The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The artist who makes giant protest signs of famous women is back for the Climate March

Ingrid Crepeau’s “Big Heads” from the Women’s March on Washington. From left to right: Shirley Chisholm, Rosa Parks, Ellie Carroll, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Harriet Tubman. (Photo: Courtesy of Ingrid Crepeau and Michele Valeri)

Have you heard? John Muir and Henry David Thoreau will be at the People’s Climate March in D.C. this Saturday.

Sort of.

Though these historical figures are no longer among the living, their likenesses will be attending this week’s Peoples Climate March in Washington D.C. thanks to the skilled hands of Ingrid Crepeau.

The local puppeteer and children’s educator, who is 68, runs DinoRock Productions alongside her wife, Michele Valeri, 70. She helps D.C. sports teams like the Nationals and Wizards keep their mascots in shape. And in her free time — not that there’s much of it — she’s making giant protest signs.

If you attended the Women’s March or the March for Science in Washington, D.C., chances are you’ve seen Crepeau’s work looming above the masses. The impressively large, cardboard, cartoon cutouts feature equally immense historical figures like Shirley Chisholm, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ada Lovelace, Rosa Parks, Marie Curie, and more. And yes, some of her creations depict men, like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Nikola Tesla.

Even if you couldn’t be at the marches in person, you’ve likely encountered the caricatures online; photos have popped up in places like The New Yorker and on social media.

Crepeau refers to her creations as “Big Heads.” “I call it the Big Head project because it implies that they’re smart and important,” she explained. “Everyone that’s been chosen for me to represent is pretty impressive.”

The Big Heads will be present at the Climate March on Saturday. This time Crepeau’s artwork will celebrate figures who dedicated their lives to studying or protecting the environment, including John Muir, David Suzuki, Chico Mendes, Sylvia Earle and Isatou Ceesay.

“This is not art for museums or anything. I make no claims to its great artisticness. It’s just a wonderful symbol,” Crepeau said. “No, none of us think it’s going to change anybody’s minds, but it does seem to fire up people, fire up the bases for causes that we care about.”

Today’s protest signs are sharper, meaner, funnier — and live on long after the rallies

The heads are about three feet tall and are mounted on cardboard poles some six feet tall.

At the March for Science, Crepeau’s friends stood in the rain on the steps of the Environmental Protection Agency and held famous scientists aloft. Protesters stopped to gawk and take photos. Laura Elkins, a friend of Crepeau’s, said the experience made her feel “like a rock star.”

“At one point, we had to cross the street and people just stopped. It was like the parting of the Red Sea,” she recalled.

Six days later, Crepeau, whose silver hair was pulled back in pigtails, was at home and hard at work on her next round of signs for the People’s Climate March.

Crepeau and Valeri’s Silver Spring home looks exactly like you would expect a house belonging a lifelong puppeteer would look. Each of its small rooms is packed with puppets, dolls, books, photographs, art supplies, glue guns, guitar cases and unidentifiable curiosities. Off the kitchen, the metal skeleton of what is supposed to be a human-size dinosaur puppet sits akimbo. Two dusty Emmy Award statues perch on the living room mantelpiece. A framed Washington Post story about Crepeau’s work on Washington Nationals’ Star Wars Day mascots back in 2015 hangs on the wall.

Much of the furniture, like Crepeau’s personality, is oversized and colorful. And on Friday, the place was filled with the smell of paint and massive cardboard cutouts of people like Jane Goodall and Al Gore (“I was sort of surprised by what he looks like now,” Valeri muttered) in various stages of decoration.

Crepeau and her helpers — Valeri, Elkins, and Elkins’s two children, Ella and Kyle Catanzaro (Crepeau refers to them as “fictive kin.”) — formed a sort of assembly line for the Big Heads. The group had been working together since the Women’s March on Washington, and were eager to make this edition the best yet.

Thousands of protesters will swarm D.C. again Saturday. This time it’s for the People’s Climate March.

As Crepeau tells it, the idea was inspired by one of her artist friends who told her, “‘Ingrid! Make us something to carry and we’ll all go to the Women’s March!’”

“These just popped into my head, these Big Heads represent[ing] historical and important figures,” Crepeau said. For the Women’s March, “I made 13 heads in three days.”

This time, she’s making 15.

Crepeau’s process for making the Big Heads is relatively straightforward — for an experienced puppeteer. First, Kyle, 13, and Ella, 11, help choose the people that they will carry (some of Crepeau friends have also given suggestions). 

“I looked up a bunch of quotes for all of them,” Kyle said; the quotes were added to the back of the cutouts so that marchers could appreciate them from behind as well.

Crepeau uses pictures found on the Internet as inspiration and blows them up on a projector to trace onto thick, corrugated cardboard. Next, she uses an industrial grade saw to cut out the head “in about 60 seconds.” She draws, labels and paints their features with help from Elkins, Kyle, and Ella, the latter of whom seemed particularly taken with art.

When they’re dry, the heads are attached to a slot that connects to a tall, removable post. (The Big Heads can be broken down to make it easier to carry them on the Metro.) When you pick up the final product, it hardly weighs a thing.

“If nothing else, I think they make children aware of science and strong women,” Valeri said. She said children received the big heads the most enthusiastically. As Valeri carried the poster of Donna Shirley at the March for Science, a woman asked her to stop and allow her daughter to take a picture with the cutout. The girl had recently done a school report on the NASA legend and wanted a photo.

The signs are also way to deal with anger at Donald Trump’s presidency, which Crepeau called “depressing.”

“We were very angry when we made the Women’s March signs,” Valeri said. The living room conversation, which had been buzzing with playful banter for most of the morning, became more charged as the three adult women began to criticize the current president — particularly his administration’s proposed cuts to the EPA.

“I am personally very political. I am a staunch, staunch Democrat. I am horrified by the things that could happen. But I’m trying to be political in an uplifting, rather than put-down way,” Crepeau said.

“What does a person do? You take whatever talents you have and do something positive.”