Whimsy and movement: 24-foot-tall puppet honors local artist Charles Rockey at Manitou Springs Carnivale parade

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Jess Hazel/KRCC
Artist Sofia Hernandez Crade stands next to the head of her 24-foot tall puppet of the late Charles Rockey, a fixture of the Manitou Springs art community.

A 24-foot-tall marionette of Charles Rockey will dance in downtown Manitou Springs on Saturday, March 2 as part of the city's annual Carnivale parade. Rockey was a beloved local artist known as much for his long hair and whimsical appearance as he was for his impressionist paintings and his mentorship to young artists. 

KRCC spoke with the artist who made the enormous puppet, Sofia Gabriella Hernandez Crade, about her inspiration for the project and her hopes for the support it might spark for the local arts community. 

This interview is edited for clarity and brevity.

On the legacy of Charles Rockey: 

When I was young, I grew up in Divide and I would go down to Manitou pretty frequently. My parents were wonderful and always very supportive of the arts, and I just remember looking into his windows and seeing him working.

And I loved how he was able to work in so many different mediums. And he would work in clay and build these little maquettes of the town and work in these beautiful post-impressionist oil paintings and then do these sketches. 

I really felt like his work and his style resonated with me as someone who wanted to be a maker and not necessarily so tied down to, 'you're an artist who paints blue dogs and now that's all the world wants to see.' And so I really loved that he was so ingenious and I had a few opportunities to meet him, and he was just absolutely generous and kind and warm, and that really made an impact on me as a young artist. 

So many of his paintings after he had retired were of Manitou. So he really was a plein air painter and he was out there in the little canals just painting kind of in a Van Gogh-esque style, just very loose and gestural and really capturing the impression of the space and the feeling of Manitou. 

So I think that is definitely something that I love about his work. And I think locals love to be able to look at a painting and say, ‘Oh wait, I think that's my house.’ And so it allowed viewers who might otherwise not be that interested in art to feel some kind of ownership of the space and excitement and a nice gateway into the art world.

On making the puppet: 

It's been a pretty enormous endeavor. So I have just been pretty much eating, sleeping, drinking the puppet, and he's enormous. I think probably four people in the fetal position would make up his head. It's going to weigh probably close to half a ton when everything is said and done. So it's kind of one of these cases, I've been joking, it's like if you give Sophie a crumb, then I might decide to make a whole batch of cookies. 

Like you do one thing and then you're making a head, and before it needs a whole head of hair. It needs horse hair to make it the right size. It needs buttons, it needs suspenders, it needs shoes, it needs laces, it needs an armature that can move from every joint, and then a forklift. So it's taken on a mind of its own and become so much more involved.

Jess Hazel / KRCC
Artist Sofia Hernandez Crade explains how the different joints of the giant puppet will work when displayed during the Carnivale Parade in Manitou Springs.

So the head was initially built onto a barrel just to give it kind of a structural support that's open on the bottom. And from there I used paper mache to just kind of map him out. And on top of that, I used a sculpting compound, and that gave it a little bit more structural integrity as well. And from there I used just a gratuitous amount of plaster of Paris. So those plaster rolls– which is a really interesting process to work with because, unlike clay, you can't subtract–so it's only adding and adding and building in very small planes. 

It poses some interesting problems because in order to match, you are just constantly building it up and then smoothing it out. And then from there, I gessoed him and painted just in thin washes. Because if you painted somebody just in one flat color, it would very quickly just look unrealistic because skin has so much complexity. And so I went in with purples and with greens and with yellows and with blues for the shadow of where beards are. And so every process has had many, many steps to make… lots of hot glue gun accidents. 

His head is actually built on a lazy Susan, and so he'll be able to turn his head from side to side. All of his joints are movable. I'm using armature wire. I have an amazing friend and carpenter who works at Colorado College, Bill Crossy, and he has just really taken my ideas and run with it and come up with some of his own. And that part of the engineering has really been a collaborative effort, and he's been putting in so much of his own time and his own craftsmanship and really made it the skeletal structure in a way that's just so clean.

The knees bend as they should, the elbows bend, the shoulders can do a complete 360. So I am envisioning him waving. He's going to be holding a paintbrush. He has a palette on his lap and envisioning him having a little bit of a jig, almost as if he's dancing a little bit in his seat. He has this big smile on his face. In my mind, this is kind of my love letter to the community. So I feel like it's a really uplifting piece.

On the challenges of making a 24-foot tall puppet: 

Space is always an issue. And working with something that's so large definitely presents an issue as far as space. I hope that one day I can have a warehouse where I can store and create these projects as big as I want. But this piece, it's kind of spilled out into so many different living spaces. And so I think that's probably been the hardest thing is just having a balance of work life balance and not wanting it to take over for too long in a way that makes you a little claustrophobic. And then also, this is my passion project. I've been so excited to do it. I think in many ways I really needed to do it for myself. I haven't sculpted seriously in over 10 years, and it's a medium I really, really love.

Jess Hazel / KRCC
Details on the face of a puppet of Charles Rockey make the skin, hair, and eyes look realistic and warm.

But I would love to be able to get funding in the future. I've probably spent almost $3,000 out of pocket on materials for this project, and that's even with generous donations and donations from Bill's tool rental who donated a lot of the supplies for the forklift and for the trailer. So I've been really, really fortunate that people have been donating on GoFundMe.

But it is definitely a huge project that I think hopefully after having a few under its belt, the city can find a way of supporting artists to do these big public works because I feel like they're important in the community and kind of establishing that sense of pride towards our community. That a sense for kids of let's play, let's have fun. Let's imagine, let's dream. And I think that just for citizens, it's important to be able to go big and feel like there's community support. So hopefully one day some of these big projects will be commissioned projects

On her favorite art from Rockey: 

I just recently acquired his book Love Songs from Middle Time, and I've just been loving it. It's filled with these really sweet stories and is beautifully illustrated, and he has all these fantastical creatures. So I think a lot of the costumes are going to be that element of Rockey versus the postmodern or post-impressionist paintings that maybe more people are familiar with. 

I've always loved a scene where it's like he's looking out on the foothills and looking at Manitou from above one of those paintings. I'm not sure the title, but that probably is my favorite. It's hanging at Adam's Mountain Cafe and it's just really sweet. You can just see a really great semi-aerial view, but I love how he plays with perspective, so it's not like he's so married to only one perspective. So it can give you a little bit of that drunken, somewhat unrealistic view, but in a way that somehow feels even more realistic than life.

On what’s next for the puppet: 

Anybody who is interested in showcasing it at a large facility where it could be seen. Unfortunately, although it's somewhat waterproof, it can't be out in the elements. So worst comes to worst, I'm going to have to find a storage unit or a barn, or I might be renting out a warehouse for my studio, but it would be wonderful if the Fine Arts Center or Ant Art or another facility that I haven't yet thought of would like to take him off my hands for a while until he goes on tour again, and then people can see him up close. 

He's really designed to last. He might outlive me. Hopefully, I live to be as old as Rockey, if not even older. But this puppet, I am hoping that he'll be able to exist for a long time. So I'm currently brainstorming, and if anybody has any ideas, I'd love to hear. I know that there's puppet festivals all over the country and even the world, so I've only been a puppeteer for about two and a half months. It's always something that I've kind of dreamed of, and I hope that I can kind of get more on the map and travel with them and do more and more exciting and ambitious projects.