There’s something magical about the joy we find in puppets. Whether it’s nostalgia from their presence in our childhood with shows like “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show,” or the act of creating a whole new — and often hilarious — alternate reality through play, they evoke cheer and bring a smile to the faces of both those involved and those watching them come to life.
Sam Johnson understood this when he decided to create a puppet of his own at the Esthetic Evolution arts and music festival in Idaho. Using plastic fencing, irrigation hoses, Styrofoam insulation, green blacklight reactive fabric and LED lighting held together with zip ties and duct tape, he created his first large-scale puppet, The Colossal Squid. Johnson’s puppeteering ambitions proved too large for a single operator.
“Anyone want to be a tentacle operator?” he yelled into a crowd of festivalgoers. Immediately, a handful of people stepped up, ready and willing partake in what now is known as The Colossal Collective.
The Colossal Collective describes themselves as “a group of artists, engineers, builders and performers based in Boise, Idaho, with a singular mission: to spread a sense of childlike wonder and magic from interactions with our larger-than-life puppets.” Since the giant squid, they’ve refined their puppet making skills and created King Dazbog, a full-size Apatosaurus; Gertie, a 16-foot, fully mobile Galactic Arachnid with a leg span of 30 feet that requires eleven puppeteers; Jungo Blizzard, a gorilla standing 20 feet tall with an arm span of nearly 40 feet, requiring at least 10 puppeteers; and Penelopeacock, which has an interactive LED light array for a tail — among others. The Colossal Collective’s membership — including a web developer, graphic designer, avian biologist, teacher and more — is as versatile and diverse as their massive creations. No specific skills are required, simply a desire to contribute.
“There are quite a few people who have walked through the door with Colossal Collective and had what they felt like was no skill that could be applied to build the puppets, and quickly found out that a lot of what we have to do is not skilled. We just need help,” Johnson says, understandably, considering the scale of the puppets. “Also, we’ve found that people can learn skills pretty quickly. We’ve taught people how to sew, how to solder, how to use power tools, how to basically make all these different parts of the puppets. I think a lot people get satisfaction out of that, too. Feeling like, ‘I didn’t know how to do this when I showed up, and now it’s something I can do.’”
This year, The Colossal Collective shook their tail feathers with Penelopeacock at Treefort Music Fest: “It’s our hometown event, so we all want to join in and contribute and make Boise awesome,” Johnson boasted. They were invited to Element 11, the Utah Regional Burning Man event; Northwest String Summit in Oregon, where Penelopeacock will roam free with the live peacocks that also wander the venue; the first-ever Taos Vortex Festival in New Mexico that’s put on by another artist collective, Meow Wolf — making a quick stop on the way home for Johnson to race in the Leadville Trail 100, a grueling, 100-mile mountain bike race that goes from 10,152 feet and climbs to 12,424 feet — and then off to the original Burning Man. “It’s a little bit crazy, but it’s going to be awesome,” Johnson enthusiastically notes.
Colossal Collective’s success wouldn’t be possible without each person’s individual contributions. Pooling each members’ respective resources, the collective has been able to gain access to workspaces and tools, obtain grants and, of course, donate their own time, knowledge and skills in order to share their incredibly imaginative creations.
“I think that there’s something there that we’ve tapped into when we bring a giant puppet into a crowd of people,” Johnson explains thoughtfully. “That’s sort of the core value of The Colossal Collective. We think that people are changed in an almost universally positive way. The goal is to restore a little bit of childlike wonder in the world, and to also bring a sense of wonder to children themselves and remind people that the world is a pretty magical place. It’s all about your perspective.”
The end result of The Colossal Collective’s efforts are astounding — but just how much work goes into creating these giant, movable puppets?
25: Number of people it took to create The Colossal Collective’s Jungo Blizzard gorilla puppet
87: Yards of fur needed for Jungo Blizzard’s exterior
11: Puppeteers required to maneuver Gertie The Galactic Arachnid; eight people for the legs, one for the abdomen and two to move the body
7,000: Hand-cut feathers used to create Penelopeacock’s neck and body
2,100+:Individually-addressed LED lights utilized in Penelopeacock’s tail