Jan. 24—OSKALOOSA — Brant Bollman is a southeast Iowa native and a faculty member at William Penn University. He’s also an artist, honing and passing along his craft in the Oskaloosa community.
“I grew up in rural southeastern Iowa, not far from [Oskaloosa],” Bollman says. “We lived out on a farm. It was kind of isolated, so my favorite toy was my imagination.”
Bollman says that seeing puppetry used in popular television and movies was a childhood inspiration that would go on to feed his love of art.
“I was really into the public television kid shows. I always liked the puppetry there. Probably the most important event of me becoming who I am … I was probably in the third or fourth grade,” he says. “I went to ‘Return of the Jedi’ and I saw Jabba the Hutt. It was so real, but it was obviously some kind of a puppet, so it kind of married my love for making things, and science fiction, and fantasy into this big, giant creation. Since then, I’ve been interested in theatrical puppetry.”
Bollman went on to earn his bachelor’s in painting and sculpture from the University of Iowa, but says his love for puppetry never waned.
“The whole time, I was making things for parades and crazy construction. I kind of fought the terminology ‘puppeteer’ for a while, but … I make big puppets for parades and plays,” Bollman says.
Bollman continued his career as an artist while working as an art teacher for the North Mahaska School District for 15 years. This past year, Bollman started a new job as a professor in the theater department at WPU. He says he relishes the opportunity to express his passion for theatrical puppetry in a collaborative setting.
“I’ve been blessed, at William Penn, to find a job where I can still teach art, I can teach theater, and I can direct the spring plays,” Bollman says.
Bollman teaches at WPU on Tuesdays and Thursdays, covering a wide range of topics, including art history, 2D design, acting and more. Bollman is set to direct this year’s spring play. The school will be doing a production of Naomi Iizuka’s “The Last Firefly” on April 14 and 15. Bollman describes the play as a combination of Japanese mythology and anime.
Bollman says one of his favorite aspects of working for WPU is the opportunity to travel to high schools around Iowa and put on art workshops for the students as part of the university’s recruitment efforts.
“I actually really love my outreach to schools,” Bollman says. “I love to work with high school students for a couple hours and do voice and acting skills, and get them excited about acting, and tell them some stories.”
Helping Iowa’s students find their inner artist isn’t the only way Bollman uses his art to impact the community. Bollman has found a way to combine his love of art with one of Oskaloosa’s favorite holiday traditions: The lighted Christmas parade.
“I love the lighted Christmas parade, and I see it as an opportunity to perform,” he says. “They’re saying there might have been 10,000 people at that [this year], which is a giant crowd compared to, you know, there’s a show at the George Daily, and if you have 500 people, you’re really doing something amazing. So whenever there’s an audience that big, I see it as an opportunity.”
Bollman has contributed artwork to the lighted Christmas parade for years. The last two years, however, have showcased his puppetry on a large scale as he continues to build his craft.
“We had the opportunity, through a grant from the Department of Cultural Affairs in Des Moines, and we got some support from Mahaska Drug, to bring in Andrew Kim, who is the world’s most famous puppeteer right now from England. He came for two weeks and really put me through a wringer,” he says.
Kim visited William Penn’s campus in September 2022. The project gave WPU students the opportunity to workshop their skills with a world-renowned artist and was overseen by Bollman, who says he learned many valuable skills that he has since put to use in his own puppetry .
In the midst of teaching and pursuing puppetry, Bollman also keeps up a steady involvement at the Oskaloosa Art Center, teaching classes, displaying his work and selling pieces to the general public. Bollman has been involved with the art center for about five years and participates in the center’s local co-op gallery. The co-op is a place where local artists can display and sell their work. Bollman is just one local artist on display there.
Bollman says the local support for art and artists in Oskaloosa is part of what makes the small town so special.
“I think it’s amazing. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve put down roots here.”
As a college professor and former high school art teacher, Bollman continues to advocate for the arts as part of every child’s education. He stresses that artistic expression is part of what gives places like Oskaloosa their own unique identity.
“It’s so important … There needs to be design figured into every engineering project. I drove through Ottumwa, and there is a new bridge … and it’s beautiful. It’s got an art deco feel to it and like, wow. What if they just would have put up something boring?” he says.
“It makes our life so much more rich when things are made with good design. What would we be without Thursday nights in the park? It’s what makes us rich and beautiful, is that you can have delicious Italian food in this town. You can go to a play. It’s an amazing place because of the artists.”
For more information about the Oskaloosa Art Center, people can visit their website at faceofmahaska.com. To follow Bollman’s work as an artist, visit his Facebook page, Uplifting Puppet Company.
Channing Rucks can be reached at [email protected]