“A lot of people came to be folk artists because they had some personal crisis in their lives,” explains playwright and folk-art collector Michael Blackwell. “Almost every one of them has had a spouse pass away or a physical illness or something catastrophic happen in their lives that has led them to pick up a pen or a knife to start drawing or whittling or shaping something. They find solace in their art, and the art draws people to them.”

For Chicago actor Tekki Lomnicki, who calls herself a “little person,” it was her diminutive stature that propelled her to seek a career–and solace–in the arts. For Blackwell, first collecting folk art, then the tales that folk artists tell, has provided an escape from his nine-to-five advertising career.

Those stories inspired When Heck Was a Puppy: The Living Testimonies of Folk Artist Edna Mae Brice, a memory play developed by Blackwell, Lomnicki, and director Nancy Shelton. Blackwell’s collected stories are interwoven with elements of Lomnicki’s life to demonstrate the rejuvenative power of art.

“I think there’s a universality about people,” says Lomnicki, who portrays the elderly Brice. Brice tells stories to her companions on a cross-country Greyhound bus trip and wages mental battles against her demons–her “miserable mother” (a puppet made from found objects by Sraa Davison), her stepfather, her philandering second husband, and her cousin Ida, who dabbles in voodoo. “We all think that our problems are our own, that they’re unique, and me, having a disability, being a little person, I always thought that my problems were my cross to bear and that nobody else had any problems like I did. From listening to these stories of folk artists, I have seen that I have used theater to rise above my disability in the same way that these people have used their folk art.”

When Heck Was a Puppy, produced by the newly formed Tellin’ Tales theater company, opens today at Blue Rider Theatre, 1822 S. Halsted, and plays through July 10. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 7. Tickets are $10 for all performances except tonight’s $25 benefit performance. For reservations call 486-5636.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.