BLOOMINGTON — If Pinocchio strolled into Illinois Wesleyan University’s Merwin Gallery this summer, he’d probably turn to Gepetto and say, “OK, pops, let’s drop that wish upon the star — you know, the one about turning into a real boy.”
Living forever is better.
Just ask the quartet of turn-of the-century (19th to 20th) hand puppets from France perched along one gallery wall … still strikingly expressive after all these decades … still good to go.
Just lend them a hand.
Or run the same query along the opposite wall, where marionette facsimiles of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are looking for new windmills to conquer, as soon as someone lends THEM a hand.
Or, if you’re brave of heart, you could pop the $64,000 question about the perks of immortality to the fancy-coiffed matron with the down-turned mouth — the one perched on her own private pedestal over there.
She’s as old as … well, let’s be gallant. Still, something clearly has miffed her for all eternity, and her distemper is oddly infectious.
Perhaps it’s her existence as a rod puppet with a pole up her back in a world of hand, shadow and string puppets.
You might be miffed, too.
But on her pedestal in the Merwin Gallery, she’s miffed with a touch of class. And we can’t help but love her.
Certainly, Champaign-based puppeteer Ginger Lozar can’t help it.
That’s why she HAD to have her: not because of any perceived “Antiques Road Show” worth, but because it was love at first sight.
It’s an equal-opportunity love, extending from the miffed matron to the timeless French quartet along the wall to virtually every other object in the gallery.
Lozar’s massive, 40-years-in-the-making collection is the source for the gallery’s new show, “Puppetry: A World of Storytelling,” the first-ever local exhibit devoted entirely to the subject on this scale.
Truth be told, “collection” is probably too clinical a word; let’s go with “family.”
The family tree, Lozar says, extends back to her college days, when a deep interest in children’s theater and literature planted the seeds.
Ginger’s husband, Charles, nudged in her destined direction when he bought his new wife a collection of 100-year-old hand puppets from China.
(Charles, for another story on another day, is a noted collector of ship models, complete with his own museum, the National Museum of Ship Models, in nearby Sadorus.)
“They are just beautiful works of art,” Ginger says of that 40-year-old gift, and she was hooked.
A year in the early ’70s spent traveling around the world “student-style” abetted Ginger’s passion, with a gift from her husband soon expanded into a burgeoning collection of puppets of every make, tradition and nationality.
The IWU exhibit is similarly international in scope, encompassing multiple countries, from China to France to Spain to India to Burma and beyond.
“After I had four kids (one of whom, Carmen, is director of IWU’s Merwin Gallery), I wanted a way to make some income as well as do something I love,” she recalls.
What began as a series of puppet shows at local schools soon outgrew that ambition, and by 1985, she was a member of the Puppeteers of America, making treks to national and regional festivals.
“I was like a sponge,” Lozar admits, “going from workshop to workshop and show to show. And it was a time when all the famous puppeteers were still alive and attending — Burr Tillstrom (“Kukla, Fran & Ollie”), Margo Rose (“Howdy Doody”), Jim Henson, Frank Oz and many others.”
From a mere attendee, Lozar rose up the ranks, eventually joining the Puppeteers’ board of trustees and giving workshops herself, as well as founding the Central Illinois Puppetry Guild, still active to this day.
Though she collects all styles of puppets, from marionettes to rod puppets, Lozar herself is, by choice, a hand puppeteer. It’s a seasoned talent that will be on view in a special puppet performance coming midway through the IWU exhibit’s run (see accompanying story).
“I do believe puppetry is a living art form, and that you don’t see that whole life of the puppet until you make them come alive,” she says.
That’s why it was important for her that the IWU show not come off as too static or, worse, preserved in amber.
“I wanted to make sure that as people go through the exhibit they get the feeling the puppets could pop up and talk,” she says.
Though the exhibit represents only about a third of Lozar’s collection, it’s been artfully curated and displayed as an accessible cross-section of cultures, traditions and techniques, offering a well-rounded insight into the art form.
Strings are attached, but they never get tangled.
“Carmen and her staff have done a wonderful job,” she agrees. “This really does reflect my interest in puppetry as a world art form. And if it brings pleasure to people, I’ll be very happy.”
Maybe even the matron with the down-turned mouth and rod up her back on the nearby pedestal will be, too.
Just don’t expect her to say it to your face.
At a glance
What: “Puppetry: A World of Storytelling,” with puppets, puppet theaters, related objects and hands-on area for kids, from the collection of Ginger Lozar
When: Noon to 3 p.m. Fri., Sat., Sun. and Mon., through Aug. 17
Where: Merwin Gallery in Illinois Wesleyan University Ames School of Art, 6 Ames Plaza West, Bloomington
Special event: Reception, 10 a.m. July 28, followed at 10:30 a.m. by live puppet show by Lozar, “Call of the Sea: A Mermaid’s Tale”
Give ’em a hand
Among the puppets and related objects on display in IWU’s Merwin Gallery are:
w A quartet of wooden hand puppets from France, dating from the early 1900s
- A pair of Shantung rod puppets from China, with carved wooden heads sporting working eyes and mouths controlled by strings inside the costume
- A large array of shadow puppets from Indonesia and other Eastern climes, along with an authentic shadow puppet stage
- A fully dressed and occupied puppet stage from the Czech Republic
- Spanish marionettes depicting Don Quixote and Sancho Panza
- A Burmese marionette warrior puppet
- A collection of Indian string puppets
- A collection of “Gone with the Wind’ marionettes from the late ’30s, including Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler, Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara and Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy.