Get up close with Saline’s Bixby marionettes in this new immersive online exhibit
SALINE, MI – Marionettes handcrafted by Saline puppeteer Meredith Bixby delighted children across the country through shows based on stories like “Pinocchio,” “Aladdin” and “Treasure Island” for more than 40 years.
But for more than a decade they’ve held a quiet residence in the basement of Saline City Hall, off the stage and mostly out of the public eye. Until now.
Thanks to the work of an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit that leverages technology to bring art and artifacts to the virtual masses, Bixby’s famed marionettes have made the jump to an immersive online gallery.
During the past year, the group, CultureVerse, has employed cutting-edge 3D scanners to create “digital twins” of a dozen of Bixby’s string-bound creations and recreate the interior of the gutted Saline Opera House, publishing their work in a virtual exhibit.
“It’s really a miraculous thing,” said Katherine Downie, chair of the Saline Arts and Culture Committee and a subcommittee that manages the Bixby collection, entrusted to the city by Bixby before his death in 2002.
“It was just perfect timing. We were trying to think of something that would bring the collection into the public view again,” she said.
The collection of marionettes, costumes, backdrops, a traveling stage and countless documents — from fan letters to show bills — are the remnants of the Meredith Marionettes Touring Company, which traveled the Midwest and the country performing in schools, theaters and community centers between the 1930s and Bixby’s retirement in 1982.
Read more: Preserving a legacy: Saline puppeteer’s work lives on through digital archive
Some of the materials were publicly exhibited between 1998 and 2008, but the recession led to their warehousing in City Hall, Downie said.
That was CultureVerse’s music.
The group’s goal is to help unseen art and collections come to the light of day using technology, according to its executive director, Aubrey Martinson.
“The whole premise of our organization is there’s more art than walls, so in the virtual space there’s an unlimited number of galleries that can be populated with an unlimited number of artworks,” she said.
As it turns out, there are also personal ties that led the organization to Saline, the home of its director of design and implementation Matt Grossman.
Grossman’s brother Erik was Bixby’s apprentice, one of the only living people who knows the puppeteer’s method, Grossman said.
The 3D modeling project and virtual exhibit is aimed in part at increasing exposure for the collection, which could lead to it attracting more resources, he said.
“One topic that comes up over and over again is to really just let the community know what kind of treasure they have and that they could be doing all sorts of really interesting things with it,” Grossman said.
The process of making the models involved framing the marionettes up as if they were getting ready for a photo shoot, suspending them and casting soft light from several points onto their handmade costumes and painted faces.
They then passed a handheld scanner called an Artec Leo over the surface of the marionettes, with the scan refined into a digital model that could be imported into a game engine, software used in video game development.
There, 3D artists can assign material types to the model, like cloth or metal, and delineate the physics of the environment. “If it’s a shiny surface the light will reflect, if it’s a diffuse surface the light just is absorbed,” Grossman explained.
The 3D scanning technology is used in engineering and manufacturing contexts and increasingly for the preservation of historic artifacts, including in major collections like that of the Smithsonian Institution, Martinson said
Consumer scanning technology is available on an iPhone, she said, but the scanner CultureVerse employed retails at almost $35,000.
The organization didn’t stop at modeling the marionettes.
It was also able to enter the former Saline Opera House space in the Wallace Block on South Ann Arbor Street, now gutted for rehabilitation as a commercial building.
There, a shell of the interior was scanned, and 3D artist Joe Grabowski recreated the look of the room in its heyday based on photos from the 1910s and ‘20s.
“It’s not perfect. We’ve had some people remember what it actually looked like in the ‘50s actually say, well it didn’t quite look like that,” Grossman said.
The virtual opera house now hosts an online exhibit with the models of the marionettes and pieces of the Bixby collection, including a model of the puppeteer’s traveling stage, built of the boxes it traveled in.
The exhibit lives alongside a scan of the opera house, videos of Bixby’s performances and an explanation of the 3D modeling process.
“It actually exceeded my expectations,” Downie said.
The committee in charge of the collection hopes to build off the effort by opening a physical museum in the coming years, and they’re well on their way thanks to ongoing cataloging efforts from students with the University of Michigan’s School of Information and Museum of Art.
The collection is also likely to continue to stay in the public eye due to a forthcoming oral history book on Bixby from retired Saline teacher Jim Cameron, president of the Michigan Oral History Association, Downie said.
“We’re not the first people to bring light to this collection. There’s a lot of people who care about it in this community,” Grossman added.
Still, many residents aren’t aware of it, he said, and CultureVerse hopes the online exhibition will lead to arts curriculum about Bixby that could be used in local schools, or use by puppetry organizations.
Even before that idea becomes a reality, it has given a boost to Bixby’s marionettes.
“Thanks to (CultureVerse) we’ve been able to get a lot more attention to the collection and its importance culturally and to the city,” Downie said.
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