Clown College and puppets? Yeah, that’s BC!
Think of the wackiest, coolest art teacher you ever had, and multiply that by five: Meet BC Summers. Originally from New Orleans, the talented artist, Clown College graduate and puppeteer unexpectedly relocated to Oklahoma after Hurricane Katrina hit her home in 2005. While the circumstances of her arrival were less than ideal, her connection and 17 years with Oklahoma Contemporary has truly made an impact at the Fairgrounds, our new home and in our community, even if she’s the reason we can no longer have glitter or helium balloons in the building.
“BC is one of the most committed teaching artists I have ever had the pleasure of working with,” says Christine Gibson, Senior Manager of Youth and Family Programs. “Her enthusiasm is contagious, her passion is inspiring, and her creativity is limitless.”
From Camp Contemporary to Studio School, Summers has volunteered, taught and participated in numerous creative endeavors, activating artistic adventures from black light art parties to natural watercolors.
We sat down with the New-Orleans-turned-Oklahoma-Contemporary legend to chat about her journey, artistic practice, best camp moments and some of her favorite experiences. A blogpost doesn’t begin to show the gratitude we have for BC Summers, and it’s only a glimpse into her magical world, but it’s a start to honoring her impact properly.
What was your journey to Oklahoma Contemporary like?
I lived in New Orleans in 2005 and had lived there for many years — that's where I went to Clown College and did a lot of puppetry and performances. Then, summer of August 2005 — my sister and mother live here in Oklahoma City — my sister contacted me and said that she was eight months pregnant with her third son, and she had gotten bit by a brown recluse spider. But she hadn't realized that it was a brown recluse, so it got really bad. She said, “They want to induce the birth, and I'm real sick and I have two other boys. Can you come help?” I was in like three bands at the time and puppet shows, so I said yeah, let me see if I can talk my bandmates into doing a show in OKC, and I could ride with them because I didn’t have a car. This was the week before Katrina. So we got here in OKC, I was doing all this family stuff, my band and I were here, and then they went off to the east coast to continue tour, just the two of them, and they were going to pick me up on their way back.
Then Katrina happened. I couldn't go back. I kept trying. I tried to get back twice but the National Guard turned me away both times, and I wasn't able to get back into the city to even see what happened in my house, or my studio or anything until very, very late October. So by the time I got there, everything was molded. I had about five feet of water go in and out of my house. We got looted, the studio that I worked out of, the whole bottom floor was under water for over 10 days, and then when they turned the electricity back on, it started a fire. My stage, my puppets, clothing, everything I owned just gone, and then, of course, everyone that I worked with and loved there were going through the same experience.
I never really planned on staying in Oklahoma City, but what I would do is I would take a bus, a 24-hour bus on the Greyhound to New Orleans, and I would do it every other month. I would save money, it was like an 80 dollar ticket, and then I would go down and help work on places and see and help people with their, you know, crumbling, moldy, disgusting homes. And I did that for that full year.
Around Christmas, my mom got thyroid cancer. I know this all sounds like such a horrible story, but it’s a good ending! So in December, I was like, “I really need to get a job here and figure it out, so I can get back on my feet again.” I only got four thousand dollars from FEMA for everything. So that was like, nothing, you know what I mean? I used the Yellow Pages and was looking up art stuff under the letter A, and under it was a Contemporary Arts Center and one other thing, that was it. So I called, and Laura Rice, who still works here, answered the phone. I remember this very well! Lovely Laura answered the phone and I said, “Hey, I’m from New Orleans, I went to Clown College, do you have any job openings?”
They hired me to do shadow puppets with the kids in the after school program with AmeriCorps. That was my first job. Technically, I also ran the door at Edna's for a little bit, but that’s another story. But it was really great. It was a wonderful opportunity. I started volunteering a lot, too. They started hiring me for spring break camp and then summer camp, and that's been since 2005. This is my 17th year here, teaching for Oklahoma Contemporary. I've taught every possible class you can imagine. Learned a lot about High School Musical back then, too. All the rage! I think we actually did an entire puppet show with the kids during one camp, where Hannah Montana, her wig, something happened to it and it turned people into hamsters. We did a full stage production of it and everything!
