This summer, in the Corner Gallery of the Contemporary Arts Center, an industrious worker wearing a name tag and a mint-green uniform will be surrounded by colorful felt and plush fur.
Panacea Theriac, also known as Miss Pussycat, will be in residence at the CAC for three months creating 100 new puppets. The gallery is visible through a giant corner window to anyone walking by the intersection of St. Joseph and Camp streets.
The residency will allow Theriac to devote uninterrupted time to her role as an “anthropomorphizer” of fabric creatures. “This idea to make 100 new puppets, it’ll be like a whole new population!” Theriac said.
Jennifer Francino, visual arts coordinator at the CAC said, “I’m really excited to see live performance in that space. I’ve always wanted to see it in that space. ... It’s a way of exposure.”
The CAC’s summer camp will bring young people to the space, she added.
“Summer Camp will be launching and you’ll have a hundred kids coming in every day, watching, being inspired by puppetry. They do hands-on art projects every day. Beyond children, there will be adults coming in and people from all over the world,” Francino said.
Theriac describes the act of creating a puppet as a form of channeling, and she sees puppets as magic wands. Magic, parapsychology and the supernatural greatly influence her work, she said.
Recently, Theriac experienced an instance of synchronicity when she decided to finally read the dusty yellow copy of “The Golden Bough” by Sir James George Frazer — an anthropological study of religion, folklore and magic — that she had received for Christmas as a teenager.
“I started reading it and immediately I started seeing ‘anthropomorphic,’ like every other page. ‘Puppet, puppet, puppet.’ ‘Sympathetic magic.’ I’m like, ‘Oh my god, it’s like I’ve read this book in my sleep!’ I’m excited to go on this journey and see what happens,” Theriac said.
Theriac grew up in the small, rural town of Antlers, Okla. In junior high, she joined the Christian Puppet Youth Ministry at her Southern Baptist Church, which involved going on tour to other churches to perform puppet shows.
“There were no movie theaters, no bars. Even if you want to go to Walmart, you have to drive 30 minutes to Hugo. There’s no fast food. There’s nothing except your family and church, and maybe high school band, which I was in too, but there just aren’t many things to do,” she said.
Theriac went far away to Evergreen State College for art school in Olympia, Wash. She was 20 years old before she went to a museum, but she had seen an image of a painting by Dorothea Tanning (“Guardian Angels”) that belongs to the New Orleans Museum of Art. She liked the painting so much that she decided to go to New Orleans and see it.
When she arrived, the painting wasn’t on display, but she decided to stay in the city for a while anyway.
That was in the early ’90s. Theriac settled in New Orleans and opened a secret nightclub in her house called the Pussycat Caverns where rock bands would play.
“No band ever wanted to play first, so I was like ‘I’ll do a puppet show!’ ” She created a puppet band called Flossie and the Unicorns to open the shows. Theriac hadn’t worked with puppets since junior high, but here was a practical solution that incorporated writing, sculpture, performance, sewing and other art skills she had acquired at Evergreen.
In 1993 during Mardi Gras, Theriac met Quintron, her musical husband and creative collaborator, and he performed at her club. Since then, the two have toured the world together as the band Quintron and Miss Pussycat promoting his swamp tech and her puppet shows. In New Orleans, they host an occasional show at the Spellcaster Lodge in Bywater.
Theriac has released four full-length, live-action movies starring her handcrafted puppets, which showcase cats, termites, alligators, trees, witches, evil villains and all manner of other indeterminate creatures.
Theriac’s most recent film is “The Mystery in Old BathBath,” which updates fans of the beloved woodland animals, Trixie and Marsha, characters from an online series of shorts she created for “Vice” magazine.
Theriac is constantly working on puppet ideas and keeps a dream diary. For her, puppetry is a way of life.
Her influences range from Art Clokey’s “Gumby” to Walt Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” to “Team America,” but much of her inspiration comes from her friends and things that happen in New Orleans.
Theriac can hardly keep herself from cutting off little scraps of the material she bought in Dallas on a recent scavenging trip.
Showing off some of the new fabric, she says, “I think this is supposed to be chinchilla. If you could work with that, why wouldn’t you?”
In conjunction with Theriac’s residency, the CAC also is presenting “Who Is Pulling the Strings?,” an exhibit featuring the work of other regional puppeteers including The Mudlark Puppeteers, Scary Toesies, Calliope Puppets and The Red String Wayang Theater.
The opening on July 2 will feature DJs Rotten Milk and Quintron. At 7:30 p.m. on July 17, the CAC is hosting a screening of “Handmade Puppet Dreams: Volume V,” a collection of contemporary puppet movie shorts collected by Heather Henson.