end of it she wasn’t horrified. We asked her what she thought about us coming to her school and performing it and at first it was a definite no. Then by the end she was telling us that her friends needed it and they were asking when it was going to be ready. It was the parents who stopped it, and the principal.
F-D: I’m sorry, what?
Nora: Yes. I was on a conference call with him and a Core Content Specialist from Jefferson County Public Schools (who was backing us) and she asked him “Why won’t you have them perform this show at your school?” and he said, “I’m afraid of parents freaking out and it effecting my career”.
F-D: What did you say in the moment?
Nora: I just felt so disappointed.
F-D: What influences outside the visual arts inspire and impact your approach to making work?
Shawn: Well there’s definitely the social activism part of it.
Nora: Yea, that’s our “why” right there. That gives me a reason to go to the thrift store, and the permission to make something. We’ve always walked a thin line there with our educational programming and our activism. It’s always a worry of mine when we take our Lincoln puppet to a rally right after we took it to a school a few days prior; and a teacher being upset by that.
FD: Have you had any issues with that?
Shawn: Mostly to the positive; but we are constantly forced to make this decision. For example, we had The Sex Ed Show, and we went through this crazy process where we got everything ready, did all of this research, and then took it to the Rud [the Rudyard Kipling, a bar and gathering place in Louisville, which closed in 2015] to perform and get feedback. It became one of those things where everyone wanted everything in it. It came to have too much and then schools didn’t want it. So it was never actually performed in any school; which is what we wanted it for, and so it was a failure. Then as that was happening, we got evicted from the catholic school that we were renting from because they realized we were collaborating with Planned Parenthood and we were doing a show about sex ed and they were upset about that.
Nora: They tried to tell us that we couldn’t perform it anymore; and I told them that they couldn’t tell me that as my landlord. So we moved to our current location, where we are embraced for our weirdness and everything is fine.
Shawn: But in the end, everyone came out and supported us. We’re also pretty inspired by stories. For example, Emperer’s New Clothes, that came in a flash and it was actually Nora’s Mom’s idea. And you know, reading that story was one of the first times that I encountered politics.
F-D: What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
Shawn: I love this space.
Nora: Shawn is really great at organizing. I try to keep up.
Shawn: I label everything. We have a very distinctive way of dealing with our space. Sometimes we have to change things around; but having the space, and having it a certain way, is very important to making puppets. The difference between our current and previous spaces was the interaction of public and private spaces. At our previous space, it was all public, so I couldn’t leave my mess. We couldn’t leave knives laying around because kids would come in and have access to whatever. Now we have our private office; and it actually does make a difference. We can build frames, paper ache, and things in here [the large office and studio]. . .
Nora: I usually sew and add fabric upstairs in the other room because it’s wall to wall carpet and we have clean floor space. . . or clean-ish, I guess.
F-D: Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
Nora: Well, there’s Emperer’s New Clothes, which is happening. Then we are in the process of creating new protest puppets. But we haven’t gotten any money for them and there’s no time, and it’s just really frustrating. We are wanting to make Lady Liberty and Lady Justice puppets. . . and an Einstein puppet. We also just received a grant with the Kentucky Foundation for Women to make six new woman activist puppets because we don’t have enough lady puppets!
F-D: Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
Nora: I will say that, when we started out, Jess and I would try to go to puppet festivals, and they would look at us like we were crazy. Which I took as a good sign, because that meant that we weren’t influenced by anyone, and that we’d discovered something. But I’ve also travelled around a little bit and have discovered and asked some other puppeteers about how they are being successful doing this. There are a lot of puppet companies that are sort of doing things that are similar to what we are doing: there’s Heart of the Beast [out of Minneapolis], a for-profit company that has been around for 40-something years. They're very political, they've got big puppets out in the street, they're teaching kids yoga. Doing similar things to us. There’s Bread and Puppet out of Vermont: they’re all visual spectacle and no theater. So there are absolutely groups that we are similar to. . . and with all of the stuff that’s happening in the world right now; we’re just trying to figure out ways to help.
Shawn: I also think that there is a low-fi thing in music that I’ve always been attracted to. Growing up in the 90’s really affected me: learning to scrounge, thrift store culture. . . that sort of thing, I still have it. The post-modern era of cobbling things together is still where I’m at. I think our aesthetic also makes use of that— we show our patches. I like that about us.
F-D: Do you have a motto or creed that as an artist you live by?
Shawn: Art is for everyone.
Julia: There’s also that other one that you like to throw around. . .
Shawn: You get what you get, you don’t throw a fit?!
Nora: There’s also the old classic from when we first started and it was all women: “gettin’ laid and gettin’ paid”. Because we thought we would get laid from doing this. It wasn’t true.
F-D: When asked; what do you tell people you do for a living?
Shawn: Oh, I love getting that.
Nora: I tell them I’m a puppeteer. I love writing it on bank loans, and on my taxes. . .
Shawn: It’s like telling someone you’re a shepherd. Their face is always the same. . . just general confusion and disbelief.
Julia: Back before I met my boyfriend and I had a Tinder account, I had that I was a puppeteer / activist / artist. . . it definitely opens up some conversations.
F-D: So, obviously you get a lot of the blank faces. But how does that conversation go beyond that, do you break it down for them, or do you just leave it as is?
Nora: It depends on if they seem open to hearing about it.
F-D: What risks have you taken in your work, or for your work?
Nora: Political stances.
Shawn: Yea, doing The Crowning and The Sex Ed shows were big risks in terms of funders. We took some risks going to the protests. Politicizing the puppets is always risky. We risk scaring kids. We’ve actually lost funders because there are some people who think all we do is scare children. But, more importantly: those kids that are scared, usually leave overcoming their fear. Then they have a story. Then they’re usually really excited about it.
F-D: Words of wisdom?... a motto, favorite quote?
Shawn: Don’t start a non profit puppet company!
Nora: That’s what everyone told us!
Shawn: Make stuff that makes you and others question things.
F-D: Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
Squallis: On Saturday, July 1st we will be at the Riverview Independence Festival. We'll be at Forecastle Festival July 14th-16th. Shawn will be performing Time Machine on July 15th at the Louisville Public Library. We'll be performing in WUOL's Summer Listening on July 30th. Then August 3rd we'll be performing City Comics at the Louisville Free Public Library. You can always check our site for an up to date schedule. We also have our radio show, Art is For Everyone, every Sunday morning from 9a-11a on WXOX 97.1fm Louisville and streaming at ARTXFM.com