JEFFERSONVILLE — The former Gray and Wells Body Shop on Michigan Avenue is full of color these days.
Canvas lies unfurled on the concrete floor painted sunset pink and cosmic blue. Papier-maché forms dry in the sunlight let in through open garage doors. And 10-foot-tall puppet’s gown drapes shades of iridescent blue across the middle of the room.
What was once a car body shop is now the hub of the Jeffersonville Art Alliance.
Its next creation — puppets of all sizes who will tell the story of Clark County from the Devonian Period to present day, complete with a moving backdrop and original soundscapes.
“As a native, I never would have dreamed anything like this would happen in Jeffersonville,” Burke said.
Artists Kathryn Spivey, Charles Nasby and Tammy Burke are in the process of hand-making the puppets and set as part of “The Stunning Bicentennial Puppet Extravaganza: Pioneering Spirits of Clark County,” an official Indiana Bicentennial Legacy Project. Performances will at the Steamboat Days Festival and Lewis and Clark Days.
The story will be told from the perspective of a river spirit named Se-Pe, which means “Ohio River” in Shawnee.
“The river is the one constant, and that’s what’s narrating,” Jeffersonville Public Arts Administrator Dawn Spyker said.
Se-Pe is massive, about 10 feet tall, with a papier-maché head and arms with poles to guide her movements. Her head is shaped like a snake’s head, inspired by the Ohio River’s serpentine shape, Spivey said.
Her hair is ropes of braided fabric strips and the hem of her dress is wide on both sides, creating the look of a river extended across a stage.
Se-Pe will ponder human creation throughout the story. The show features characters in historically underrepresented but very much present groups — Native Americans, African-Americans and women who were important to Clark County’s story.
“We wanted to have the river respond to characters that showed some level of courage and ingenuity and pioneering,” Spivey said.
Some of these characters include Meriwether Lewis and William Clark — also about 10 feet tall — and Tecumseh and a fugitive slave named Esther.
Behind the puppets, a backdrop called a cranky will set the ever-changing scene. A cranky is a scroll of painted canvas that when cranked, moves backward to change the scene. Artists use paintbrushes attached to bamboo sticks to reach all corners of the canvas while standing up.
Along with melodic music, members of the audience will create “soundscapes” from instruments they made on field trips. These instruments are shakers and drums made of found objects like sticks and bottle caps.
“The idea is they’re going to create these different sounds and weave in these sounds during the performance,” Burke said.
But artists haven’t been holed up in the garage, working on their own.
“There’s been a strong core of volunteers who are dedicated to the project,” Burke said.
Community-making sessions on Wednesday nights invited the public to get their hands messy. Four Jeffersonville schools took field trips to the studio.
Spivey said Jeffersonville High School students took leadership in helping to create the elements of the performance. Their field trip was a Wednesday.
“They came back that evening [during community sessions] just to finish what they were working on,” she said.
Artists agree that “Pioneering Spirits” won’t just tell the history of Clark County — it will tell the story now of the community’s collaboration and unity.