The Puppet Challenge Part 3 : Nicky, Nomi and Ruth

Nicky Arscott, Nomi McLeod and Ruth Barrett-Danes

Nicky Arscott: The Sadness of Lillie Flower

Nicky writes:

“Lillie Flower is a tragic heroine from a folk ballad called Jellon Grame. Her horrible lover kills her, as usual. It’s all a bit violent, but when I chose the subject I liked the idea of being able to stitch her up and bring her back to life again.”

“It was a strange experience making Lillie Flower. I made her whilst sitting at a camp fire most nights for the past six weeks. I work at Glastonbury festival and we stay on site in a caravan. Lots of people would come and sit round the fire and share a drink and ask me what I was doing. It led to conversations about the grisliness of folk balladry; the versatility of crocheting; ‘suicide woolies’; the thinking behind murdering one’s spouse, as well as Caesarians and other birth-related experiences. Someone brought a book over that contained 12 stories of mothers from around the world who had died in childbirth due to unsafe conditions. In the end I put Lillie away to finish at home because she was making everyone sad. My children like to unbutton her stomach and pop the baby in and out and swing it round and round on its umbilical cord, but all I can think of when I look at her is that having your baby cut out of you and stolen must be the most terrible thing that could ever happen, even if you are dead.”

She lighted aff her milk-white steed,
And knelt upon her knee:
‘O mercy, mercy, Jellon Grame!
For I’m nae prepar’d to die.

‘Your bairn, that stirs between my sides,
Maun shortly see the light;
But to see it weltring in my blude
Woud be a piteous sight.’

He took nae pity on that ladie,
Tho she for life did pray;
But pierced her thro the fair body,
As at his feet she lay.

He felt nae pity for that ladie,
Tho she was lying dead;
But he felt some for the bonny boy,
Lay weltring in her blude.

Up has he taen that bonny boy,
Gien him to nurices nine,
Three to wake, and three to sleep,
And three to go between.

Verses from the ballad Jellon Grame

I’m deeply moved by Ruth’s knitted Lillie Flower, and the photographs of the puppet lying in leaf-litter with the canopy of bright oak leaves above her, are chillingly reminiscent of what happens to women at the hands of violent men, and yet simultaneously respectful and tender. These last images don’t present the visceral horrors. But then the best ideas are always open to varied and sometimes even polarised interpretations. For me, in terms of depictions of violence, less is always more. Here, Lillie might just as plausibly be Titania in her bower, as the broken and discarded victim of Jellon Grame.

Colour lends an optimistic note…

… while the same image rendered in black and white, is distinctly more disturbing.

Nomi McLeod: The Handless Maiden

Nomi writes:

“The Handless Maiden is a story which resonates with me. My puppet draws on the narrative just after things have started to go wrong – again – for the heroine. She has given birth to a beautiful baby whilst her husband the king is away fighting battles. But through the receipts of the villain… in some versions of the tale the devil, and in others an evil female relative… the young mother is thrown out of the palace and set to wandering the forests. Her clothes become torn and caked with mud. Her child, tied around her by a kindly servant, grows hungry as she struggles to feed him with her handless arms…”

It’s all in the eyes. Nomi’s beautifully modelled Handless Maiden brims with emotion and ‘back-story’. This is really, really rare in puppets. More usually the faces of figures, even those that are masterfully carved, are emotionally relatively neutral, and it’s the puppeteers that invest them with feeling. But even in these photographs, the Maiden’s face tells us everything we need to know about her history and condition. Her eyes are almost unendurably sad, and I’m left wondering how Nomi pulled this off. It’s like… alchemy.

I wish that I had made such a puppet.

Ruth Barrett-Danes: The Mistletoe Bride


I apologise that I can offer only one photograph from Ruth Barrett-Danes. Ruth was an early sign-up to the Puppet Challenge, and the first to send me an image of a finished puppet. I think I may have had more from her, but I can’t find them in the Puppet Challenge photo-archive.

Ruth took as her theme The Mistletoe Bough, a song of the 1830s that recounts the cautionary tale of a playful bride. In a game of hide and seek with her ‘lord’, the unfortunate closes herself into a heavy oak chest that becomes her coffin. This is the second of today’s ballad-inspired puppets. In both of them things end badly for a young woman, though in The Mistletoe Bough it’s a case of malign fate as opposed to murder.

The notion of the luminously happy bride is frequently rendered topsy-turvy in literature, drama, folk-song and film, with murder, madness and corruption replacing joyous nuptials: Elsa Lanchester, corpse-white in grave-wrappings, hissing like an angry swan in The Bride of Frankenstein, and Miss Haversham in Great Expectations, mummifying in her rancid wedding-gown while plotting vengeance on mankind. Ruth’s long-dead bride joins this gothic tradition. She is a little indistinct in the photograph, which I think adds a layer of creepiness to the image.


