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.