In many ways, Jeremy Gregory’s art world is pure Tacoma. His cartoons are full of gritty, grimy characters in cramped frames; his murals expand like a dark dream with possibilities haunted by shadows.
Now the 39-year-old Tacoma artist is bringing that world into four dimensions: poseable puppets – taggers, skaters, zombies – that star in their own stop-motion short film about bullies, cruelty and the wrong crowd. It opens tonight at Seattle’s Bherd Gallery.
“All of my art from before is like ideas for all this,” said Gregory, gesturing around his basement studio in Tacoma’s South End. If there’s a spare inch of space in there, you’d be challenged to find it. Every desk, table, chair and shelf is scattered with tools, fabric scraps, thread, wire spools, paint, mesh and tiny clay body parts – a hand, some feet.
Oh, and puppets. About 6 inches high, they lurk above the sofa, in bird cages, on Gregory’s handmade foot-wide skate ramps. Skinny (thanks to bendy wire limbs encased in plastic tubes), with a torso of wooden “vertebrae” covered in an old inner tube and oversize sculpted clay hands, feet and head, they slump around the studio with defiant glee, It’s a puppet underworld of graffitists and tough guys.
There’s Bucky, a skater like Gregory himself, with a striped hoodie, red beanie and don’t-care grin. There’s Gabriel, a snowboarder with a blue face and fuzzy long hair who hangs with Bucky to learn skating tricks. There’s Mark, with a gentle, big face and black skin who tags but only his name, nothing serious. There’s Williams, a grizzled old guy with a manic grin. And Z gets drunk on tomatoes and recently turned into a zombie after a shootout.
“I just start making them, then I start seeing what they’re like,” Gregory said.
Part of that is seeing the possibilities of where the puppets can live out their photograph lives. Gregory started making the full puppets about a year ago. He already had been playing around with sculpted clay heads that operated with finger and thumb through the skull and jaw, and wanted something bigger. After he posed Williams holding a “You’ll Like Tacoma” sign on a tideflats bridge for last year’s Art at Work month poster, and Z the zombie made a Tacoma Artbus button and the Halloween cover of the Weekly Volcano, Gregory’s puppet art started to soar.
A prolific worker, he juggled local city of Tacoma mural contracts and teaching at the School of the Arts while making more than 30 of the puppets and photographing them in roadside fights, street skate sessions and more.
“Wherever I can I bring them and take photos,” said Gregory, scrolling through thousands on his computer monitor.
Now the puppets have their own movie. “It’s about this little guy Jimi who just moved from New York,” Gregory said of “Welcome to the Neighborhood,”
The stop-motion film he just spent eight weeks making with Bates College professor Brian Parker will premiere tonight in Seattle’s Bherd Gallery.
“He notices some bullies in the neighborhood shooting birds. They hand him a gun, and he makes the choice to shoot,” he said.
The goofy Jimi, wearing a black turtleneck and oversize Lennon glasses, doesn’t look like a match for the bullies with their sharp noses, narrowed eyes and scary blue skin.
What happens in the end? You’ll have to go to Bherd Gallery and see for yourself. (It’s sad/happy, Gregory said.) But the table-top set, a railroad/industrial wasteland painted by Gregory, is everyone’s stereotype of a gritty Tacoma, and the puppets’ grungy clothes and blackened clay skin echo the dark outlines and shadowed colors of Gregory’s work in paint, even the most hopeful of his murals.
“It all comes from me,” said Gregory of the events his puppets live out. “I went through it, everyone I knew around here went through (shooting birds).”
After a childhood in Brown’s Point, Gregory spent a lot of years “playing,” as he puts it, working odd jobs but not settling down until he attended the Seattle Art Institute at age 28. He had drawn things all his life and done a lot of graffiti. That led him to the mural project in Seattle, which like Tacoma’s seeks to combat urban blight through street art. He drew cartoons for The Evergreen State College newspaper, Vashon’s “The Loop” and City Arts magazine. He recently led teams on three city of Tacoma murals. His art also has shown up on skateboard decks.
“Jeremy’s puppets are a lot like Jeremy,” said Rachael Dotson, a Tacoma muralist who has worked on many projects with Gregory, including upcoming murals at Point Ruston and the Two Ravens building at 25th and Commerce Streets downtown. “They’re a little rough around the edges but you feel an affinity for them. His art is very dark – super-interesting, but an almost secret world. But the puppets move around in the light, in our world. ... They’re more approachable.” ‘Little Big Deal’
What: Puppet exhibit by Tacoma artist Jeremy Gregory
Where: Bherd Studios Gallery, 8537 Greenwood Ave N., Seattle
When: 6-10 tonight
Information: 206-234-8348, bherdstudios. com, jeremygregorynow. blogspot.com
Also: See Gregory’s mural work at East L Street (3200 block); Bergerson Terrace, 5301 S. Orchard; and 2143 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma. Upcoming sidewalk mural at Point Ruston development, Tacoma.Rosemary Ponnekanti firstname.lastname@example.org 253-597-8568 blog.thenewstribune.com/arts