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Regional Art Stories Sky River: National Regional Arts Fellowship Reflections

Puppet-maker extraordinaire Sky River received a National Regional Arts Fellowship in 2021 – a program investing into the development of artistic and creative practice for artists living and working in regional, rural, and remote Australia.

As an applicant-led program, Sky designed a Fellowship of Experimental Puppet Making, allowing her the time and space to explore new methods and materials in puppet production.

As Regional Arts Australia prepares to launch into the next round of Fellowships, we reached out to Sky to hear about her current projects and the impact her fellowship has had on her practice.

Regional Arts Australia: Firstly, could you please introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

Sky River: Hi, I’m Sky River. I’m a writer, producer, puppet and theatre maker, based in Wooditjup on Wadandi Boodja, also known as Margaret River in South West Western Australia.

My work responds to my connection to Country, which for me, opens a creative dialogue between my physical senses and my imagination. When I’m walking the land - our ancient coastlines, river, and bush - I belong to an aspect of self that is so much larger than my individual identity, a space referred to by Joanna Macy as the ‘Ecological Self’. My imaginative stories and hybrid style puppet characters are my way of exploring and sharing my relationship with a living interrelated world.

Regional Arts Australia: Can you share about your Fellowship of Experimental Puppet Making, and specifically the opportunity for experimentation and research this provided?

Sky River: My Fellowship gave me space, time, and financial support to experiment with a variety of methods and materials with the aim to create a new, versatile cast of light weight puppets.

My research included looking at the work of puppet companies including Handspring Puppet Company, Brian and Wendy Froud, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, and the work of Australian artist, Hilary Talbot.

Through a sometimes frustrating process of trial and error I taught myself how to create two-part plaster moulds for pouring light-weight foam for faces. With the support of local leather craftsman David Skeats, I explored making wet leather moulded masks, hats and boots as part of my puppet costume design. And I had many online discussions with Michael Barlow, the Associate Director of Fremantle based Spare Parts Puppet Theatre.

I also spent a lot of time in nature. This observation and imaginative 'dreamy' time play a big part in my research and creative influence.

Regional Arts Australia: One important part of your fellowship was this community collaboration and engagement with other industry professionals, but COVID restrictions required you to make changes to your original plan. How did you go about building these relationships during this time and what impact have they had on your practice moving forward?

Sky River: I found the local and community-based relationships were the easiest to maintain during COVID restrictions, while connecting with artists in Perth and beyond became tricky.

Michael Barlow from Spare Parts Puppet Theatre was incredibly supportive during this period, and we conducted video meetings and online feedback sessions to discuss my ongoing puppet making practice. This really highlighted for me how effective Zoom can be, opening up mentor support, networks and learning opportunities in a regional location.

I consequently reallocated travel funds to support a new local partnership with The South West Studio, a professional film production company based in Margaret River. Here I was able to document lessons with 70 year old leather master David Skeats, and this partnership has opened up some extremely exciting collaboration opportunities for the future. Mike has top quality special effects, animation and film equipment which will support making new puppet-based works. While working in the studio I learnt about using the green screen, explored the potentials of 3D printing, laser-cutting and how they could support my puppet and set construction ideas. Mike and I are already discussing a future collaboration using film and puppetry.

Regional Arts Australia: You finished your fellowship earlier in the year. What projects have you been working on and where can readers go to follow your puppet making into the future?

Sky River: The characters I built for the fellowship began to form the basis of a theatre cast for my new puppet show, The Marri Tree Girl. Channelling this experimental puppet making period to support my newly developing show, served as a powerful launch pad to get my show off the ground.

Using this Fellowship opportunity to support my bigger vision in making a puppet show been incredibly beneficial. I have broken this big project into smaller stages and used the funded ‘puppet making’ stage in my grant applications. This has led to funding for script development, community engagement, creative development, and I have just received funding to make the visual arts components of my show too.

Ongoing learning and experiments in puppet making are also rippling through the community projects I have been running in Margaret River, involving young people, children, adults living with disabilities and other regional artists.

I document my work on my artist website and Instagram @sky.river.puppetfolk

Regional Arts Australia: What advice would you give to prospective applicants and those who are selected to undergo a National Regional Arts Fellowship?

Sky River: I would suggest taking a small part of the project and focussing in on that, rather than trying to achieve a massive body of work in one year. I personally loved giving the Fellowship an experimental edge. This gave space for creativity and the freedom to play and learn in a specialised area, without the pressure of always having a perfect outcome. Mind you, I haven’t included photos of the really random experimental outcomes!!

Sky fellowship puppet photo