Thank you to Monica Leo for sharing her Why Iowa thoughts today from her cultural jewel in West Liberty, Iowa.
Monica is a first generation American, born to German refugees in the waning days of World War Two. After the war, her parents ordered a set of Kasperle hand puppets from a German craftswoman, and Monica was hooked. Since 1975, she has been creating and performing as founder and principal puppeteer of Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre. Eulenspiegel’s home is Owl Glass Puppetry Center, a tiny center in the small town of West Liberty, Iowa. Monica lives in a log cabin in the woods with her carpenter husband, John Jenks.
When I started touring with the puppets, one of my surprising discoveries was the diversity in this seemingly white bread state. Living in Iowa City, as I did at that time, I had learned to believe that rural areas (and people) were essentially all cut out of the same cloth. Was I ever wrong! Places like Amana and Manning celebrated their German heritage, as reflected in the pace of the school residencies my puppet partner and I did (work hard; take a nice break; too much rushing around has a negative effect on quality). Columbus Junction was one hundred per cent blonde and blue-eyed the first time we worked there; imagine my surprise when we came back to a school that was fifty per cent Latino! And Postville! We watched Postville go from German/Scandinavian to Latino/Central European/Hassidic Jewish!
In western Iowa, we made friends with Floyd Pearce and reveled in his amazing print shop, located in one-street Cumberland, in which he published exquisite books using antique letterpress technology. He took us to tiny Mt. Aetna to meet his friend Merrill, an accomplished pianist who’d played in venues all over the United States. Merrill lived in an ordinary looking ranch style house that revealed itself as a veritable art gallery when we entered. He’d shared the house for some years with Isadora Duncan’s former private secretary.
We even worked at the Maharishi Elementary School of the Age of Enlightenment in Fairfield. Having no idea where it was located, we asked a college student, who hopped into our van and said he’d show us the way. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “Puppets.” A little later he repeated his question. “Puppets,” I said. “We’re making puppets with the kids...and doing puppet shows!” “Oh,” he said, “I thought you were speaking metaphorically.”
I’ve come to believe that Iowa’s soul is most visible in its smallest towns.