Arts

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Hot work and long hours, but human statue makes cool cash

Tabitha Fitzsimmons puts on grease paint and then sets up in Harvard Square for her street performance as a marionette statue.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Tabitha Fitzsimmons put on grease paint in preparation for her street performance as a marionette statue.

‘You’ve got something on your face,” a grinning man says to Tabitha Fitzsimmons.

“Oh really? I didn’t notice,” responds Fitzsimmons, returning the smile. She just finished changing in her friend’s yoga studio in Cambridge.

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White greasepaint covers Fitzsimmons’s face and neck. Two gumball-sized rose circles dab her cheeks, 2-inch-long false eyelashes accentuate her gray eyes, and lipstick forms a red heart on her lips. If the makeup weren’t enough to make her look out of place, her tight gold corset and flowing lace skirt made from an old wedding dress do.

As she wraps a damp, blue headband under her hairnet, Fitzsimmons explains to the bemused man ordering tea in the studio that she performs as a human statue in Harvard Square. “I don’t even have to move to scare kids or adults,” she jokes.

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“I can see that,” the man replies. “I’m kind of freaked out myself.”

Making men and women giggle and children howl in delight — or terror — is all in a day’s work for the 24-year-old who has transformed herself into a human marionette the past four summers, earning enough, she says, to pay her share of rent on an apartment and what scholarships don’t cover of her tuition and fees at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

Fitzsimmons has become a well-known fixture at the intersection of Brattle and Palmer streets, where she stands atop a wooden soapbox, stone still, until a curious passerby throws a tip in her box. Only then does she spring to life — jerkily moving her legs and arms attached to strings on a wooden crossbar secured to her curly black wig.

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In Harvard Square, street musicians are common, but human statues not so much. Perhaps the best known was Amanda Palmer, who gained notoriety as the Eight-Foot Bride starting in the late 1990s before pursuing a career with her band the Dresden Dolls. A man dressed as a white angel was also popular in recent summers, local residents say. This season, however, it appears that Fitzsimmons is it.

Stephen Baird, executive director of Jamaica Plain-based Street Arts and Buskers Advocates, said there was “a balloon” of human statues about 10 years ago in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston. “There are kind of faddish moments in street performing where a lot of people are doing it, and it becomes a part of the culture,” he said.

Jason Weeks, director of the Cambridge Arts Council, which issues permits to performers, said the number of street artists around Harvard Square has slipped slightly over the past five years, owing largely to construction in the area.

One of the biggest challenges facing street performers this time of year is the heat. On a recent steamy Friday morning, Fitzsimmons takes more than an hour to cake on makeup in the un-air-conditioned bathroom of the Cambridge yoga studio. She scolds herself for forgetting her antiperspirant, especially since the temperature was expected to hit 90. Luckily, the cream-ruffled polyester shirt she found at a secondhand shop doesn’t show sweat.

Fitzsimmons spends a few extra minutes fixing a buckle that repeatedly falls off her worn brown Mary Janes. She refuses to buy a new pair — they’re the most comfortable shoes she’s found for standing on her feet as long as 10 hours a day.

Fitzsimmons usually performs Thursday through Monday. She tries to arrive at her spot outside the Harvard Coop around noon and typically leaves around 10 p.m. She takes a 15-20 minute break every few hours. This morning she had a late start, as rain delayed her bike ride from her residence in Mission Hill.

She unlatches her pedestal, which doubles as a bike basket, and sets up a box with a sign that says, “Puppet in need/magic potions too expensive/I want to be a real girl/Please help” as a group waiting for a tour bus watches, puzzled but smiling. After securing the handmade headdress over her hairnet, she slides her hands into long cream gloves, and sets the gold chain watch she bought on eBay for $3.

Many of the shoppers, tourists, and men in suits speeding by don’t even glance her way. But every few minutes, someone stops, takes a picture with an iPhone, and waits for the puppet to do something.

Seven-year-olds Eva Weiner and Malka Pomerantz stand at Fitzsimmons’s feet — not sure what to make of her. Weiner’s mother gives them some change to throw in the box, and giant grins spread on their faces as Fitzsimmons unhooks the black fan dangling from her corset and bats her eyes behind it. They continue to throw in quarters, which prompts a curtsy from Fitzsimmons.

Fitzsimmons has spent five years perfecting her act, which she started at the MayFair festival in Harvard Square. “I only did 40 minutes of performing that night, but ended up making $40,” she said during an interview in June. “I was like, ‘There’s something here.’  ”

Nineteen years old at the time, the Rochester, N.Y., native was working at Starbucks and as a nude model for art classes. She never thought about becoming a human statue until an art teacher said she would be good at it. “I thought it might be interesting to try considering I might be able to make the same amount of money and not have to take my clothes off,” she said.

Entering her fifth year at MassArt, Fitzsimmons is studying sculpture and art history. Her medium is in metalwork. She also occasionally teaches workshops at Stonybrook Fine Arts school in Jamaica Plain, but depends on her street performances May through October for most of her income.

Like all performers, Fitzsimmons has had to learn to deal with hecklers. This afternoon a teenage girl with a group of friends discovers Fitzsimmons’s name printed on the performing permit displayed on the side of her box. “I wonder if we can make her move?” she asks, and begins to shout, “Hey, Tabitha!” Fitzsimmons stares at a spot on the ground. Before the girl can start again, Fitzsimmons jerks her arms up and shouts “boo!” The girl squeals, and the teens run away.

Frightening tormentors has proven her best defense.

“I just stay really still and give them a false sense of security, and when they get really confident in their teasing, I’ll scare them,” she says. “They’ll either run away, or they’ll at least back up a few feet.”

The crowds, thinner during the hottest part of the day, begin picking up after 6 p.m. when waves of people out for the evening pause to watch, enjoying ice cream cones from Lizzy’s and carrying white boxes of leftovers from dinner. The melodies of a flute player around the corner mix with guitar chords floating up from halfway down the alley. The temperature has fallen about 15 degrees, and a light breeze dries the sweat on Fitzsimmons’s white face. At 10:05 p.m. she jumps down from her box.

She sighs as she unties her corset and sits on a bench next to her pedestal. After nine hours, her back and ankles are sore, but she says it was a successful day despite the heat. The plan? Pack up the props, bike the half-hour back home, eat a potato, and get ready for another 90-degree day tomorrow.

Stephanie Steinberg can be reached at Stephanie.Steinberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Steph_Steinberg.
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