Monday, October 26, 2009

Interview: Andrea Everman of Owly Shadow Puppets

When Monkeytail and Wellington launched into cyber space nearly 18 months ago, one of the first indie designers we showcased was Owly Shadow Puppets. The shadow puppets started off a best seller and have continued their popularity. As we've just received a new shipment in the lead up to Christmas, we thought it was high time we got to know Andrea Everman, the crafty creator of Owly Shadow Puppets!

Who is Andrea Everman?

I guess I am a puppet designer? I have a small company that makes shadow puppets called Owly Shadow Puppets. I also do freelance design work for some puppet theaters in Chicago, and have been known to teach workshops for kids that combine writing and puppetry.

How did you get from model maker to shadow puppet maker extraordinaire?

It's true-- before I was a puppet maker I was a model maker....I've found that both jobs earn bonus points at parties. To completely explain the jump, I guess I should tell you how I got the model making job:

I worked for a year as an art teacher in a terrible school and when I quit that job I had to find something else. I saw an ad in the newspaper about model making and went down for an interview. The interview consisted of a tour of the shop (where they had a full wood shop plus two laser cutters and a 3D machine) and a test-- could I put together some teeny tiny chairs with superglue? Lucky for me, I had built my own dioramas and miniatures and even had a portfolio to prove it. I made some chairs, got hired, and worked there for the next three years.
This particular model making company specialized in models of buildings; new condominiums would have a model made to go in their sales office to sell the condo units before the real building was built. My job was to do the landscaping. I would make tiny trees and shrubs to scale and when time allowed I added "whimsy"...literally. The models were highly realistic and I got to add things like people having a party on their balcony, or coming home with a bouquet of flowers, or children lining up outside the school door after recess. The clients LOVED this kind of thing. But the position as whimsy-maker went to my head. I was given a great deal of freedom in the shop and often got myself into trouble. Once we made a model of an Island and I tried to sneak on a tiny pirate ship and buried treasure. For a while a co-worker and I made fake time capsules that we hid inside the models we shipped out. On one particularly large model I planted all sorts of odd things like squirrels and battleships and cutlery and made a list of the objects to find-- it was meant to be a game like "I Spy.." On another building-- a model of an old mansion-- I filled the inside of the walls with drawings of ghosts.

After a year of this sort of nonsense my boss had a bit of a chat with me. She wanted me to do more design work and I would have to learn the program Auto Cad. She gave me an operating manual and put me in a cubicle. The program was hard to learn but I could see the possibilities-- Auto Cad is the program used to draw buildings and design things. In the shop we used it for everything--you can draw in a very exact way and then have those parts cut by the laser cutter. Amazing!

I did the work I was asked to do, but eventually I grew bored. Making buildings was boring. I started to doodle at my desk. I kept a stack of paper scraps by my mouse pad and when no one was looking I would doodle. Sometimes I would draw things I wanted to make with the laser cutter, other times I would draw goofy little pictures to cheer myself up. Then I would hide these drawings all over my desk. One day after hours I decided to cut one of my drawings-- a T-rex. I drew it by hand with the mouse and then laser-cut my line drawing out of black cardboard. Playing around with my T-rex silhouette I realized I had just made a shadow puppet! I went back to my file and gave it overlapping parts to make joints, and took my improved design home with me.

At the time I was making little things that I sold at a craft fair as a hobby. I had been operating under the name "owly handmade" since the definition of "owly" meant: "in a wise or clever manner" according to wikipidia. I made a few more puppet characters and took a small batch to the next craft show, calling them Owly Shadow Puppets. I didn't even have proper bags for them, but came with a roll of tin foil and wrapped each one in foil when they sold. They were a big hit, and then stores wanted them and people were trying to buy them online. I knew I had something great to sell, but it depended on my access to the laser cutters at my job.

There were a few months where I was seriously in limbo over what was going on. By day I tried to keep up with the tedious cad work I needed to do...but I was a terrible employee. I didn't work on the puppets during work hours, but I daydreamed about new designs and doodled all day long. At night I made new files and tried new things.

Id like to state here that Im still on good terms with this model making company. In fact, my little brother works there now and I see some of my old co-workers at least once a year at Bill and Joani's Mardi Gras party. So, well, everything worked out in the end. But once I started making puppets I took steps to make it a business for myself. I bought my own lasercutter ($$!!) and set up shop in my livingroom. I dropped down to part-time at the model making job to have a bit of a financial cushion before taking the total plunge of self employment...and then, after much hand-wringing, I walked out the door with my box of doodles and stolen office supplies and went home to work for myself. I was terrified, but also felt like dancing. My older brother helped me make a website, and I got on Etsy. Its not been smooth sailing, Ill admit, but I don't know what else I would have done. Ive been self employed for 2 years now. Wheeeee.

I see a lot of humour and a bit of retro quirkiness in your puppets, where does your inspiration come from?

I don't know where my sense of humor comes from, but it seems to be genetic. The funniest people I know are related to me-- my two bothers. They spend most of their time reading popular science magazine and drawing up plans to build personal airplanes. As siblings, we have been known to sing songs about helicopters or the age-old midnight snack dilemma-- "icecream, or beer?"

Genetic quirks aside, I find a lot of humor in the design and shape of objects. Some of the funniest include: teakettles, teapots, rice cookers, vacuums, hairdryers and portable heaters. Usually I find that if an object is fun to draw it has good potential for humor. A T-rex is funny all by itself, but if you add a refrigerator....see what I mean?

My stuff might have a bit of retro quirkiness to it since most of the objects I like best are considered retro. (And I do think the design happening in the 50's and 60's had much more character to it than our current trends!) Landscapes kinda crack me up, too. I often find myself taking in the view from my bike or a car window and wonder "why is this here?". Buildings with air ducts and pipes and chimneys, water towers, even grocery stores have personality.

Any new designs to look out for?

I don't have any new puppet characters in the works, but have been focusing my attentions on a puppet show kit that includes everything a family needs to make a shadow show together. It would be great for a birthday party or holiday activity. The pack includes a script writing book that works like "Mad Libs"...are you familiar with these? You fill in the blanks without knowing what the story is and create a funny script to perform. The writing activity is meant for kids around 10 years old-- that magical age where kids are honing their own story-writing skills.

What exciting things are on the horizon for you and Owly Shadow Puppets?

It's fall, and there's so much to do! I'm currently trying to re-locate my workspace to a better, more work friendly place. Working in your pajamas is nice, but I would love to get my livingroom back. I have been producing some other laser-cut things, one being a series of snarky valentines that I make with the same black matboard I use for the shadow puppets. I have also been toying with the idea of creating a menorah that uses light bright pegs, and Id love to design a coo coo clock made with colorful acrylic.

In my outside work, Im very excited about 2 projects that are up and coming... Im working with Redmoon theater and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to create a shadow show version of Swan Lake, this will open in December...and I am also working with the Chicago Childrens Theater designing puppets for a special show for children with Autism called "Red Kite".

Any last words of wisdom?

I have a few mantras that are in heavy rotation around here:
"You need to be poor for the right reasons." and:
"No exercise? No icecream."

My own personal philosophy about life is thus:

You should make your life into a happy Island.
You should always have enough of everything to share.
And then, when you find people who have never seen an Island
and need an Island in the worst way,
You should invite them over.

We have Andrea's newly designed Shadow Theatre Screens now in stock as well as the full range of shadow puppets and landscapes for all your shadowy adventures at storytime.

Teachers can check out this lesson plan on Andrea's website for creating your own shadow puppet!

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