Kathy Fahey is a low-key, smart, lovely, and thoughtful person. When you experience one of her crankies you are transported to a different universe where “elegance and authenticity are virtues.” The crankie consists of pictures on a long roll of paper which is scrolled past the audience in a viewer, the Crankie Box.
Kathy is also modest. To do her art justice, I’ve asked her most recent collaborator, ellen cherry, to testify to her power as an artist.
PETER DAVIS (PD): Kathy, someone you meet at a get together asks what you do, how do you answer?
KATHY FAHEY (KF):I tell them I’m an artist. Then I have to explain all the different things that I juggle being an artist. I do the shadow puppets; I do design work, CD covers and music posters. I teach workshops sometimes, and I teach special-ed art classes, so I have all these different things going and it’s difficult and funny trying to explain it to people.
PD: What was your first thing?
KF: I studied sculpture at MICA. Then I lived inFrancefor 4 ½ years. I was doing collage work, commissioned art work, and translation work.
PD: How did you become interested in shadows?
KF: I was working as a faux finisher and I was doing a lot of stenciling. I started to use the stencils I cut as music posters. And then I started making paper cut images. And then for fun, at Caleb’s (Stine) birthday party, one year…I decided we were all going to do a shadow puppet show. I brought a story and I just said “you make a cat,” “you make a horse,” “you make a castle.” And everybody made the puppets. Caleb read the story, and Jen (Wasner) and Andy (Stack) played the music, and we all just put on a shadow puppet show, and it was so much fun! We did it again a year later for my birthday. And then Andy emailed me one day, and said, “I was looking at your paper cuts online and we really want you to make a music video shadow puppet show for one of our songs.” (Fish) And that was the first time I made all the puppets for a puppet show myself. It had always been something for fun.
It’s funny how things come together. If Andy hadn’t asked me, I don’t know that I would have started making more elaborate shadow puppets shows or not. It was while I was working on the Fish video I was thinking about the song that I wanted to make my cranky about, Mrs. Whitmore’s Song, by Carole Moody Crompton. She wrote it in 1978. And I had met fiddler, Anna Roberts Gevalt and ballad singer, Elizabeth LaPrelle. I had seen crankies before, but seeing them perform one, I thought, I could do that! I’d been signing the song for a couple of years with Patty and Carly as The Shape Note Singers, and I’d always thought I want to make something about this song. It has great visual imagery and it’s a really positive and moving song.
Since I’ve started doing the crankies and shadow puppet shows, I’ve realized that I’m a story teller. And that I have been so for a long time, I’ve been very enamored and fascinated by storytelling. When I look back at my other work I can see it. I see it in my paintings and posters.
PD: The music you play and some of the stories you tell are, at times, quite dark.
KF: The dark part is real and honest. I don’t feel like it’s harmful.
PD: With so many skills, talents and experiences, how do you decide what to work on?
KF: I think I have certain ideals that I’m pretty careful about. I feel like I’m really fortunate to be surrounded with a lot of people with a certain kind of view of the world. A certain respect for life and people.
PF: What’s the worldview?
KF: Celebrate what I love. Elizabeth Whitmore’s song is an example. She was someone who helped a lot of people; she was courageous, and selfless.
PD: Authenticity seems to be a big part of your view.
KF: When I started designing t-shirts, Caleb and I were talking and he said how he liked my work because it wasn’t ironic or trendy. T-shirts typically are especially ironic. The stuff I wanted to do was more heart felt.
PD: ellen, how did you’re collaboration with Kathy come together?
ellen cherry (ec): I have been a long time fan of Kathy’s. Her attention to detail was what first struck me about her artwork and her approach to her art-form. I had bought a couple of her prints and t-shirts at music shows or outdoor festivals. Then we started a friendship and I got to know her. Her meditative and calm personality is something really important to a person like me who feels frantic almost all the time! She did the paper-cut for a video made by Michael Patrick O’Leary for the band Wye Oak and it was intensive work. The result was so visually stunning and I knew instantly that I wanted us to work on something sooner rather than later.
When I began working on my newest record, “Please Don’t Sell the Piano”, I knew immediately that I wanted Kathy to handle the visuals for the packaging of the album. The songs are intimate and highly personal and so I sent her demo recordings I made in my basement and all the lyrics.
