CLAIM TO FAME
Ben Holcombe, 11, has been making his own toys since he was 5 and began attending puppet camp at the Mountain Arts Community Center on Signal Mountain in first grade. He has made props for numerous productions at the MACC and Center for Creative Arts in the last several years, most recently a papier-mache crocodile for CCA's production of "Peter Pan & Wendy."
* School: 5th grader at Nolan Elementary (Signal Mountain).
* Favorite book/series: "The Last Dragon Chronicles" by Chris D'Lacey.
* Pets: A tuxedo cat named Lexie.
Do you know a child age 15 or younger with a precocious talent in academics, athletics or the arts? The Times Free Press is searching for children to feature in "Talent Show," which appears in the Life section on Tuesdays. To nominate a child as a possible subject of a future feature article, e-mail staff writer Casey Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 423-757-6205.
When most five-year-olds want a new toy, they ask their parents. Since the toys Ben Holcombe so desperately wanted to play with weren't available in any store, however, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
Using nothing but some construction paper, a bit of tape and a wildly creative mind, Ben, now 11, crafted 3-D versions of imaginary creatures complete with movable parts.
"It was just fun," he said, adding that he has built about 300 of these paper animals over the years. "It was making it come to life, and then you could play with it later. I sort of make up my own toys."
In first grade, he enrolled in a puppet theater camp run by Colleen Laliberte, the co-founder of Skwalking Heads Production Company, a local performing arts organization.
Laliberte said she immediately recognized Ben's vivid imagination and the skills he had to turn those visions into reality.
"We were working a castle where one of the scenes was going to happen," she said. "We had many drawings [of the castle], but his drawing was really elaborate.
"He's always making something beyond the basic design. His imagination is so rich in detail that it's like magic."
Recognizing his potential, Laliberte began offering Ben opportunities to craft set props for her productions at the Mountain Arts Community Center on Signal Mountain.
Laliberte said that, thanks to Ben's optimistic approach to projects, he requires little direction after she introduces the initial concept.
"I haven't found a project that he isn't willing to tackle and can't come back with ideas that surpass even my expectations," she said. "I might have an idea of what I think it can look like, but he's great at figuring out the mechanics of it so it not only has a wonderful form but the function is there as well."
Although he has tried his hand at acting, Ben said he prefers to let his creations be in the spotlight.
He has made guitars and other stringed instruments for the musical "Wonderland" and ships, castles and dragons for various puppet theater shows.
For his most recent project, Ben and his mother, Michelle Holcombe, worked on making the head for an enormous green crocodile to be used in the Center for Creative Arts' production of "Peter Pan & Wendy," which was staged last Thursday and Friday.
Since she and her husband are both athletically inclined, Holcombe said she initially tried to force their son onto a similar path. After a particularly long season of baseball, during which he complained of being bored, they decided to allow Ben to follow his own path.
Allowing him to work with Laliberte brought Ben out of his shell and helped him develop a skill set she said is as impressive as it is baffling.
"Any time he can create something, I know he's the happiest doing that," she said. "He amazes us constantly. It's just in his head."
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...