It’s unlikely that any of the children who were there, not to mention their adult minders, will ever forget the day the monsters came to life at the Chapel Hill Public Library, as if they’d crawled out of the stiff pages of the picture books, suddenly inhabited by a strange, sinuous soul.
As futuristic music and a vocoder voice-over begin to weave a tale of time travel and brotherly love, two robots, one big and one small, converge upon a silver time machine at the center of a black-draped table. The time machine is a cardboard box; the robots are made of skeletal, featureless wood. At rest, they look more like poseable anatomy models than finished puppets. But they spring to life the instant they start moving, and not in the broad way of the world’s most famous puppets, the Muppets. They don’t caper or pratfall. Their motions are exquisitely deliberate, expressing subtle gestures in their prodigiously jointed frames. Though the theme is sci-fi, the theater is classicalits slowness has echoes of Japanese Noh, while the visibility of the puppeteers harks back to bunraku. The children are so enthralled by the robots that they hardly notice the boy and the man, dressed all in black, who stand silently behind the table, manipulating the marionettes with strings.
The boy is Tarin Pipkins, a nine-year-old puppeteer. The man is his father, Tarish Pipkins, who is forty-five but looks much younger. He says that when a puppeteer reaches a certain skill level, he can vanish in plain view. Pipkins’s unassuming demeanor serves this causehis calm, quiet way of speaking and his deep, warm laugh, which slowly rumbles up his slim frame. But his laid-back personality belies his confidence and drive: this is someone who makes connections, follows through, and gets things done, qualities that don’t always come along with such outsize artistic inspiration.
Pipkins is also able to disappear because the puppets he builds and controls as Jeghettoa self-styled hip-hop Geppetto, the creator-father of Pinocchioare so awesome. The effortless way he makes a finely articulated sea serpent ripple through the air turns a library activity room into the ocean floor. His pièce de résistance, a thigh-high Tyrannosaurus rex, strides with more bouncing weight and ferocious grace than anything in Jurassic Park.
The children sitting on the floor murmur and jockey for position during the robot section of the show, which is called Time Machine. But the entrance of the T. rex raises the pitch in the room to something bordering on anarchy. None of them seem afraid as the dinosaur approaches them and lifts its head to unleash a mighty roar. They reach out to pet it as the back rows start to surge forward, though a few kids lose their nerve when they get too close.
In this modest setting, you wouldn’t guess that Pipkins has reached the upper echelon of his profession. But he knows it, and says so with the earned assurance of someone who has gone from barbering and busking to working with Chapel Hill’s Paperhand Puppet Intervention; from there to national TV alongside the likes of Missy Elliott, Pharrell Williams, Steve Harvey, and Alec Baldwin; and onward, earning a Jim Henson Foundation grant to develop 5P1N0K10, his hip-hopera with The Beast bandleader and Durham mayoral candidate Pierce Freelon.
“I can always improve on it,” Pipkins says of his puppetry. “But I think there’s a level where you can only be so good at something, and I think I’m in that group. My fans call me a master, so I’m going to go ahead and go with that.”
Pipkins can say things like this without sounding cocky both because he’s so good and because he says it so quietly. He created his artistry from scratch, the evidence right there in his puppets, which are made from recycled materials, delicately wrought but left raw and open to show the magic of their jointure, where the uncanny illusion of life resides. But even as Pipkins’s genius gains rightful recognition on the national landscape, his most important work is still passing it along, charged with an Afrocentric perspective that stands out in his field, to a generation of kids who can see themselves in it more fully than they can in either hip-hop or Sesame Street alone.
It’s 1981, and nine-year-old Tarish Pipkins is collecting discarded popsicle sticks off the street to fashion into arrows. He and his friends are going to shoot them at one another using straws and rubber bands for bows. The sticks are plentiful; an ice cream truck passes through his neighborhood in Clairton, Pennsylvania, a steel-mill town south of Pittsburgh. The mill is right across the street from the housing project where Pipkins lives with his mother. Across an ocean of parking lot, he can see the smokestacks in the distance, the Monongahela River lost somewhere behind them.
“I was always creating, as young as I can remember,” Pipkins says, recalling that game of bows and arrows. He also recalls a fourth-grade substitute teacher offering to buy a picture of a condor he drew, though he kept it for his mom. “My friends always came to me when we needed something made. I wouldn’t trade my childhood for anything. We had a lot of fun.”
But by the end of Pipkins’s teens, Big Steel had left Clairton, eviscerating its economy, and gangs had filled the void. He was never involved with them, he says, but they profoundly affected him.
“I’ve seen from when everybody had money to nothing,” he says. “I’ve seen the crack epidemic forced onto our community, people getting turned out. Wakes and funerals became a big part of my life, to the point where I got burned out on them. But back then, people looked out for each other. My grandmother lived in the next building, I had an aunt that retired from the mill and moved in. We had communityresources between each other.”
As early as high school, when he moved to Pittsburgh, Pipkins was a neighborhood barber in high demand. No one showed him how to cut hair. He just looked at it and figured it out. He was also an emcee and a spoken-word performer, and his puppetry would flower from those complementary impulses for craft and storytelling. In his early twenties, he fell in with Bridge Spotters, an artist collective in Pittsburgh, and started performing in its freewheeling events. He met his future wife, Robin Brown, at one, and created his first puppet, around 2004, to emcee a poetry event.
“I used to do these wire sculpturesmake a shape, twist it around until I got forms,” he says. “I called it 3-D scribble. My first puppet was made of the twisted wire body, a marionette about two and a half feet tall. I just put clothes on it. That was a hit. People took to it; they laughed.”
A restless artist, Pipkins found in puppetry a way to integrate all his abilities, galvanized by two events: seeing Being John Malkovich and meeting Fred Rogers, better known to several generations as Mr. Rogers.
First, a neighbor in the artist loft where Pipkins lived gave him a VHS tape of the Spike Jonze film, in which Pipkins discovered one part of his art’s appeal: spectacle. “That opening scene, where the marionette is knocked off the dresser and did a front rollI was like, I want to do that,” he says.
Then he got to meet Rogers at his Pittsburgh studio, where Pipkins was recording a live-painting performance with Bridge Spotters for public television. It was just a couple of months before the beloved children’s show host died. Rogers embodied the crucial element with which Pipkins holds spectacle in balance: heart.
“He was everything he is on the show, and more,” he says. “He just radiated love, that’s the only way I can explain it. Looking back on how he used puppets, it all came together: I can educate kids and do adult puppetry. Back then, people would say, What do you do? I would say I’m a muralist, I do portraits, paint, draw, build. Now I can just say I’m a puppeteer, and their eyebrows go up.”
When Robinnow Robin Brown-Pipkinsgot a job in the area through AmeriCorps in 2005, they moved to Carrboro. That was when Pipkins began to take puppetry seriously, learning about things he’d already figured out on his own.
“My clients wouldn’t let me quit cutting hair, but when I moved here, I got to reinvent myself,” he says. “Nobody knew who I was. That gave me a lot more time to focus on puppetry and art, building and working with different materialsand the Internet was getting big, so that’s when I started doing research. I discovered that most puppeteers don’t build and perform their puppets, they do either-or. So I figured in that respect I was ahead of the game.”
It’s 2007, and thirty-five-year-old Tarish Pipkins is collecting discarded cardboard, wood, PVC, plastic, cloth, beads, marbles, and anything else he gets his hands on to build his increasingly elaborate marionettes. He busks with them at Spotted Dog, one of his two workplaces. He spreads his menagerie around the bench outside the flatiron-shaped restauranthis T. rex, his lion, his dreadlocked cellistsand stops all kinds of passersby in their tracks. Street performance is showing him the universal appeal of puppets; even animals are drawn in.
“Basically, I was rehearsing in public and people were tipping me for it. My lion actually got his tail sniffed by a dog, and that’s when I knew I was that good,” he says with a laugh. Word inevitably reached Donovan Zimmerman, who codirects Paperhand Puppet Intervention, a puppet theater institution known for spiritual and environmental themes, with Jan Burger.
“As the puppet guy, people kept asking me, Have you met Tarish?” Zimmerman says, zipping between projects amid the exuberant clutter of Paperhand’s workshop in Saxapahaw. One day, they happened to meet at The ArtsCenter, where Pipkins was working in the box office, and struck up a conversation he’d been eager to have.
The first Paperhand show Pipkins worked on was The Hungry Ghost in the winter of 2008, followed by the next winter’s puppet rock opera, Love and Robots. He contributed to his first summer show last year in The Beautiful Beast, creating a life-size wolf marionette made of ersatz bones and a caterpillar that required three people to operate. He portrayed the character Enkidu, wearing a great, furry head by Zimmerman. The pair also collaborates outside of Paperhand, touring a mask and puppet show for school groups and even going to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands to create a giant sea turtle, which they performed with in a Carnivale parade for kids.
Pipkins’s use of recycled materials fits with the ethos of Paperhand, an unconventional and eclectic company, as does his inclination to build each puppet with different forms and control mechanisms. Still, the raw finish and exposed joints, tied with fishing line or stereo wire, stand out from the huge, smoothly painted puppets with which the theater is most identified.
