Featured photo: Professor Matt Fisher says that he was inspired to create a cardboard robot parade when he was left at home after catching COVID-19. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

The idea came to him in a fit of COVID-19-induced madness.

Artist Matt Fisher was sitting alone at home, left behind by his family who had embarked on a trip because he was sick. Alone and depressed, he started looking around the house for something to do. And eventually, he turned his sights on something that most of us likely have in a pile at home.

“I just started building in cardboard,” says Fisher, who is a professor in the Education Department at UNCG and staff director of the SELF Design Studio on campus. “And I built that thing back there.”

Fisher points across the room past the students who line the long tables topped with miscellaneous art supplies like cardboard, paint, glue, screws, felt and string. Beyond the heads of the working students, a large mustached man with white hair and a top hat — not unlike the one that graces the Monopoly board — hangs off a giant cardboard board, his arms and legs splayed out in different directions. From behind, Fisher shows how levers can be turned to make the man, who has been colorfully decorated with acrylic paint and various accouterments, dance.

The cardboard automaton man that Matt Fisher built and was decorated by Phoenyx Raiola. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

“He moves like an automaton; he dances,” Fisher says. “And then I said, ‘I want to build something that I can wear.’”

Fisher points to another one of his creations in the classroom: a tall totem-like mask complete with a smiling face, openings for air and a one-way panel for him to see out of. 

The thing about cardboard, Fisher says, is that it’s very easy to build with.

“It’s free, it’s so forgiving,” he says. “You know when you’re painting, you’re afraid to put down your paint stroke. But with cardboard there’s so much of it, so if you mess up, you just rip it off and cut another piece.”

Once he built the masks, Fisher had the idea to expand this cardboard world in a full-fledged cardboard parade.

Matt fisher wears one of his wearable cardboard creations. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

“I don’t know where it came from; it just came out of nowhere,” Fisher says about the idea.

Three months later, and Fisher has gathered a few dozen students to show up every week to make manifest his vision of a cardboard realm. On Saturday, the first ever cardboard robot parade will take place on UNCG’s campus as part of the university’s Science Everywhere festival. The procession will start at the Graham Building on campus at 3:30 p.m. and includes several students who have worked to make their own wearable creations.

Huddled together at one end of a long table, students Nikolai Tassin, a sophomore psychology major, and Sheza Khurram, a 23-year-old transfer student studying archaeology and global languages, work to reinforce the body of a cardboard golem they are making.

Students Sheza Khurram and Nikolai Tassin work together to build a cardboard golem. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

Modeled after the iron golems from Minecraft, the two have finished both the body and the head, but have found that they need to pad the torso so it doesn’t fall apart. In addition to being friends, the two are the president and secretary of the Make Cool Stuff Club that helps run the design studio. Having the space to engage in projects like the cardboard robot parade, allows them to be creative even if they aren’t art majors.

“It gives me a sense of peace because your life can get super busy, and to be able to sit down and brainstorm some creative ideas is really therapeutic for me,” Tassin says.

Student Jordan Cook shows off her wearable TV. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

Across the table, Alex Nolan, a 22-year-old biology major, first found out about the cardboard robot parade when she came across Fisher, who was giving out wooden magnets he had created that said, “Thanks for being a good human.”

“And it made the rest of my day and I was like, I need to know what this is about,” Nolan says. 

Soon, she found herself immersed in the club, making a spiderbot lady. Complete with a chest piece, armored hip shields and a face mask decorated with spiderwebs, Nolan looks like a cardboard superhero.

Alex Nolan shows off her spiderbot armor. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

Her plan is to paint the whole thing silver. Looking around, Nolan says that it’s cool how many other students have taken to the idea. 

“The people who are willing to come in and it sounds like a crazy idea, but the amount of people who are committed to it; I love that,” she says.

Dozens of students gather in the SELF Design Studio every week to make their own cardboard creations. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

Yanae Powell, a 22-year-old senior, walks around taking photos and videos for the club’s social media. She’s been in the club since her sophomore year and says that it’s one of her favorite parts about campus life.

“I came here and just fell in love with it,” she says. “I felt like this is the one club on campus that I really feel like I belong in and I’m really a part of. It really does feel like a family.”

Student Yanae Powell has been in the club since her freshman year and says it’s one of the few spaces on campus where she feels she belongs. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

And that’s been a central goal of Fisher’s.

“The purpose of the program is to get people from different parts of campus together that may not normally come together,” he says. “I don’t know how many different majors we have in here. So it’s people who had never met or would never normally meet on campus unless they didn’t have a cardboard robot parade.”

In addition to the parade, the club will also have a cardboard robot factory for people to make their own creations to wear in the parade. There will also be a story time and an escape room element.

Dozens of students have worked with Fisher to create their own cardboard robots for this weekend’s parade. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

He wants as many people to join in on the fun as possible and not take it too seriously.

“I was really depressed because the world can be a really crappy place, but now I’m just looking for people doing good things,” Fisher says. “So the whole thing is thinking about what good you can do with your hands and what power you have to do good with your hands. I just wanted to make as many people happy at once as I could.”

The cardboard robot parade will start at 3:30 p.m. at the Graham building and proceed through campus, ending on the lawn of Jackson Library. To build your own cardboard robot, visit the factory at 12 p.m. in the Graham Building. Storytime is at 12:30 and 2 p.m. Learn more at cardboardrobotparade.com.

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