2014 Artlog Open Exhibition: The Puppet Challenge Introduction

The Puppet Challenge is the third annual ‘Open Exhibition’ at the Artlog, and the one that has had the longest lead-up. It has generated far more subscribers than either of the previous exhibitions, and as such I shall spread it over a number of posts throughout the rest of the month. The exhibition was the idea of Peter Slight, who both suggested it and then set about researching and inviting participants. At the Artlog all-comers have always been welcomed to the open exhibitions, but this year, in addition to those who volunteered to take part, Peter actively sought a commitment from many artists and illustrators he admires, and just about all of those approached, accepted.

Peter’s enthusiasm and his love of the subject matter run throughout the exhibition, and I should say a word about how he and I came to know each other, because it’s germane to the theme of the Challenge. Many years ago, when I was disentangling myself from a long theatre career that I had grown disenchanted with, I was invited to concept-design what for want of a better description might be called a ‘ghost-house’ for a theme-park. I was dead-broke and I accepted the offer. It was a big project and I worked on it for a long time. The theme was ‘myths and folklore’. For reasons I won’t expand on it wasn’t a very happy experience, and at the end of it I was glad to be finished. Through no devising of my own, my name hadn’t been publicly attached to the project, and there was… and indeed I believe there remains still… no credit to me on site for writing the scenario and script, or designing the environment and characters.

Above: my character design for a troll

All this was before my career as a painter, and frankly I was later relieved that the episode had been lost, fallen into the no-man’s land between my time in the theatre and what came afterwards. I hadn’t given the project a thought in years when, unexpectedly at the Artlog, a comment appeared, naming the park and the ‘attraction’, enquiring whether I’d had anything to do with them!

Peter Slight was the writer. I confessed that I had been the designer, and offline I agreed, not without misgivings, to an extended interview with him. I dug out my designs and e-mailed copies to him. I reminisced and explained candidly about why I’d been happy to forget about the experience. Peter wrote back that the attraction had hugely impressed him when he was young, and he’d visited repeatedly with his family because he loved it so much. He maintains that my work on it influenced his career-choice, and he continues to track down long-buried information about the attraction in preparation for writing an article about it. The article has yet to appear, but nevertheless, here I am, decades on from my theme-park project, with Peter, probably its only remaining fan, curating a Myths and Legends Puppet Challenge at my blog! We have, needless to say, become good friends.

Back to business. There is always a ‘drop-out’ from projects as complicated as this one, but very few ‘challengers’ have chosen not to complete. By contrast there have been many requests for extra time, citing reasons both plausible and along the lines of ‘the-dog-ate-my-homework!’ and beyond. In all cases extra time has been granted. (And continues to be granted, given that the exhibition is being stretched over the rest of this month.) I completely understand how sometimes an idea has to ‘cook’ for quite a while, and there have been a fair share of makers who have cogitated at leisure and then produced at breakneck speed. There have been those who have worked steadily at their puppet projects throughout, and some who attacked the work with immediate and almost unbelievable gusto, producing not one but many puppets.

There are puppet films and animations. We have stop-motion and video performances. Some of the results remain incomplete, and are to be shown as works-in-progress. What blazes through the whole, is a commitment by artists and makers to challenge themselves, even when the journey is freighted with doubt and a sense of being perplexed. Some ‘got it’ from the start. Others battled courageously in the face of what they perceived to be their own failures, though refused to give up. It’s been exciting and heart-warming to watch. Wherever possible, and when asked, Peter Slight and I have offered advice and suggestions. Already I see evidence of exposure to puppet-making changing the ways in which some artists approach their daily studio practice, reminiscent of my own epiphany when I began to invent and construct maquettes as a way of building compositional forms. Makers are using their puppets as models, or plan further puppet-making, or puppet films. Some challengers, Peter Slight among them, have fantasised about running away to be itinerant puppet-showmen, carrying their casts of characters in puppet vans and carts, like the puppeteers of the past. One, Andrew Grundon, is actually making his dream a reality, and I’m sure I’ll be posting more about that in the future.


The curtain is about to go up on the 2014 Artlog Open Exhibition, The Puppet Challenge. The cast gather backstage, and there is anticipation in the audience. Soon I’ll post the first instalment of the exhibition. Well done to all who got this far, and good luck to those still racing to the finishing line. (I’m quite sure you’ll all come up trumps in the remaining time.) Right now my thoughts are with the family of Rachel Gibson, who was to have taken part in the exhibition, but who died unexpectedly before completing her work for it. We can only guess at what she may have produced.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Chapter-headings in this post by Peter Slight

pour encourager les autres

Artloggers’ fingers have been busy busy busy, and today, by way of an encouragement, I post a cache of images sent to me and to curator Peter Slight by some of you already underway with the Puppet Challenge. A number of contributors are still in the world of notions and sketches, while others have been off from the starting blocks like steeplechasers, and are already on a second… or in some cases a third… puppet.

Philippa Robbins has been preoccupied with making puppet heads for some months.

I’m not too sure whether the most recent (see below) is for the Puppet Challenge or for a separate puppet-related project that Philippa and I are working on. I suspect that at this point it doesn’t really matter. She’s been making no preparatory sketches, but just confidently launches straight in with the making and gets wonderful results.

Ruth Barrett-Danes takes 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 tomb.

‘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.’

In Italy, Anna Marchi has her sights set on the darkly glittering tale of Duke Bluebeard. At her blog she engagingly describes him as:

 ‘but a shadow, pale blue in the face.’ 

… which I like rather a lot.

Like Ruth Barrett-Danes, Nicky Arscott has found inspiration in a song. She writes:

‘The figure is Lillie Flower, a tragic heroine from a folk ballad called ‘Jellon Grame’. Her horrible lover kills her, as usual. It’s all a bit violent and tragic, but I quite like the idea of being able to stitch her up and bring her back to life again.’

Caroline McCatty is excavating inspiration from the Chinese fairytale of The Flying Ogre, in which the eponymous giant disguises himself as a little girl. This carries Caroline into the wonderful world of transformation puppets… a tradition that I love… and I greatly look forward to seeing how she manages the trick. She writes:

‘I had the idea of making a little girl glove-puppet whose head will open and the ogre will be inside.’

It looks as though beasts and animals are to feature quite a lot. Val Littlewood has made this atmospheric sketch of a dragon puppet she plans to make:

Lynne Lamb’s second puppet of the challenge is a wolf:

Chloe Redfern has plans for King Arthur on his steed:

and illustrator Judy Watson is exploring the idea of the kangaroo Greyfur from the Australian fairytale Whispering in the Wind.

We will be posting occasional updates of puppets in progress, so please keep us up to speed with your ideas and work. In the meantime you may enjoy casting an eye over the Guides to Puppetry I’ve been offering as inspiration. Click to find find posts on Glove-Puppets, Shadow Puppets and Marionettes parts 1 and 2 . There’s also a post on Dada and Constructivist Marionettes of the Twentieth Century. (You can’t say I don’t cast my net wide!) Still to come are posts on the Japanese puppet-tradition of Bunraku, Rod-Puppets and Hybrid-Puppets.