written by Amy Doan
If you miss a small white sign by a rutted road on the way to Michael Curry’s office, you’ll find yourself bumping across a cow pasture or making a U-turn through a Christmas tree farm.
From the outside, the office looks like an ordinary Scappoose barn. Inside, however, are creatures from a dream world. Spinning jellyfish, genies and birds with the wingspans of Cadillacs mingle with Disney characters from Ariel to Zeus. Metal skeletons and stretchy fabric skins hang from rafters, waiting to be transformed into fantastic beings themselves. It is a laboratory of the imagination, and Curry is the lead scientist.
“This is where I’m happiest, working with my team, figuring out how to communicate with these things, how to make them come alive,” said Curry, who has forty-five employees under his direction at Michael Curry Design, Inc.
While Curry, 57, is tinkering in his rural workshop, his audience is a global stage. His puppetry and theatrical designs have mesmerized audiences at four different Olympics, and at theme parks, operas, concerts and musicals in dozens of countries. This past February, Curry’s magic created the massive golden lion that pop singer Katy Perry rode in front of the biggest Super Bowl halftime audience in the game’s history. This summer, his signature effects will light up the European Games in Azerbaijan, at the inaugural year of the multisport event for European countries.
Curry’s transformation from sheltered Oregon boy to global theatrical wizard is itself a tale worthy of a Broadway play. He grew up in a Grants Pass faith-healing religious community. His father left home when Curry was 13, forcing the family into welfare and discovering firsthand how necessity could indeed be the mother of invention.
Curry describes his family as “self-taught engineers.” They farmed and canned food. His mother made clothes and designed ornamental gardens. His grandfather built his own car. “I was always very aware of the physics of stuff,” he said. “The people around me had a fearlessness about making things and solving problems. They gave me that.”
Curry had no clear plans for a career but vaguely considered becoming a logger like his father and grandfather. Art school wasn’t on the radar. “My mother is a very loving and creative person, but I wasn’t exposed to much fine art,” he said. “It simply wasn’t part of our world.”
There were no art classes at Grants Pass High, so Curry began sketching caricatures of his teachers, thinking of it as nothing more than a way to make his friends laugh. He admired album art, especially 1970s Asia and Yes albums such as Close to the Edge, with the swirling, futuristic cover designs by Roger Dean. Curry started replicating the style of Dean’s fantasy habitats in drawings.
His classmates rewarded him with his first “showing” when he got the job of painting, on a big piece of paper, the school mascot—the Grants Pass Caveman—that the football team would run through at the beginning of games. This marked the first time he received public attention for being an artist, and foreshadowed a much larger career in art and theater.
As graduation approached for the Grants Pass High School class of 1976, the wife of Curry’s wrestling coach urged him to apply to Museum Art School in Portland, now called Pacific Northwest College of Art. “I somehow got a full scholarship, and my mom cried, she was so happy,” said Curry.
But the Grants Pass of Curry’s childhood was a bubble, and his first year at art school was overwhelming. Before he arrived in Portland in September 1976, Curry had never met a feminist, an openly gay person or even someone of a different race. His vocabulary wasn’t as sophisticated as the other students’. He was good at rendering but hadn’t formed opinions about things like abstract expressionism—topics that his classmates argued about with ferocity. He became painfully aware of his limited life experience, and the lack of confidence showed in his artwork.
“The school invited me to take a year off,” he recalled. “They told me to hitchhike. To meet people. To argue with people.”
On the advice of instructors George Johanson and Paul Missal, Curry spent a “Kerouac year.” He hitchhiked to Los Angeles. He surfed, wrote, sought new people to meet, read voraciously and drew. He taught himself to play the violin. He hitchhiked back up the West Coast and took a job in Southern Oregon’s Peavine Mountain fire lookout tower.
When he returned to school the following September, he was much better prepared to do mature work. He fell in love with Picasso, Cezanne, Monet, and Rodin, focusing on manifesting a career as an exhibiting sculptor and painter.
After art school, Curry supported himself by painting commercial photography backdrops in Oregon. He took off for Greenwich Village as often as he could scrape the money together, finally moving to New York in the early 1980s. The performing arts scene was exploding, and Curry found inspiration in the work of Laurie Anderson, an American experimental musician; Robert Lepage, a Canadian actor and playwright and French puppeteer Philippe Genty. He began creating kinetic sculptures and exhibiting them on the street, “almost as a busker, not so much for the money as for the thrill,” he said. Looking back, he realizes that he was lonely—working in a studio and occasionally exhibiting was more solitary than he’d expected. “I had been very focused on traditional exhibiting, on this very rigid idea of fine art,” Curry said. “In galleries, people don’t pay a thing, including their kindness. It can be a cynical world.”
Curry found a less cynical world at the Greenwich Village Halloween parade, started by mask maker and puppeteer Ralph Lee in 1974. It began as a casual neighborhood event, but by the time Curry marched it in 1988, the parade had begun attracting global attention and drawing talented artists. Curry spent four months making his costume, an illuminated green pterodactyl with wings that stretched high over the crowd. Even though Curry-as-pterodactyl was surrounded by hundreds of other living art pieces, the beauty and movement of his wings caught the eye of John Napier, the renowned set designer for Cats and Les Misérables. Napier hired Curry to build forty-seven stage pieces and costumes for magicians Siegfried and Roy’s show at the Mirage in Las Vegas.
Curry began building a reputation for wildly imaginative designs grounded in storytelling. He became known as a brilliant problem-solver, someone who could find elegant solutions to the limitations of performers’ bodies, stage size and time. He designed puppets that were grand in scale but could be controlled by the twitch of a finger. He won his first Disney contract by designing an Aladdin costume in which a skater could do a backflip during “Disney World on Ice.” The next year, his company got its first international gig, making pieces for a Japanese production of Oedipus Rex.