We started the album and Kathy came to one of the recording sessions where I was working on “Pickett’s Charge” which is a song that grapples with topics as wide ranging as (seemingly) endless and unnecessary wars, time and space travel, and aging. After the session, she let me look at her sketchbook at a silhouette of a head that she had drawn. I knew immediately that it would be transformed into a great paper-cut that would be perfect for the cover of the album. She had also many ideas for the scenes of a crankie that could be done for “Pickett’s.” I felt we were on our way!
Kathy’s attention to detail is incredible and she planned scenes for every ten seconds of the song. This is a meticulous and time consuming process, not to mention how much time and energy it takes to create the paper-cuts that express these scenes.
We premiered the crankie during my residency at the Strathmore in February and the comments were, as I knew they would be, along the lines of how whimsical and amazing it was to watch. I feel the same.
KF: ellen and I had been talking about trying to collaborate on something for years. When we were both volunteering at El Rancho Grande we’d just talk about how we were gonna try to make something about each other’s work. She asked me if I’d work on her new CD cover. She gave me all the songs and I took them home and started sketching. I heard one of the songs, Pickett’s Charge; it was like with Mrs. Whitmore’s Song, I could picture it all in my head. And I thought I have to make a cranky about it!
PD: Describe the picture in your head.
KF: It starts out with a little girl wondering about the universe. Maybe she was in the grass under a tree, looking up at the stars, and then it goes into outer space, and then there’s this part were she’s talking about war and just the confusion, her confusion about war in the world. There are these repetitive parts, pictures that show the evolution of war: the American war, the Civil War, World War 1 and 2, andViet Nam. I could picture this sort of evolution happening with the repetition in the song. And it was very moving…and complex.
Mrs. Whitmore is very lonely. It’s the story of her struggle. Pickett’s Charge is more about the young girl who is so in love with the world and the universe and excited about life, but then it turns into her confusion about the horrible things that happen in the world.
They’re different but, they’re both potent and real. There are abstract ideas in Pickett’s Charge that are not easily represented visually, so it was a challenge to illustrate that.
What, or who are you thinking about when you work?
The song speaks for itself. And you can really go in different directions. I started and ended it with a very beautiful peaceful kind of nature scene with this little girl in it. I feel like I started it and ended it with sort of the beauty and the hope of the world kind of feeling.
There’s a lot of darkness in that song. And that was difficult for me, depicting that, being careful to just illustrate the song and try to stay positive, but, translate the girl’s confusions, the feelings that ellen expressed in her song, without overdoing it, you know what I mean? Because we’re talking about war—and the end of the world is in that song.
What guided you?
The lyric…and the emotions of the song. I try to make sense of it. There’s a lot of instrumental in that song. That was challenging. The beginning was instrumental. The beginning sounded majestic. And this little girl is so in love and curious about the world, and I thought, she should be out in nature in the beginning.
How do you go from an intuition about majesty to a simple cut-out shadow?
I sketch different ideas. I make lists.
What kind of lists?
I break it down. I’ll write down lines or key words from the lyrics to remind myself where I am in the songs. And then I’ll write ideas of imagery I think might represent that part of the song. I Do little sketches. I brainstorm.
Then there’s the crankie. It keeps moving, it’s all connected. One of the great challenges of making a crankie is, OK, I’m going to have a little girl with a tree, and now I want her looking through a telescope, and now I want another version of her, and now we’re in outer space. It has to be one long—it has to make sense when you crank it, when it moves across. It’s a panorama.
PD: ellen, how would you describe Kathy’s gift?
ellen cherry (ec): Having just dipped my toes for the past few years into the world of shadow puppetry, I understand now that these artists simply have an amazing way of viewing the world. Kathy has this great talent for seeing how shapes can be silhouettes and how they can be layered against different backgrounds to be evocative. She also can use different materials to create a visual trick of distance. I don’t want to reveal all of her hard won secrets, but when she explains to me how she creates some of these visual elements, I’m just stunned at how she does it. Part of her talent lies also in her dedication to her craft: she works very meticulously and is focused on accurately representing images. Several times I would show up at her house and she would show me pages of developing images, dozens of sketches in progression, and books from the library, carefully notated with post-its. All of this would result in crisp, detailed, and accurate images illuminated against the screen.
