Caricatures of life Puppeteer's creations deal with serious subjects

November 07, 1991|By Winifred Walsh | Winifred Walsh,Evening Sun Staff

IN THE murky shadows, a fierce-eyed dinosaur lurks. Its sharp yellow teeth glow menacingly in the dark.

A scrawny witch seems to cackle silently in a dim corner.

A mysterious sorcerer appears about to cast an evil spell on the grinning skeletons, sad clowns, and strange, distorted specimens of humanity hanging from the rafters.

On a far shelf a lone little figure sits woebegone waiting repair.

This fantasy world of exaggerated figures was created in the fertile imagination of puppeteer and painter, Mary Jane Oelke, who sculpts her characters into being in the dim recesses of her cellar workshop.

Her weird and wonderful menagerie is strung from the ceiling and presents a startling picture at first glance. The eyes -- compassionate, cruel, suspicious or sorrowful -- roll around realistically in the papier-mache heads. The mouths in the loosely jointed bodies droop open to give the illusion of life.

Oelke works just about exclusively with marionettes and a few hand-and-rod puppets to produce shows for children and adults. Her working collection totals 50, and altogether she has created 200 of this genre. The figures range from 36 inches to 4 or 5 feet tall.

Inside the secluded house on Gunpowder Road Oelke shares with musician Sean McCaul and her three children, an enormous mastiff stands guard, tongue lolling in its mouth. On second glance, it turns out to be one of the artist's puppet masterpieces.

The walls of the house are covered with softly hued watercolors of Maryland landscapes.

"I am so in love with rural Maryland, I feel I must paint it all," Oelke said during a recent interview. "But something has to be done to preserve the land before it is too late."

Glancing at one of her watercolors of a serene wooded scene, she said smiling, "I taught myself to paint. I am not too avant-garde. I could do nudes biting their heads off but that is not for me."

An ecology minded free-lance artist who has been painting since the age of 5, Oelke (known as Molly to her friends and family) brings elements of social significance to her original puppet acts.

Corporate greed, corrupt politicians, annihilation by nuclear bombs, the new world order are among the topical subjects satirized for her adult presentations.

A member of Puppeteers of America and the National Capitol Puppetry Guild, Oelke has performed her puppetry craft during the past 20 years for such groups as Diverse Works (sponsored by Maryland Art Place), the Black Cherry Puppet Theatre, the City of Baltimore Department of Recreation's Office of Adventures in Fun, the Baltimore Theatre Consortium, the Greenbrier Valley Theatre, the Baltimore County Public Library and private and public school systems.

She also designs acts for cabarets and private organizations. And she receives requests from individuals for custom-made puppets. The artist's most recent exhibition of paintings and puppets was earlier this year at the Theatre Project.

An actress and musician, she writes the scripts for her children and adult shows and is the voice for several of her characters. For specific roles she uses other actors.

"I have always been an observer of life," Oelke said in soft, barely perceptible tones, her long red hair falling about her small face. "Acting is an important part of my craft. My puppets reflect the impression I get of people. I tend toward caricatures of real life human beings and creatures.

"You must capture people's interest. Otherwise it gets boring," she said. "So many say the figures look just like their father-in-law, doctor, dentist or dog."

Oelke plans to write children's shows for video. Her dream is to one day create an original puppet operetta.

Born in Baltimore, she was raised in Howard County and is a graduate of Howard High School. "I am self-taught," she said. "At 15 I made my first puppet. I took a book on puppetry from the library. Then I developed my own technique of wood carving and invented a sculpted leather technique."

She illustrated this method by producing an obese-looking marionette she calls The Fat Man. "His body inflates," she said. "He stands for the new world order . . . a representative of the greedy element of society."

Pointing to the rather frightening looking dinosaur that eerily resembles a crocodile, she said, "He represents military extinction and annihilation by nuclear bombs."

Oelke says she likes to use materials not dangerous to the environment and health. "Cloth, leather, wood, papier-mache, clay are good things to utilize," she said. "My tools are a band saw, chisel, saws and drills."

The puppeteer uses enamel paints on the remarkable faces she fashions. "That is what sign painters use," she said. "It is the best. It lasts forever.

"Puppetry is sculpture," she noted. "Face designs take time. I can be inspired by a wonderful countenance or I just start making one from my imagination. I always have a vision of what it is going to be."

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