Hobey Ford brings puppets to life in Tryon

Published 3:00 am Friday, March 20, 2009

This weekend brings Super Saturday to Tryon, a day filled with entertainment for kids of all ages. One of the guest artists this year is Weaverville puppeteer Hobey Ford. Connecting his art to curriculum has allowed him to travel the country, so I took a moment to visit his workshop and discover the work behind the magic. A small two story building sits among the trees at the bottom of his driveway. As I enter I am surrounded by shelves of puppets of various shapes, sizes and materials. He invites me to sit at the workbench with him&bsp; So this is the workshop? I make my puppets in here and tour them around. How long have you been doing that? Probably about 30 years. About 1980 is when I got really busy, but I started fooling with all of this in 1976. What started you? I was an art major and I remembered really great assembly programs when I was growing up in school. One of them was a marionette show. Marionettes fascinated me. In college I started making some just for fun. I went into New York City and visited Bil Baird&squo;s studio (the puppeteer behind the Lonely Goatherd sequence in Sound of Music). I saw that it was a really neat little side pool of the arts. I knew that it was hard to compete with the hundreds and thousands of other art students in America. I didn&squo;t know how I was going to do that, because I really didn&squo;t even relate to modern art too much. Hobey moves a dulcimer off the bench that he had been working on when I arrived. You also do instrument repair? It&squo;s been a hobby. I got into puppetry because I like making things. Over the years I&squo;ve worked on my wife&squo;s marimbas for her marimba band. How did you first put together a show? I joined a puppetry organization and their festivals have a lot of shows. Every year I would go and there would be some of the world&squo;s best puppeteers there. I saw a lot of really good puppetry. During the day at the festival we would have workshops for different things. I would do them in rod mechanisms and others would do them in marionette stringing or sound systems. Do you create the puppets first and then find the story for the puppets or the other way around? I do it both ways. I get inspiration from music and stories, but often it will be like I&squo;ll really want to make an otter puppet and then he&squo;ll work his way into a show. For Animalia (the show I&squo;m doing in Tryon), that show began with the music of Paul Winter Consort. They&squo;ve played in this area a bunch of times. Paul does sort of a nature inspired light jazz, maybe even New Age jazz. Thirty years ago when I heard the music I thought, &dquo;Wow, this would be great for animal puppets.&dquo; I started creating some of them then. Animalia puppets with Hobey Ford (photo submitted by Loyd Artists)&bsp;The show Animalia came together when I was out in the field and walked up on a little monarch chrysalis. It was actually a caterpillar turning into a chrysalis at the moment I walked up on it. I started researching it and Animalia is centered around this little metamorphosis piece. All these other animals are in it too, but that&squo;s the central piece in it. That sounds like it would be a tricky thing to create with puppets. I can show you some of it if you like. That would be great! I start with a little teeny caterpillar and a big leaf. As it progresses it gets bigger and each time it comes out, it&squo;s a little bigger. Oh, now it has the feet and the antennae. Then it goes in here and there&squo;s a mechanism that closes up the body and when I pull this cable out, his body just sort of goes &dquo;woooring&dquo; like that and comes loose and is attached to the leaf with Velcro. Suddenly you have the chrysalis appearing out of the body of the caterpillar. It&squo;s sort of an awesome moment. It&squo;s covered over and then you come back later and it&squo;s this and inside this is the monarch butterfly. Oh wow! These pull out of its wings, they are the superstructure for its wings, but to be able to put it inside, its little feet have Velcro. This all wraps up and it goes inside that chrysalis which has a little door mechanism. When I pull that it sort of unfolds and eventually hangs out from its legs and then these are behind the chrysalis and I push them in like that and then slowly it gets ready to fly away. Oh cool! The whole thing is highly realistic. Yeah! Is that foam that you use? It&squo;s carved foam rubber. Here&squo;s some regular foam rubber here and I carve it. Here&squo;s the otter. They move realistically. It gives them a flexibility that you don&squo;t get with a wooden puppet. These swim around and the whole time I&squo;m just dressed in black clothes in full view, no hood on or anything. I&squo;m working in a Japanese technique called Bunraku. It&squo;s really adapted Bunraku, but it&squo;s the idea of working without a stage in the open. They focus on the puppet and you disappear. Is that a crane? This is a heron. I have this little school of fish that it can go down into and catch one and eat it. That actually has some wood parts. This I carved out of wood, little wooden eyes and plastic feathers because I want them to fold up. Then the legs are like marionette legs reversed. It&squo;s a combination of sculpture, visual arts, engineering, and then manipulating them to look like they&squo;re alive by observing how animals move. Then you get into telling a story with them. A whale! This is one of the larger ones comparatively. I remember the dragon! He&squo;s seen better days. He may be officially retired, I&squo;m not sure yet. He actually is repairable. Ever time I get him out I have to spend two or three days gluing him back together again. Is he the largest puppet you&squo;ve ever made? Oh yeah. When he was in his full glory, he was about 30 feet long. I built him for UNCA&squo;s The Hobbit production in the Carol Belk Theatre. Then he was in Beowulf with Smokey Mountain Repertory. Then at Flat Rock Playhouse he was in Aladdin. Then he was the Firecracker Jazz Band dragon. Now he&squo;s