Barry Sullivan, 50, artist, co-founder of puppet theater

September 05, 1997|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,SUN STAFF

Barry Sullivan's masks were perhaps his finest works. They were expressive, funny and had an eerie dose of realism. The one of Leonardo da Vinci was unmistakable. And the one of a Gypsy princess was elaborately made up.

Mr. Sullivan, who died Aug. 29 of cancer while living in Boulder, Colo., made masks and puppets for stage productions of the Blackbird Theatre, a mask and puppet theater he co-founded.

Mr. Sullivan, 50, was a Baltimore resident from 1977 to 1991. He was the creative force behind the Blackbird Theatre and an impetus in the city's film, theater and dance communities.

In addition to mask and puppet making, he was a skilled performer, sculptor, and set and light designer. Friends said he had an easy wit and a penchant for making successful stage shows.

"He had a wonderfully sharp sense of humor and was among the group of pioneers that tried to make Baltimore a place for artists and art," said Philip Arnoult, founder and artistic director of the Theatre Project.

The Blackbird Theatre began a permanent residency at the Theatre Project in 1977, the same year Mr. Sullivan founded it. Some of the Blackbird Theatre's productions include "The Punch and Judy Show," "Jokes From Out There," "Life in Paradise" and "Cosmic Vaudeville," based on Leonardo's notebooks.

"He was such a laid-back guy, it was amazing he achieved what he achieved," said John C. Wilson, who performed in many of Mr. Sullivan's productions at the Theatre Project. "He was first a visual artist. He wasn't an actor first, but he was a wonderful performer."

"A great love of performance puppets and masks were a real avenue for his sense of humor," Mr. Wilson said.

A native of Tulsa, Okla., Mr. Sullivan graduated from the University of Tulsa, where he studied visual arts and ceramics. He served in the Army from 1970 to 1974, and after his discharge, returned to Tulsa to teach.

He made hundreds of clay masks for his productions, ranging from small ones the size of a hand to huge, bearded and ornate ones. His puppets ranged from several feet to 13-foot-tall puppets supported by long rods.

While with the Blackbird Theatre, he worked for several summers with the Neighborhood Arts Circus, training local high school students in mask-making and puppetry performances.

In an interview with The Sun in 1980, Mr. Sullivan said he took a simple, traditional motif, and relatively cheaply, used puppets and masks to do what other stage plays do -- tell a story.

"People recognize immediately the true spirit of Christmas -- the pride and power of a kingly realm in contrast to God's choice to work through the humble, like Joseph and Mary, in bringing forth his son," he said. "I try to humanize it."

Services will be private.

He is survived by his wife, the former Samantha Redston, of Tulsa, whom he married in 1994; his mother, Ezma Sullivan of Tulsa; three brothers, Donald Sullivan and Roger Sullivan, both of Tulsa, and Jeff Sullivan of Phoenix, Ariz.; and three sisters, Karen Sullivan, Laura Sullivan and Marsha Lowery, all of Tulsa.

Contributions may be made to Victory Over Cancer, 10616 Mantz Road, Silver Spring 20903.

Pub Date: 9/05/97

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