“We’re always trying to present as much of the diversity of puppetry as possiblestilt walking and shadow puppetry and masks and giant puppets and rod puppets and painted flats,” Zimmerman says. “Tarish definitely brings his own unique style, but I think it blends beautifully.”
For current show Of Wings and Feet (see Byron Woods’s review), one of Pipkins’s creations is the snake-stomping Secretary Bird, a hand-and-rod puppet fully in his own style. He controls the legs, Zimmerman the head and body.
“I don’t even have the skill set he has with tying together the fishing line,” Zimmerman says. “I’d get frustrated. But there’s a natural ease to Tarish, he’s got a really even keel. He sits there and ties those little knots and cuts little pieces of wood and PVC until it works. Sometimes, when I see him starting something, it’s so different than how I would start that I have to throw my hands in the air, like, it’s going to be amazing, but I have no idea what you’re doing right now. He just engineers on the fly.”
Pipkins’s puppets don’t begin with a blueprint, even in his head.
“Plain and simple, the word just pops into my head,” he says. “T. rex, lion. I approach all my art the samewhen I paint, I don’t sketch it out first, I just go right into the shapes and the shading. With the T. rex, I built his mouth first to get the scale, then extended the spine from the mouth, then down to the legs. It creates itself, and I don’t know how it’s going to come out.”
At first he used recycled material simply because it was available, but with time, necessity became an aestheticone that simulates life through movement instead of surface.
“I like the raw look. I like to show the mechanics,” he says. “I leave parts open because I’m more into the movement than the cosmetic stuff. I can sit and make a beautiful puppet, but I like abstract puppets that are so fluent that it fools people. People use steel bolts and screws, but fishing line is my secret. It falls into motion with the loose connections, and I think that’s the advantage I have. It’s the flexibility of a rigid material that pulls it into that uncanny valley.”
If Pipkins brings a high level of technical ability to Paperhand, for which he is paid as a commissioned builder, he also brings a perspective that puppetry in general is short on, as demonstrated by his work on the massive Resistance Goddess puppet.
“Jan sculpted the face and one of the interns made the hands,” Zimmerman says. “But Tarish painted it and realized the hair. He got really excited about that, because he’s a great barber. And the character is African American. We wanted him to take it on and make it his own.”
Pipkins says he considers Zimmerman a mentor. He also predicts that Zimmerman would swat away the compliment, which is true. He has to be nudged to admit that Paperhand has had any impact on Pipkins’s preternatural aptitude.
“When we first met him, he was making these twisted wire things that were awesome. But I’ve definitely watched his puppets get more sophisticated,” Zimmerman concedes. “He just solves problems with these visual elements. I think he’s gotten more into cardboard since working with uswe’re cardboard cowboys.”
“Donovan exposed me to how a puppet theater is run,” Pipkins says. “After working with them for a few years, it was time for me to have my own show, which debuted at the Nasher and was huge.”
That was 5P1N0K10 (it rhymes with Pinocchio), the hip-hopera Pipkins created with Pierce Freelon, the emcee of Durham jazz-rap band The Beast. After two performances at the Nasher in 2015 and one at an African-American sci-fi expo in Atlanta last year, it earned the pair a Jim Henson Foundation grant to develop the show.
Like everyone who first met Pipkins as Jeghetto, Freelon will never forget it. He was showing a visiting Syrian-American hip-hop artist, Omar Offendum, around Durham before they shared a bill at Duke Coffeehouse that night. They stopped at a maker’s market beside Motorco, where Freelon noticed a man performing music with what looked like a child in his lap. Perplexed, he moved closer. It took him a few moments to realize it wasn’t a child but a puppet, playing a violin scaled like a cello.
“I was just blown away. I had never seen anything like it,” Freelon says. “It had cardboard dreadlocks. It was beautiful and bizarre and awesome. I took his card and I was like, Bro, we’re going to collaborate one day. He came to our show that night and brought this b-boy puppet, and it was the live-est show ever.”
When Freelon left the Chapel Hill location of Blackspace, the multidisciplinary youth arts collective he founded, to start a tech-focused second outpost in Durham last year, he hired Pipkins to be the creative director in Chapel Hill. Pipkins had been talking to Freelon about the video-and-puppet show 5P1N0K10 since they met.
“It confronts urban issues, police brutality, and asks questions like, What is humanity? What are human rights?” Pipkins says. Blackspace’s annual children’s show at the Nasher seemed like the perfect chance to debut it.
