Puppet Sculptor Anne Cubberly Creates A Magical World
By OWEN MCNALLY
January 27, 2013
Walk into the high-ceilinged, wondrously cluttered studio of the inventive Hartford kinetic sculptor Anne Cubberly and you step into the workshop of a creative visual artist's unbounded imagination.
Although small, even a bit claustrophobic, this is where Cubberlybrings into being her wild puppet creatures. Her mixed-media pieces emulate all species of life from titanic, humanlike figures to large, lovable birds and endearing insects, and dancing pumpkins. Or for that matter, just about anything else, either humorous or ominous, that strikes Cubberly's fancy and helps her explore the uses of enchantment.
In some ways, the studio, a sanctuary for thought and labor, is a reflection of Cubberly's lifetime commitment to art.
"I always wanted to be an artist. I said out loud that I wanted to be an artist when I was 6, and always loved making things and loved drawing," Cubberly, 51, says as she sips a steamy cup of tea while giving a mini-tour of her studio and reflecting on the apparent inevitability of her profession.
"My mother's mother was a painter, a lifelong artist who died painting. My mother, Lynne Cubberly, became a fashion designer, and as a very young child she started making clothes for her dolls. Clothing, to my way of thinking, is sculpture with fabric."
With its tool and material-littered workbench as the centerpiece her studio is the birthplace for the Cubberly Circus of the Mind.
A realm of the magical and the make-believe, it's populated with dreamy, fairy-tale like creatures fashioned mostly from recycled material such as split reeds (the bones for a 15-foot giant studio mascot called The Walker), metals, coat hangers and papier-mâché objects made from old newspapers. It's a mishmash of costumes, masks, fabrics, forlorn looking sculptures, mutilated puppet body parts and other bizarre-looking items.
Cubberly, who grew up in Wethersfield in an arts and crafts-steeped family that wasted nothing and knew how to fix everything around the house, wastes nothing and can fix and shape things with her own two deft hands. She loves to resurrect what most people would call junk and convert it into vibrant art. Her trash-to-art transformations run the expressive gamut from the gossamer to the grotesque. That's "grotesque" as in the delightful, amusingly scary manner of a classic fairy-tale.
Anything from scrapped coaxial cable, wood and plastic bottles to dumpster detritus can be part of this artist's palette. Trashis to Cubberly what pigment and canvas are to a painter as she makes her storybook creatures.
"Recycling just makes sense to me," she says gesturing to a pile of refuse stashed in the corner. It's been recently scavenged by hunter-gatherer friends who foraged through streets and dumpsters and brought their rubble to her studio for her personal artistic use.
"Ever since I was very small, anything that was used had more value to me than something that was new. New things were almost a little intimidating. Recycled material has had a little bit of life before you even get to it, and that makes it more valuable to me. It's not trash to me. It's a tool, a toy — something to create with," she says.
Her studio, a humble nook in Hartford's Dirt Salon, an artists' haven in an old factory site in the city's Parkville section, is Cubberly's room of her own. It's her urban haven for thinking, planning and working long, industrious, factory-like hours. Her labors payoff beautifully, at least artistically, if not yet quite so well financially. Although modest, her studio is the birthplace of a world of giant, fantastical puppets.
A hallmark of her ambitious public projects, in fact, has been her collaboration with her many creative friends in the Hartford arts community as well as, she insists, with the many viewers, both young and old, who have experienced her work. Art may not be forever, she says, but her work does exist and is preserved in the minds of all those countless people who have seen and, hopefully, been moved by her works whether displayed in parks, plays, parades, pageants, special events like First Night or galleries.
Cubberly's "children," as she proudly refers to the sculpted offspring of her imagination, are innovative and bold. Yet they're also enjoyably stimulating, humorous, and instantly accessible with their strong individualistic artistic imprint, well off the beaten path of what is more conventionally thought of as puppets.
Forget, for example, the image of the more traditional, small, handheld puppets.
Cubberly's puppets are gigantic. Actors comically emote and gesticulate inside them. Singers decked out as bird or squirrel puppets wail away operatically quite comfortably inside Cubberly's creations.
