Rachel Gibson


Above: Frau Trude by Rachel Gibson. Layered and boxed paper-cut

It is with great sadness that I announce the premature death of Rachel Gibson. Rachel was a paper-cut artist and animator who was taking part in the the forthcoming Artlog Puppet Challenge, and I was about to e-mail her for an update on her puppet when the news came in a short announcement by her husband Steve at her blog In the Dark Woods. (My thanks to Puppet Challenge artist, Liz King, for alerting me to this.)

Above: The Homecoming by Rachel Gibson. Layered and boxed paper-cut

I didn’t know Rachel well enough to write about her as I would have wished, but there is an excellent interview with her HERE at Paper with Everything in which she describes her practice. She was a fan of animators Yuri Norstein and Lotte Reiniger, and I was so looking forward to seeing what direction her work on the Puppet Challenge would take, hoping that she might have made a short animation for the exhibition.

I know that the many artists of the Puppet Challenge will wish to join with me in sending Steve Gibson our deepest sympathies.

Below: detail of Frau Trude

Rachel’s gentle animated film Georgie, about a boy and a shadow that won’t behave, was made in 2011. It can be viewed on Vimeo


Some of Rachel’s fellow ‘Puppet Challengers’ have sent messages of sympathy to Steve through me. (A few had problems leaving messages at In the Dark Woods, though I’ve just checked there and the message box seems fine.) I’m posting their messages here instead:

From Vikki Rose:

Thanks for letting us all know Clive. Not nice news. Our thoughts are with her loved ones.

Vikki x

From Matt and Amanda Caines:

We are so shocked and sad at this news Clive.
Her work is stunning. So sad that it won’t be finished.
It just dosn’t make any sense does it?
Please pass our condolences to her partner and family. They are in our thoughts.
Much love
Amanda and Matt

From Lyn O’Hara:

I’ve tried to comment but the system will not allow. Clive, thank you for introducing us to such a beautiful artist and her work. Sad news indeed.
Best wishes Lyn x

La Bête and the Sin-Eater

La Bête is just about done. He is not as I expected. His costume has been simplified, made as a single garment painted with the elements from the original design that barely register other than as pleasingly abstract shapes. The starched collar and cuffs were made though have been left off, as the painted canvas costume is already rather stiff and the extra elements unnecessarily impeded the movement of head and hands. So he looks rather less the dandy prince in bejewelled doublet, lace and trailing sleeves, and more the alchemist in fusty, pentangled robes.

The puppet has the proportions of a Bunraku figure, with a small head and broad, bulky shoulders atop a long body. Haven’t yet decided whether to add some legs for a second puppeteer to operate. They’re not strictly necessary, but would add versatility. His articulation is extremely good. I’m particularly pleased with the head. He can turn it from side to side, look up and down and it can shrink down onto the shoulders as if in recoil. My direct control of it from inside the body cavity makes the movement remarkably subtle. While the robes seem almost sculpted because of the paint-on-heavy-canvas construction, the unyielding, hieratic quality, works in favour of the puppet’s character.

Behind the puppet is a painting by Welsh coal-miner-turned-artist, the late Nick Evans. It shows the old tradition of a ‘sin-eater’ visiting a bereaved household to eat food set on the coffin-lid, taking upon himself the sins of the deceased in an example of sympathetic magic ‘transference’.

Please excuse this image. It’s a poorly-cropped illustration from a book about Evans, and the head of the raven that sits on the sin-eater’s staff is missing from it. The painting itself is too big for me to get a good photograph without setting it up with arc lamps and the tripod camera, and I don’t have time for that today. But there are some good images further down of details I photographed myself.

In this example of the tradition, the coffin is open and the food is recognisably a plate of ‘Welsh’ cakes, laid out on the dead man’s chest. Nick Evans never observed this first hand as the custom had died out before his time, but he painted it from the description given by his mother, who as a child had witnessed a ‘sin-eating’. Sin-eaters were both reviled and yet clearly useful, and they carried out their work for a fee.

Peter and I disagreed about the acquisition of this painting at auction. (I wanted it and he didn’t.) So my friend Catriona purchased it for me, and then pretended that it was her idea!!! I only confessed the deceit to Peter after her death!

Above: the sin-eater with a ‘Welsh’ cake at his lips and his crow on his staff.

Nick Evans worked exclusively in black oil paint on a white ground, eschewing brushes and using only his fingers and some rags as tools. He is best known for his paintings of the south Wales mining communities, the colliers and pit-ponies working underground, and the families above. Peter would have preferred a good example of an Evans painting showing miners at their work, but I loved this one, with the community gathered around the coffin and the children straining on tip-toe to peek inside it. It’s four foot square, and I can imagine it wouldn’t be to everyone’s tastes, this representation of a corpse, gaunt with age/illness and swaddled for the grave, but I love it.

