Tom Bromwell: conversation with a puppet maker

Above: The Harbinger

Tom Bromwell makes puppets. He gained a First in BA Fine Art at Cardiff School of Art and an MA at Dartington/Falmouth. He currently works at The Art Shop and Chapel galleries in Abergavenny.

Clive: So what happened after your BA and MA?

Tom: To all intents and purposes I gave up practicing. I became rather disillusioned with it all. I even closed my website.

The Trickster

Clive: Can you explain further?

Tom: My previous artwork had taken a very intellectual direction, and had increasingly focused on the philosophical and theoretical side of art. However this began to destroy the pleasure in it for me. So I found work in other areas of the arts, including research and administration. I’m about to start a PHD in the History of Art as a result of my research work on Apocalyptic visions and interwar art.

The Blackened One

Clive: The artist Philippa Robbins showed me photographs of glove-puppets you’d made, which is how I came to contact you. How did this interest come about?

Tom: I’ve only started making puppets in the past year, prompted by Pauline Griffiths of the Art Shop Gallery, and I’ve found it’s brought back my enjoyment in making. I’ve always had a strong interest in theatre, though I struggled to reconcile it with my past practice. Perhaps I was too self-conscious. But somehow, and unexpectedly, the puppets have bridged the gap. I’m continuing to make them, and finding my ideas are developing as I gain greater familiarity with the processes. I’ve been giving puppet performances for children in the Art Shop & Chapel.

Clive: Paul Klee made glove-puppets for his son Felix, and together they gave performances. The Klee puppets are quite roughly made, but each has an undeniable presence.

The Wanderer

Tom: I see my puppets as riffing on archetypal characters and forms, and yes they are inspired by the sense of wonder I experienced on first seeing Klee’s puppets. His coarse technique combined with found objects accentuated the personality of his creations. Had they been refined and highly finished, I think the immediacy of them would have been lost. They would have been more anonymous and forbidding – and less a product of imagination. Yet made as they are, they revel in their status as crafted objects.

Clive: You use one of your puppets, Abel, as your Facebook profile image. Is it a self-portrait?


Tom: I’ve avoided using images of myself for online profiles for a number of years. I can’t help but feel uncomfortable with them. The Facebook puppet is the one I most identify with, the one onto which I’ve projected some of my uncertainties and insecurities. The simple design is inspired by the sense of bewilderment I think we’ve all known on occasion.

Clive: I’m interested in the names of your puppet characters. Tell me about them, and why you chose them.

Tom: Abel and Rebecca are old-testament names, and the characters represent facets of my personality. Abel embodies my more negative, paranoid side. He’s oblivious to his destiny in the bible to be a ‘victim’, and just puts his head down to get on with his work, only to end up being murdered by his brother. Lets be honest, Abel is basically there just to move the plot along! I think my sense of being an innocent cog is best represented by him! Rebecca on the other hand is both strength and kindness – things that I aspire to.


Other names have their origin in bits of philosophy. The Trickster (aka The Nameless One) is a bit of a wordsmith. Semiotics and Derrida’s concept of différance played a part developing the character. His name changes from performance to performance (his name really does differ and defer!), suggesting the characters’ awareness to how arbitrary names and definitions really are.

Polt is an abridgement of Poltergeist, but it also conveys something else in the sound of the word. The plosive sound is almost onomatopoeic. Like a hard blow, it sounds forceful. The name and the puppet, with it’s shocked expression, seem to fit each other perfectly. And while Polt might sound po-faced, he’s not really so bad!


Clive: Tom, tell me about the performances. How do you prepare for them?

Tom: The performances can be underpinned by science, philosophy or suchlike, and the stories often focus on a single aspect of one of the characters. I am not the sort of person who normally does things spontaneously, so I usually aim for an underlying structure from which I can play with ideas or materials. I encourage audience interaction to explore the potential embodied in the narrative.

I shall post information of Tom’s next performances at the Chapel Gallery when I have the dates


Tom Bromwell


I’ve been having a spot of trouble at WordPress edit today, and have had to post this piece for a second time, losing in the process one of the comments. Luckily I’d saved it, and have pasted it below, together with my reply.

From Cosima Lukashevich:

Submitted on 2015/08/26 at 5:34 am
Its fascinating to me to hear how and why artist make. It seems that one can get lost in the maze of the thinking mind, and that path cycles round and round. So to physically make, to create, is a relief and a positive direction outward. The living energy of creativity bursts forward… in Tom’s puppets… towards the lively arts of theatre in ‘character forms’. (aka puppets.)

His puppets are only half of the story. It would be very interesting to see a performance of them!

From Clive Hicks-Jenkins:

Submitted on 2015/08/26 at 5:59 am | In reply to Cosima Lukashevich.
Hello Cosima. Yes, it is indeed interesting that a performance art has facilitated Tom rediscovering his pleasure in the act of making he’d somehow lost after his MA and BA. It was perceptive of Pauline Griffiths to point him in the direction of making puppets. And yes, I’d agree that this is only half the story. Puppets need to be seen in action. Tom’s are brimming with potential.

