Spending an afternoon with Laurel Paluck is like running away to join the circus. She’s Glinda the Good Witch, with a dash of Lili Marlene, a Pied Piper in a top hat often encountered with a merry band of festooned, mismatched children trailing behind her, or in the company of a ringmaster, a wizard, or a gorilla in a white fedora.
You’ll find her in Victoria Park with a life-sized 3-person puppet of a baby blue crane; or in Stewart Park with a gaggle of neighbourhood kids gleefully dismembering and reassembling frankentoys out of dissolute stuffed animals gleaned from Value Village; in bodice, garters and gloves at Max’s Cabaret; as the Mistress of Ceremonies for Dusk Dances; on the runway of the Wearable Art Show for Public Energy; guiding us through the back streets of Peterborough for pop up performances in Alleywaltz; or with a camera and clipboard coordinating the Jackson Creek Project for Artsweek; inviting us to dream at Erring on the Mount; in the Children’s Village at the Peterborough Folk Festival; editing a film on poet Daphne Molson; as the glamourous auctioneer at the annual Artspace 50/50; or performing puppet street theatre in Mazatlan.
All of which is to say that our own Lolly Pluck is a natural born carnie, a creative virtuoso and indispensable to Peterborough’s artistic community. Her semi-nomadic, boho-infused life is inseparable from who she is. Her studio, Atelier Ludmila, is a dream sequence of life-size papier mache masks and Russian dolls, paintings in various media, feather boas, objets d’art, satin brocades covering the walls, a scavenged African mask, a white-as-snow Virgin Mary statuette, art projects spilling over every surface.
We shared a cup of tea in that one room, live/work studio overlooking Hunter St., with the sound of sirens in the background. She tells me of leaving home at 16, and trading modelling for art classes at the Toronto School of Art, learning the art of street puppetry with Ida Carnivali in Toronto’s Kensington Market, and with Shadowland, working as Programme Director of Trent Radio, and GM of Public Energy, getting involved with the infamous Union Theatre, and eventually making Peterborough a home where as a single mom she could raise her daughter.
There are wonderful stories – how the arts community came together after the flood, an ill-fated storytelling workshop for kids in a black box theatre, the musicians of No Place, Cosmic Charlie’s and the Gorgeous Georgie Review.
Beneath the playfulness is a message. Youthful jobs in hairdressing salons and in the food industry politicized her. It was the time of the AIDS crisis and severe social service cutbacks from the Mike Harris government. Paluck came away with an understanding of the rhetoric that devalues marginalized sectors, which still infuses her work with social and environmental messages along with snippets of Freud and sympathetic magic.
Performer, puppeteer, costumer, visual artist and arts administrator, Paluck is all that. But perhaps lesser known is her piquant talent for writing – not just any writing, but raucous, tears-rolling-down-your-face or bittersweet in a Sunny Goodge Street way, like this poetic visitation of a childhood summer memory:
“What is this thing called Cottaging that i am about to be a going on? Camping i have done, every summer growing up with my brothers catching pickerel and small mouthed, rainbow stripped, large rocked, sun rayed fish that broke my heart to kill and yet tasted so good with a bit of cast-iron sizzling lemon butter my mother must have brought along in her cast-iron-leather purse. Dangerous food – watch for the bones, you don’t want to die in the woods. Foraging puff-balls, chanterelle and chicken ‘n hen mushroom, shucking corn, splitting peas and devouring peaches from the local farmers stall, oh and the berry pies and butter tarts. Learning how to build a good fire, play cards and read the stars. All while wearing the same bathing suit day in and forever out into the dark real sky before the satellites came. It is a time passed. Gone forever like those burned out stars leaving only a trail of light behind. It is a melancholy rite wed to a false consciousness, this cottaging. But i am so hungry for trees and water i cannot refuse. A-cottaging i will go. And i have a menu to add to the fellow eaters. For starters an amuse-bouche of pan-fried deer nematodes, a salad of whispering pine blossoms stuffed with wild Canadian goose leavings, cottage pottage of blended melmac & finger-oiled scrabble tile, squirrel tongue terrine with cedar shake crisps, sublingual sumac dotted with black fly mandible and crushed sweet wild flowers flambéed in the liquor of eternally weeping willow. We’ll eat our braised hearts out afterwards, for what else will be left?” ¹
When I was a child my grandmother, who was no stranger to tragedy, would regale us with tales of magic realism, much to my mother’s chagrin, like the time she told us she had been Queen of the Golden West, and would ride into town on her golden Palomino. It mattered not an iota if the story was true or not; what mattered was being given the magnificent permission to dream and imagine anything.
This is who I want in my corner, this secretly tough-as-nails canary, this gypsy champion of the not-to-be-denied child in all of us. With her conspiratorial grin and unabashed warmth, Laurel always steals the show, as so she should, with generous dollops of inclusive fun and intrinsic kindness.
“Art is hard. It’s hard to make and it’s hard to digest. It is not fast food, it is not the sugar/fat/salt that gives you the brain/belly bloat, it is not the political lies designed to shut off your critical mind, it does not want to make you feel stupid or ugly and urge you to buy a new lipstick/car, it is not a new religion to give you forgiveness, it will not shelter the homeless nor feed the hungry, it will not protect the middle class from their endless anxieties. It will not give space to the poor nor encourage the 1% to change their ways, all it can do is to try and to try harder, to try softer, to try longer ever after in a space where maybe, all are welcome. Somehow it joins this town to everywhere and all times, for wherever art survives, so do we, fragile humans, fragile beasts.” ²
¹Paluck, Laurel. Retrieved 25 July, 2015, from Facebook
²Paluck, Laurel. Retrieved 14 September, 2015, from Facebook