Along with their grandiose size, Cubberly's creatures are designed to move fluently, to be as kinetic as dancers, making them a catalytic mix of the fantastic and the balletic. Collaborating with dancers and actors, Cubberly has had to make her puppets ever more eerily agile, using fluid motion to make them more magical, more mysterious.
Large yet limber, they've been the colorful key players in the dramatic, surreal, viewer-friendly productions that she has orchestrated, embracing help from her many friends for highly visual, dreamlike spectacles onstage at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art's historic Avery Theater in years past. Her imaginative menagerie of puppets, with a little bit of help from her friends, scored a giant success outdoors at Elizabeth Park last October with a light and dark filled fantasia/homage to the winter solstice called "Night Fall."
More than 1,000 people attended the dreamy drama in the park's woodsy pond area. It was a surprisingly large turnout considering the outdoor venture had only a shoestring budget for advertising and promotion.
Among the crowd gathered in the twilight were many youngsters who squealed with delight when Cubblery's luminous Winter Goddess made her dramatic appearance in the al fresco pageant celebrating the primal power of light and the triumph of life. As darkness fell, illuminated sculptures, costumes and lanterns lit the way to an upbeat ending graced with romping performances by the puppets.
Rooted in a sense of play of the imagination, the drama, with its ritualistic flavor and transcendent themes of light and life, was a nod to "The Golden Bough," the legendary scholar and anthropologist Sir James George Frazer's seminal study of magic and religion, myths and rites. The Frazer connection was noted by Colin McEnroe, author, Courant columnist/blogger and public radio host, who wrote material and acted in the opening and closing sections of the magical, mystery tour in the park.
Don't look to Cubberly for any explanation of her symbol-laden works, which have a visual inner-logic all their own even though they have no obvious linear storyline. She grants you poetic license to do all the symbol-hunting you want in the depths of the unconscious, even encouraging a kind of do-it-yourself version of Sigmund Freud's "The Interpretation of Dreams."
"Personally," the artist says, "I don't feel a need to interpret it because these are the kinds of performances I would want to go see. I get really irritated when people are explaining everything to me. I don't want to know. I just want to be immersed in it.
"I think it's very personal. I don't relate to words. Words are not my first language. I do okay, but working with my hands, making something, dreaming something up. This is what I do.
"When I think about the viewers, I assume this is a group of people I love, and I want to bring them this piece of magic. That's pretty much where it begins and ends," she says.
McEnroe is just one of the scores of Hartford arts figures and Cubberly chums who collaborate in the visionary artist's imaginative flights. Full-scale productions in their own right, the live performances involve dancers, actors, choreographers, musicians, singers and a variety of practitioners of the theatrical arts including virtually everything from lighting to computer graphics.
Cubberly's creative coterie of Hartford cultural luminaries and co-creators includes Japanalia fashion designer and music presenter Dan Blow; the musician Steven Mitchell, the minister of music and arts at Asylum Hill Congregational Church; Deborah Gaudet, the Wadsworth's film and theater curator; actor, critic and playwright Jacques Lamarre, director of communications and special projects at the Mark Twain House & Museum; and LB Muñoz, vibe director at Real Art Ways.
The Wadsworth dream dramas, which mix surreal and showbiz elements, have drawn comparisons to the iconoclastic modernist performances mounted in the museum's historic Avery Theater when the legendary Chick Austin reigned as the innovative director of the Wadsworth from 1927 to 1944.
Cubberly's views on art, with her core values rooted in the centrality of collaboration and community, have evolved in a progressive, even linear way since childhood, starting long before she graduated from Wethersfield High School.
Cubberly is the middle sibling of four creative brothers. Three became carpenters and one became a chef, makers of real-life objects that Cubberly defines as art at least as artful as the museum-ready objects that, much like her brothers, she also crafts by hand.
As a child she became hooked on the charms of the Wadsworth, frequently taking the bus or biking to downtown Hartford to soak up all those exciting, mind-opening art works. Her mother ran an arts oriented magazine in Hartford and so had access to free passes to many cultural events in the city, which Anne used as a passport.
In her early teens, she sneaked into a Halloween bash at Real Art Ways, wearing a mask to disguise her youth. It was an early sign of both her curiosity and love for artifice, for playing with surface appearances that mask something deeper.