I’ve taught every age of kids except — this is funny — I had never taught adults before until this last year at Studio School when I taught a natural watercolor class. That was really amazing to transfer all the things I did with the kids to the adults. I just have been so lucky that this is a home for me and my weird art stuff that I love to do. I've made so many good friends here. I've lived in a lot of other places, I've traveled to a lot of other places, and I know that there are strong communities all over the world, but this place has literally built a multi-generational community over years and years and years. And I just can't imagine what Oklahoma City would be without it. And I know my life, I wouldn't have been able to live a sustainable life as an artist and as a kooky lady who likes to glue gun everything together and work with kids and let them express themselves to the max. I wouldn't have been able to do any of that without this place, really. It's a big deal to me.
How did you get into Shadow Puppetry?
That's kind of a funny story, too. I left home pretty early at 15, and I had a band. I played the drums and we traveled. One time, we were trying to go out to California from Missouri, and as we were traveling across, we stopped outside of New Mexico. We went camping out in the Pecos, and when we came back to the truck, someone had stolen my drum set.
We didn't know what to do, because he played guitar, I played the drums, and we both would sing. So we thought he would just play guitar and sing, but it was a little weird, and we had been booked at this Lake Country and Western Bar. We were both under 21, and it was all cowboys — we were definitely freaks to them. It was in the 90s, you know, we were ultra-grunge little weirdos at this New Mexico, country biker bar, and they didn't like our music. It was weird enough without that drums. And just for fun, in the car on our trip, I had been cutting out these little magazine shapes and making little shows for my partner. So to try to, I don't know, like placate the crowd, I grabbed the puppets I had made, and I put this light on it and started to do this puppet show. I made the puppets act like they were us and making fun of us. I would speak in this really southern accent, “Look at these freak tree huggers, trying to play their freaking music out here!” All the cowboy dudes loved it! They thought it was freaking hilarious. They ended up buying us drinks and got us a hotel room — I'm not sure what would have happened if I hadn't pulled out the puppets!
We spent the rest of the tour doing shadow puppets. And after that and when we got back to the house, we bought a stage, and we would do house shows with it, and that was just my favorite thing. For years after that, I worked at Storyland in City Park in New Orleans, and we did hand puppets there. Storyland is this place where it's got these giant fiberglass story tale book characters and a dragon slide, it had the Little Mermaid, you could go in the whale’s mouth, it was a magical little place inside City Park, this huge park with all the live oaks and stuff, right? And I was really lucky because the guy who ran the place was this amazing Italian puppeteer, who taught me to do all these wonderful hand puppets.
I also connected with New Orleans royalty, Quintron, a musician, and Miss Pussycat, one of the most famous puppeteers that’s ever lived. They have a wonderful Speakeasy called The Spellcaster Lodge, and they would do these really cool puppet shows I would go and see. When I started working at City Park, Miss Pussycat contacted me and said, “Hey, would you like to meet up and spend the day together? You're doing all these puppets, and so am I!” Puppet people like to know other puppet people.
She is actually from Antlers, Oklahoma, and started out in a Presbyterian church, and then went to the West Coast or Northwest coast school and did puppetry there, and then she moved to Chicago, where she had a place called The Pussycat Caverns. I got to know her and became friends, and then they started having me do puppets for their puppet movies and shows and things. I’m very, very, very, very, very lucky and blessed to have done that. So that was kind of how all of it just manifested.
I continued to try to do shows with people here in OKC, but it’s been difficult to find people interested. I think the Arts Council actually hired me to do puppetry one time in Bricktown on a street, like a busking thing. I had this cheeseburger puppet I had made, and I remember they put me in front of Sonic, and I was pranking people with it, asking if they had heard about the new Sonic burger with this puppet.
