The Puppet Challenge Part 1: Jodi, Joe and Hussam

Jodi Le Bigre, Joe McLaren and Hussam El-Sherif

Jodi Le Bigre: willing matter into life

Jodi Le Bigre selected a folk tale from the Scottish oral tradition. It recounts the plight of an old woman, so lonely that through sheer force of desire she conjures a man to be her companion. He arrives by stages, bit by bit, starting with his feet and working upwards, though remaining incomplete by dint of the absence of a head.

From the clay Golem of Jewish tradition, brought to life by Rabbi Loew, to Mary Shelly’s ‘monster’ stitched together by Victor Frankenstein from corpses and galvanised into an imitation of life, stories of artificial beings, whether created out of desire or hubris, tend to come with inbuilt shortcomings. Flowers are gathered and enchanted into the form of the beautiful Blodeuwedd in the Mabinogion, made by the magicians Math and Gwydion as a wife for Gwydion’s nephew, though she proves to have no moral compass, takes a lover and proceeds to plot with him the murder of her spouse. ‘Constructs’, whether beautiful as in the tale of Pygmalion, or awful to behold, as with Frankenstein’s shambling, piecemeal man, lack souls, so we know from the first stirrings that things will end badly.

Jodi’s choice of story is perfect for an exhibition with the notion of constructed life at its heart. The old woman’s wish-fulfilment-man descends in pieces like so much butcher’s meat on hooks, clumsily assembling into what some might prefer by way of a companion: big and beefy, all action and no words!

I admire Jodi’s expressive, meticulously constructed puppets, and her presentation of them in the photographs. I love those shadows!

Afterword: Jodi writes:

“I do think these puppets will have an effect on future work. It’s always incredible to me the extent which works impact each other, sometimes even without my noticing until later! And so even if these puppets themselves don’t actually feature in anything I make in the near future (though they may, in some form… we’ll see!), the move into three-dimensional form will certainly have an impact I think. I sometimes consider building models of things or people that I am painting or drawing just to see how the light would fall on them (of course it is possible to imagine it, but that is really not quite the same as seeing it…) but then I tell myself that it would be too much work and that I don’t really know anything about sculpture or modelling, and so I just don’t bother. I think now I would be more inclined to do that, and I am sure the result would be more vivid paintings and prints. Also, I am thinking of the possibilities that papier mâché could have when combined with old test prints and things. So that is another exciting new avenue to wander down. All in all it was great participating in this project. It is always so good to have encouragement to work in ways that normally one wouldn’t really consider!”

Read about how Jodi made these extraordinary puppets, HERE.

Joe McLaren: Noggin the Nog and the tradition of the ‘Juvenille Drama’

Joe McLaren writes of his puppet:

“My character, Sir Althric of Crusp, is a tribute to a couple of different things: The flat paper puppet animation of Oliver Postgate in shows like Noggin the Nog (which has been a lasting influence on my work) and also the 40th anniversary this year of the invention of the first fantasy roleplaying game, Dungeons and Dragons. Pulp fantasy, role-playing games and wargames have been a huge influence on me, and continue to be so.”

Joe has produced a puppet that not only references the iconic TV series of Oliver Postgate, but to my eyes there are echoes too of the toy theatre traditions of the Regency and the Penny-Plain/Tuppence-Coloured juvenile dramas of Benjamin Pollock. It’s good to be reminded that even for busy people like Joe, when time presses and work deadlines are legion, it’s still possible in a few hours to produce a beautiful puppet with pens and paper.

Hussam El-Sherif: tales from a grandmother

Hussam chose to make a puppet of Omena Elghoula, a fearful creature who his grandmother warned would roast and eat him if he strayed too near her hut or well. Afterwards Omena would decorate her home with his bones. Of such childhood tales are memories made. Omena Elghoula is one of the most memorable and distinctive figures in Egyptian and Northern Africa folklore, appearing as a hag with one glass eye that reveals the destiny of those brave… or foolhardy enough… to enquire. She dwells deep in the wilderness.

So meticulously has Hussam chronicled in images the making of his marionette, that the result would be the perfect primer for anyone needing a ‘how-to’ guide. He writes of his puppet:

“I have never made a puppet like this before nor have I ever worked with clay or papier mâché, not to mention working in general without a pattern. I struggled a bit and there are many things that I would’ve done differently. I couldn’t tell if the layers of papier mâché were thick enough. I almost got myself into trouble using oil to separate the modeling clay from the papier mâché layers. (Editor’s note: Hussam, realising his mistake, changed to Vaseline.) I struggled with the paint, repeatedly applying and then wiping it away with a wet sponge, so I was probably lucky that the puppet didn’t crumble. I improvised all the way. I learned to be flexible about how I worked, and made use of available and salvaged materials: a feather-duster, an old key-chain ring, a scarf, torn pieces of lace, and for the control-bar, an ivy twig.”

“While struggling with my skills, I was also struggling with with self-doubt. I’m a master of unfinished projects and I was afraid the puppet would turn into another that I’d repeatedly put off, waiting until a time when I would make the best possible puppet, which of course, would always be ‘tomorrow’! But as it turned out I’ve learned a lot from this challenge and I enjoyed every part of the process.”