The Puppet Challenge Part 5: Philippa and Karen and the two Fridas

Philippa Robbins & Karen Godfrey

Philippa Robbins: Raising Frida

A few years ago on a visit to Mexico to attend the festival of Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) Philippa visited the studio of Frida Kahlo. I recall poring over the photographs when she returned, entranced by the collections of folk-art and antiquities in Kahlo’s living and work spaces.

When Peter Slight came up with the theme of the Puppet Challenge, I think most minds turned to the expected. Fairytales and folklore. But when I began to think about it, I could see that Kahlo was not such a strange choice of subject for an exhibition themed to ‘Myths and Legends’.

She has certainly achieved a legendary status due in no small part to her extraordinary life. There was the traffic accident that nearly killed her and thereafter severely compromised her health, and her celebrated marriage to the painter/muralist Diego Rivera. From the former she mined what would become some of the most iconic twentieth century self-portraits… though they are so much more than that… of the artist in the centre of her universe. So there’s a case to be made for her being a self-mythologiser, both in the manner she presented herself in person… the vividly coloured and embroidered folk-costumes, the flower-decked hair, the robber-queen jewellery… and the astonishing art that celebrated her ‘self-creation’.

Philippa built a lot of puppets over the period leading up to the Puppet Challenge. Although only the Frida puppet was intended for it, I plan on showing the rest of the puppets in a later post, because they’re examples both of the artist’s creative thinking, and of her capacity to acquire new skills to develop her work. But for today, here’s her Frida glove-puppet.

Philippa’s technique for all her puppets has been to build them in brown paper gum-strip layered over rough forms of tin-foil and balled-up paper, a puppet-making technique we share. Last year at her kitchen-table, pre-Puppet Challenge, I modelled a glove-puppet of a cyclops and Philippa built her first glove-puppet head and hands. (We two have long been hatching a plot for a collaboration themed to our puppet interests.) Philippa has evolved an interesting technique of finishing her papier mâché in layers of blue kitchen-roll.

When dry (she hastens the process by the use of a fan-assisted oven set judiciously low) Philippa creates the faces by transfer-printing, often using photographs of old Hollywood stars collaged to create her characters. In this way her puppets have an intriguing, organic finish that imparts to the group a collective identity, as can be seen in this snapshot of ‘blue’ puppet-parts in the studio.

Below: assembling Frida

A pleasing quality of all Philippa’s puppets is her attention to detail in the matter of their clothes. She shares with Jodi Le Bigre a distaste for garments that are nailed or glued to puppets. (Jodi writes about clothing her puppet in the ‘process’ post at her blog, and I wonder whether this is an aspect the two makers have in common because of early experiences with dolls, the dressing and undressing of which can be such a significant ritual of ‘play’.) Philippa’s puppet has a canvas ‘sleeve’, made the way I recommended to her, that permanently holds the head and hands in the glove-puppet shape… if you will, the ‘body’ of the puppet… but then over the sleeve is a beautifully-made muslin shift (see below) worn beneath the carefully pieced together patch-worked dress. This puppet is not only good in the hand to work, but it also has a hidden visual aesthetic known only to her maker and to those lucky enough to get a closer look.

Karen Godfrey: Touched by Fire

Karen Godfrey also chose Frida Kahlo as the subject for a puppet, this time a marionette. She built a puppet theatre for her as the setting for the film, set-dressed as a Día de Muertos altar complete with skeleton jumping-jacks, sugar skulls and fairy-lights. Frida’s appearance, with her elaborate, flower-dressed hair-styles, her sweeping dark brows and an emphasis on extravagantly coloured and patterned folk-costumes, has clearly been a gift to the puppet-makers. Karen wrote to me in an early e-mail about the project, how much she was looking forward to creating puppet-Kahlo’s jewellery, a happy anticipation I’m sure the real Frida would have shared.

Karen writes:

“I had never made a movie before and was surprised at how easy it was to use the free software program of Windows Movie Maker on my computer. The most challenging part, besides making the Frida marionette, was taking the hundreds of photographs for the stop-motion film. It was not easy keeping the lighting consistant through the whole photo shoot. Sometimes the sunlight would change and the trees by my window would create shadows.”

Above: a still from Touched by Fire

“What I loved about the Puppet Challenge is that it led me to make the movie. I have always thought it would be fun to make one, and I had always wanted to create stage props for plays. Having my Frida marionette to create small scale props for was exciting. I especially liked making the props for the ‘phoenix rising’ scene in the movie. I was surprised at how realistic the night scene looked around the fire, and I was pleased with the shadows I created with a lamp and a cut out image of a bird.”

My idea to create a Frida Kahlo marionette started because I am inspired by how she painted for herself alone. She didn’t care whether other people liked what she produced, creating her art because she needed to. In today’s world many artists don’t feel it’s worth creating something if it can’t be sold. They feel like if they are not well known, then they are not artists. It was my goal to create this puppet and movie for myself first. It helped me to connect with the deeper meaning of artmaking. I know something was happening to me on a subconscious level as I created the symbols, images, and scenes in the movie. Also, being able to move Frida’s body helped me to connect with her story and legacy. In some of the stop-motion photos that I took of Frida, I was amazed at how goddess-like she became. I felt like something greater than myself was happening duirng the photo shoots.

