Road Trip: Puppets and Fine Art in Storrs, CT


Did you know that the University of Connecticut is the only place in the nation where you can get a masters degree in puppetry? Neither did I. If you’re in the vicinity and are looking for a quirky side trip, drop into the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry. It won’t take long, as the museum is just two rooms with a connecting corridor.

The lobby fronts the room that holds the permanent collection, a Puppetry 101 survey. There you will find everything from Balinese shadow puppets to Howdy Doody, Jiminy Cricket, Lamb Chop, Pinocchio, and classic Punch and Judy figures. You will also find works from famous designer/puppeteers such as Frank Oz, Bill Baird,  Buffalo Bob Smith and, of course, Jim Henson. I found the historical and international puppets more intriguing, but Henson’s works are great fun for the insight they shed on the spells a great puppeteer can cast. When you actually see iconic figures such as Kermit the Frog, Fonzie, or Grover, you notice right away that there’s not much to them aside from some fleece, flannel, and buttons. Puppets are an art form, but the real artistry lies with the performances that transform humble materials into characters that magically become “real.” 

The rest of the Ballard is devoted to changing exhibitions. I saw a display of works from the Puppeteers Collective that were mostly agitprop figures in the traditions of the San Francisco Mime Theater and Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater. The Ballard is located at 1 Royce Circle in “downtown” Storrs. There’s not a lot to the town of Storrs, but you will certainly notice its central core of shops, cafes, and tidy apartment blocks. Most of the businesses cater to students, so the area is as dead as a marionette with broken strings when UConn is on break, but you’ll have no trouble finding a quick bite to eat or a decent cup of coffee.


If you can extend your visit, the campus is just across the street from the Ballard. If you venture up past the pond and fountain, you’ll come to signs directing you to the university’s William Benton Museum of Art (245 Glenbrook Road #2140). It won’t overwhelm you with masterpieces, and that’s a good thing as it affords opportunities to discover artists you might otherwise breeze by on your way to view works you’ve been conditioned to think you must view to boost your cultural capital. I was quite taken by works from Ellen Emmet Rand (1875-1941), who was one of the few female artists of her day to cop major donor work from the rich and powerful. Most of her work, though, has a way of capturing the inner essence of her subjects—many of them women. 


Other personal discoveries included Ministry of Salvation, a sculpture from Alex McFarlane that is a wry but poignant commentary on the link between religion and power; Barbara Takenaga’s patterned abstractions painted directly onto rose petals; and Lien Truong’s “Family Sitting #2,” which invites speculation on the nature of the nuclear family. There was also a nice (and perhaps sexualized) work from Judy Chicago, a visit to the gaudy world of Coney Island from Reginald Marsh, and “Portrait of the Poet Jan Vos” from second-tier 17th century painter Jan De Bray. I was educated by taking in a harbor scene from Dwight Tryon; he used to teach at Smith and has a gallery named for him, but I don’t recall actually having seen his work before.

Storrs seldom shows up as a daytrip for anyone not attending a basketball game, but you can easily wile away the morning there. That will leave plenty of time to get to Hartford to do what you may.

 Rob Weir

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