Hussam needn’t have worried. His puppet is wonderful, perfectly realised and with a fantastic presence. I love the fact that where many makers worried about a lack of wood-working skills to build a control for a marionette, Hussam simply found a suitable stick and improvised. The result is beautiful as well as practical.

You can read Hussam’s detailed account of making the puppet, HERE.

23 thoughts on “The Puppet Challenge Part 1: Jodi, Joe and Hussam

  1. Pingback: The Puppet Challenge Part 13: Judy, Jennifer, Michael & Benjamin, Penny, Charlotte and Liisa | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

  2. I absolutely love the smooth, tattooed ivory finish on Jodi’s puppets. I love their character and shapes too but the finish has me quite mesmerised.

    Joe’s puppet is brimming with character, ingenious in its design and shows expert penmanship. Fabulous.

    Hussam’s puppet is glorious in every way but the little details blow me away, in particular the hair and lace sleeves or gloves. Completely wonderful! She is a gruesome delight.

  3. I’m arriving here a bit late but I can already see a real treasure trove of exciting things to look at and marvel at. Jodi’s first photo sets the tone for all the delights to follow…I love that knowing face looking out at us. Love the way she has photographed the puppets too. Joe’s homage to Noggin the Nog rang bells with me…lovely, sensitive drawing with real presence. I felt it was only a matter of time before Sir Althric’s eyes started to swivel from side to side, a la Captain Pugwash. And, lastly, the stunning and scary puppet that Hussam made – those eyes are particularly eerie. I love that crouched, mis-shapen stance that she has. I don’t want to meet her on a dark night!

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  6. I’m very drawn to the face on Jodi’s puppet which is hauntingly beautiful, and to the creepiness of the headless body. Her puppet has the unmistakable flavour of her wonderful 2D work, but is somehow *more*, too…

    And Hussam’s brilliant hag has the most amazing body shape! I love the way he’s chosen to hinge the other body parts from it in unexpected places.

    And I’d love to see Sir Althirc animated 🙂

    What an amazing amazing start to the exhibition!

  7. Yes! I feel very humble and like a little mouse in the company of these puppets too! All beautiful and strange and perfect in their own ways. I am especially taken with Hassam’s creation – incredible sculpture and so much character in the face and hands…

  8. At last I have been able to sit quietly and read and feast my eyes on these wonderful images. Each artist is a creator of such real characters. I think Jodie’s old lady is brilliantly spooky, as are the bits of man puppet, the shadows add to the spookiness.
    I love Joe’s drawn puppet , beautiful, it would be interesting to know Joe’s age, can I guess he’s in his 60’s? I grew up with Noggin the Nog.
    Hussam’s puppet makes me shiver, she is so creepy, again, a brilliant puppet, I also love the first pic of her being a shadow waiting in the wings.
    I have a feeling I will be over-using the word brilliant in this exhibition!

  9. What a glorious trio.

    Hussam’s enchanting little being is both disturbing and beautiful. I particularly admire the improvisation of unconventional material such as an ivy branch. (Personally I found the control mechanism the most daunting part of the Puppet Challenge.) The gnarled root is perfect. I completely empathize with the fumbling aspect of working in the round, insecurity lurked around every corner for me as well. Hussam confronted doubt splendidly.

    I agree with Clive in how delightful flat puppets can be. Such immediate charming results, like a Victorian parlour game… yet spooky and chilling in Joe’s nimble hands.

    I know Jodi’s work best, a fellow printmaker with a shared aesthetic. I love her characters, particularly the crone, heartbreaking in her desperate loneliness. Her half baked paramour has such a beautiful surface tension. Kudos to Jodi.

    Looking forward to seeing offerings of other comrades; humbled by what I have seen thus far.

    As always, I thank you, Peter and Clive,

  10. WOW, i am amazed by these…jodi’s tale is, as you said, the perfect start to such a show, and what a pair of puppets, to boot! what is that smooth, smooth material she’s using? the woman’s face is so intriguing and mysterious, those eyes so powerful!
    i love all of these, the paper soldier and terrifying omena…i am more than a little astounded by his story, since the puppet seems to have come together as if by an easy magic–and that shot of the head and feet and hands just kills me–creepy!!

    • Jodi is working in papier mâché, very smoothly finished. Impressive, isn’t it? Soon she’s going to post a ‘process’ of the puppet at her blog (Yew Tree Nights… there’s a link in the Blogroll) so she may explain more there.

      • i hope she does explain–i looked at papier mache, and discovered two things: one, i hate wire, and would apparently rather clean toilets than work with it (haha). two, i make lumpy messes. she told me she was going to use paper, but when i saw this, i was certain it was stone!! jeez!

  11. Fantastic, all of them, just stunning. It will also be wonderful to be introduced to so many new myths and stories.

    (I too have a soft spot for Noggin!)

  12. Wow, absolutely knockout start to the exhibition, the puppets all have great power and presence, I particularly love the humble and found materials used, and how these puppets demonstrate what miraculous things can happen if you have a go. Hats off to Hussam, Joe and Jodi – first class!

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