Hailing from outside of Pittsburgh, Pipkins started off as a painter and spoken word artist who aspired to be “the new Basquiat.” In 2002, he was invited to produce a live action painting on a public access show at WQED, the same studio where “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was being taped.
A station staff member invited Pipkins and his then pregnant wife to meet television legend Fred Rogers. They hung out in Rogers’ office for about a half hour discussing art and a photo album of original works Pipkins had brought with him. That meeting with Rogers inspired Pipkins to use his talents and influence for good.
“His persona on television was really him,” Pipkins said. “He radiated love, was like the sun, and his joy overwhelmed the room.”
The following year, Pipkins was purchasing art supplies when he heard the news that Rogers had died.
“It hit me way harder than I expected,” Pipkins said. “I uncontrollably just burst out sobbing and ugly cried in the car for five or 10 minutes.”
Pipkins was hosting an open mic night at an art gallery in 2004 when he heard a voice in his head telling him to take his creativity into a new direction.
“That voice said, ‘Make a puppet,’” Pipkins said.
Pipkins built his first puppet out of wires and his then infant son’s clothes. He introduced his new creation as his co-host at open mics, and the crowd loved it, so Pipkins decided to pursue puppeteering full-time. The self-taught artist began experimenting with building puppets out of different materials like wire, plastic, plexiglass and recyclable materials.
At the time, Pipkins was paying the bills with his job as a barber, and some of his clients weren’t too thrilled with his creative pursuits.
“I wanted to do something innovative and different, but my clients wouldn’t let me quit,” Pipkins said. “Every time I tried to announce my retirement from being a barber, clients would tell me that I’m silly and pay me five extra bucks.”
Pipkins knew it was time for a change, so in 2005 he and his family relocated to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he landed part-time gigs at a bike shop and a restaurant.
One day he convinced the owner of the restaurant to let him perform at a Christmas party for the staff. Soon after, he was regularly performing for diners. The shows became an instant hit. “A couple of months later, I had a following to a point I would post on Facebook when I would show up,” Pipkins said. “The crowd was so big, people had trouble getting into the restaurant.”
It was in North Carolina that Pipkins started to understand the power of his puppeteering. He joined Paperhand Puppet Intervention, an organization that specializes in giant puppets, in 2008, and he spent six years working at Just Right Academy, a school for special needs kids. Inspired by both his mother, a daycare center operator, and that chat with Rogers, he realized he could use puppets to educate children.
Operating in a 30-foot studio out of his home in Efland, North Carolina, Pipkins doesn’t follow any blueprints or sketches, preferring to improvise his ideas. “I just start cutting and building it,” Pipkins said. “I have a loose idea for what I want to do, so how it comes out is how it comes out.”
He approaches puppet-making the same way he does painting: He starts with the first word that pops in his mind. When he started creating “5P1N0K10,” that word was “artivism.”
He was working on that show in 2017 with Grammy-nominated musician Pierce Freelon when the musician convinced Pipkins to apply for a Jim Henson Foundation grant, which funds and supports innovative live puppet theater.
He earned the grant for two consecutive years and developed a strong relationship with the Henson family in the process. He’s also the recipient of the Handmade Puppet Dreams grant awarded by Heather Henson.
“Tarish Pipkins is an important puppet artist of our time,” said Cheryl Henson, president of the Jim Henson Foundation. “He approaches his work with a wonderful sense of play and endless experimentation, and is able to take simple materials and transform them into extraordinary characters that he brings to life. His work is uniquely his own.”
She’s one among many of Pipkins’ high-profile fans.
Grammy winner Missy Elliott sought out Pipkins for her “WTF (Where They From)” video in 2018. The first production company she hired couldn’t make the puppets move the way she wanted, so she brought in Pipkins.
He worked closely with the “Work It” singer on modifying the puppets over 10 days. Hanging the marionettes on a wardrobe rack, he took them apart and readjusted them as she rehearsed the dancers. That project led to work on an Amazon Echo commercial with Elliott and actor Alec Baldwin.
Pipkins is hard at work on his next mixed media exhibition and show with “Random Acts of Flyness” producer Terence Nance that premieres at the Whitney Museum in New York in September.
Pipkins likes to think of his accomplishments as no big deal, but it’s just starting to sink in that he’s creating another milestone in his career by piloting Puppetry NOW. And it perfectly aligns with his vision for creating art that educates and entertains children while finding new spaces to share his craft.
“I’m pushing myself to jump into zones that are uncomfortable,” Pipkins said. “I don’t mind trying something and failing. That’s the only way that you actually learn. What I thought yesterday, I might not think tomorrow.”
“5P1N0K10.” June 23-26. $30, includes admission to the museum. “Puppetry Now featuring Jeghetto” exhibition, through Sept. 25. $16. Center for Puppetry Arts, 1404 Spring St., Atlanta. 404-873-3391, puppet.org