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September 8, 2005

Art Beat

The Puppet Woman of Petrolia


Taking the magic drive to Petrolia, over the mountains, through the redwood forest, through waving pasture grass, past velvet mountains, the Pacific so green-blue it looks dyed, past cows frolicking on the beach, back into the hills, I am going to visit the Puppet Woman of Petrolia. I can't wait. I consider Petrolia the ultimate destination in life for an artist. There is something in the energy there that exudes creativity.

photo of Ruth MacchiariniAs I drive down the lane off Lighthouse Road, there appears a weathered barn. I park and begin to walk around the building. Is this the place? Then I see in several floor-to-ceiling windows -- puppets, puppets of all shapes and sizes, seeming somewhat surreal against this background of mountains and grasslands. I find an open door and there stands Ruth Macchiarini, puppet-maker. Inside is a room filled from top to bottom with puppets of all sorts, shapes and sizes. The images surround in a swirl of wonderful sensation of tactile input. So many places to look. Can I possibly take everything in? Ruth turns out to be an excellent guide to Poncho Polo, her puppet company.

Left: Ruth Macchiarini

As Ruth begins to unwind the story of her puppeteer life, I see that it has been a path that chose her. She lived in Marin County in the early '70s and one day in a thrift shop she rescued a box of broken marionettes, laying a-jumble in a box. For 75 cents, she took the box home and began to straighten out strings, mend the bent and broken limbs and bring the puppets back to life. Thus began a life-long career as a maker of puppets and stages, as teacher, designer, producer, director, writer and everything else that is involved in the life of a puppet woman: The unwinding of a puppet puzzle revealed her future.

She still has the first puppet she made, hanging on her wall, a beautiful prince-like figure that was the beginning. She was running a foster care center and in order to make life more interesting for the children, she began to make more puppets and put on shows for them. She began to teach children how to make their own puppets and the next step was to get school children involved in the whole process from puppets to plays.

In 1972 she moved to Petrolia and eventually purchased a property that had several outbuildings. One now holds her collection of puppets and stages and other paraphernalia involved in her passion and her work. Another building is her workshop filled with all sorts of materials to create puppets. She has soft puppets, wood-carved puppets, puppets made from natural, found materials, puppets made from every imaginable material. Each group has its own story and play, created and brought to life.

She still has her first stage, made from a refrigerator box, as well as several other stages she used over the years. She shows pictures of a stage she made to fit on the shoulders of Hobart Brown, of Kinetic Sculpture fame, who with his head in the middle and a puppet on each hand became a walking player in his own self-supported stage. Her last stage is a large three-level affair designed to set up and break down for portability.

Ruth invited me behind the scenes to see how puppeteering is done, an involved process full of rods and hangers, nooks and crannies, doors and changeable scenery. Putting on a show requires a lot of organization. Ruth does it all. She makes the puppets, writes the scripts, choreographs the moves and performs the pieces. Introducing me to Bjorn and Helga, within minutes she has me performing, with ne'er-do-well Bjorn in my hand. This is the latest set of puppets Ruth has made.

She has been active with her puppets in the Humboldt community for years, teaching puppet making and performance through grants and invitations. Her puppets have entertained at the Humboldt County Library, at Christmas at the Eureka Inn, through 4-H, various schools and at the Humboldt County Fair. When she did her show at the Fair she was so popular that the man in charge of entertainment wanted her to join his traveling show. Don't all artists want to run away with the gypsies? Not Ruth. She said no because why ever would she want to leave Petrolia where her artist heart and soul has found completion? She can make a gypsy puppet if she wants gypsies.

Ruth loves the crafting of the puppets and the staging of the show; the challenge of figuring out who does what and what goes where is by far her favorite part of her puppet career. She says the performance part is her least favorite and she likes it when she can get the children to take over that part. The work behind the scenes satisfies her active and creative imagination.

A few years ago, after hip surgery, Ruth slowed down. Now she entertains the children from Lost Coast Camp in her puppet barn. They arrive in a tractor-drawn wagon and Ruth puts on a show for them. She is hoping to get reunited with the Humboldt County community and bring the life and laughter of her creativity back to the people. Her scrapbooks are full of memories of all the places she performed and taught and worked. Now Ruth hopes to generate interest and find new places to bring her many talents to benefit the public.

Ruth plans to continue her Open Studio through the month of September, and it is well worth the trip to see the wonders she has created. Plus you get to drive to Petrolia. What could be better? Poncho Polo Puppets perform at 625 Lighthouse Road, Petrolia, through September -- Sundays, noon to 5. Bring your puppets and play. Call 629-3478 for information.


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