Former GC professor founds puppet company

Shannon Orr, For the Herald Democrat

Creations are coming to life and strings being pulled in the Old Southern Nut Factory of Denison. Steve O. Black and Barb Krass Stewart have founded the Skiddy Street Puppet Company.

The works have been seen at the Dia de Muertos Festival in Denison with gigantic (and sometimes tiny) works of art dancing in the parade.

Steve O. Black explained how he became involved with puppets and how the company started.

“I was introduced to puppets on television programs from the 1950s. As a child, I grew up in front of the television watching The Howdy Doody Show; Kukla, Fran, and Ollie; Amanda Possum & Mickey Mud Turtle, The Soupy Sales Show; Paul Winchell, Edgar Bergen, all of which featured puppets. Later in life I became intrigued by Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, the Muppets, the Dark Crystal, Jeff Dunham, and Wayne White of Pee Wee Playhouse,” said Black.

“I made my first puppet around 2009-2010. It was a Japanese style Bunraku puppet with a rod controlled head, body, arms, and legs. That type of puppet requires three puppeteers. In the latter part of 2011 I was asked by Ilona Nogarr to create a giant puppet for her Nutcracker Ballet. The resulting Mother Gigone puppet was ten feet tall and housed a puppeteer and a group of ballerinas under her dress. That was followed by a request from Anthony Nelson of the Sherman Community Players to create Fruma Sarah, a puppet that grew on stage from 7 feet tall to 12 feet. It was in 2011 that I began offering workshops in creating giant puppets for the Dia de Muertos Festival (Denison, Texas) at Grayson College under the name of the Skiddy Street Puppet Company. Skiddy Street is part of Denison’s past. Skiddy Street was rowdy, raucous, and ragtag fragment of the city and I wanted a name for my puppet endeavors to reflect that same sense of being motley, multifarious, and enigmatic. “

Stewart became introduced through the festiva.

“When I first moved to Denison from West Chicago, IL in 2015 I had very little knowledge of Dia de Muertos,” she said. “However, the community I was from was very Hispanic based. I was always aware of wonderful ways in which the Hispanic culture commemorated their history through celebration. As luck would have it, I met several artists in the downtown Denison area and I was invited to the SMAACC (Sunday Morning Art And Coffee Club) group that meets every Sunday at Panera in Sherman.”

It was there that Stewart met Steve.

“At the time he was head of the Art department at Grayson College,” she said. “So, I began to participate in shows at the 2nd Floor Gallery. I decided to be involved in the Dia workshop after Steve brought in several binders of previous celebrations to the coffee group. In speaking with other artists that were involved, I became both curious and intrigued about the festival and all it entailed. For me learning about Dia became personal and really hit home. I lost my natural mother at age 3 months from complications of Rheumatic Fever. I never knew her and this was a chance to learn about the way that Dia de Muertos is a remembrance of those that have passed. As a child I would have loved to have some form of this celebration in my life. As I learned more about the festival I became aware that it also coincides with All Saints Day. This year it will be Saturday, November 2nd from 10-6 p.m. in downtown Denison.”

The puppet workshop has normally been at Grayson County Community College every fall but this year they changed things up a bit with an earlier start date and a larger space.

“This year marks my eighth Dia de Muertos puppet workshop,” Black said. “I switched over from Grayson College Art Department building to the old Southern Nut building located at 114 N. Houston (between the Katy Depot and Tupelo Honey) because of the space it offers, the opportunity to begin earlier in the summer than last year’s workshop at the college, allows us to work two nights a week, and its proximity to downtown Main Street Denison. Our use of the building is tentative in that it could be rented out at any time. Alfred and Lek Robinson have graciously allowed us to use the space without rent. At this time we are looking for grants and/or donations to pay for the electricity.”

As part of the Denison Arts Council, Stewart is aware of how important it is to focus on art that is accessible to the public.

“When Steve approached me about beginning earlier in the summer I thought that was a great idea,” she said. “I was fascinated by the prospect of starting the workshop at the old Southern Nut (the Peanut) building; it’s an incredible historic space. The workshop continues to be an ongoing process of learning and commitment. For Dia in particular it also includes repair of puppets that have been previously displayed. Freestanding art panels and selfie stations are also in need of updating. Construction can be a little unpredictable; there is always something to do. The ability to start earlier than previous years is tremendous advantage. “, She continues, ”From an artistic point of view I am admirer of those that plan their art. My style is more spontaneous so to observe planning, the paper mache technique, and the thought process involved is very exciting. This year we have a terrific variety of construction methods and ideas. To see what has been created previously and the history of the festival as assembled by Steve Black is an amazing look at what can bring a community together.”

Currently the workshop has 15 puppet makers and helpers. Everyone is still invited to join as there is plenty of time to create more puppets. This year, the workshop will boast 12 giant puppets. These will be added to the many other puppets created at previous workshops at Grayson College for this year’s Dia de Muertos Festival and Parade.

Black has hosted workshops in the creation of marionettes to giant puppets with size ranges from around eight inches to twelve feet tall.

The goal of the Skiddy Street Puppet Company is to educate, engage, entertain and bring art to the community. Anyone from the ages 18 and up can join the puppet workshop, no experience necessary. The Denison Arts Council is co-sponsoring the workshop and is providing funds for most of the cost of materials to make the puppets. They are looking for grants, funds or donations of a space to offer workshops and to establish a permanent home on Main Street for the Skiddy Street Puppet Company.

“I would love to see the Skiddy Street Puppet Company have a permanent space and host a variety of free workshops,” Stewart said. “There are so many construction methods, materials, and talented artists that might be willing to share their knowledge to the public. I see a tremendous amount of potential for demonstrating, creating and exhibiting works of art at a variety of festivals.”

They would also like to offer free workshops year round.

“I turn 70 in a few months and I am not sure how long I can continue offering and working the puppet workshops,” Black said. “I hope that I leave a legacy that instills in others a sense of mission to serve our community and bring a moment of joy. People of all ages enjoy puppetry, especially the children. They see the puppet and not the puppeteer. They allow us to be free of the demands of reality and life, even if is for a brief time. The puppets feed our imaginations. They are magical.”

The Skiddy Street Puppet Company meets each Tuesday and Wednesday evening from 6:30-9:15 p.m. at 114 N. Houston, Denison. Volunteers are always needed and drop ins are welcome. They also offer take home projects for those that can’t make every meeting.