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Extraterrestrial Experimentation

02/14/2014

Students in Creature-Creation descend on downtown Providence to shoot film with their wild hand puppets and breathable helmets.

Surrounded by scraps of splintered foam and crumpled coffee cups, students in Creature-Creation – a Wintersession studio offered by Film/Animation/Video and Big Nazo Lab – barely look up from their half-finished puppets as Faccia Verde Numero Uno, a self-proclaimed extraterrestrial, inspects their progress. To an outsider, the attention-grabbing alien looks mighty strange, wearing a green face mask, purple suit and bug-eyed glasses.

When asked if she’s alarmed by this unexpected visit, Mariah Robinson 17 FS offers a nonchalant shrug. “Oh, this is a normal occurrence,” explains the artist as she toils on a batch of foam tentacles. “We’ve had beings from various galaxies come into the studio almost everyday. Sometimes they don’t speak English and communicate in an indiscernible space language. It’s another world in here.”

Founded and directed by FAV faculty member Erminio Pinque 83 IL, Big Nazo produces completely wild sculptural masks and costumes worn by members of an international performance troupe. The loose group of artists, puppeteers and musicians has performed in countless theatrical productions, TV shows and renegade circuses – and even warmed up the crowds at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. For years the RISD alum has been teaching students enrolled in his Wintersession course the basics of storytelling, puppet making and performance in Big Nazo Lab, a storefront in downtown Providence that serves as the company’s combined exhibition space and creature-building workshop.

Last week students got their hands sticky while putting the finishing touches on their final project: breathable helmets for robotic extraterrestrials. Striking a pose fit for a beauty queen, a Foundations Studies student models a bulbous foam headpiece complete with an oversize mustache and polka-dotted bow tie. On a nearby bench, Savannah Kennelly 17 FS attaches faux sprockets to a towering cyborg sporting a human mask. “I think this puppet is really creepy,” she notes. “It’s as if it’s trying to blend in with earthlings through a bad disguise – and that’s really unsettling to me for some reason.”

When it comes to construction materials, Pinque is a fan of minimalism. The imaginative instructor limits his students to using simple puppet making aids: foam, scissors, staples and hot glue. “Sometimes the greatest inventions are made when the desired tools aren’t there,” Pinque explains. “We can get caught up in chasing the right kind of aluminum or the perfect type of soldering iron. But more often than not, we have everything we need to make something special right in front of us.”

And that raw creativity isn’t just cooped up in the studio. With a gentle nudge from Pinque, students recently suited up in their google-eyed costumes and set out on the city streets to film impromptu interactions with passersby. Their videos will be included in the annual Creature-Creation Show, which will be held on March 1 and 2 in the RISD Auditorium. “It’s important that we train artists to understand the power of storytelling – and to connect with the public through their creativity,” notes Pinque. “I believe that we’re going to see art continue to move out past gallery walls and spill out into the streets.”

Arielle Haskell 17 FS and Tessa Magliano 17 FS literally ran with Pinque’s push to hit the streets. After exhibiting their best dance moves on stoops and street corners – and inciting shocked looks by jumping into dumpsters – the team  stumbled upon a police officer, who gamely allowed them to shoot footage showing them sprinting away from his cop car. Robinson was no less adventurous, scaling a corporate high-rise and inspiring awe from everyone watching below.

“Everyone was staring at us,” Magliano says. “But we were in costume so we weren’t embarrassed. It was silly fun.”

–Abigail Crocker

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tags: local/regional, collaborations, entertainment, Film-Animation-Video, Foundation Studies, innovation, public engagement, students, wintersession

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The Providence River and cityscape as seen from the southern edge of campus, behind the Industrial Design and
Architecture buildings.