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Q&A with Meredith Garniss

Meredith Garniss at her Somerville studio.
Meredith Garniss at her Somerville studio. (Globe Photo / Erik Jacobs)

WANDER DOWN AN alley in Davis Square and you'll discover what seems to be the entrance to another world. Is this a wee pub, transported from Ireland? Or a giant British phone booth?

Open the door to this former garage - big enough for about two cars - and you'll find a Geppetto's workshop straight out of Disneyland, with a fireplace and puppet theater. A gramophone in the center of the room blasts out a scratchy song from the 1930s; it's Cab Calloway, leading his band. Behind a counter sits Meredith Garniss, dressed in the loose black outfit of someone who plans to use power tools later in the day. The proprietor of one of the oddest "arts incubation spaces" in the Boston area, she has become den mother to a gaggle of inventors, sculptors, techies, and actors.

Garniss, a painter who moonlights as an engineer, originally intended the space to be a private studio. But curiosity-seekers kept appearing at the door of the garage, wanting to know what was inside. Gradually, Garniss transformed the cinderblock bunker and alleyway to meet visitors' expectations. She bought an antique floor on eBay, hammered up new walls, and rebuilt the exterior. In 2002, she officially opened up to the public as a gallery, Willoughby & Baltic. (The name came out of the air; she chose two musty words she liked.) Then she began hosting meetings, and her gallery morphed into a clubhouse for several groups of artists and technologists.

This past month, Garniss and her merry band have built a haunted house, using slide projectors, servomotors, and old toys. The results look like a handmade, diminutive Coney Island, with robot-puppets performing a Brechtian theater of the Halloween absurd. Willoughby & Baltic - which is located, appropriately enough, on Elm Street - will start spooking on Tuesday night.

IDEAS: How exactly did the gallery evolve into a robot-puppet theater?

GARNISS: I wanted the kids in the community to feel that this was a space for them. The funny thing is that the adults are much more interested in the puppets than the children. We put together a show called "The Teeny Lounge," which was aimed exclusively for adults. And for the kids, we may be switching things up next year with a black-light puppet show based on the periodic table of elements.

IDEAS: Why did you end up hosting a half-dozen groups in such a tiny space?

GARNISS: There aren't very many low-cost or no-cost meeting places in Davis Square, so I've been trying to fill that void. I host the Boston Art Meetup group here. Then there's the Boston Dorkbot, a group that describes itself as "people doing interesting things with electricity"; they have about 40 members, and this has become their home.

Though Dorkbot is officially putting on the haunted house, the Art Meetup group created some of the decorations and special effects. Meanwhile, Dorkbot has been very enthusiastic about helping the artists get into robotics. So there's a lot of cross-pollination.

In addition, the space is used by acting groups, and they provide the voices for our puppets. We prerecord the dialogue. Everything - from the voices to the gestures of the puppets - is controlled by signals from microcontrollers.

IDEAS: I hear you also became the home to one of the world's only "talking mimes."

GARNISS: The talking mime [who] performed in the gallery this summer was Ian Thal. He's multitalented and does mime, dance, poetry, and puppetry. I think it's OK if the mime talks as long as he leaves the audience speechless.

IDEAS: What other unique characters have been drawn in by the magical alley?

GARNISS: There was Michael Knoblach, who brought his cabinet Victrola from the 1940s and played vintage and rare 78 records at our 78 Fest in August. We held a Lego animation film festival that we'll be bringing back this winter by popular demand. We showed puppet movies in the alley when the weather permitted (and once in the rain).

Next spring, we are hoping to host a community robot race in the magical alley. I'll be holding several robot-making classes to help people prepare before then.

IDEAS: How did you create the whimsical exterior of your gallery?

GARNISS: After months of looking at architect renderings of a perfect front door, I ended up calling a contractor. This wonderful Irishman named Lenny showed up. He threw away all the drawings and told me to trust him. So I did. Now, the front looks like a European vacation. I was thrilled when I turned the corner one day and found a busload of tourists taking pictures in front of the gallery.

IDEAS: You picked the name Willoughby & Baltic at random. But gradually you developed a story about the two imaginary founders of your gallery. Who are they?

GARNISS: In puppet form, Willoughby is an old man with feathers for eyebrows, dressed in a green suit; he's the solitary artist, the hermit who needs to shut himself up in a room to create. The Baltic marionette, meanwhile, is supposed to look like P.T. Barnum. He's the showman, the carnival barker who brings people into the tent. They're two sides of myself.

I've already written a puppet show about Willoughby and Baltic and how they met, but it was never recorded and performed. For now it's stuck on my wish list along with another puppet play called "The Field Guide to Artists," which was meant to teach people how to interact with different types of artists during open studios. Sometimes viewing artists in their natural habitat can be confusing to the layperson, and the show was meant to sort it all out.

IDEAS: Willoughby and Baltic also happen to be streets in Somerville. Did you know this when you named the gallery?

GARNISS: I had no idea. Without meaning to, I created a cruel joke, because if you're looking for the intersection of Willoughby Street and Baltic Street in Somerville, you'll never find it. The streets don't intersect. Actually, though, the streets do meet up in Brooklyn.

IDEAS: Can you describe some of the Rube Goldberg machines that will be haunting your gallery?

GARNISS: The show is a selection of art-technology pieces incorporated into the haunted parlor of a mad toy-maker. Among the pieces will be a fish tank where the inhabitants really don't like it if you tap on the glass, flowers that are afraid of you, phantom puppets, and a haunted mirror. In addition to the show itself, you'll also get to learn how each piece works.

IDEAS: Will you be playing Cab Calloway on the gramophone that night?

GARNISS: We decided that our "French for Children" recording from 1940 played very slowly on the gramophone would be much, much scarier. . . .We'll put Cab Calloway back on while we are repainting the gallery after Halloween.

"The Dorkbot Haunted Parlor" will take place Tuesday from 7 to 9 p.m. Admission is $5, with proceeds going to the One Laptop Per Child Program. The Halloween exhibit (minus tour guides) will stay up until Nov. 4. Willoughby & Baltic is located at 195G Elm Street in Somerville.

Pagan Kennedy is the author of nine books, most recently "The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth-Century Medical Revolution."

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