To Whoever Witnesses It: An interview with Donovan Zimmerman of Paperhand Puppet Intervention

Image from Paperhand Puppet Intervention

Donovan Zimmerman is a director and co-founder of the activist organization Paperhand Puppet Intervention. Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio Zimmerman traveled the world before establishing Paperhand in Saxapahaw, NC alongside Jan Burger in 1998. Paperhand Puppet Intervention works to cultivate love for the earth and justice for its inhabitants through mediums of art, storytelling, and community collaboration.  

You are a co-founder of the Paperhand Puppet Intervention, correct?

Yes, that’s right – myself and Jan Burger who is my good friend and comrade in puppet arms.

In your work, you use art as a medium for activism and education. I was wondering if you could speak to this process. What does it mean to engage art and creativity as a type of action? How does your work function to communicate social justice issues?

Both Jan and I got our start as artists, just keeping sketchbooks and working on projects. When we were both right out of high school and into our first year of art school (we both did one year of art school) we started getting involved in some different protest movements at a time when I was about 19 or 20. I spent those first years going out to the Nevada test site and working to protect redwood forests when I lived out West by protesting a bunch of the crazy logging practices happening out there. The Nevada test site was about shutting down the US nuclear test site where they were creating lots of radiation that was just pouring into some of the local cities; Las Vegas was inundated. And then we (Jan and I) both got involved in the WTO [World Trade Organization] shutdown that happened in Seattle, which was kind of a big milestone in modern radical movement history because we actually stopped the meeting from happening. It felt like a very unifying giant protest with lots of puppets.

Image by David Solnit

  Art was used in a really effective way at that particular moment. It really opened up my mind and Jan’s as well as a bunch of other people to how effective it can be to not just yell and scream messages necessarily but to present this other face of the movement. One that was more about beauty and connection and our common ground and sort of celebrating, you know, the earth that we walk upon. All these things.

Seeing those puppets work in action, which we literally saw at times in some of the other protests we went to, was very unique to the art form. When we went to DC and other places we would see the puppets come around the corner into a situation where the police literally had their batons drawn and they were getting ready to start clubbing people because they had defied the order to clear the street. When the puppets came around the corner there was drumming and all these giant things. There were the stilt-walkers there were even some hula-hoopers and it was just a very different vibe, as it were. We came around the corner and the police just said alright this is too much, nope we’re just gonna put the batons away and they just backed off. So, there was not only the philosophical fact that we wanted to put a different face on our movement, but it was in action just working candidly on the street. Boots on the ground to stop violent situations from erupting.

You know, to this day I still look to our art as sort of an antidote. Just in the sheer messaging and the kind of creative impulse it pulls together from so many people. I would say no less than 200 people work on the shows each year, each summer if you include all the volunteers that come out on our Saturday workdays and everything. So I consider that to be a part of our activism now, to try and create creative culture or nurture it anyway. There is so much that comes out of people putting their energy into that instead of other activities we see in society like violence and a lot of other horrid things. Creating these environments of juicy creative goodness really help transform the sort of possibilitarian aspect of our minds and help us see a way forward that doesn’t involve consumerism and other things that can be equated to violence and oppression if you look at the whole chain of where things are coming from.

I feel like our activism has changed a little bit from not being in the streets as much. We still do a lot as we’ve been working with Extinction Rebellion, Sunrise, and but this giant puppet company is a lot of work so we try to put our activism into this idea of nurturing connection between people. For the 1000’s of people that come out to our show, and in the shows themselves, we’re revisiting these themes of the integral nature of our connection to the world and the earth and its creatures and the rivers and the sky. How all those things need to be looked at for their true value and not just seen as a commodity like the capitalist system has conditioned us all to believe.

There are certain ideas that are helped to mature in people’s minds through conditioning within a capitalist society. So what we’re trying to provoke in our show is a bit of the unraveling of some of those ways of thinking. In this way, other things can rise to the surface like irreverence for trees and rivers and animals. Those things, if they were predominant in our mindstate, Jan and I both believe, would begin to unravel the social knots that we have found ourselves bound in. A bit of a replacement of the patriarchal systems people often prescribe to. We’re just trying to bring in more goddessy, earth-lovin’, goodness to help heal the world. To help heal people who, through this experience, start to feel inspired and enriched and healed in some level. I feel for myself as I’m going into this that I don’t have all the answers but, as an artist, a lot of questions that I want to explore with people in a creative way. That in itself I feel is very uniting to the community, whoever witnesses it. We’ve built up a really strong fanbase over the years and people who are coming now who have these fancy careers have been coming since they were babies.