Below: from drawing to puppet

You can watch Touched by Fire, HERE.

Below: a stop-motion frame from the film

Philippa and the Puppet Challenge

Artist Philippa Robbins has been rocking with the Puppet Challenge, though to be fair her prolific output is probably less to do with the challenge, and more with with the long-term puppet-themed gallery-installation she and I are collaborating on. I’m none to sure which character in this fantastic ‘bouquet’ of glove-puppet heads is for the Puppet Challenge.

And here, an early stage of making the foundation of a glove-puppet, before adding his garments, though Philippa reports she’s intending to shorten his arms a little before dressing him.

I’m compiling a file of Puppet Challenge images from those of you who’ve been posting about puppet progress at your blogs. But if any of you are working quietly and not posting publicly, yet would like to be included in the next online Progress Report, then please send us images and updates. We won’t show any finished puppets at this stage, but work in progress is good to see, and sharing it here will help inspire others.

Peter Slight and I are acutely aware than many of you are very busy people indeed, and that a good few of those who signed to the Puppet Challenge might be looking anxiously at their watches as the deadline approaches. Please don’t panic, or be put off. And don’t whatever you do pull out. This, after all, is supposed to be a bit of fun. Serious too, of course, in the sense that we want people to question, think hard about their making skills and stretch themselves in ways they may not otherwise have done. But nothing of great import is riding on the online exhibition itself, and the most important things to emerge may not necessarily be what you do or don’t produce, but what you learn about your creative thinking along the way.

Quite a few of you have committed to dauntingly ambitious schemes, and we certainly don’t want you panicking about running out of time. If you only get to a part-way stage, then on the day we’ll present what you’ve done as a work-in-progress. When all is said and done, no-one need feel uncomfortably pressurised. That’s not what this is about.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Puppet Catch-up: Clive’s Posts

19th century Italian glove-puppet show

Over the past months there’s been much written about puppets at the Artlog by way of offering encouragement to those taking part in guest curator Peter Slight’s Puppet Challenge. In fact between us Peter and I have written so much, that I’ve decided to offer links for easy access to posts that may have been missed first time around, plus links to some puppet-themed items from my archive, written before the challenge. To save crowding, I’ve made two posts. Today we kick off with my collected puppet posts, and Peter’s will follow on Friday.

Clive’s Posts

Guide to Types of Puppetry (ongoing)



Marionettes; Part 1

Marionettes: Part 2


The European Tradition

The Puppets of Palermo

The Royal Toone Theatre, Brussels: Part 1

The Royal Toone Theatre, Brussels: Part 2

The Royal Toone Theatre, Brussels: Part 3

The Guignol Puppet Theatre of Alexei Romanov

20th century artists and puppetry

Dada and Constructivist Marionettes of the 20th C.

Luigi Veronesi’s puppets for The Soldier’s Tale

The Marionettes of Aleksandra Ekster

Paul Klee

Contemporary puppet-makers.

Czech puppet-maker, puppet maker Bára Hubená

Interview with Czech puppet maker Jan Zalud

Interview with Julian Crouch

Jan Svankmejer

20th Century puppet-makers.

Richard Teschner

DoLores Hadley

William Simmonds

Walter Wilkinson

Puppet Performances

69 Degrees South, Phantom Limb

Spartacus, Théâtre La Licorne

The Devil and Mr Punch

How the Hoggler got its Name

Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Cyclops Glove-Puppet

Modes of Locomotion: one puppet, two techniques


The Puppets of The Mare’s Tale

Audrey II

puppet maker Bára Hubená

A weekend treat for Artloggers involved in the Puppet Challenge. As a spur to inspiration, I recently posted a photograph (see below) of three enchantingly pretty toy marionettes, a King, Skeleton and Devil, showcasing utter simplicity of design married to perfect execution.

I’ve since discovered they’re the work of Czech puppet-maker and stage designer Bára Hubená, and so for those of you who liked them as much as I did, here are some more by her.


And here, some glove-puppets by Bára

I hope these provide a breath of inspiration for some of the would-be puppet-makers.

simple can be good

There’s been much by way of puppets at the Artlog over the past weeks. Guides to puppetry (Glove-Puppets, Shadow-Puppets, Marionettes x 2 and Bunraku), progress by participants in the Puppet Challenge, and a few sidebar posts such as the one of Dada and Constructivist Marionettes, and another on the skeleton horse puppet I made and filmed for The Mare’s Tale.

But for today I post the above image of three little Czech puppets that are so simple in design and so charming in execution, that it’s hard to imagine them being improved on. A timely reminder to all those taking part in the Challenge that puppets do not always have to be complicated, and that when the artistry is demonstrated as perfectly as it is in these, then the puppet-maker’s work has been well done.