‘At length an oak chest, that had long lain hid,
Was found in the castle — they raised the lid,
And a skeleton form lay mouldering there
In the bridal wreath of that lady fair!
O, sad was her fate! — in sportive jest
She hid from her lord in the old oak chest.
It closed with a spring! — and, dreadful doom,
The bride lay clasped in her living tomb!
Oh, the mistletoe bough.
Oh, the mistletoe bough.’

16 thoughts on “The Puppet Challenge Part 3 : Nicky, Nomi and Ruth

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

  2. I just love all three of these beautiful feminine works, linked together by theme. The bride, so gruesome, the two babies, so clever and different from one another, and yes, that face on the handless mother is tragically moving. Fabulous pieces.

  3. It’s well worth looking at Ruth’s blog to see other pictures and a written piece – beautifully done. Nomi’s Handless Maiden has stuck with me since I saw the first picture – as others have said, such sadness and pathos and a poor, hungry baby…quite heartbreaking but superbly done. I love Lillie Flower…especially the idea of the baby on its umbilical cord…I would really love to play with that!! Three super, very ‘female’ puppets – all with great strength and presence.

  4. Three very mournful yet moving tales and three puppets to match.

    I admire the choice of these darker, less obvious fables.

    Nicky’s concept art really crackles with energy, it’s wonderful.

    Nomi’s baby model just knocks me out, it’s so small and tender.

    I have been haunted by the story of the Mistletoe Bride since reading it as a child.
    If Ruth ever gets a chance to take a photo of her puppet sat up in a small wooden chest, I would like to see that.

  5. Pingback: The puppet challenge exhibition is on! | lizkingsangster

  6. Wow, wow, and wow! I’m loving the themed posts Clive – it’s really nice to see the puppets grouped together with others touching on similar themes or stories.
    Wonderful work here. Nomi’s indeed embodies much feeling and is very beautiful. I’m lucky enough to be working with Nomi in the puppet-realm, so watch this space… 😉

  7. Gosh, I remember my mother telling me the Mistletoe Bride story as a kind of cautionary tale and giving me the horrors when I was little, I’d quite forgotten it.

    An astonishing collection of dark and haunting figures, another series of tours de force.

  8. oh, what sad stories!! each of them is so dramatically represented–the mummied bride, the –i agree– immensely sad eyes of the handless maiden, and the tiny, prefect face of the stitched-up mother…. i am, again, amazed by the distinctiveness of each creator’s style. these are wondrous!

  9. I’m fascinated by the simplicity of Nicky’s knitted puppet, and especially how she was able to conjure the sadness and tragedy of such a tale with needle and thread.

    The beautifully haunting face of Nomi’s Handless Maiden, bears witness to her transformations: from wounded child to whole, healed woman: from miller’s daughter to queen.

    And Ruth’s brilliant Mistletoe Bride is creepiness wrapped up in a gown of beauty.

    Great work everybody!

  10. You can tell all three of these women are passionate about these stories. I give them a lot of credit for tackling such difficult topics. Personally, I find them more moving because they are deep diving into the darkness, where most fear to tread. I am amazed at all of them for different reasons. Such creativity!

  11. These are tough and quite moving, as art must be.

    Painful as a man to see what women have borne because of our hubris.
    Handless maidens burn deep, the handless mother is terrible, beautiful and so full of pathos-quite an accomplishment.

    The ravaged mother and her near-murdered babe is so contradictory and so marvelous. Seemingly playful and full of whimsy-yet a terrible tale of woe spun of yarn.

    The poor unfortunate bride, a victim of her own joy, punished so unjustly by fate. So sad, so unfair.

    I look forward to more images.

  12. Wow, what an amazing trio, such poignant puppets and tales. Each delving into emotive inner worlds. Nicky’s puppet although with minimal features, has extraordinary character and sadness. I love the natural knittedness. Nomi’s puppet is phenomenally real. What an amazing face! You are right about her, Clive, I could not add more. Ruth’s mistletoe bride too, is perfect for the tale, and what a gruesome one! (Shudder!) It is so interesting learning of all these folk tales and legends.


  13. Hello Clive

    I am sending you the images that seem to be missing. Yes I did finish early on whilst I was marooned by the floods. Since then I have been up to my eyes with printmaking and exhibitions and the garden and the allotment so hence the silence. Best wishes Ruth

    Ruth Barrett-Danes

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