Puppeteer Sam Lewis (left), assisted by his sons, performs with “James” on Feb. 26 at the Canal Shores Winter Wonderland. (Photo by Gay Riseborough)

Visitors to the Canal Shores Winter Wonderland on Feb. 26 enjoyed “James” – a puppet with a centuries-long history brought to life after years of research, discovery and family ties.

Winter Wonderland is a community partnership between Canal Shores, Downtown Evanston and Evanston Made, where the public is invited to create a Nature Art Exhibit on the Canal Shores Golf Course during February. Programming throughout the month included art making and firepit gathering and involved collaboration with organizations like Artists Book House, which sponsored Sam’s performance. 

Sam Lewis is a Black artist, musician, poet and actor who has worked for decades in Chicago’s art scene. In 2018, thanks to an introduction by a relative, Lewis met a white judge in Nashville who helped him discover his family history. Lewis’ parents divorced when he was quite young, and he knew little of his father’s background. An inquiry to Ancestry.com had told Lewis he was 30% European, which made him even more curious about his story.

Judge John Marshall, 14th Judicial Circuit in Virginia, is a descendant of the family who “owned” Lewis’ family for more than 200 years. According to Lewis, Marshall is an ardent family historian eager to share his knowledge via his self-published books of documentation with others who are related and descended from the very small town of Mason, Virginia.

Participants in the final Winter Wonderland at Canal Shores gather to watch James. (Photo by Gay Riseborough)

Lewis came across an old Talentoon, 1940’s “Jambo the Jiver” marionette in his father-in-law’s attic and worked with him for 10 years, often at the Roughhouse Theater in Links Hall in Chicago, a multidisciplinary organization that includes many puppeteers and artists of color. He started dreaming about the kind of puppet he might like to represent him and his newly discovered family history. He wanted a unique puppet, one he would build himself.

A residency at the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest gave him the opportunity to think through his plans and work out a prototype. Lewis created the puppet in his great-grandfather’s likeness from an old photograph Marshall provided and gave the puppet his great-grandfather’s name, “James Lewis.”

James is a rod puppet operated by Sam and his two teenage sons, with Sam’s wife often recording the show. Last Saturday James told his story and the story of Mason in a kind of rhythmic, call-and-response rap version. In the finale, he delighted the audience with his attempt at dancing to Lewis’ funky recorded music.

Lewis was the director of the Elastic Arts Foundation for 20 years, sings in a band called Kitchen Sink and occasionally acts on camera and does voice-overs. He is a board member of an annual art festival in Logan Square, is active in the Chicago International Puppet Theater festival week and now also works for Ragdale.

Lewis says, “We need to know our history and come to terms with it. Part of an extended reparations package for Black people would be to give us our history back!”

Gay Riseborough

Gay Riseborough is an artist, has served the City of Evanston for 11 years on arts committees, and is now an arts writer at the Evanston RoundTable.

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