“Blackspace’s whole ethos is couched in Afrofuturism, and Jeghetto by all means is an Afrofuturist,” Freelon says. “Like Sun Ra and George Clinton and Octavia Butler, he’s living on a different planet than the rest of us. He sees a pile of wood and cardboard and PVC pipes as bones and flesh and sinew, and he crafts it into something I didn’t realize wasn’t human at first. In 5P1N0K10, we’re talking about a b-boy robot that wants to be human at a time when ‘black lives matter’ is a sentence that needs to be uttered for people to take seriously our full humanity, and us trying to claim our own humanity through hip-hop.”
While Pipkins’s puppetry speaks to all children, it is especially relatable to African-American kids who have hip-hop and black progressivism as a lingua franca. Some of the art students at Blackspace made in response to 5P1N0K10 was integrated into the second Nasher performance.
“These puppets, a lot of them are black,” Freelon says. “They have locks, cowrie shells for eyes. They’re rapping and telling stories in verse. They move like we move, look like we look, talk like we talk. You’re not necessarily going to see that on The Muppet Show or even at Paperhand. That fluency is what’s familiar.”
One young woman in a Blackspace “woke-shop” wrote a response poem about how society treats black bodies. “‘They acting like we puppets, they acting like we nothing,’” Freelon spits intensely, remembering. “With all of his authenticity and grounding in Pan-African black culture, there’s surprising familiarity after you get over the shock. Like, oh, this is as old as my ancestors. It really is about storytelling, and we’ve been doing that for a hot minute.”
Pipkins has also used his puppets as an educator for children with special needs, a role he held at Just Right Academy in Chapel Hill for six years until June.
“He is able to communicate with children on the autism spectrum that are otherwise nonverbal,” Freelon says. “They talk to his puppets. He’s a genius. He’s a magician.”
IP1N0K10 has an episodic format, supplemented by a comic book of which one issue has been printed so far. With the Henson grant, Pipkins and Freelon hope to add episodes and branch out into videos, performances, perhaps even video games. They opened for rap legends Camp Lo in April, which ties into another realm where Pipkins is spreading his art: mainstream music videos and TV.
In 2015, Terry Davis, aka Izza Kizza, an old friend from Pittsburgh hip-hop circles whom Pipkins hadn’t talked to in years, called him out of the blue.
“Long story short, he said, man, I’m signed with Timbaland and I know Missy Elliott, and she wants puppets in her next video,” Pipkins recalls. “He calls me on three-way with her, I’m talking to Missy while I’m at work.”
At first, nothing came of the meeting. The producers of “WTF (Where They From),” by Elliott and Pharrell Williams, opted to hire a top plastic-molding shop to create the puppets for the video. According to Pipkins, they auditioned puppeteers in the L.A. area but couldn’t find anyone who could make them move the way they wanted them to. That’s when he got another call and was flown out to L.A., where he worked with a Jamaican puppeteer named Richard Atkinson to salvage the concept.
“When I met the puppets, I was like, They’re too tight, they need to be loosened up,” he says. “I’m telling this to Missy. For ten days we would come to the studio, and I learned a lot from her work ethic. She was first to be there and the last to leave, always on it. We went back to the studio and I took the puppet apart, rebuilt the torso, cut a quarter-inch off the thigh. Rich was working on making them dance. In an article, the director said I saved the puppet aspect; they were about to scrap it.”
Pipkins wound up manipulating the Pharrell puppet in the video, which led him to an Amazon Echo commercial with Elliott and Alec Baldwin as well as an appearance working the Pharrell puppet againoffscreen, though his hand once dropped into frameon The Voice.
“The set design was crazy,” Pipkins says. “Riding around in golf carts in Universal Studios, a whole hangar of just wardrobe. Pharrell’s super awesome in person, too. He has that Mr. Rogers energy, mad cool.”
Pipkins’s skill as a builder is such that it can overshadow his separate but complementary skill as a puppeteer, but not to people like Hobey Ford.
“He’s intuitive at both of them, and you can tell right off the bat,” says Ford, an Asheville-based puppet artist Pipkins befriended at a festival several years ago. “You either have that or you don’t. The way he’s building puppets, they’re so mechanical that the two are sort of combined. As you’re working with one, you figure out the other.”
Ford, who has four decades of experience and several Henson grants and major industry awards, is about as accomplished as a puppeteer can be. He also has a knack for both building and performing, though he came to it differently than Pipkins did. At art school in New York, Ford met Bill Baird, who performed the famous puppet sequence for “The Lonely Goatherd” in the movie version of The Sound of Music. After receiving some guidance from Baird, who knew Ford’s grandfather, he eventually moved to North Carolina and apprenticed with Clyde Hollifield, who toured his Appalachian Puppet Theatre across the country.