Above: children peer into the coffin, a mourner stands with hands clasped to head, and one of the sin-eater’s two attendants bears the bell that sounded their approach. How dramatic and forboding they must have been, arriving after dark and bearing their candle-lantern, robed like druids amid the clamouring of bell and crow!

Building La Bête

My puppet of La Bête progresses, and I’ve completed the head, torso, arms and hands.

Above: hand under construction, made in gum-strip over a wire and cork armature.

The head and neck fit onto the shoulders without a permanent fixing, in the style of a Bunraku puppet. (This method of construction enables the heads of Bunraku puppets to be removed for maintenance and wig-dressing.) The extended neck is the main control rod, grasped through the back of the puppet and the means of operating the head.


The articulation of the neck works well, and there is a lot of flexibility and character in the movement.

Above: design for the puppet.

The costume has been much simplified from the design I made last year. Rather than the layers of double-sleeved doublet, breeches and boots under an elaborate cloak, I’m instead making a made a full-length robe from heavy artist’s linen painted to imitate the effect I’d originally envisaged. The fabric has been cut out though not yet stitched together, and I’m in the process of working on it with brushes and acrylic paint. Once made up and fitted onto the puppet I’ll decide on the matter of the legs, and whether to make them or not. Female Bunraku puppets don’t have legs. The third operator simply manipulates the bulky lower half of the kimono… these things are as bulky as duvets… to suggest the motion of legs and feet. While I like the elegant lace-cuffed boot shown in the design, feet may not strictly be necessary for the puppet. We’ll have to wait and see.

The puppet has a very strange character. Its movement is odd and distinctly unnerving, with a feral quality that’s hard to pin down. The effect is more raw than my original design suggested, which is fine by me. (At the time I thought the drawing a bit too designed.) There is certainly less in this puppet of the nobility that characterised the role as played by Jean Marais in the Cocteau film. This ‘beast’ feels leaner (he’s hungrier) and there is something deathly about him, like a mummy or even a zombie, probably because of the blackened nose and cheeks. The eyes, black, with the suggestion of metallic irises, are bulbous, and when viewed from the front they disconcertingly look in different directions. Looking at the puppet now, I can see perhaps an influence from another film, Paul Wegener’s 1920 masterpiece The Golem. Here’s the head of a demon conjured by Rabbi Loew in his laboratory, and I can see more than a little of my puppet of La Bête in it.

The hands are spiky with talons, clawed and rigid, and certainly don’t look like the hands of a man made-up to look like a beast’s. The puppet is disturbing, less leonine than demonically feline. However I’m a bit concerned that the high, stiffened-lace collar will ‘dandify’ him, and if that proves to be the case, then I’ll certainly jettison it. The costume must recede, unlike in the film, where Marais-as-Beast seems almost defined by the silhouette of his ornate doublet with its standing collar and trailing sleeves.

Note that La Bête’s ‘vampire’ fangs have now been painted in.

Below: construction of a Bunraku puppet revealed when the garments are removed.

Lynne Lamb and the Wolf

Above: Lynne Lamb’s painting of her wolf puppet

Below: the muse poses with his portrait


I planned not to post any images of finished puppets for the Artlog Puppet Challenge Exhibition prior to the event. However, today I’m making an exception because Lynne Lamb has been prolific in her manufacture of puppets for the Challenge, and so we have some still in reserve for the exhibition. (Her first puppet was a wonderfully creepy Snow Queen that I wrote about HERE.) But principally I wanted to show this because it’s the most perfect example of ‘process’ in art, which is what I’m always trying to encourage in the Artlog occasional open exhibitions.

In the studio I process ideas by creating maquettes and models which become the sources of my drawings and then paintings, and on the Artlog I’ve encouraged artists to try out the idea to see how it suits them. Although for many of the participants the Puppet Challenge will primarily be about making a puppet, clearly for some of those taking part the process has gone further, whether because they plan on making ‘performances’ and visual records of the puppets, or as in Lynne’s case, the puppet-making process has led directly back to painting. Moreover this particular painting is freighted with all that Lynne has learned in the process of dreaming up and then building the puppet, and it’s all the better for that. There is an intimacy and understanding of the puppet as an object, because the painter created it. This is a painting with real presence.

Lynne’s first images for her wolf puppet were made digitally, and from the start there was a liveliness of vision.

Not content with making one wolf puppet, she set off with all creative guns blazing, first designing and building a glove-puppet, and then an ambitious three-headed wolf marionette. There was no sense that she was over-thinking how these were going to be constructed. The drawings are all about character, and from Lynne’s reports of progress on her blog, she just threw herself into making them, solving problems inventively as she progressed. It was exhilarating to watch.

