Anne Cubberly

Anne Cubberly is a Hartford visual artist noted for her imaginative kinetic sculpture. (Rick Hartford, / January 10, 2013)

Walk into the high-ceilinged, wondrously cluttered studio of the inventive Hartford kinetic sculptor Anne Cubberly and you step into the workshop of a creative visual artist's unbounded imagination.

Although small, even a bit claustrophobic, this is where Cubberlybrings into being her wild puppet creatures. Her mixed-media pieces emulate all species of life from titanic, humanlike figures to large, lovable birds and endearing insects, and dancing pumpkins. Or for that matter, just about anything else, either humorous or ominous, that strikes Cubberly's fancy and helps her explore the uses of enchantment.

In some ways, the studio, a sanctuary for thought and labor, is a reflection of Cubberly's lifetime commitment to art.

"I always wanted to be an artist. I said out loud that I wanted to be an artist when I was 6, and always loved making things and loved drawing," Cubberly, 51, says as she sips a steamy cup of tea while giving a mini-tour of her studio and reflecting on the apparent inevitability of her profession.

"My mother's mother was a painter, a lifelong artist who died painting. My mother, Lynne Cubberly, became a fashion designer, and as a very young child she started making clothes for her dolls. Clothing, to my way of thinking, is sculpture with fabric."

With its tool and material-littered workbench as the centerpiece her studio is the birthplace for the Cubberly Circus of the Mind.

A realm of the magical and the make-believe, it's populated with dreamy, fairy-tale like creatures fashioned mostly from recycled material such as split reeds (the bones for a 15-foot giant studio mascot called The Walker), metals, coat hangers and papier-mâché objects made from old newspapers. It's a mishmash of costumes, masks, fabrics, forlorn looking sculptures, mutilated puppet body parts and other bizarre-looking items.

Cubberly, who grew up in Wethersfield in an arts and crafts-steeped family that wasted nothing and knew how to fix everything around the house, wastes nothing and can fix and shape things with her own two deft hands. She loves to resurrect what most people would call junk and convert it into vibrant art. Her trash-to-art transformations run the expressive gamut from the gossamer to the grotesque. That's "grotesque" as in the delightful, amusingly scary manner of a classic fairy-tale.

Anything from scrapped coaxial cable, wood and plastic bottles to dumpster detritus can be part of this artist's palette. Trashis to Cubberly what pigment and canvas are to a painter as she makes her storybook creatures.

"Recycling just makes sense to me," she says gesturing to a pile of refuse stashed in the corner. It's been recently scavenged by hunter-gatherer friends who foraged through streets and dumpsters and brought their rubble to her studio for her personal artistic use.

"Ever since I was very small, anything that was used had more value to me than something that was new. New things were almost a little intimidating. Recycled material has had a little bit of life before you even get to it, and that makes it more valuable to me. It's not trash to me. It's a tool, a toy — something to create with," she says.

Her studio, a humble nook in Hartford's Dirt Salon, an artists' haven in an old factory site in the city's Parkville section, is Cubberly's room of her own. It's her urban haven for thinking, planning and working long, industrious, factory-like hours. Her labors payoff beautifully, at least artistically, if not yet quite so well financially. Although modest, her studio is the birthplace of a world of giant, fantastical puppets.

A hallmark of her ambitious public projects, in fact, has been her collaboration with her many creative friends in the Hartford arts community as well as, she insists, with the many viewers, both young and old, who have experienced her work. Art may not be forever, she says, but her work does exist and is preserved in the minds of all those countless people who have seen and, hopefully, been moved by her works whether displayed in parks, plays, parades, pageants, special events like First Night or galleries.

Cubberly's "children," as she proudly refers to the sculpted offspring of her imagination, are innovative and bold. Yet they're also enjoyably stimulating, humorous, and instantly accessible with their strong individualistic artistic imprint, well off the beaten path of what is more conventionally thought of as puppets.

Forget, for example, the image of the more traditional, small, handheld puppets.

Cubberly's puppets are gigantic. Actors comically emote and gesticulate inside them. Singers decked out as bird or squirrel puppets wail away operatically quite comfortably inside Cubberly's creations.

Along with their grandiose size, Cubberly's creatures are designed to move fluently, to be as kinetic as dancers, making them a catalytic mix of the fantastic and the balletic. Collaborating with dancers and actors, Cubberly has had to make her puppets ever more eerily agile, using fluid motion to make them more magical, more mysterious.

Large yet limber, they've been the colorful key players in the dramatic, surreal, viewer-friendly productions that she has orchestrated, embracing help from her many friends for highly visual, dreamlike spectacles onstage at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art's historic Avery Theater in years past. Her imaginative menagerie of puppets, with a little bit of help from her friends, scored a giant success outdoors at Elizabeth Park last October with a light and dark filled fantasia/homage to the winter solstice called "Night Fall."

More than 1,000 people attended the dreamy drama in the park's woodsy pond area. It was a surprisingly large turnout considering the outdoor venture had only a shoestring budget for advertising and promotion.

Among the crowd gathered in the twilight were many youngsters who squealed with delight when Cubblery's luminous Winter Goddess made her dramatic appearance in the al fresco pageant celebrating the primal power of light and the triumph of life. As darkness fell, illuminated sculptures, costumes and lanterns lit the way to an upbeat ending graced with romping performances by the puppets.