More than 40 years ago Sandy Spieler, a minister’s daughter who grew up in Washington, D.C., during the turbulent 1960s, dropped out of Wisconsin’s Beloit College and moved to a sketchy neighborhood in south Minneapolis. There, she threw herself into the kind of street-level art that is more about community than commerce.
As artistic director of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, Spieler spearheaded the conversion of an E. Lake Street porn theater into a national mecca for puppet-making. She also co-founded the wild and woolly MayDay Parade, which attracts tens of thousands to Bloomington Avenue and Powderhorn Park each year.
For her giant puppets and papier-mâché sculptures, not to mention her vision and commitment, Spieler has won the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award, one of the state’s most prestigious, which comes with a $50,000 prize.
She was notified, in person, a couple of weeks ago.
“When they told, me, I thought, ‘But I’m not 70 yet,’ ” said Spieler, 61. “The second thing I thought was, it can’t be just about me. It’s about all the people who’ve come through here and given their all to this work.”
Spieler represents a departure from past winners — including renowned poet Robert Bly, Pulitzer-winning composer Dominick Argento and actor Wendy Lehr — who generally have come from the fine arts.
“Her leadership in all forms of community and artistically based puppetry has had a huge national and international impact,” said Vickie Benson, program director for the arts at McKnight. “Sometimes a person like Sandy can be invisible, and she may prefer it that way. But she certainly deserves the title of ‘distinguished.’ ”
Spieler’s background helped cement her values. As the civil rights and antiwar movements gathered steam during her childhood, she attended protests with her father, a Lutheran minister whose congregation was also changing. Spieler recalled that when her formerly all-white church integrated, membership plunged.
“It went from about 200 to 50,” she said. “The things I believe about art and community came from those experiences.”
She went to Beloit unsure of what she wanted to do but knowing it had to have a social justice component. It was during a semester-in-the-city in Minneapolis that she decided not to go back to college. “I was out in the world, doing stuff in [the] community and building things,” she said.
The Minneapolis company where she landed was founded as the Powderhorn Puppet Theatre in 1973 by Ray St. Louis and David O’Fallon. Anyone could just come in and do work.
O’Fallon remembers he was trying to fashion a clay puppet when Spieler started working next to him.
She had such a facility and ease in fashioning a head, “I knew that I would never be as good,” said O’Fallon, now president of the Minnesota Humanities Center.
A few years later, Spieler was running the theater. “That theater has prospered and become as good as it has because of Sandy,” said O’Fallon. “The whole MayDay Parade was her idea. It was weird and small at first, but look at what it has become. That’s Sandy’s work, and it’s a great gift to our community.”
Spieler’s 40-year tenure is filled with highs but also some lows. About a dozen years ago, she had a personal crisis that involved doubts about her education and the worth of her work. “I think it was hormones and menopause,” she said. Spieler won a Bush fellowship to study for a year at the University of Bristol in England. There, she earned a master’s degree and acquired the academic language to describe her art-making.
It also taught her a valuable lesson: Her job is to find ways to include as many stakeholders as possible in her art. Even as her company struggled through the Great Recession — the permanent ensemble was disbanded several years ago — it has embarked on ambitious projects, including a water-themed show that followed the contours of the Mississippi for four months.
“Water is something that binds us all together,” she said, nodding toward a drinking fountain. “We had a fountain that was out of order and we were selling bottled water, in plastic, to our patrons. We changed that.”
Heart of the Beast also has an annual “La Posada” holiday pageant that nods to its neighborhood’s changing demographics.
“I have to thank the Native American community, among others, for teaching me the connection between spirituality and this art,” she said.
Spieler has thrived in the mostly-under-the-radar world of puppetry, often a stepchild in the arts world that she has helped elevate.
“Sandy is a treasure,” said O’Fallon.