ABCD (Artists, Builders, Creators, Dreamers) Interview with Elyse

The second interview in this series is with puppet maker Elyse Jacobs. 

The second interview in this series is with puppet maker Elyse Jacobs. 

For the second interview in our ABCD (Artists, Builders, Creators, Dreamers) series we are fortunate to speak with Elyse Jacobs, MA. Elyse is an artist, educator and writer who is originally from Brooklyn, NY but now lives in San Francisco, CA. You can find her writings at Tools of Peace as well as at the Excelligence Learning Corporation. She is well known for her puppetry but uses many forms of art and creativity to teach children. She is currently writing a book on preventing violence by and against children and youth. We are excited to have her here to share her thoughts on art, creativity and forts!

Why do you do what you do? 

I am passionate about art, giving children a voice, and contributing to a more peaceful world. 30 years ago, as a puppeteer who had also worked in the schools through CA Arts Council and other grants, I was asked to develop a program of conflict resolution with puppets for preschoolers. This ongoing artist residency at Pacific Primary in San Francisco allows me to combine puppetry, the expressive arts, communication and peace-making into a program that continues to thrive. In its expanded form, the program is called Expressive Arts.

One key to violence prevention is developing social and emotional intelligence in young children. It’s an antidote for social isolation. Using puppets to enact the developmental issues common to preschoolers and facilitating appropriate interactive solutions with the children has proven to be extremely effective.

What was the first thing you remember building/creating?

My first memory was of an oil painting at age 4. I attempted to paint a blue eye on a yellow chick and was astonished when the eye turned green. I can remember how it felt moving the blue paint in thicker and thicker circles to form the eye. Actually, I was quite annoyed for no matter how much paint I used, the eye did not turn back to blue.

My first myth was written at age 6. It told the story of the first Easter egg from a rabbit named Rainbow who laid her egg in a rain puddle coated in leaked automobile oil. I was a city kid from Brooklyn making up stories to better understand the world around me. Thankfully no one mocked me for not knowing rabbits didn’t lay eggs.

Who or what has influenced and inspired you most in your art/building/creating?

My mother, an artist who painted, was my first major influence. She instilled her love of art and nature in her children.

  • Observing the changing sky and using our imagination to discover animals and other shapes in cloud formations

  • Sitting on the floor of the Brooklyn museum drawing the exhibits.

  • Exploring the beauty of the Botanical Gardens in Prospect Park

These early childhood experiences are viscerally in my roots and continue to grow as I do.

The children themselves deeply inspire me. I am so grateful to the children of Pacific Primary. 2800 children and counting have shown me what is needed to evolve the effectiveness of the Expressive Arts program.

What kind of training or schooling do you have that has helped you?

Traveling through Europe the summer before entering the MA program at California State University at SF, I was heavily influenced by the innovative puppetry in Amsterdam. My small wicker suitcase of puppets and I were welcomed by many of the practicing puppeteers.

Inspired, I created Ms.Tree Theatre with life sized puppets for my Master’s thesis in Sculpture. Having 2 years in graduate school to devote to following my artistic impulses allowed my creativity to flourish.

After graduation, 10 different artist-in-the-schools residencies provided the essence of my on the job training in puppetry. Ruth Asawa, who granted my first residency through Alvarado Arts, was another major influence. Her modeling of making art from recyclable materials would later contribute to an essential module of my Expressive Arts program.

What are some challenges you face and how do you overcome them?

My greatest challenge is enjoying a long career in my adopted city of San Francisco while my daughter, her husband and my year old grandson live in London. I want both lives, simultaneously. I do what I know such as taking vacations during the school year and spending much of the summer in London.

I also pay attention to what is unknown by listening to my intuition as to how to further combine my two lives. I take inspired action to initiate or follow up on cues that would allow my program to expand across the pond. Anyone out there want to hire a consultant to develop puppetry programs in London?

What’s the most favorite thing you’ve ever created?

Ms. Tree of my Ms.Tree Theatre was my favorite creation. Ms. Tree was built, with small pieces of burlap cut from the yards of fabric lying around the sculpture hut at SF State. I’d curl the pieces into small shapes, then hand sew them with thread pulled from the burlap itself. I’d fiddle with two shapes seeing how they best fit and then sew them together. While I knew I was making a puppet, it was always a delightful surprise to see what would begin to form. Much like creatures that can be imagined in old gnarled trees, I’d discover similar shapes unconsciously formed. It was a joyful process.

One by one I’d attach each piece until it became taller than I was. At that point, I hung it on the wall of the sculpture hut and continued building. It was nothing like my sketches. I hadn’t realized that I’d manipulate the puppet from within. Originally I thought it might be a marionette. This was the first of several large woven puppets. They became stages/environments for the smaller puppets.

What advice do you have for kids that want to be an artist or builder or creator?

You are all artists! You can make art from anything! Look around what are you attracted to? Cardboard boxes? Found objects? How will you connect them? The young children at Pacific Primary use colored masking tape because it’s quick, requires no drying time and allows them to expand their building to their hearts content.

My advice to parents, although unsolicited, is to set up a small expressive arts corner with open ended materials known as loose parts, tape, scissors, paper and markers, oil pastels. Children will create with authority for hours.

Did you have a favorite toy growing up?

A box of 48 Crayola crayons was my favorite toy. I’d flip the lid and stare at the array of colors in the box. I can remember feeling ecstatic at the beginning of each school year when the nubs of my well-used crayons were traded in for those perfectly formed points lined up by hues in the box. I would tremble with delight. I remember spending a lot of time just looking, not wanting to begin wearing them down.

Have you ever built a fort?

I’ve built forts out of blankets hung over tables or my Nana’s piano. As imagined, this was not encouraged. Maybe that’s why among the loose parts in the Expressive Arts room are large pieces of fabric that the children tape to any available surface and hide inside. Who says you can’t re-invent your childhood as a parent or teacher?!

Thank you for sharing Elyse!

Thank you for sharing Elyse!