Cattywampus: Puppetry, Pageantry Pulls Knoxville Together
Throughout history, puppets and marionettes have been used as an accessible means to tell rowdy stories, poke fun at authority figures, and provide entertainment for cheap. Puppetry blurs the line between play and politics, between protests, pageants, and parades - all of which have a storied history in the South. Knoxville, Tennessee’s first-ever puppet pageant was initiated by a group called Cattywampus Puppet Council.
That’s the only time and place in the world, perhaps, that you can see Dolly Parton, a catfish, and a single, giant eye all in one place. And coming after them, down the street are more strange figures. A tall African bird called a Sankofa bird; a blue witch, possums and other critters. All are larger than life, made of papier mache, lovingly crafted by hand. They’re all puppets, held aloft by the stream of people marching down the street to the sound of drums, accordions, and kazoos.
Some, like Dolly, are up to fifteen feet tall, towering over the crowd; some, like the catfish, are held overhead, stretched between two poles. Some of the puppets are smaller, like the possums - just heads, make the wearer into the animal itself. Every May for several years, the Appalachian Puppet Pageant brought the East Knoxville Magnolia Avenue strip to life. Normally filled with traffic, the strip came to a halt, and the quiet was filled instead with the raucous magic of Cattywampus Puppet Council.
Everyone who’s participated in the parade has a favorite puppet. Kahlani Wilson, 12, is partial to a puppet modeled after Knoxville poet Nikki Giovanni, which he helped to construct. His sister Leilani Wilson, 13, and their mom, Lady, like the big, fifteen-foot Dolly. “Everyone has to love Dolly, come on!” laughs Lady.
Lady is a fierce, well-known local artist, for whom Cattywampus has been important as she nurtures her kids’ and her own artistic talent. A singer, painter, actress, and activist, she also lives with a disability, and had wondered if she would be able to walk her first puppet pageant. Cattywampus pageant participants found her a wheelchair, and she went the whole route and made it to the afterparty, too. She says this spirit of inclusivity is part of what drew her to the group.
Rachel Milford, the founder of Cattywampus - “Or I guess you could call me the wrangler,” she says - made fostering this sort of inclusive, playful atmosphere her mission. Born and raised in East Tennessee, Rachel hoped her project would reflect its natural environment and culture. Early designs included possums, hellbender salamanders, kudzu vines, and Dolly herself.
As Cattywampus diversified as a group, puppet designs diversified, too - the African bird, for instance, or an alebrije, a supernatural creature of Mexican origin. The goal was to subvert what she felt was the white, wealthy culture of Knoxville’s art world. As such, she envisioned it as less of a theatre troupe, than a project that anyone could participate in - that could be informed, shift, and change depending on who participated. “What would it look like,” says Rachel, “for art to be created by communities - particularly communities that often aren’t represented or don’t get to tell their stories?”
When Rachel was younger, she studied puppetry with troupes in Washington and North Carolina, and participated in puppet parades in as far-flung places as Minneapolis and New Orleans. In all those years, though, her goal was always to return to the South. “This is my home, these are my people, this is where I come from,” she says. She wasn’t sure she was ready to return to Knoxville, but when a series of life events took her there, she accepted it.
That spirit of Southerness and serendipity was reflected in the name she picked for her project - “Cattywampus” is Southern vernacular, meaning askew, quirky, messy, and weird. Rachel wants people who see her work to have a visceral reaction. Early on, her neighbors would watch her work on figures like the Dolly puppet in her yard, openmouthed, as she covered old Trader Joe’s bags with papier mache, before setting them to dry over a fifteen-foot wire puppet skeleton. “It’s unnecessary,” she says, “Like, totally unnecessary...and larger than life, and I think magical for that reason.”
Every year, the parade has a different theme, one picked in consultation with community organizations, arts groups, schools, activists, and more. In 2018, the theme was “Our Roots, Our Power,” celebrating East Knoxville’s Black community. Representatives of storied Black organizations, such as a local hip hop group called the Good Guy Collective, Carpetbag Theatre Company, and the Highlander Research & Education Center, all helped make it happen. At least sixty pairs of hands touched that year’s most popular puppet, a giant power fist, which Rachel took around in her car in various stages of completion from community group to community group.
One of those was Inskip Elementary School’s afterschool program, which Kahlani and Leilani attended. They helped make a Cheshire Cat puppet, which they used for their school production of Alice in Wonderland and then took to the parade. When they were done, Rachel asked if they wanted to be a part of the Youth Intern Squad. “We said yeah,” says Kahlani enthusiastically, “because we wanted to make big old puppet heads!”
The Youth Intern Squad started when, during a puppet parade a couple of years ago, a young participant approached Rachel with the idea. The first interns, including that kid, were from multiple marginalized identities - Black, queer and trans, Latinx - so the squad organically became a safe space for these kids to work, play, and bond with one another. The squad became responsible for planning the parade, and Rachel found money to pay them. For two hours every week, they would meet, joke, laugh, mold, sculpt, and plan.
Parents became a part of the process, too, which opened them up to new facets of their kids’ lives. Lady was a little nervous about the group at first. “I’d never used pronouns before!” she exclaims, remembering. But, she says, as she began to make puppets with the other kids and parents, she grew to appreciate they way it was helping her kids express themselves. “It was really about honing in on being who you are, no matter what,” she says. Lady’s no stranger to that - her closet is full of wigs and costumes and stage makeup. The 2019 pageant theme was “I See You” - focusing on the dreams and experiences of LGBT youth in the squad, and bringing their families, like Lady, into the mix.
Unfortunately, the covid-19 pandemic disrupted all best-laid plans in 2020, and the Appalachian Puppet Pageant was no exception. Kahlani and Leilani are still sad about it. “The parade was gonna be on my birthday,” says Kahlani. Leilani was designing the flyer- a girl with vitiligo whose skin colors were the blue and green of Planet Earth.
They’re biding their time and hoping to continue the projects they had to stop short. They make art in other ways - Kahlani’s a dancer, and they both perform with a local circus in town, which has faced its own challenges during COVID-19. The confidence they’ve learned in the worth of their work, nurtured by their friends in the squad, still remains. Sometimes Leilani thinks what they’re doing is normal, but as she puts it, “When people hear the stuff we do, they’re like, whoaaa.” Being an artist in Knoxville isn’t easy, but the Wilson family is keeping the fire lit.
Besides, says Rachel, community-based art -”Trash art,” she laughs, referring lovingly to the odds and ends that make up her own work -is “never per se uniform or perfect, especially when you’re making art with multiple hands, so like, the work’s always gonna be a little cattywampus.” That sense of community, fun, and playful chaos, is something that the Wilson family and others like them keep alive, something endemic to Knoxville that Cattywampus was able to channel. And nothing, not not even a pandemic, can take that away.