PD: ellen, will we get to see the Pickett’s Charge crankie performed live at your CD release party? (March 31 and April 1 at An die Musik.)
PD: Is the result different from what you had in mind at the beginning of the collaboration?
ec: I honestly had no expectations when it came to the final crankie. I knew that I wanted some of it to “tell the story” of the song, but to also have her influence, especially in the middle section, where there are no lyrics, just an instrumental break–it is almost meditative. I really wanted to be hands-off and allow Kathy to create the visual telling of what I had done with words and melody. Her crankie “story” moves from an earthly one to a dreamy outer-space scene and during the instrumental break, she brings us back to “earth” in a way. She moves from meteors to bomb explosions and I thought this was just something that only Kathy could do–only she could think of. She tied the scenes so well together. From the audiences we’ve already performed this for, I’ve heard so much about how evocative and emotional, and also whimsical, it was to watch this “lo-fi” visual theater (in a box!). And even now, I don’t play or practice the song without imagining the scrolling scenes that are already very much married to the song, in my mind.
PD: Kathy, what sticks out for you about this, relatively new–to you, form of storytelling?
KF: One of the most rewarding experiences was being at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in November, where I was able to show the Elizabeth Whitmore crankie to many other artists, composers, and writers, including the poet, Maggie Smith. Since then she has written over 10 poems based on the crankie! It was amazing to get responses from creative professionals in different fields and see that they are just as able to appreciate it as experienced serious artists and still take it in with the same wide eyed wonder as a child.
PD: Anything else?
KF: I also treasured performing at Augusta Heritage Center inWest Virginia this summer. I met many amazing traditional musicians and singers. They were great to show the Whitmore crankie to, because of their knowledge and appreciation of traditional music. Mrs. Whitmore’s song is set to an old shape note tune called Fiducia.
PD: Anything else?
KF: I’ll make a new puppet and the first time I raise its arm—it’s so exciting to see it come alive!
PD: What was it like for you to perform in front of an audience (versus make a t-shirt or a CD cover)?
KF: I was shaking all over!
It was amazing for me. I’ve sang in front of people, but this was different, because I was communicating with my artwork which is my medium, and I was doing it in real time. My artwork as performance and it’s completely different that having a show (art exhibition) at an art gallery. It’s unbelievable. People watch as you tell them the story and they come up to you after, and want to talk to you. They have all kinds of questions about it. You already forged the connection with them. The first time I performed it, I’m doing it, cranking it, I can feel it as it is happening. I can tell what specific moments are connecting with different people. I get goose bumps. For so many years I’ve been making artwork about other performers and watching them perform. I would watch how they would interact with the audience, and how the audience would receive their music. I was always fascinated with that. What a personal connection they make.
PD: And now you know for yourself how that works and what that feels like.
KF: One of the things I love about the crankies is that I can make something that I can keep putting it out there…with the same materials. It feels less wasteful, because I can share it with so many people. It’s not like one person will buy it, take it home, and hang it on their wall. That feels good. It’s less of an object and more of a tool.
With cut-outs you can be an inventor with simple means. It’s a way to use my skills and connect with people in a meaningful way.
PD: What’s next for you?
KF: I’m taking a crankie tour that includes a visit to Vermontwith the writer of Mrs. Whitmore’s Song.
I’m performing at Quest Fest at the Creative Alliance, March 30th and 31st. Quest Fest is an international visual theater festival.
Then there’s ellen cherry’s CD release party for “Please Don’t Sell The Piano” at An die Musik, March 31st and April 1st.
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Crankies are great theater. Kathy is a master storyteller. The crankie form requires a different concept of time and a different approach to materials. Her approach arrives at something gratefully alive and achingly beautiful. Elegant and authentic. With heart and soul.
When you experience a crankie, you can figure out exactly how it works. It’s basic. Kathy says, “Kids get it. They cut out shapes with scissors all the time. There’s no magic to it. Yet it’s still so affecting.”