Cranking Up The Magic: An Interview with Sue Truman

Sue Truman, photo by Doug Plummer

Sue Truman is a fiddler, guitarist, stepdancer and crankie artist living in Seattle. Her love of crankies has led her to create and perform with these beautiful objects worldwide. We sat down with her to find out more about how she discovered this almost forgotten art form, its historic roots and what the future holds for her and the magical world of the crankie.


Can you tell us about your work as an artist?

I have been a long-time crafter, primarily traditional textiles: quilting, weaving, sewing of all sorts and playing the fiddle as well. I have always been drawn to folk art and folk tales. When I saw the Lost Gander crankie by Anna & Elizabeth in 2011, my mind was blown! This was a way to bring together all those skills and loves.

A crankie is an old storytelling art form. It’s a long illustrated scroll that is wound onto two spools, which are loaded into a box with a viewing screen. The scroll is hand-cranked while the story is told, a song is sung or a tune is played.  I began making crankies in 2011 and, not long after that, I started adding shadow puppetry to some of the crankie stories. One friend told me after a performance, “The shadow puppetry made the story come alive.” It’s especially effective when you have scenes that involve travel: ships sailing on the ocean, cars driving, hot air balloons flying, bears lumbering, a pod of whales, a flock of birds or a train steaming down the track.


Crankies with accompanying puppetry is something of a forgotten art form. Can you give us a bit of the history?

Scrolling artwork moved by means of spools and a cranking apparatus can be traced back to Europe in the 1700s. Examples of scrolling backdrops with accompanying puppetry are rare. Luckily, Dmitri Carter, Director of the Northwest Puppet Center in Seattle, has been kind enough to share information and images from the late 19th/early 20th century.

Below is one example from the group Mantell Manikins from Everett, Washington, 1902. There is a revolving drop (the scroll is a continuous loop) behind the horse and jockey marionettes. While the horses jockey for position, the backdrop races round and round. Read more about it and see more examples here.

Horse race by Mantell Manikins featuring the revolving drop. The original marionettes and drop are part of The Cook/Marks Collection at Northwest Puppet Center. 
Used with permission.


How have crankies been rediscovered in recent years?

In the early 1960s, Peter Schumann, who is co-founder of the Bread and Puppet Theater, coined the term “crankie” or “cranky”. You will see it spelt both ways. Peter started what I call the first wave of the crankie revival. In 2010, Anna & Elizabeth (annaandelizabeth.com) and Katherine Fahey (katherinefahey.com) began making crankies and this started the second wave. Anna & Elizabeth’s extensive touring and large social media following did much to increase awareness of the art form and provided huge inspiration! Here are two You Tube crankie videos from 2010 that helped launch the revival:

Lost Gander – by Anna & Elizabeth
Francis Whitmore’s Wife – by Katherine Fahey

I wrote an article about this movement “Crankies: Reinventing the Moving Panorama as Contemporary Folk Art”. It is being published in a book of articles by the International Panorama Council members entitled “More Thank Meets the Eye, The Magic of the Panorama” (IPC, 2019). The book will be available this fall.


Tell us about the Crankie Factory website

When I first began making crankies, I had read they were an old folk art but I couldn’t find any information about crankies prior to Peter Schumann in the 1960s. Then, I ran across the term moving panorama. That opened the door to information about their existence and popularity in the 19th century. I began contacting moving panorama historians to find out more. They were quite surprised to hear that a small but growing group of artists were reviving this art form.

At that time most crankie artists were not aware of moving panorama history. I decided to create a site to bring together these two groups of people who had something in common. Then, in 2013, the book “Illusions in Motion” was published. Written by Professor Erkki Huhtamo, it is considered the ‘bible’ of moving panorama history. He has been very generous in sharing information and images.

Below is an example from Professor Erkki Huhtamo’s book. The horses run on a treadmill in front of a Moving Panoramic background. The fence in front of the horses moves as well. This was from the last act of Charles Barnard’s “The County Fair”, produced by NeilBurgess at the Union Square Theatre, New York, 1889.

The Crankie Factory site also includes over 100 videos from artists around the world and “how to” information. I am constantly updating all 60 pages of content. It’s a total labour of love! Visit the Crankie Factory website to find out more.


What are you working on now?

I have many projects going at once, as usual! In September, I will be giving a talk at the International Panorama Council Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. The talk is entitled “Hibernicons: A Moving Panoramic Tour Through Ireland” and you can read more about that here. Instead of using a Power Point presentation, which I could put together in less than an hour, I am making a crankie to present the information. God knows how long that will take but I haven’t made a crankie in six months, so I am looking forward to getting started on it. This is what I do and I love it!

I will also be teaching a week-long class in crankie-making at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Ashville, North Carolina beginning Oct. 27th, 2019. This school was established in 1925 and sits on 300 acres of wooded forest. It is arts and crafts heaven. There are still a few spots left, so come make crankies with me!

Finally, I am involved in coordinating and performing in a couple crankie festivals this fall and right now I am thinking about spooky crankies and the Halloween season.



Interview with Emma Windsor


To find out more about Sue’s work, the history of crankies and how to design and build your own crankie, visit the crankie factory website: www.thecrankiefactory.com

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