Arts & Culture

Iowa City's Eastside Artists moving to art crawl, online market formats

These wooden Christmas trees by Iowa City artist Nancy Romalov are available through the Eastside Artists' Winter Holida
These wooden Christmas trees by Iowa City artist Nancy Romalov are available through the Eastside Artists’ Winter Holiday Market, being held online Dec. 3 to 8. (Eastside Artists)
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IOWA CITY — Puppet-maker Monica Leo co-founded Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre 45 years ago, when she found herself surrounded by “big puppets nobody wanted to buy.” These days, she’s making much smaller hand puppets she’s hoping lots of people will want to buy at an upcoming pair of sales.

Leo, 76, of rural Iowa City, is a guest artist this holiday season with Eastside Artists, a group of Iowa City area artists who typically stage a Winter Holiday Market at the Iowa City Masonic Building. This year, however, the event is moving to an online market Dec. 3 to 8, with links on the group’s website, Eastsideartists.com/events.

And this Saturday, the following artists will show and sale their wares with an in-person Art Crawl at various downtown Iowa City businesses:

• Jan Friedman at Akar, 257 Iowa Ave., 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

• Laurie Haag, Amy Dobrian, Emily Jalinsky and Monica Leo at Beadology, 220 E. Washington St., 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

• Tracy Randall Titus at Dulcinea, 2 S. Dubuque St., 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

• Marilyn Moore and Jo Myers-Walker at the Iowa Artisans Gallery, 207 E. Washington St., 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

• Ritu Jain at Prairie Kitchen, 160 N. Linn St., 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

• Trudi Starbeck-Miller and Nancy Romalov at Textiles, 109 S. Dubuque St., 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“This has been a very difficult decision for this group, as the (COVID-positive) numbers have spiked,” Leo said. “The group finally decided we’re going to go ahead with it because the downtown businesses have been really good about safety precautions, and all of the stores that we have people in have been especially good at it.

“They’re also limiting the number of the people that can come in at one time and they’re requiring masks,” she noted, “and they have identified spaces that are large enough that there should be plenty of room for us to set up and incorporate plenty of distancing.”

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Eastside Artists, founded in 1992, currently features a core group of 14 members working in a variety of media and price ranges.

This year’s member roster includes Ansel Cummings, organic mandala art and apparel; Lucy David, book art, cards and paintings; Jan Friedman, weaving; Laurie Haag, digital art and photography; Jo Myers-Walker, watercolors and acrylic sculptures; Ritu Jain, textiles; Nancy Romalov, woodwork; Tracy Randall Titus, wrap bracelets and alcohol ink paintings; Patti Zwick, quilts, cards, bags, and eye pillows; Amy Dobrian, origami ornaments and decor, cards and prints; Ulpi Gonzalez, painting, photography and cards; Erica Gooding, jewelry; Marilyn Moore, wire baskets and basketry-related jewelry; Chris Carman, assemblage and collage.

Guest artists are Kay Irelan, painting; Emily Jalinsky, printmaking and paper arts; Monica Leo, puppets and dolls; Miranda Meyer, photography; and Trudi Starbeck-Miller, jewelry and metal arts. Cafe del Sol will offer fresh roasted coffee.

For the online event, each artist will have a “shop” page with a central checkout for all sales. Afterward, a pickup location will be designated for all orders placed during the show. Shipping and delivery options will be offered, as well.

Pandemic puppets

Leo was a member of the group for about five years, until her duties and performances with Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre in West Liberty occupied the bulk of her time. But with so much of the troupe’s activities scaled back with the pandemic, she decided the time was right to start making hand puppets and dolls again, for sale.

The online market component presents “another kind of challenge,” she said, “but isn’t that what all of this year has been — challenges that we have to figure out? I figure it’s keeping my brain young.” Forging ahead and gathering new skills is something she said you have to do “to keep to keep your sanity and to bring in some kind of income.”

Her hand puppets feature sculpted heads and soft bodies, styled in the European tradition she grew up with as the daughter of German immigrants.

“I love hand puppets,” she said. “I think in many ways, they are the most versatile and lively-looking kind of puppet, because the fact that your hand is in them gives them very humanlike movements.

“Your knuckle joint ends up being right at the neck, so they’ve got the head nod, which is one of the things that makes people look alive. And then your wrist is right at the waist, so they’ve got the waist bend that’s another thing that makes people look alive.

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“They’re also the only kind of puppet that has muscles, so they can pick things up. That’s the thing I think hand puppets do best — pick things up and move them around and handle props — and they’re sort of natural comedians, just because they kind of satirize human movement.”

The puppets she makes for her Eulenspiegel troupe tend to be one-of-a-kind, but for the puppets she sells, she can pour multiple heads from the molds she creates, then use different fabrics and the occasional feathers to make them distinct. All of the materials are non-toxic, but she intends the smaller ones to fit the hands of kids ages 4 to 8, and the larger ones for older children and adults.

They aren’t meant for younger children who don’t yet have the hand-eye coordination to bring the puppets to life. But that doesn’t mean they can’t entertain little ones. One of her customers bought a couple of hand puppet to use in Zoom calls with her grandchild.

Leo hasn’t kept track of the time it takes to make each one, but once she sculpts a clay model, makes a mold and pours the neoprene for the heads, she can finish a puppet in an evening — and usually has six to 12 going at a time.

And for a person who is used to multitasking with shows, travels and performances, her hands are keeping busy developing puppets and online shows for museums and schools, as well as the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre.

The virtual realm also has opened an unexpected door for her puppet theater, since she can reach out to artists across the country to direct her shows.

“One of the things that’s been sort of a silver lining of this,” she said, “is discovering that yes, you can work with far-off people.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

If you go

• What: Eastside Artists’ Winter Holiday Markets

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• Downtown Art Crawl: Saturday, see artists and their wares at Akar, Iowa Artisans Gallery, Textiles, Dulcinea, Prairie Kitchen, Beadology, all in downtown Iowa City; masks and social distancing required; facebook.com/Iowa-City-Eastside-Artists-292661920752749

• Online Holiday Show and Sale: Dec. 3 to 8; Eastsideartists.com/events

• More information: Eastsideartists.com

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