“When Michael creates an elephant, it’s never perfectly representational because there’s always an emotion, a playfulness, an intelligence, a respect for the human element of the performer who will bring it to life,” said Rick Gray, general manager of entertainment operations at Wynn Design & Development in Las Vegas. “He made something for Le Rêve—this sail effect in which performers wear backpack harnesses to hold twelve feet of fabric. Depending on what the performer does, it can look like a flower, or it can swing side to side in this incredibly lyrical, dramatic way. People always think there are invisible fans moving the fabric but there aren’t. It’s just Michael’s brilliance.”
Curry’s name spread quickly in New York theater circles, and in 1992, director Julie Taymor hired him to create flexible masks and costumes for Fool’s Fire, a PBS American Playhouse film based on Edgar Allen Poe’s short story. In 1994, Curry and his wife, painter and textile designer Julia Hannegan, left New York with their baby daughter, relocating the entire operation of Michael Curry Design, Inc. “We wanted to raise our family in Oregon,” he said. “There’s a pioneer spirit here that’s the perfect fit for us.”
The art student who took an extended leave from Oregon to become worldly had become confident enough to know he could succeed 3,000 miles from the locus of New York theaters. He was even, by his own admission, a bit cocky. He told a reporter not to call his creations “puppets,” preferring terms like “kinetic sculpture.” Now that makes him laugh. “That was back when I didn’t have my ego in check,” he said. “You can call them puppets.”
Relocating to Oregon didn’t lower the volume of his buzz. When Taymor needed someone to collaborate with on a 1997 Broadway show called The Lion King, she called Curry.
This show would go on to become the highest-grossing musical in history, raise expectations of the Broadway spectacle and enhance Curry’s reputation. The New York Times gushed, “You will gasp again and again at the inventive visual majesty of this show, realized through the masks and puppets of Ms. Taymor and Michael Curry.” A New Yorker review claimed the show was “like being in a dream awake.” Curry and Taymor shared a Drama Desk award for Best Puppet Design and a Tony for Best Costume Design.
Curry had become the name in theatrical puppetry, taking on high-profile events such as the haunting Father Time for the 2000 millennium celebration in New York. For the opening ceremony of the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, the first major American event following 9/11, he designed dove-shaped kites. Curry continued to collaborate with Julie Taymor on five other shows over the next decade, including a version of The Magic Flute for the Metropolitan Opera.
Then came the Broadway production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark in 2011. The musical had an estimated budget of $65 million and a libretto by Bono and The Edge. Early on, Curry threw himself into the problem of web-throwing, and thought up a clever way to create the effect using shiny cords.
Then Curry abruptly pulled out, saying he was too busy. If he sensed trouble in the production, he’s too diplomatic to say. The show became one of Broadway’s most notorious backstage dramas, plagued by injuries and creative struggles. Today Curry and Taymor no longer communicate, let alone collaborate, and Broadway wags speculate that the show might have turned out very differently if Curry and Taymor hadn’t parted ways. Taymor did not respond to requests for comment.
Back at his barn office in Scappoose, Curry’s employees played four-square in the driveway. Their laughter and the whumps of the rubber ball floated in through the windows of his upstairs studio, putting a grin on Curry’s face. “There’s probably sixty years of talent out there,” he said. “You’ve got to keep spirits up.”
He offers his staff paid sabbaticals so they can work on personal art projects, and sets banker’s hours whenever possible. Becoming a member of his team, however, isn’t a breeze. Everyone must pass a ninety-day trial first. After that period, Curry cross-trains employees on as many aspects of the business as possible—from concept, design, fabrication, and manufacturing to product delivery, installation and performance training. Curry noted that, in recent years, it has become easier to find the talent he needs in Oregon and to recruit people from across the country.
“There’s a quality of life in this state that doesn’t exist anywhere else,” he said. “I want happy people working for me. And as a business, Oregon’s name is associated with quality, with analog, with something handmade.”
Curry credits Hannegan’s thirty years of support as the key to his company’s success. The husband and wife have separate studios in their Mt. Tabor home, and a clear respect for each other’s artistic processes. At ten o’clock every night, Curry makes tea, plays opera and gets back to work. “I call it the golden minute—that time when inspiration strikes,” he said. “You have to carve out time and let it happen.”
Katy Perry’s Lion:
Made in Oregon
It was a secret as well-guarded as the playbooks of the Seahawks and Patriots. Until midway through the Katy Perry halftime show at Super Bowl XLIX, few people knew who created the golden lion that she rode across the field.
Curry has worked on halftime effects for Madonna and other singers, and he created a stunning Egyptian horse for Perry’s Prismatic world tour. So when Perry needed a dramatic Super Bowl entrance, she turned to Curry. The lion idea came quickly because Perry planned to sing “Roar.” The creature needed to be “stadium scale,” or big enough to command attention, but under sixteen feet so it could enter the University of Phoenix tunnel. It had to be light enough to maneuver. Perry’s fascinated by origami, so she liked the idea of a beast with a paneled, stylized look.
With those parameters, Curry, lead designers Jarred Kearsley and Sam Perkins, and a team of more than two dozen got to work. They built the thirty-foot-long, fourteen-foot-tall lion in Scappoose over two months – a tight schedule, since most Curry projects span years.
Cloaked in canvas, the lion traveled to Los Angeles on a flat-bed truck. In front of 119 million viewers, Perry’s entrance went off without a hitch.