A! Magazine for the Arts

Becky Caldwell

Becky Caldwell

Becky Caldwell leads the Wolf Crystal team

June 26, 2019

Becky Caldwell, the executive director, of the Virginia Highlands Festival and other volunteers have been considering using kinetic art as a focus for the festival, but there were other priorities. The first meeting for this kinetic art project was held Halloween in 2018.

“My one big regret is not recording that first meeting. It was a fascinating discussion among 15 creative people about ‘what is kinetic art.’ When you define kinetic art as art that moves, there are lots of different types of art that move and reasons why it moves. What about human-powered kinetic art in the form as puppets which are essentially moving sculptures. What about wind-powered kinetic art which is what most people think about when they see YouTube videos, what about machine-powered art like robots. So we looked at all the ways kinetic art could be expressed and then went off for a couple of weeks to research.

“Each person had their own areas they were going to research. Some puppets, some wind-powered sculpture, some robotic programs. We came back together. Brian and Marie Bridgeforth and Greg Lilly presented the story of the Wolf Crystal, which encompassed every aspect that we were talking about. At the end of the meeting, we decided ‘The Wolf Crystal’ had to be it. It had the flexibility to incorporate art in all its forms and really engage our audience in ways we hadn’t before. We’ve never done immersive art before, and we haven’t had anything that’s rooted in a story based on our region and the legend and folklore of Abingdon,” Caldwell says.

She says the project will appeal to anyone with a sense of whimsy and spirit of adventure, such as anyone who likes Pixar movies or a trip to Disneyland. Like any epic saga, “The Wolf Crystal” will be a trilogy. “We’ll have the puppets available to use, and they’re being constructed to last. We’ll have the characters and the format, so we’ll create a new story next year and the next,” she says. Whether it continues after three years is up to the audience. If attendance grows each year, they will continue.

Three events are aimed primarily at children: July 26 at 11:30 a.m. in Humphreys Park, July 28 at 1:30 p.m. at The Arts Depot and July 30 at 1 p.m. at the arts and crafts show in Barter Square. At all three locations, children are asked to help find clues to the wolf crystal.

This project had to be funded separately from the festival budget. Being a new project, it wasn’t included in the existing budget. Caldwell says she wants to thank Wells Fargo. “They were one of the first to come on board and support this project. It was the focus of our Giving Tuesday fundraiser, and I thank everyone who donated. We’ve also gotten support from the Virginia Commission for the Arts to do some educational programming around this,” she says.

Heidi Rugg, the puppet creator, has already completed one artist residency with the dancers who will operate the puppets. When she returns before the festival, she’ll do another intensive residency to teach them how to operate the puppets.

The puppets are felted wool, and the fibers were sourced locally from Dreamland Alpacas and Grandview Farm. The puppets are larger than an actual wolf. Caldwell suggests that you picture the gazelle or the cheetah from “The Lion King” on Broadway. They also glow from the inside. Caldwell hopes the puppets will have a long life. She is talking with the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia, about perhaps having an exhibit or taking the show there after its three years in Abingdon. “We don’t know what form it would take, but we are interested in working it out.”

The puppets are operated by dancers from Highlands Ballet Studio and are choreographed by Deirdre Cole. Their performance music will be recorded and come from cultures that have folklore of wolves and wolf spirits. Primarily, it will come from Celtic, Nordic or Native American music to fit with the local heritage.

The experience also includes drones, an epic drone battle Aug. 1 at the fairgrounds. People who stay after the battle will learn how the drones work and may get to be a test pilot.

Caldwell says that you should be sure to attend the opening ceremony, July 25 at 8:30 p.m., at William King Museum of Art in the sculpture garden. “I don’t think the festival has ever done an opening ceremony before, so think Olympics but on a $5 budget with a dozen people instead of thousands in a stadium.

“We’ll gather on the lawn at sunset, so it shouldn’t be too hot. We’ll have a food truck or two and a live performance on the lawn. People will get to meet the main characters, learn the beginning of the story, the importance of the crystal and what’s a pack. Then we see the wolf crystal stolen. You’ll also see how the sculpture interacts with the public. It will light up when you walk up to it. This is the first time, we’ve ever done anything like that,” Caldwell says.

The closing ceremony is also held in the sculpture garden at the museum Aug. 2 at 9:15 p.m. The heart of the crystal is returned to its base and there is a dance-off for the power of the crystal.

Caldwell says that people frequently request events be held at night to avoid the heat, so these two ceremonies not only respond to that, they allow people to see the illumination of the crystal. “I know it’s right before school starts and they are taking place after bedtime, but this is going to be a once in a lifetime experience. I encourage people to come and be a part of it.”

The crystal will only be installed in the sculpture garden during the festival. Caldwell is seeking a sponsor who could have it on permanent loan for a donation.

The festival is working with Alert Abingdon to send out festival alerts. People who sign up get a special message from Abbi (the hero of the story), which tells you where to see her the following day.

For more information, visit www.vahighlandsfestival.org.

Arthur Brill brings the Wolf Crystal to life