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Peek inside this south Minneapolis warehouse and papier-mâché faces stare back.

Puppets tall and small, eyes open and closed. Moths, sloths and, in the left corner, a moose, its antlers so big they nearly brush the ceiling.

Sandy Spieler can look at any face and tell you the person who designed it, the hands that helped make it, the parade or play that featured it.

Then, she might perform the poem that inspired it.

"Let's see if I can remember it," said Spieler, and without pausing began to recite Meridel Le Sueur's "Let the Bird of Earth Fly."

"I send my voice of sorrow, calling, calling. My bowl is full of grief and the wind is up. 'Thanks,' the people are crying. Behold and listen ..."

In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre's warehouse space on Lake Street is a maze of materials that fueled decades of May Day parades and festivals, as well as performances in and around the Avalon Theater.

Last month, the nonprofit that Spieler helped lead for more than four decades said it would sell the theater at 1500 E. Lake St. — its home since 1988 — and vacate the storage space it rents nearby.

The move, part of a broader remaking of the nonprofit, raised the question: What will happen to the puppets?

A select few could stay with Heart of the Beast, which is hunting for a smaller, more manageable storefront. Some might move to museums in Minnesota and beyond, including the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta. Others are heading home with the artists who made them. Moving out of the storage space will save $9,000 a year.

"Puppets are a labor of love," Malia Araki Burkhart, co-chairperson of the nonprofit's board, said last month via e-mail. "Sometimes part of loving them is letting go — hopefully into new places where they can be appreciated and enjoyed.

"In releasing many of these puppets back to the artists and into museums, we plan to open up new space for more art to come to life."

'Patient warriors'

Spieler, who was laid off in 2019 along with the rest of Heart of the Beast's artistic leadership team, has been making room in her garage.

She led the ragtag troupe's transformation of the Avalon from a porn theater into a puppet-making mecca. (The theater's marquee announced the news: "Bye bye, porn! Hello, puppets!") So the 2014 McKnight Distinguished Artist awardee knows how important that theater has been to the community.

But she worries more about the puppets, which she loves.

On a recent morning, Spieler, 68, pulled a piece of cloth aside to reveal the round, iconic faces representing the woods, the river, the prairie and the sky. Stored behind them, just out of sight: the moon.

"We really care a lot about where these are going to go," she said, gently touching each one. "They cannot leave this region, because they belong here. They also belong somewhere where they can be used, if needed. ...

"They have been patient warriors and reminders of this world that is so large and holding us puny little humans."

Spieler's passions, which fueled May Day parades for 45 years, emerge from every corner of this storage space. Her focus on peace, formed in childhood while attending antiwar protests with her minister father. Her belief, nurtured by "deep listening" with Native American communities, about the importance of water.

But she's quick to point out that each May Day theme grew out of community meetings. That each puppet was touched by many hands.

"Kevin Kling wore this one." "David O'Fallon, the theater's founder, made this." "Here's another inspired by Meridel Le Sueur."

Some puppets have been taken already. Others have been marked with Post-it notes.

"Remus," one reads. "Asking Sandy if OK."

"Masa," says another.

When Masanari Kawahara got the call that the puppets had to be out by October, he went to the warehouse but took just one: a little jumping mouse with a long tail. It was from a show titled "Winter Dreams," one of the first he helped create.

"I became a puppeteer because of Heart of the Beast," he said by phone. After volunteering for May Day, Kawahara worked as a staff artist for a dozen years. He loved the collaboration of creating a show from scratch.

"There's an initiator, but it's not just my work or Sandy's work — there's a lot of co-ownership."

Ideally, a puppetry theater would own a big barn, à la Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont, becoming its own museum. "At the same time, Heart of the Beast needs to be nimble," he said.

While some artists are concerned about the nonprofit severing links to the past, Kawahara appreciates that younger, more diverse generations are asking big questions: What is a puppet theater? Should it be centered on May Day?

"Heart of the Beast will be different — by design," he said. "I'm excited and also curious. I'm cheering them from afar."

Love, life and beyond

There are banners and backdrops. Cardboard boxes with curious labels: "SERIOUS FISH" sits beside "FUNNY FISH." Then there are hands. Green hands and blue hands. Hands pointing out and hands held open.

Some puppets, toward the warehouse's back, were created for a particular show, stored and never seen again. Others, toward the front, popped up last month at a Line 3 protest.

Together, they tell not only the story of the theater, which started in the basement of the Walker Community Church in south Minneapolis, but of its artists' reaction to the Vietnam War's end, the farm crisis of the '80s, the Sept. 11 attacks.

They hint at more intimate histories, too. An imposing Mother Earth, a corn cob emblazoned on her chest, holds a baby to each breast.

"This was a spell," Spieler said.

A love spell. One baby represented the theater's manager at the time, Lucinda Anderson; the other, a longtime volunteer-turned-staffer, the late poet Roy McBride.

It worked, Spieler said. The two fell in love and married.

Other lovers have proposed in Powderhorn Park on May Day, surrounded by neighbors and strangers. Some have honored that piece of earth by spreading their friends' ashes there.

"We hear stories like that all the time," Spieler said. "May Day became a really essential ritual in the life of the community."

For her own funeral, Spieler has her eye on a backdrop from "Gyre," a play that marked the millennium. She shook her head: "I can't believe I'm talking about this." But there's something about that work, she said, the way it captures the interconnectedness of the world.

"I feel like my life's dedication is to this beautiful world that is completely interconnected, that's all," she said. "And in dying, you're lying back into this world."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 • @ByJenna