Puppets, Pianos, Peartrees

For the Folsom family, art comes in a variety of forms.

puppetLadyYOU MAY KNOW HER AS THE PUPPET LADY, you may know her as the piano teacher, or you may know her as the lady with the tree sculptures. And if you don’t know her at all, you will want to meet her. She is Mrs. Retta Folsom of Lone Oak.

Ms. Retta as she is affectionately known to children and adults alike, has taught piano for nearly 50 years (though she seems too young for this to be possible), and she has been the “puppet lady” for the Paducah-McCracken County Public Library and various other entities for more than half that time. She has been a church organist and choir director. She is a musician, a storyteller, a performer, a teacher. And throughout the years, Ms. Retta became a magician of sorts, developing an ability to use whatever was available around her—scrap fabric, scrap lumber, leftover paint—to transform it into an art form designed to interest children in books and in music.

In addition to their “day jobs,” Ms. Retta, her husband Chuck, their three children (now grown), and the famous puppet, Bob Dog, traveled around to perform weekend shows as the Folsom Puppet Company. Chuck was beside Ms. Retta all the way, designing and building sets, rigging lights, figuring out sound technicalities. She says he has always been the wind beneath her wings. “We were road warriors,” says Ms. Retta. “We went to libraries, to schools, to supermarket openings. We did whatever we could to draw children in.”

Perhaps their ingenuity, their ability to create art in any setting, gave the couple the idea to create works of art from lost trees. First it was a tree from Ms. Retta’s grandfather’s farm on New Hope Road that fell victim to Hurricane Ike. The Folsoms wanted to somehow preserve the large maple that had blown down and considered using the wood to have a piece of furniture made. Then they heard about a man who carved bears from trees—Sam Dunning, whose wife Holly brought their children to library story time to hear Ms. Retta. The Folsoms got in touch with Sam and explained what they had in mind. Sam went to work on a test piece of wood, first carving a small bear from pine, then moving on to the large maple. In a matter of hours, he carved “Brown Bear,” an imposing figure who stands prominently on the Folsoms’ deck.

puppets, pianos, peartreesThe 2009 ice storm brought damage to more trees, including a 36-year-old Bradford Pear in the Folsoms’ garden. Its limbs were sheered off, leaving only the trunk, which split into three forks. Where some would see devastation, Retta and Chuck Folsom saw artistic opportunity. They again called on the services of Sam Dunning, this time requesting a woodland pipe organ inspired by the pipe organ in the children’s classic, Snow White. The pipe organ sculpture has 20 characters, including bunnies, owls, raccoons, bears, a deer, and a woodland gnome, all surrounding a keyboard. The result is an amazing work of art that brings together children’s literature and music and that is particularly appropriate in the garden of Ms. Retta. “I’m very basic,” she says. “My passion for my family is above all things. Then, it’s the books and the music. Everything comes back to one or the other, and they often overlap.”

All forms of art have been entwined in the Folsoms’ lives since they set up housekeeping as a young married couple more than half a century ago. “We love Paducah,” says Ms. Retta, “and we love that it’s a thriving arts community.”

The Folsoms credit Paducah Bank with helping to make it so. “If it wasn’t for Paducah Bank, the Lower Town arts program would never have happened,” says Chuck.

“We’ve been involved with Paducah Bank since we first added to our house in 1972,” reflects Ms. Retta. “From the tellers to the president, they never fail to be cheerful and helpful. We love our bank. We love their community involvement and support of the arts.”

For Ms. Retta Folsom, support of the arts is indeed a priority, be it through library books, pianos, or unique tree sculptures.puppets, pianos, peartrees-2