“I saw Tarish’s marionettes constructed out of laminated pieces of wood,” Ford says. “I liked, first of all, that he was not really derivative of anyone else. He got his own ideas and developed them to fruition, and they function really well. You can see the engineering built into the puppet, there’s nothing hidden. His puppets are pretty sophisticated, while a lot of people come at it from a hand-puppets, Muppets style, which doesn’t require the same technical skill set. When I got started, I wanted nothing more than to emulate the work that I liked, and in a couple of years I got my own inspirations and didn’t need to copy.”
Pipkins, more or less, did that in reverse, beginning with his inspirations and then assimilating other influences, so his own vision stays fixed at the core.
It’s 2017, and nine-year-old Tarin Pipkins is collecting discarded materials from around his home, in a cozily wooded suburb on the edge of Chapel Hill, to build his own action figures. He tapes unidentifiable bits of multicolored plastic (is that a toothbrush?) into an undeniably humanoid form. He wraps woolly orange yarn around a body of twisted wire. He makes his own puppets, too. He’s often up before anyone else on Saturday mornings, with his glue gun, his wire and cardboard, and old puppet parts his dad gives him. He’s not a child who needs to be bought toys.
Tarish Pipkins has just come inside from his new workshop in the garden, a shed in which a realistic-looking businessman and a firefighter, both African American, hang on a fresh particleboard wall beside a detailed robot. The Steve Harvey Show bought him the shed after he and Robin recently appeared on the penultimate episode, in a comedic segment called “I Love My Man But …,” before Harvey moved on to a new venture.
“My wife went behind my back and emailed the show,” Pipkins explains. “She wrote in that I love my man but he’s obsessed with puppets. [Harvey] was like, Since you have puppets all over the house, you need your own space.”
Pipkins is about to fly to Pittsburgh to paint a mural at the August Wilson Center, then to Minneapolis to teach a workshop at an African-American puppet festival next month. But today, he settles down for a moment on the couch where Tarin is sitting, shy but watchful. Noa Rayne, who’ll be four in a week, wiggles in Pipkins’s lap, while fourteen-year-old Divine plays an Uncharted game on a massive projection screen. Meanwhile, Robin tends to the edges of her nest like her namesake.
“I guess you could say I’m the family manager,” she says. “I manage Tarish’s back-end stuff. I also do freelance web design and just got into photography, taking pictures of newborns, and started a blog called Wear in the Triangle, because Tarish and I are both creatives trying to connect the Triangle through handmade indie and vintage fashions.”
“She’s also a visual artist, she does fabric art, she makes jewelry,” Pipkins chimes in. “And she’s an ex-model, beautiful.”
“Tarish,” she chides, with a soft laugh.
A family with this much talent certainly needs a manager. Divine used to sing with the North Carolina Boys Choir and is now an actor with representation; he was recently in a Wake Media Films feature called There’s My Angel. He’s always thought his dad’s puppetry was cool but was never drawn to try it himself, and Pipkins never pushed him to.
Tarin, though, is another story. He says he remembers seeing his dad perform in Love and Robots when he was three.
“I had Tarin on my lap, and I’ve never seen a child sit still for that long,” Robin says. “He was mesmerized.”
“He was totally fixated the whole time,” Pipkins says. “It was real cute. I had made him a robot suit out of cardboard and the hosing you get out of the back of the dryer, a hat with lights in it and a heart that lit up. We got a DVD, and he would reenact the whole show in the living room with toys and puppets. He knew it line for line. I was like, wow, he’s really into this, and I started making him puppets. Then he started making his own.”
Tarin made his informal debut at Artsplosure in Raleigh when he was five. Pipkins was performing with his cellist puppet, which also comes in a smaller version. He looked down and Tarin had pulled up a chair beside him with the small one, playing along. In the last year or so, he’s been performing with his dad officially, at library gigs and street performances.
“I didn’t pull him in; he jumped in,” Pipkins says. “If he asks for help, I’ll help him, but I deliberately pulled back and let him develop his own style. I’ll give him a puppet I think works one way and he’ll string it a completely different way, and I’m like, wow, I never though of that.”
“Dad kind of helped me figure out how to make them walk,” Tarin says, with a nine-year-old’s instinctive equivocation. “I kind of enjoy performing, but the first time I was really nervous.”
But there’s no equivocation when he’s asked if he’s just having fun or wants to be a puppeteer like his dad when he grows up.
“I want to be like my dad,” he replies.
This story appeared in print with the headline “Mr. Pipkins’s Neighborhood.”