Arts & Culture

Acclaimed puppeteer shows off his handy work

Hobey Ford can create characters from molded foam or just his outstretched fingers.

Ford has been a puppeteer for more than 30 years. From his home in Asheville, N.C., he makes his puppets and then takes them to perform around the world. He'll return to the Lowcountry to put on free shows Tuesday and Wednesday.

Ford -- a winner of puppetry's highest honor, the Union Internationale de la Marionnette Citation of Excellence -- discusses how he makes foam animals come to life.

Question. How did you get into puppetry?

Answer. I went to art school, and I thought it would be really cool to get into puppetry, something a bit off the beaten path. It's the combination of art and performance and engineering that intrigued me.

Early on, Jim Henson gave me a lot of encouragement. I never got to meet him, but he liked my work and helped me out through his foundation to fund several of my productions. Around that time, the Kennedy Center picked me up to perform as a regular.

Q. How many puppets do you use in a typical show?

A. A show is a couple dozen different puppets. They're rod puppetry, which is an older European and Asian art. Most people are used to hand puppets or marionettes or the more recent Muppet-style. I do an older form of rod puppetry. It's staged untraditionally, too. I come into the audience and I'll be in full view. It's from a Japanese technique of working out in the open.

Q. It sounds like you work from a lot of different influences.

A. There's a whole world of puppetry. You can look at music as a comparison. You can get into rock 'n' roll, but that's just a part of what is out there. It's the same as puppetry; there's different comparisons out there in the world.

They're starting to make their way into the mainstream if you look at something like Julie Taymor's "Lion King" musical. "War Horse" is at Lincoln Center Theater in New York and that involves life-size puppetry. Puppeteers are starting to cross-fertilize and that's where some of the most exciting work is coming from, when people go outside the norm.

Q. How often are you creating your puppets?

A. I might spend half the year touring and the other half goes toward creating the puppets. That's very time consuming. I mainly create for myself. I did create a puppet that's on the market. It's just a little set of eyes that can fit on your hand. They're called Peepers Puppets.

Q. Where did you get that idea?

A. When my kids were babies they wouldn't let my wife or I wash their hair. They didn't like the shampoo getting in their eyes. So I made this set of eyes that would go on my hand. So my kids wouldn't let me, but they'd let this hand puppet wash their hair.