The library hired me one year, too, and had me go to all these different libraries across the whole state. I spent a summer doing that, and that was really fun. But once again, it was really difficult to find people to do them with. So I got back into shadow puppetry because it was something I could do on my own, at my own house. I use an overhead projector and this really great shadow screen, so I'm able to do the puppets with two hands.
I always think, you know, I've done so much with puppetry and so much with art over the years, but I never realize how much more there is to learn, all the time, but there always is. I think it's just something I feel really lucky to bring to Oklahoma.
What is your favorite part about camps?
When I was a kid, I would have to spend my summers, sixth, seventh and eighth grade here in Oklahoma with my mom. I wasn't allowed to take any art classes because my mom really wanted me to sing and be in the choir. Well, there was a thing where if you took one elective, you can’t take another, they had to choose, art or sports. If you don’t do art, you had to do choir, or if you do choir, you can’t do band. And it was always so frustrating to me because I loved to do art, and I didn't have access to it. I never went to any kind of art camp.
All the cracks that this place gets to fill and lean into, that's something that's really important to me and I'm able to do here. And I love seeing, you know, a lot of the parents will put their kids in the camp they're doing, and the kids might not be interested, but by Tuesday of that week, they're in there focused on doing art, and they're excited! Because of what we are able to do here as teachers and also just as facilitators of just bringing out those art supplies and showing them the possibilities, I have watched those kids go on to make art their life. You see them healthier, happier, more open to try things, better at problem-solving, being curious about the world instead of shut down poo-pooing stuff. That really is cool to see.
It’s also because I'll have kids, you know, for a whole summer, and then their younger brother and sister will be my students. And then their cousins and their friends. And so it's like I get to meet all these people, and a lot of them make friends and stay in touch. Some of the students I had as kids when I was first starting out, not only have they worked here at Oklahoma Contemporary as adults, they've gone on to become their own artists. This is such a beautiful community space that has generations of people affected by it. My partner that I work with, he went to camps at Oklahoma Contemporary as a kid — he still has a t-shirt from back in the day! It's just what this place has done for people. And then you see, and for all ages, too, I work with kids, mainly, but I've seen so many adults and seniors affected by it. My mom took classes here for years, and it really helped her whole life-journey with art. It's been such a resource for me and you know, not only as just like a job but also just to meet wonderful people.
During camps in the past, we used to let all the kids do a parade, every morning, to wake everybody up. I would bring in all these instruments and costumes. We would also do a clown camp, and they used to let me do a food fight on the Friday with the kids. So we would blindfold them, they would be outside and wear their swimsuits for the day, and then they would dress up with full clown makeup. Then, we would make plates of whipped cream, like cream pies, ya know, with big containers of lemonade and chocolate syrup, too.
The kids, blindfolded, would have to serve each other around the tables, and it would end up being like this huge, spilled out food fight. And most the time, I would be the one covered mostly in chocolate because they would come after me. Hopefully it was a sign of love for their teacher, but it felt pretty scary! I remember running from them multiple times screaming for my life!
I just love being able to facilitate that. It's just, it's great, you know what I mean? And not something you can learn a lot of ways but I feel like art really facilitates that. I think a lot of people don't realize with art that you are doing math, you're doing history, you are doing science. It's like the full-S.T.E.A.M. experience is in every art project. Schools are taking out some of that stuff, but it's cool that Oklahoma Contemporary is filling those cracks.
From New Orleans to Oklahoma City, Summers has left an impactful legacy of accessible, engaging, art-making adventures. This fall, Summers will teach Rainbow Light Studios during Camp Contemporary: Fall Break, a wonderful opportunity to learn from and create with this magical puppeteer, a bright ray of sunshine we are lucky that calls Oklahoma Contemporary home.
“Trust me,” says Gibson. “Your kids will never be bored in a camp taught by BC!”
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