actually mechanized in some way. He&squo;s highly mechanized. His mouth opens, his eyelids open and close, his irises light up red, he blows silk fire and smoke comes out of his nostrils. All of that is controlled from back here with this mechanism and the wings flap out with a separate mechanism. Originally he was a five person puppet. I got him to where I could do him one person sort of. He&squo;s a big guy. Hobey refers to a metal dog puppet asleep in a dog house by the door. John Payne and I built that for the Firecracker&squo;s music video. He wasn&squo;t quite ready yet, so he has a little cameo. I inherited it from John. Animalia is the show you&squo;re bringing to Tryon, but do you have several that are in production? Yeah. I have a show of folk tales and then another show of folk tales with shadow puppetry. They&squo;re all family or K-6 oriented curriculum. They all tie into the curriculum one way or another. Animalia is obviously tied with science and nature. Yeah, it&squo;s animal science, metamorphosis, life cycles, and all that stuff. The folk tale one will be centered around folk or fairy tales and ties in that way. I have one of Native American stories. Little American folk tales and things like that. What&squo;s your favorite puppet? I really like that otter lot. I&squo;ve got this one character who doesn&squo;t perform a whole lot any more. This is a fun little guy, a little dog who&squo;s a rod puppet. He was one of my earliest characters. I hardly use him anymore. He comes out in the demo. He has a little wagging tale. He&squo;s one of my favorites. He&squo;s cute! The sea otter, and then I have an eagle that&squo;s really fun as far as foam puppets go. He&squo;s a really fun puppet to operate. Basically he flies through and flies around the audience. That fo
am gives it a life like look. Now if you look at it up close, this one&squo;s ready for retirement, but he&squo;s never still so some of that makes him look realer than if he were perfect. He&squo;s getting ready for an upgrade. You carve the foam, and then what do you use to paint it? I&squo;ll get acrylics and then I&squo;ll spray it with water and stain it with the acrylics. Then I go into to it and put in mechanisms if it&squo;s going to have eye mechanisms or head mechanisms or legs and all of that. I&squo;m thinking about all of that when I&squo;m building them. Come on up here. This is both a rehearsal studio and a film studio and storage area. I have the green screen here and I&squo;ve got green pajamas so that I can get out here with whales or dolphins and totally disappear and put it into a different background. Oh cool! This is sort of a side thing that I&squo;m working on and taping some of the older shows. I have a show all about whaling that I don&squo;t really do anymore, but I want to make a film of it because I&squo;ve got all the parts. Record while you can still do the show. Then I can stop and go and edit and all of that. There&squo;s a little fisherman guy here. This guy is about thirty years old here. He&squo;s Quagmire Ranklebee, an old mountain man. He&squo;s in this little elves and fairies story. He&squo;s an early character and I used to perform him over a microphone stand at McDibb&squo;s which was a little bar in Black Mountain. I don&squo;t know if you remember it. I believe McDibb&squo;s was where Poetry Alive! was born. That&squo;s right. This is Ichabod Crane. He was in Tryon last time I was there probably about eight or nine years ago with Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It&squo;s a very traditional rod puppet. That&squo;s carved and then the clothes are added. They&squo;re carved out of holly and they&squo;re not even painted. Then I sew the clothes and make all the stuff. These are some of the ones that are going to be in a film. That&squo;s what happens up here. It&squo;s great to have the space. At times I&squo;ve converted it into a fifty person theatre for friends and family to come and help look at a show and give a critique. Lately it&squo;s been a film studio. We did some of the Firecracker Jazz Band&squo;s green screen stuff when Glinda was in a bubble here. This is basically your full time endeavor. I&squo;m around the studio about half the year. Then the other half, a week here, a week there I&squo;m touring. I&squo;m in between tours now. Last time I was in Raleigh. In a week or two I go to Indiana, Kentucky and then up to Rochester, New York. You&squo;ve set it up so that you have time to work in the studio and then you&squo;ll go out for a week or so in one direction and then come back. Heron with Hobey Ford (photo submitted by Loyd Artists)&bsp;Then I have time to work on the filmmaking or mess with the instruments or repair and rebuild work. I teach workshops too. I&squo;m a Kennedy Center artist. I work with their education department with arts integration across the states. Each state has a Kennedy Center partner and about thirty of us go around the country and work with teachers learning how to bring our art form into the curriculum. That&squo;s a piece of my work. The last little part is my toy company. Hobey slips a couple of sets of eyes on his fingers, turning his hands into puppets. This is a little toy that I have a patent on and they&squo;re all over the world. They&squo;re called Peepers. They&squo;ve copied me on television in China, but in Arden I have about 35,000 of these made a year. It&squo;s a simple puppet. These are in Animalia. My hands become different animals and then it all goes into the real looking animal puppets. I&squo;m looking forward to seeing this. I&squo;ve seen pieces of your puppets, but never a whole show. This one is fun. A good portion of it is non-verbal, just the music and the animals, very visual, and popular for a lot of ages. Super Saturday is so much fun because you get all ages and multiple generations coming out for the shows. It should be a lot of fun. You can find more photos, information, and videos about Hobey Ford by visiting his website at www.hobeyford.com or his booking agency www.loydartists.com.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox