The Puppet Challenge Part 2: Jill, Chris and Rachel

Jill Desborough, Chris Lettington and Rachel Larkins

Jill Desborough: Bird Watching

Jill writes:

“I’m making a bird-headed figure who I see as a ‘Guardian/Watcher of Borders’. All in black- a bit ambivalent. Whether malevolent or protective, I’m not sure. The image came into my mind when I was on the train. He is, I guess, from my personal mythology, rather than drawn from any source I could name.”

Living in a house with a rookery just to the rear of it, I find myself constantly aware of the birds watching our comings and goings, and I gain a subtle comfort from knowing they’re keeping an eye on things below. Jill’s beautifully wrought Watcher fits comfortably into my mental picture of birds as benign/portentous presences. The day of my father’s funeral in 1999, something crashed through a large first-floor sash-window of our house in Cardiff. We raced to the room to find it strewn with glass and adrift with white seagull feathers that proceeded to blow throughout the house. There wasn’t a sign of any bird, inside or out. Ever since, the incident has been referred to as ‘When-Trevor-took-his-leave-of-us!’

Since time immemorial painters and scuptors have spliced together men and beasts. In Ancient Egypt hawk-headed-Horus and ibis-headed-Thoth were at the heart of the pantheon of gods, and it’s interesting to see that for this contemporary artist a fascination persists for such hybrids in her sombre, distinctly magisterial rod-puppets.

As well as her Watcher of Borders, Jill found the time to create another magnificent puppet, based on the Greek myth of the Minotaur.


Chris Lettington: The Troll and the Dial O’Croc

Christopher writes:

“My character is the Troll from The Three Billy-Goats Gruff, which I really loved as a child but I never found the illustrations in the fairy tale books quite as I saw him.”

Christopher’s Troll had been almost completed when he made a last-minute change-of-plan and re-cut the head to facilitate a working mouth. It was the perfect decision, as with his mouth closed he’s a reasonably benign-looking Troll, but when that lower-jaw drops, he takes on a truly hair-raising appearance, with those tusk-like teeth not being anything I’d want to be at the receiving end of. I’d rather like to see the Three Billy-Goats Gruff to go with this character.

Here’s a LINK to see the Troll in action.

While he was working on the Troll, Chris was simultaneously building what he refers to as his Dial O’Croc. Though not strictly speaking anything to do with the Puppet Challenge, it’s just too delightful to leave out of this post. If you’re going to meet up with a crocodile, you’d better wish that like this one, it has no teeth!

Below: Christopher’s Dial O’Crock

Rachel Larkins: Thumbelina Dance!

Rachel writes:

“Eventually, after much procrastination, I picked Thumbelina as my chosen fairytale but then got rather side tracked with making the first image. (See above) The project has pushed my work in all sorts of new directions; I originally planned to make an automaton but subsequently decided (following one of your encouraging emails) that I was rather short of time and over-complicating things. After coming across a foam rubber octopus by Mummenschanz, I was inspired to make a wearable puppet, albeit on a much smaller scale than the costume I had looked at. Thumbelina is my homage to Fingerbob, and I have further plans to combine my drawings and puppet through animation…”

Rachel’s delicate summonings of Thumbelina in her painting and puppet, are both lovely and appropriately fragile in their realisations of the fairytale. The tiny, beautifully painted peg-figure hidden within the flower, is simple though ingenious, as compellingly presented as a conjuror’s sleight-of-hand. It’s moving to have such focus on the ‘reveal’, tenderly bringing forth life from a shower of tulip petals.

progress on the puppet challenge

It’s been a while since I posted about the Puppet Challenge and its contributors, so here’s a catch-up, reporting progress by some of the makers who’ve sent us news. I regularly check the websites and blogs of participants, but if any of you have made progress that you’ve not yet shared at your sites but would like us to post at the Artlog, please drop me or Peter Slight a line with some images.

Philippa Robbins

Philippa Robbins has made an entire cast of wonderfully characterful ‘blue-heads’, of which this is one. She’s still playing with ideas and isn’t yet a hundred percent certain whether they’re to be glove-puppets or some other type. But it’s interesting that as an artist, she’s found a way to make her puppets completely of her own creative universe, and in a room-full of puppets I would know them as hers. I’m sure that however she resolves them, they’re going to be appearing in her drawings and paintings before very long.

Jill Desborough

Artist Jill Desborough writes:

‘Attached are a couple of images of designs for two puppets I’ve started. The Spring one might be the 1st in a quartet of the Seasons. He is a a slavic god called Jarilo who comes from the underworld every spring bringing growth and fertility. I am making him androgynous in a flower and leaf strewn gown.’

‘The other is a bird-headed figure who I see as a guardian/watcher of borders- who will be all in black- a bit ambivalent …malevolent or protective I’m not sure. The image came into my mind on the train … he is I guess from my own mythological library rather than the historic canon.’

Liz King

Painter Liz King is underway not just with puppet designs, but for an entire story-boarded legend of the Loubérou or Lébérou, known in various rural areas of France. The story is of a man who turns into a goat after bathing in an enchanted fountain. You can read the full scenario at her blog, but here’s an extract from it:

‘He reads the watery words, stands up and with hands on hips, tosses his head in disdainful disbelief. But it feels top-heavy and cumbersome. He reaches up to feel two unfamiliar shapes protruding from it, hears the clop of hoof on horn. Lowering his hands he sees with horror two cloven hooves where hands should be. Slumping down onto all fours, he lets out a prolonged and enfeebled bleat. From the black waters of the fountain the reflection of a wild, long-haired goat stares out at him.’

I love Liz’s visualisation of the fountain-source as a giant bearded head, like a Roman river-god spewing words written in the black water.

Karen Godfrey

Artist Karen Godfrey writes:

‘I have decided after much deliberation to make a marionette of Frida Kahlo.  She is a favorite of mine and I thought I would be able to use her the most for occassions such as, Day of the Dead.  What also appealed to me were the endless amounts of outfits, accessories, jewelry, etc I could make for her. 

I made her head out of foam covered with polymer clay.  Then I painted her with acrylic paint.  The body, arms, and legs were made out of wood.  I haven’t made her feet yet.  I am using leather straps for the hinges at her elbows and knees.  I also will be adding hair to her.

‘This has been a lot of fun so far.’

Since writing the above, Karen has finished her Frida Kahlo puppet, and has sent us wonderful images of her standing on a specially made Day of the Dead stage, surrounded by coloured lights and sugar skulls. Marvellous!

Matt and Amanda Caines

Matt Caines is a sculptor, and Amanda Caines is an artist with a multi-discipline approach to her work. Matt has written of their work toward the Puppet Challenge:

‘We are currently engaging in the darker side of fairy stories and folklore and are producing a series of free standing pieces and some wall hangings. We are combining my interest in structure, assemblage and engraving on shed antler, with Amanda’s sense of colour and pattern in her stitch worked sections.
The horse is inspired by the legend of the Kelpie, a malevolent Scottish equestrian water spirit that lures lone travellers into rivers and lakes and gives them a dunking. Ireland has the Each-Uisage who inhabits seas and lochs. After carrying his victims into the water, the Each-Uisage devours them.’


‘The puppet and drawings that match are inspired by Sedna, the Inuit goddess of the sea and all its creatures. Poor Sedna was thrown out of a boat by her angry father, who to stop her holding on to the side, chopped off her fingers. As she sank into the murky depths, her fingers turned into seals, walruses, fish, whales and all the sea life.        
Now she lives at the bottom of the sea, angry at all men, sometimes bringing famine, sometimes plenty. Shamans swim down to appease her by combing her hair and begging for mercy. 
Amanda is creating a bound skirt for Sedna that will be patterned with a fragmented fish-tail pattern. Her face will be a mixture of shamanic mask imagery filtered though cubist fragmentation.’ 

Scott Garrett

Scott Garrett is rocking with the Puppet Challenge. This, the Whittlesea Straw Bear, is his second folk-tradition based glove-puppet, the first having been a magnificently realised Earl of Rone. (I’m saving images of that for the online exhibition, though if you can’t wait, you can see some at Scott’s Blog.)

Lynne Lamb

Lynne Lamb has already stormed ahead in the Puppet Challenge with her ‘bog-body’ reinvention of the Snow Queen and a splendid ship’s figurehead mermaid. Now she’s come up with this deceptively winsome multiple-headed wolf-in-grandma’s-clothes, that cleverly riffs on notions of multiple identities and the three-headed canine guardian of the Kingdom of the Dead, Cerberus.

Caroline McCatty

Caroline is making her own version of a novelty that delighted nineteenth century audiences. The ‘transformation puppet’ was the Victorian puppet showman’s coup de théâtre, his blink-and-you-miss-it sleight-of-hand that would leave viewers perplexed and delighted. A popular subject was ‘The Grand Turk’, a figure that dissolved in the blink of an eye into many smaller puppets scattering in all directions. For her Puppet Challenge subject Caroline decided on the story of an ogre who goes in disguise as a little girl, and if I’ve understood her correctly, her puppet is intended to transform from small child to to outsized monster in an instant. In the photograph of this puppet-in-progress we see the girl’s head lying atop the large head of the ogre. The latter is of a soft construction, and I believe is intended to pack into a small, hidden place, from which it then inflates to effect the trick. Although I don’t know the details of how she plans this, Caroline is certainly on the right track, as in the nineteenth century collapsible puppets pre-rigged ready to burst out were the basis of many transformation marionettes. You can see two nineteenth century transformation puppets HERE.

Nomi McLeod

Nomi’s puppet-in-progress stares out at us with troubled eyes. This hauntingly beautiful head is her starting point for the intriguingly titled ‘The Girl Without Hands’, a tale that it sound as though Shakespeare may have borrowed from for Titus Adronicus.

The Puppet Challenge becomes altogether more stimulating as a creative experience when contributors share ideas and progress with us. For those of you who’ve so far remained silent on the matter, get in touch and let us know what you’re up to. A thumbnail sketch, a reference image or just a few words by way of ideas you may have, will help enrich all who’ve signed to this project. We’d love to hear from you.