Fine Arts Camp guest artist combines video and puppetry

Posted: Monday, June 14, 2004

Meredith Holch has her world of video directing, where a quarter-of-a-second's worth of video capture gives life to the inanimate. And she has her world of puppetry, where a stack of brown paper bags can turn into a 10-foot-high statement on the cultural psyche.

Somewhere in the middle, she combines both into animated shorts on social justice. Holch has toured with the internationally known Vermont company Bread and Puppet Theatre and has done post-production work for HBO and MTV.

Now living in East Hardwick, Vt., she's in town through July 3 as the guest artist for Juneau Dance Unlimited's 26th Annual Fine Arts Camp. She's teaching a puppetry class for kids in third through fifth grades, a video animation workshop for kids in sixth through eighth grades, and a "Summer Art Intensive" workshop for high school students.

"I like the kids to come up with their own theme, and within that they create their own story," Holch said. "I help them do something that has a beginning and a middle and an end. They get to see the whole thing, which is really exciting for them. It takes a lot of concentration and a lot of patience."

Holch brought her own camera and tripods for the frame-by-frame video animation workshops. The final production will be aired on KATH and during the next JUMP! festival at the Silverbow. The puppetry courses use papier mché and basic paper materials. She hopes her puppetry class has time to make at least one or two big (10-feet-high) puppets for the Fourth of July parade.

"One thing that I like about puppetry is it's not just low-tech," Holch said. "It's no-tech."

In 1985, Holch saw the famous social justice group Bread and Puppet Theatre perform in rural Vermont.

She wrote the group a letter and was invited to intern for a few weeks. The next year, she began touring with them as a puppeteer.

"I learned how to build puppets, and how to make puppets and how to put on puppet shows," Holch said. "Music was a big part of their performances, so I learned how to play the trumpet and I learned music."

Holch was a full-time member for five years, and during that time a friend introduced her to Super-8 moviemaking. She borrowed a camera from her father and began making animated shorts with cowboys, soldiers and toy tractors.

Eventually, she moved to San Francisco and began taking film classes. An early film, "My Hero," starred toy soldiers.

"The bed cover unfolds and then you see the army and all the soldiers and plastic toys," Holch said. "They get scared away by these icicles that are looking over them. Then I used a vegetable steamer as a UFO that came down from the ceiling. It opened up to the sound of Vivaldi's 'Springtime.' "

Holch moved to New York City and took some more classes. She attended a few more in Maine and finally decided to get her master's in film. Holch began to realize she could combine her interest in puppetry with her interest in films about social justice. One of her films was about the real-estate boom and tenant rights in New York City.

"While I was in New York City, the community gardens were taken back from the city," Holch said. "The neighborhoods turned over what used to be empty lots, because the city realized a financial potential. The city took them back and there was little protest. That was during (Mayor) Rudy Guiliani's tenure."

Holch also has done post-production work for MTV and worked as an assistant director on a documentary about AIDS that showed on HBO.

These days, she focuses on animation. She still teaches puppetry and sometimes makes masks for puppet companies. Her latest project is an animated film about the refugee experience in Vermont. Thousands of people have entered the state from Somalia, Chad and Bosnia.

"It's about how some of their expectations of the United States might or might not be met," she said. "When people flee their countries, they have to flee for their lives. They show up at JFK Airport without papers, and they're immediately handcuffed and shackled and taken to a detention center or jail and housed in warehouses while they're waiting for their cases to be heard. Right now, there are 20,000 asylum seekers in various detention centers."

The film stars layered colored tissue paper figures, which are ripped and lit from beneath. Refugees tell their stores in voice-overs. Holch hopes to show the 30-minute film at libraries, schools and human rights festivals.

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