That’s some bit of how our activism is trying to express itself on our stage. We look at a lot of different themes but I would say environmental justice is right there at the top. We feel that if we were able to hold the earth in a higher regard with our sense of spirituality and reverence there would a lot of natural untangling that would happen from some of these oppressive structures.

Thank you for giving such an in-depth response. I feel that art can really set the tone of a period, or a chapter, or a crisis and I think that comes through in Paperhand by reestablishing priorities as we work to find justice on a bigger level, going back to the root of everything.

In our most recent show, We Are Here, we focused a lot on the environment but visually what we did was create this kind of epic monster battle sort of inspired by Japanese monster movies and kaiju battles. We turned some of the crazy things you hear about, like the fat berg under London, which is like a garbage living thing made of soap and hair and other disgusting things and turned it into a physical thing and gave it life. Then, in response, people had to build these giant robots. It’s the kind of thing we make when we get so carried away with our technological fixes we don’t even think about what we’re creating.

One of the other things was a giant trash monster which was this huge 7 person puppet we made for Green Peace last year. They commissioned us to make it to kind of protest against the policies and the manufacturing of Nestlé products because Nestlé is the second largest single use plastics polluter and a lot of that stuff just ends up in the ocean, a monster.

We tried to use the puppetry idea of giving things life to emphasize these different, weird aspects that we’re creating without really knowing about it. The blob, the fat berg, the trash monster, the climate crisis puppet – which was kind of this crazy looking, goggled, gas-mask thing with all this plastic. And then we also made these earth defenders. One was like a pinecone and a pangolin mixed together. Another was this kind of crab like creature and they were these monsters fighting to defend the earth. We created this battle that was made up of these different forces and this is just another way to help people wake up to what’s going on, that’s why it’s an intervention. We want our artwork and everything we do to be a wakeup call for not only the people who are watching it but for us, to help us be more aware as human beings.

Image by Tim Aubry/Greenpeace

Moving forward with the idea of a wake-up call as spreading knowledge and awareness, I’d like to transition for a moment to education. Paperhand Puppet Intervention often brings the puppets into local schools, yes?

Yes, that’s something I do. I do Paperhand year-round, and to go into the schools I hire other puppeteers I’m familiar working with. We do shows in schools all over the place.

Wow, that’s wonderful. So with this, I wonder about the particular time we’re in now, in a time when the school system is really engaging with the physical, situational diversity of student experience. Students are coming from different places with different needs and different ideas they need to express. This is such a critical time for communication and having the capacity for self-expression and I wonder about your thoughts on the role of creativity in schools, both in pedagogy and curriculum.

Well my daughter is homeschooled but she does go to a program called Learning Outside. There, she and other local kids get together four days a week and take long hikes, cook potatoes, grow their garden, and just get in the creeks and do stuff outside.

“There is no inside!” – daughter from offscreen

So, home learning hasn’t been a huge adjustment for us. But I know based on schools I was going to that there are a lot of great things about school and it provides a lot of great things to a lot of kids. But my concern often is that the art program is the first thing on the chopping block. Art and music and theatre programs are the first things to go. This concerns me because I feel very strongly that creative thinking and creative problem-solving are not expendable. Creative thinking and creative problem-solving in all aspects are not something you can just get rid of. So, when I see kinds of patchwork attempts to address this problem where, once a week maybe, someone comes around with art materials it’s difficult because – you know, arts are at the center of what people are experiencing.

That’s how my school worked when I went to a performing arts school. The school I went to, it was an arts school and I was kind of lucky to get to go to that school as you had to audition, but I had a major in art and a minor in theatre. It was kind of like the school in the movie Fame, but instead of being in New York it was in Cincinnati, Ohio. And that did sort of set me on a path towards being involved in the arts and I found that I just wanted to try all of the things and do all of the things. When I first found puppetry I was about 19 at the Bread and Puppet farm in Vermont and for me, there was this realization that this is what I was going to do for the rest of my life. Plus, Bread and Puppet is very active in political realms and so in that too, there was just truly no looking back from that moment on.

As far as addressing the other bits of education, I made it my mission to do as many projects and residencies as I can reasonably do in a year so that I can teach this kind of art form because I really see it to be the people’s art form. You can use anything: paper and tape or paper mâché, it’s a very teachable skill. And the thing is, most people, almost anyone that can get their hands on it and work with it can make something that is quite interesting. If they make a mask of any kind for example. Masks are very compelling to us as all as human beings because we see ourselves in all the different aspects of humanity that are reflected in there. So I want to teach as much of that as I can and that’s also why we have interns each year, to teach them more in-depth so they can go on to create their own puppet companies if they wish. This happens every two years or so and it’s pretty satisfying, it happening, and it continuing on to the next level and so on, it’s pretty awesome.