Puppet heads under construction

I’m not quite sure how the notion of a three-headed wolf came about, but the interesting thing was the way in which despite the clear technical challenges of the puppet, from the start it seemed right, as though the artist’s vision was so vivid and fully-formed, that it was less a case of creating the puppet than letting it emerge as it needed to. Less a construct, than a birth.

One moment this three-headed, shaggy-coated Cerberus was fearsomely demonic…

… and the next, re-imagined for Red Riding Hood, winsomely frocked-up as a three-headed-wolf-in-grandma’s-clothing.

Now working in a white-hot frenzy, Lynne was not content with just making the puppets, but was creating portraits of them before the glue can even have dried. Initial design, craftsmanship of making and subsequent paintings and drawings, scampered along at breakneck speed. Looking at her blog from day to day I was staggered at the pace she set herself. It was as though there were no spaces between the thoughts and the realising of them. Work poured out of her.

So let’s all raise our glasses in a toast to this extraordinary artist. For Lynne Lamb there seem to be no divisions between the various expressions of her creativity. Deft and sure at every turn, she fixes her gaze on a goal and doesn’t give up until she’s reached it, realised it, wrenched it from the realm of ideas and into actuality. Her studio must be a dream-like place, a machine for making. Peter Slight and I threw down the challenge to her, and she set off like a rocket, so far over-reaching what might have been expected that she produced enough work to fill a gallery. She never hung around while wondering where to find ‘this or that’ to make her puppets. Broken Christmas decorations, bits of old jewellery, shredded and pulled-thread canvas… even the cardboard tubes hoarded from used rolls of dog-poo bags… all were pressed into use. She said right at the beginning that she was taking up the Puppet Challenge because she was recuperating from a broken arm, and the project suited her need to regain flexibility in it. I wouldn’t wish a broken arm on anyone, but if ever there was an example of misfortune being transformed into creativity, then this is it.

Brava, Lynne. Brava, Brava, Brava! I doff my cap and bend my knee. You are ‘The Biz’!

La Bête


My head for La Bête: gessoed and painted papier-mâché and hemp fibre

With only until the end of next month for work to be completed for the Artlog Puppet Challenge, I think that Peter Slight and I should probably hold back from showing any more progress by contributors, or there will be no surprises on the day. My own puppet is moving along at a reasonable lick, though I started… as I suspect many participants did… later than I’d hoped. My plans were to make a Beast and his Beauty to go with him, but the latter puppet will have to be a long-term project as I don’t have the time to make a pair right now.

My inspiration was La Belle et la Bête, the Jean Cocteau film of 1946 starring the luminous Josette Day as Beauty (I don’t believe there has been an actor in the cinema who has surpassed her enigmatically layered performance of the character) and the smouldering (literally so in the scene where his hands burn… see above) Jean Marais in the role of the tormented Beast. Not wanting to make a doll-like facsimile of Marais, instead I took the leonine concept and turned it into something more pared-down and appropriate to a puppet. I concentrated on the wide cheekbones, the blazing eyes and the high hairline, all of which had been similarly emphasised in the bust of the character made by Marais later in life, when in another act of transformation, he reinvented himself as a notable ceramic artist. Two casts of his self-portrait-as-la-Bête, bookend the front of his tomb at Vallauris.

The tomb of Jean Marais

I’ve purposefully kept the head of my beast quite rough in texture, as I don’t gravitate toward a high refinement in my own puppet-making, though I admire that quality in others who do it well. (The brilliant Ronnie Burkett, for example.) I left the gessoed surface of the head unsanded, the better to give some ‘tooth’ for the paint. The snaky, dreadlocked wig and beard are made from twisted hemp. The fangs have yet to be added. Today I plan to make his paws and talons, which I’m going to particularly emphasise with their size and spikiness. (Not quite ‘Wolverine’ but larger than the claws Marais wore.)

A puppet is a cypher. Unlike a human actor, whose facial expressions can change, the puppet actor has to rely on other means to convey its thoughts to the audience. Marais’ La Bête was undoubtedly beautiful in its monstrousness, and that beauty is the aspect I decided to jettison. Instead I tried to find his wildness and torment, and the actor’s subtle depiction of humanity being overwhelmed by a bestial nature, which is something I felt I might be able to achieve in this construct of papier-mâché, plaster and paint. I’m quite surprised by how like a Japanese Kabuki actor the little fellow has turned out to be. Even in repose he bristles with unexpected energy.

My original drawing was of a rather elaborately costumed puppet, though the reality is going to be slightly less so, as I want the head and hands to be where the viewer focuses. I’ve made the puppet in black and white, to reference the film, rather than using the vivid blues, reds and golds that have been removed from this image of the design.