A few years later, the art-hungry teen was absorbing the then-robust bohemian scene on Union Place, working part-time in shops there, even fashioning sandals, a symbol of urban hipness.
Instead of following the usual path to art school, Cubberly left Wethersfield to attend the Sterling Institute in northern Vermont. There she studied practical, hands-on farming skills — such as how to milk a cow, cut down a tree, or slaughter a chicken — for a year before moving on to a series of part-time jobs. These included stints as a silk screener, waitress, baker, carpenter and house painter, mostly gigs that required working with materials and making things.
Even as she was working at three part-time jobs, she was always drawing and thinking about art, something she had done, she says since she first picked up a crayon as a child.
Among formative events in Cubberly's Vermont years, she first saw the puppets of the famous, socially idealistic Bread and Puppet Theater, a powerful inspiration for her belief that art should be a positive communal force and, much like bread itself, a daily staple and nourishment for everybody.
A friend introduced her to the artistic use of polymer clay. Cubberly was off and running with the material, fashioning hand-crafted jewelry from the clay. She got so good at it that she went on the road — an education in itself — selling her jewelry wares at craft fairs around the country.
Life on the road as an itinerant artist for two years ended in 1994 when her father died and she felt a strong, irresistible emotional pull to return home.
— Cubberly eventually moved on from making polymer jewelry to making giant paintings and, finally, onto fabricating her beloved, giant puppets. She's exhibited locally in galleries, at Real Art Ways and the Wadsworth, and nationally at the Cleveland Art Museum. She has even served as the first artist-in-residence at the Wadsworth in 2006, and the New Britain Museum of American Art.
Coming home again and becoming totally involved in the local community for nearly two decades is a choice that Cubberly says she never once regrets. Neither the lure of New York nor that of any other city could be a happier fit for herthan Hartford, something she began to realize after her unsuccessful "search for utopia" during her odyssey on the road on the crafts fair circuit.
"I think that growing up here in Hartford was pretty magical. There was so much art going on when I was a kid, so much to see and do. I want to recreate some of the magic of my childhood in Hartford," she says.
Despite her past resume with its credits for exhibitions in conventional venues, Cubberly doesn't really fit neatly into the traditional gallery/museum niche. She much prefers to step out into the world with her puppets to collaborate with other artists and even non-artists in a communal way, creating her experimental community pieces.
Her world now is very much a museum without walls as she advocates art for everybody, art as a pragmatic, communal force for good. Part of her democratic goal is to encourage everybody that life itself is an art form filled with the individual creative acts everybody does every day in real-life. Her hands-on, populist philosophy of art and life is the radical antithesis of the ancient, romantic stereotype of the heroic artist living and creating entirely on his or her own in the splendid isolation of an ivory tower, far above the fray of ordinary life and regular people.
"I don't believe that image of the artist in an ivory tower is true, even if you're naked and by yourself and out in the middle of nowhere. Even then, you are collaborating with someone else. Someone, after all, made the paint brush. Someone made the canvas. The Earth provided the basic substances, and, possibly, the inspiration.
"People are inspired by their subconscious, but there's a whole group of events and interactions that happened to help you develop your subconscious. I think that we are in collaboration all the time, but don't necessarily look at it that way.
"We live in collaboration. We have to work together," she says.
Handcrafted Cubberly creations and collaborations have made spectacular public appearances all around the city from parades to parks, from sacred sites like Asylum Hill Congregational Church in its annual pageantry at the Boar's Head festival to such secular but also venerable venues as City Hall and the Wadsworth.
If you've never experienced these events live, the best way to view Cubberly's works, including her signature performances, is on the Internet at her website, www.annecubberly.com. Her premier showcase in recent years, in fact, has been the big, live performance productions, experimental community pieces that are preserved on her website.
There you can just click on and view her puppet-centered, cooperative, wonderland pieces, including, "Night Fall," which will be presented again Oct. 12 at Hartford's Pope Park. "Night Fall" marks a too rare but most welcome instance in which one of her puppet fantasias gets to enjoy a live encore performance beyond its existence on her website.
Cubberly's electronic exhibition space, makes the collaborative works available to all, a communal note that resonates with the artist's art-for-all sensibility.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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