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How Do You Get Kids Into Art? For Squallis, It Starts With A Suitcase

The Highland Community Ministries gym is packed full of children who are twisting tissue paper into delicate, colorful flowers. Eventually, a few brave kids creep up to the front to peek at a suitcase plastered with a “Squallis Puppeteers” bumper sticker.

In just a few minutes on this Saturday afternoon, puppeteer Shawn Hennessy will transform that suitcase into a stage, while Sara Soltau -- who also works as education programs manager for our sister station, 90.5 WUOL -- will lend her voice and violin to a performance of “Ferdinand the Bull.”

You may remember this story by Munro Leaf. Ferdinand is a little bull who doesn’t enjoy headbutting like the other baby bulls in his pasture. Instead, he prefers to sit under his favorite cork tree and quietly smell the flowers. All is well and good until scouts from Madrid’s bullring arrive in search of a fierce bull to fight their matador.

This performance is part of Squallis’ First Saturday Show program. It’s a puppet show designed to get art of all sorts in front of kids. And they’re invited to participate.

Remember those tissue paper flowers?

“Every time I say in the story, ‘Ferdinand loves to smell the flowers,’ I want you to look at your flower and take a deep breath,” Soltau says.

Soon the gym is filled with bright music and the light pattering of felt puppets -- both occasionally punctuated by a chorus of deep inhalations and the mass crinkle of tissue paper.

After the show, the kids clamor for a chance to touch the puppets — especially “Big Ferdinand,” who has a cardboard box body and soft hair curler legs — and Soltau’s violin.

Soltau believes events like this present art as something that is accessible to children. Her own career as a violinist began by seeing the instrument being played at a community event similar to this.

“I went home and begged, ‘Please let me play it,’” Soltau says. “And I think just seeing that as an option -- just hearing the instrument -- can create a whole different life path for a kid.”

Even for children who aren’t destined to grow up to be concert musicians, Soltau says presenting classical music with stories can prompt them to think about the genre in a different way.

“It’s great music to imagine to,” she says, “to hear all the characters, to hear all the story lines, to hear all the drama is a great way to engage both kids and adults.”

The Saturday show and the make-and-take puppet workshop afterward took about an hour. But for at least some of the children, the impression it made may last much longer.

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