La Bête


I’ve finally and belatedly started work on my puppet for Peter Slight’s Puppet Challenge at the Artlog. I have barely any time to complete it, and so my approach is to be fast and rough. I’d intended to wood-carve the head and paws, and had various devices in mind, such as a hand-close mechanism in the style of Bunraku. But all that has been jettisoned in favour of a relatively simple combination glove/rod puppet made from wood and papier mâché.

From the beginning I’ve been cautious about making the puppet too much a ‘doll’ of Jean Marais in his iconic role of La Bête.

And so while I’m nodding in the direction of Jean Cocteau’s film, I’m not making my ‘Beast’ a facsimile of its inspiration. Everything has been pared back to a puppet simplicity.

I began yesterday evening with a card ‘cage’, made in a few minutes as the foundation to work over. I secured it atop the control rod.

I layered paper gum-strip over the foundation to make the rough shape I had in mind, padded out eyes, nose and lips with tightly wadded gift-wrap tissue-paper glued into place, and then made the final gum-strip layers.

By bedtime I was done, and the head was left on top of the Aga to dry out overnight to a lightweight but rigid shell. This morning I roughly felt-tipped in some features to check that the shape was going to be right when painted, and now I’ll begin applying the layers of gesso that will build up a good surface to work on.

Once gessoed and painted, I’ll add the wig, which I’ll fabricate from hemp.


Here are some images of the head now it’s been painted. It’s become darker and scarier than I’d anticipated. Not as handsome as Marais’ Beast. It has a wide-eyed, frozen-expression that seems to reference Japanese Kabuki performances.

coming soon to a screen near you

For the Puppet Challenge Artlogger Karen Godfrey has made not only a magnificent marionette of Frida Kahlo, but a film in which the puppet plays the starring role. And moreover not just the film, but the trailer to publicise it. (See below.) Well done Karen. You are an inspiration to us all.

Above: Karen’s design for her puppet.

The finished film will be screened at the Artlog during the Puppet Challenge Exhibition.

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

Make way for Mummenshanz

mummenschanz 5

Hello, Peter Slight of the Puppet Challenge here.

Mummenshanz are a Swiss mask theatre troupe founded in 1972 and still going today.

Much of what they do is mime based, usually with a comical and surreal vein running through it. They also create some truly astonishing full body costumes and puppets made from all manner of things, usually quite mundane household items, which they bring to life in odd and unexpected ways. The characters they create dance and interact with each other using precise economic almost balletic movements which I find compelling to watch.



mummenschanz 3

Having seen lots of clips of Mummenshanz I still find it hard to acaccurately  describe what it is they do!



Their appearance on the Muppet Show in 1976 helped to push them into the mainstream.



The name Mummenshanz is German for ‘mummery’, or a play involving mummers. Mummer is an early modern english term for a mime artist.



It’s interesting to note that many of the comments left under the Youtube clips are divided between gasps of delight and shudders of horror.

Mummenshanz may be the visual equivalent of free-form jazz, you either love it, or want to pull your ears off and run away. I will leave you to decide which camp you fall into after watching them in action here


puppet challenge logo

People in Puppets

Hello, Peter Slight of the Puppet Challenge here.

Full figure or puppet costumes are an aspect of puppetry that I’ve always found interesting. These larger than life characters blur the line between puppet and costume, forming a kind of hybrid.

The actors inside these cumbersome costumes must endure limited vision and extreme heat whilst totally inhabiting the character with their entire physical being to give a convincing impression of life and personality expressed through a compelling and nuanced performance. A difficult task which requires the strength and skill of an athlete.

There have been so many memorable performances over the years featured in film, theatre and television that I won’t do a role call of  ‘people in puppets’ as it would just end up as a list. Instead I wanted to show two of my favourites.

In 1985 the Glyndebourne Opera House staged a version of Maurice Sendaks classic childrens’ book ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ as a double bill alongside another of his childrens books ‘Higglety Pigglety Pop’

Maurice designed all of the sets and backdrops. Which looked just as lush and inviting as you would expect. How I wish I could have seen this!

 You can see part of the Opera here

Above: Maurice and friend

In 1917 Picasso provided the costume and set designs for Jean Cocteau’s ballet, ‘Parade’ .

Picasso’s designs include this picadors horse which was operated by two people, in the style of an old pantomime horse, as seen in his sketch below.

Panomime Horse study

You can just make out in the sketch that the horse was intended to have a rider. This must have been pretty hard going on the person playing the back legs!

I just love these costume designs below, they are completely mad and pure Picasso. The poor actors inside could barely move they are so encased in their box like housings. I love the pipe holding arm extension on the costume below.