Flying Wall Studios
The Mechanics of Play
54 1/2 E. San Francisco St. #7
May 12 - June 30, 2018
Opening Reception & Performance: 5/12/18, 6-9 pm, free
Additional performances will take place over the course of the exhibition.
“This used to be the pit cover for the Lensic, and these are set pieces from a Wise Fool production,” says Damon Griffith, gesturing to the floor and walls of his garage. This colorful bricolage houses the wood and metalworking shop for Flying Wall Studios, a puppet production company that Damon co-directs with his wife Sabrina Griffith. Inside their house, the rest of the studio is a jury-rigged resume for their extensive performing arts background. From their fantastical headquarters, the Griffiths turn out intricately detailed puppets that blur the lines between toy and sculpture. Their new exhibition at Strangers Collective’s No Land art space, The Mechanics of Play, features an exquisite body of work that lands firmly in the latter category. Still, they’ll never abandon their playful roots: the show, which opens Saturday, May 12 from 6 to 9 pm, will feature performances and puppet demonstrations that encourage visitors to interact with the artworks. “If you don’t play with a puppet, it dies,” says Sabrina.
“For a long time, this wasn’t our art, they were just puppets we made for money,” Damon says. “But as we did more and more, the line got blurrier and blurrier.” Sabrina adds, “The Mechanics of Play is full of extremely ambitious stuff that’s been hiding in our workshop.” That includes puppet vignettes with elaborate sets and props based on themes like “noir” and “burlesque,” and monumental works such as The Procession, eight linked puppets on wheels. The Griffiths have a packed schedule outside of their work with Flying Wall Studios. By day, they’re professional art preparators who install exhibitions for Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, SITE Santa Fe and Center for Contemporary Arts. By night, they are musicians in the Santa Fe band Cloacas. They’re also working with Santa Fe filmmaker Devon Hawkes Ludlow on The Love That Would Not Die, a multipart zombie puppet musical that’s building buzz locally and nationally. None of this has drained their passion for puppet making at nearly every spare moment, an obsessive and highly collaborative practice the couple has maintained for 18 years. It’s helped them make ends meet during lean times, and now it’s the basis for a budding reputation in the fine arts.
The Flying Wall Studios workshop holds relics from every chapter of this history. The Griffiths fell in love at a puppet festival in Pittsburg in 2000. “The first time I saw Damon, he was leading a puppet parade down a dark brick street,” says Sabrina. “I moved in that night, basically.” Both had extensive backgrounds in theater and puppeteering, so they swiftly cofounded a company under the macabre moniker Puppet Meat Market. Four years later, they bought a camper and started converting it into a rolling puppet studio. “We extended the top and tricked it out, so this thing was just like a giant, traveling block,” says Damon. “That’s why our friend called it the Flying Wall.” On their honeymoon in winter 2004, they hightailed it out of Pennsylvania with their sights set on Oakland, California, but ended up in Santa Fe by accident. “In every possible way, Santa Fe pulled the ‘Land of Entrapment’ on us,” Sabrina says. “We came here to visit friends. Then we got hit by a snowstorm, and the Flying Wall got hit by a truck on Rufina, and we ran out of money. So we stuck around.”
In the Griffiths’ studio, there’s shelving and furniture salvaged from the Flying Wall vehicle, along with a cabinet of beads, buttons and bits called “The Tower of Bobble” that they’ve had since the beginning. A vast archive of puppets they’ve created peeks out from every nook and cranny. More recent artifacts include heaps of textiles and other raw materials for puppet-making donated by local craftspeople and performing arts professionals.
“Sabrina and Damon’s process is totally gritty and improvisational, making it all the more astonishing to meet these elegant, fleshed-out characters they bring to life,” says Kyle Farrell, co-director of No Land. “During the show’s demonstrations and performances, visitors will have a chance to examine and play with the mechanisms that make the puppets move with such personality.” In addition to a performance featuring local puppeteers at the opening reception, No Land will soon announce a series of performances that will take place over the course of the exhibition. “We’re bringing in all sorts of special guests for the programming,” says Damon. “If you visit the show at any point during its run, we want to make sure that you touch the art.”