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Portland Museum retrospective captures 25 years of Squallis Puppeteers

Courtesy Danny Seim, AHOY Director

The Portland Museum in Louisville features the art of Squallis Puppeteers in a show opening Saturday.

Twenty-Five Years of Squallis Puppeteers,” on display through March, is the group's first solo museum exhibition, featuring items from Squallis’ inaugural show to its most recent.

“It’s been great. It’s also been kind of emotional,” said Squallis co-founder and executive director Nora Christensen, who has been writing down the organization’s 25-year history for the first time.

“A lot of sweet memories have come up and … it's just a good way to kind of review and reflect, and so it's been really, really sweet,” she continued.

The local puppetry arts company puts on shows and educational programming. It’s perhaps most recognized for its giant puppets of figures like Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Kurt Vonnegut, often seen at public events, festivals, art fairs and protests about issues like climate change or racial justice.

Christensen said, from the start, they’ve wanted their work to have a message.

“I think the reason we wanted to make art in the first place was because we had opinions about things and wanted to use art as a communication tool to express our opinions in a creative visual way,” she said.

Puppetry has “always spoken truth to power,” added performer, puppet maker and Squallis board member Shawn Hennessey.

“There's always been something to protest,” he said. “You look at the history of Squallis, and it's the Iraq War, police brutality in Louisville and injustice, and Trump.”

Christensen started the organization with her sister and several friends, “just experimenting and playing.” Early on, she said the work largely centered around creating puppet theater, then eventually shifted to a heavy focus on education. Squallis has since visited schools all over the state.

Both Christensen and Hennessey enjoy how puppetry requires a diverse set of skills —  including sewing and paper mache — and is a versatile art form.

“You're never really done exploring it,” Christensen said. “It's so multifaceted.”

The next chapter of Squallis’ history includes moving to Portland. The neighborhood museum has been planning and fundraising for an immersive art center called AHOY, the Adventure House of You Children’s Museum. Part of that expansion will be a new home for Squallis, where they can develop more youth programming. 

Additionally, Christensen recently returned to school to pursue a degree in social work. She hopes to find a way to merge what Squallis does with what she’s learning in the classroom.

“I was running Squallis for all this time and realized that, as much as I love making puppets, it wasn't just about the puppets. It was about what the puppets could do,” she said. “I kept finding I was missing bits of information or training, and so I decided to learn more about how to make change.”

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