Father-Daughter Team Transforms Classic Stories Into Sand
On February 5th, as part of its annual storytelling festival, the Kalamazoo Valley Museum will feature a rather unique team: the father-daughter duo of Ralph and Genevieve Stocker. The two use an unusual medium for storytelling -- sand. The Stockers combine music, sand and light to create multimedia adaptations of books and movies.
The duo is a multi-generational act, and it comes from years of artistic passion. Ralph Stocker says that since he was a kid, he’s always had an arty side. That meant drawing, painting -- pretty much anything where he made something out of nothing.
"So anything. If you can draw it out, paint it, you just kind of want to get it out of your head to do it on paper," Stocker remembers.
Stocker even went to school for graphic design at Western Michigan University. But he says when he left college, no one was hiring. And with a family on the way, that art got left behind for a career that was more consistent.
But on a trip with his church to a conference near Chicago a few years ago, Stocker saw a performance that sparked his artistic interests once again. Stocker describes the performance this way: up on stage sits a light box, the top lightly covered in a thin layer of sand. A camera peers down, transmitting a video feed of the light box for everyone to see.
Then comes the fun part. An artist walks over. Then, with his fingers, he pushes the sand around, essentially painting with it, with the light box illuminating it all from behind.
"And the group I was there with kind of scrutinized what he was doing and said, Hey, can you do that Ralph? And we developed a plan to build a light table to try it out," Stocker says. "My pastor said, Hey, we’d love if you can do it. Can you? I said I don’t know, but I can try!"
He did try, and quickly, Stocker was hooked. He loved how childlike it felt – almost like playing around in a sandbox. Tracing shapes and images, and then just as quickly, wiping them away.
"I think that unique nature of it, something that was completely different from what we’ve seen. As well as the ability to make a lot of different images. You make an image. You can erase it right away. If you mess it up, you can fix it really quick in the sand. There’s so many different unique pieces to that. Where if you draw something wrong, it takes a lot more work to erase it, fix it. This is something that is a little more fluid."
Stocker says the ephemeral nature of the sand allows him to really craft stories. He traces one image, then another and another. By the end, he says, they all mix together into one long narrative.
Stocker soon brought the art to church. He drew five-minute long stories for Christmas, then Easter and Mother’s Day.
But it didn’t end there. One day, when Stocker’s daughter, Genevieve, was six, she saw what he was doing and wanted to get involved too. So, at a light box inside their basement, Ralph and Genevieve put their hands together and began to make stories together.
On a recent morning, the two practice for their first public performance together, at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum’s Storytelling Festival. The show is 45 minutes long – way longer than anything they’ve done before. And the two are adapting all kinds of stories – from Alice in Wonderland to The Giving Tree – into sand.
Stocker says that when he and his daughter started working together, it wasn’t easy. He and Genevieve had different ideas, and blending them together took time. But now, Stocker says, working with Genevieve has helped him realize that sometimes art doesn’t have to be fancy and ornate. He says when you think about it, shouldn’t drawing in the sand be simple?
"You know, I worry so much about the detail -- so much about what it’s gonna convey. And whether it’s goning to be conveyed. And there are times when [Genevieve] will go, Hey dad, let’s just do that. And it’s simple, but it’s better and works with everything we need to convey. It allows us to do that and allow us to do something better that I wouldn’t do on my own."
But Stocker says there’s something more to this multi-generational passion, too. It’s about bringing back that childlike passion that he stepped away from years ago.
"It's definitely something that my parents encouraged within me," Stocker says. "A lot of times people hear oh, you want to be an artists? How about a lawyer or a doctor instead? But my parents were very supportive of me pursuing anything artistic, whatever. Through childhood, into adulthood."
"So I want to pass that on to her, whether she’s an artist or graphic designer," he says. "I want her to be creative and inspired and convey all the things she’s got floating in her mind like that. There’s so much opportunity to get things out."