For nearly four decades, Kate McCormick has brought art to life through puppetry. As a retired guidance counselor, she used her passion for creation and storytelling as a way to help struggling children in the classroom.
McCormick’s puppets, which she keeps in a hand-painted suitcase, are mostly hand-made. She created them using different combinations of sewing and sculpture. Their bodies are made from cloth, and their heads from several different materials. Some of them were molded out of neoprene plastic, others from a papier-mâché mixture. She finished them off with hand-painted faces.
McCormick’s puppetry career began in the late 1960s. She was working as a special education teacher for the New York City Department of Education, primarily with elementary and middle school students. The two core elements of her art — creation and storytelling — came from two different sources during her teaching career.
Creation came from a boy, Kenny, who was easily distracted during class. McCormick decided to put art supplies out to help him regain his focus. Much to her surprise, he embarked on a long-term project; constructing a model dragon out of boxes. It just kept growing, and in the process, inspired McCormick into using creativity as a means of handling the many behavioral and emotional troubles her students faced.
Storytelling came from a Holocaust survivor named Blanca. McCormick befriended her during her graduate studies at NYU. Blanca worked with multiple handicapped students. She used drama as a tool in her classroom. She built a wheelchair-accessible stage and sewed costumes for the children, encouraging them to write and perform their own stories.
“It was therapeutic for both the teacher and the student,” McCormick said. “A real hands-on experience.”
McCormick started making puppets with her students and constructing stages to act out their tales. She used fabric for the bodies and Styrofoam for the heads. Her students sewed the puppets themselves. It taught her students patience and character development, both for themselves and their puppets. She stressed the importance of interaction in these activities, and how vital it was for her students to be involved with the heroic deeds of their characters. Many of the stories she and her students worked with came from Swedish folklore.
“They’re wonderful stories, but not Grimm,” she explained. “And Disney hasn’t done them yet. A lot of these stories have a child hero. There’s a task and a heroic ending. They’re magical as well as redeeming.”
She later joined the Puppetry Guild of Greater New York. The group, which was established in 1962, is dedicated to sharing information, critiques, and organizing festivals among professional and amateur puppeteers. It was a learning experience for McCormick. Many of the people she met made a living off their art, hauling stages, props, and puppets from one location to the next. McCormick was often thankful she always had a place of her own to set up, whether that was a classroom or her own office.
The Puppetry Guild gave McCormick a chance to meet some of puppetry’s biggest names: Bil Baird, who provided puppets for the gothic soap opera “Dark Shadows” and performed “The Lonely Goatherd” the film version of “The Sound of Music;” Lou Bunin, who produced a live-action version of “Alice in Wonderland” in 1949 (never shown in theaters due to a lawsuit from Disney) and worked primarily in stop-motion animation; and finally, Jim Henson. McCormick actually attended workshops with Henson and his associates.
“They had an enthusiasm that was just fun,” she said. Henson fondly remembers being able to share information with Henson’s group; he was one of her biggest inspirations.
Now that McCormick is retired, she participates in workshops and festivals with other puppeteers, teachers and social workers. Her next venue is the Puppet Homecoming Festival in Rhinebeck. She does not get the chance to work with children as often now, though she’s spoken with the Minerva Youth Program about putting together an activity for local kids in the future.