Like a lot of kids who grew up in the eighties, I’m into puppets. Thanks to Jim Henson, our childhood movies and TV shows were filled with these hand-crafted, whimsical, gravity-defying creatures who taught us letters (Sesame Street), scared the living daylights out of us (Skeksis), introduced us to ecology (Fraggles) and ushered us into the world of timeless myths and journeys of the human spirit (Labyrinth). Yes, I take it that seriously. I was introduced to the deeper world of puppetry arts when I was an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz (my degree was in marine biology, but UC Santa Cruz was really good at letting you play while you were there). When you sit and daydream about what else you could have done with your life, puppetry is one of the alternative paths I imagine taking, as silly as that sounds. Well, it sounds silly until you equate rad Jurassic Park dinosaurs, incredible Guillermo del Toro monsters, and sweet 90’s Ninja Turtle movies to puppetry. Then it’s AWESOME.
Marionettes, shadow puppets, muppets, masks, enormous puppets used in theatre and parades - they are all incredible, each have their own strange movement aesthetic, and a unique ability to allow people to suspend reality and engage with the creature - just watch any child talk to Kermit the Frog, knowing full well there’s a person underneath, but the child is completely WITH the puppet.
I wish I had time and resources to just make puppets for fun. I dip my toe in sometimes, like recently, when I made a shadow puppet forest for my kids to play with.
I made this fish when I was undergrad, inspired by the cosmic fish in Muppets from Space, with my particular Ren Faire aesthetic.
I also jump at the chance to make maquettes for illustrations. Maquettes can help illustrators see the unseeable, like a giant squid being eaten by a sperm whale, a sea slug I can’t keep in a tank on my desk, a shark tail held in a certain orientation, etc. I would love to make the leap into full sculptures, but it may have to wait until my kids are both in school, as clay is irresistible to them.
Love puppets too? Here’s some resources for you to play with during our lovely quarantine. These are by no means exhaustive, just what I could pull together while my kids climb up the walls. Maybe we will make some sock puppets today! I know I have some googly eyes somewhere....
Asian cultures have a rich history of many different forms of puppetry - here are only two
Many cultures of Europe have puppet theatre as well, but I'll stick to one of my ancestral homelands, where the marionette craftmanship is second to none.
Take care, everyone! Peace, love, and toilet paper!