Still, something that concerns me with some home-schooling is when students are on screens all day. You know, something this pandemic has really escalated is this overscreening screen time and I don’t feel all the answers people are looking for are inside their screens. So a big part of our work is getting people to turn those things off and really take a walk in the woods or maybe a dip in the river. Something that is more real and tangible. So I do have some concerns about not being able to reach a lot of those kids with the artistic residencies I do. This though, I believe, is the intention of all artists taking these residencies. They are all working to try and inspire kids, to expose students to new realities they may have never been exposed to.

Thank you. I really appreciate what you said about art as the people’s medium. I think there is something truly accessible about art as a medium because it is a communication device that can utilize all materials and does not disvalue one material over another. It can be visual or audible or physical or oral and still it can bear the same weight.

There were already so many barriers and limitations and particularly within schools at the moment, some of these obstacles have been elevated as far as access to art, and for a lot of kids even access to food. For a lot of kids around here, that has been a real reality. For some of the local schools not too far from here, like in Alamance county, all the kids there they lost a lot of access to meals they were counting on and they also don’t have access to the internet in their homes.

With that, what I hope to do through my work in schools is to open some doorways; just talking to them as someone who has gotten the chance to travel and who works as an artist for a living.

Alright, so this is my last question! Paperhand engages with a wide variety of concepts in the issues you represent and the work you produce. So I am wondering, what are the issues you see as particularly relevant right now? Is there anything you see emerging that you feel needs to be addressed or that you are hoping to translate into your work?

There are a lot of aspects to this answer. For one, we’ve gotten involved with extinction rebellion, sunrise,, and some other organizations running a campaign to work for a just recovery. Basically, as the world starts to recover, a lot of injustices are being highlighted very severely by the pandemic. In light of this, a lot of people are working hard to ensure that the normal we return to is not the normal we lived in before but that there is a more just, equitable and sustainable future for everybody. One that is socially just and environmentally just.

For me personally, I have been on pause in many ways considering what it is I want to speak about next in our work. I can’t say there is anything that has come to me fleshed out or fully formed. It’s very much a wait-and-see type of space in my head and I’m also trying to focus on my family and my farm in the midst of this. Sometimes you live that busy, run-around life and so I want to take this time to really pause and reflect on what it is I want to talk about, to get to the heart of things.

It’s hard to say what our next show will be but something I’ve been focusing on is releasing and streaming the shows we’ve worked on over the past 20 years. We announce them and people tune in at a certain time to have a feeling of community and connection with the Paperhand family that we have evolved over the years. So, I am just trying to stay connected with folks out there who care about what we do and support us.

Still, I haven’t found exactly what my work is right now. I did lose all the work that I’d been planning, and I have no income and no shows for the foreseeable future and that’s been a big shift. I haven’t quite jumped into being the zoom puppeteer guy who does all these things. I just haven’t really felt that in my heart that that’s where I’m going to be putting my energy as of right now. I’m really glad that Zoom is there for so many artists to allow them to have some sort of income, but I just haven’t felt that for myself. Our thing is such a live experience, so many elements come together and it’s just all about being there. But there are some really good video captures that we’re trying to get out there into the world to keep people connected to us as an organization who cares and revisit some of these memories that people have stored or that maybe they’ve never seen and see if that can inspire anyone.

  That was sort of our band aid over a bullet hole kind of a thing to start releasing those and figure out the streaming. But I do have some projects stewing with some other folks including some musician friends who are looking at making shadow puppet videos to go along with their music for a type of song video. Then I’m also working with one of our former band members, Jonathan Henderson, who plays all sorts of instruments and is an ethnomusicologist at Duke. We’re working on a project called Water Ways which is about the climate crisis and how waterways move and how stories and music and other traditions travel along waterways and how those waterways change and how those stories change. So there are some exciting ideas stewing around but I don’t even know how to … well… for 20 years I’ve built a momentum around how to get things done and make shows happen and how to get people there. So now when all of that is completely up in the air and off the table it’s very disorienting and really different. I’m trying to not get overwhelmed or sad about it, even though parts of me are sad and I am sad because gathering people is just as important in many ways, as the art is in my world view. The community coming to experience something and to feel something together is a big piece of the activism, maybe the whole point.

So I am not 100% clear on what the next steps are. We are working on cleaning right now and staying active on social media and I’m still paying people to do that. Deep cleaning the studio, deeper organization. So that’s what’s happening on that front. Overall, I consider myself very lucky. Things are hard but I know so many people are suffering, and I always try to put it in perspective. I have a lot of options and a lot of support. So, I’m feeling… I’m feeling okay. I think I’m just trying to figure out what the future will look like.