In 2013 Nordaas released the beguiling film Thale (which I recently found out was pretty much made in his father’s basement!), drawing on Norway’s rich folklore to explore the concept of certain forest spirits, the huldra. A beautiful, tricksy supernatural being–with the tail of a cow, according to Scandinavian myth. I recall seeing this odd little gem of a film and being absolutely entranced, from beginning to end. I bet a few of you have seen it as well.
It seems Nordaas has been obsessed with the huldra for nearly a lifetime, and recounts hearing stories from his grandmother about these creatures:
And I guess that’s where it started; my belief in the huldra. Some inherit their parents faith and religion – my grandmother made me believe in human-like creatures with tails.
The folklore proved true, he observes: once she gets hold of you, she won’t let go. And five years later, Nordaas created his second huldra project: Heim (Home.) A short film “about finding home with oneself – the back to basics, remembering who we are, w[h]ere and how we got here. And how to use that (self-)insight to change course.” For the endeavor, he aimed to get ahold of six extras. But ended up with 54!
From this interest, the idea of the book was born, the concept for which initially was to create a photography book portraying the folklore creature herself, in all kinds of traditional and modern settings. Nordaas shares that though the old folklore stories and creatures have always fascinated him, it’s the huldra in particular that he’s drawn to – “perhaps because she’s the most complex of them all, being quite similar to us humans. And it was that very human essence that turned this project into something a lot more than just fiction.”
He goes on to explain:
“The human side of the project – making sure everyone were 100% OK with everything before, during and after the shoot – wasn’t just my major priority. It re-shaped the whole project..Body-positivity was and is a core aim of the project; that we’re all of different shapes, sizes, colors and ages. It’s what makes us all unique, it’s the most natural thing in the world – and it’s absolutely ridiculous that it needs to be repeated over and over again.”
After one of the early shoots, Nordaas sent the model some sample pictures and got this in return: “Takk for at du ser meg.” (“Thank you for seeing me.”)
“The Huldra” is the combo of that raw, natural and powerful creature that the huldra is, and all these authentic, badass North Norwegian women portraying her, and themselves – side by side, in flock. All these stories, all these different lives, challenges, sorrows and joys – the lives lost, and the lives brewing. They’re all part of the project for different reasons, ranging from “Why the hell not?” to dealing with the deep-down personal; shattered body images, eating disorders, self-harm and abuse.
Though not in words, all these stories are in here.In the faces, the scars, the tattoos – in what once was, and now is.
We all need to be seen –for who we are,not necessarily were.”
What a glorious sentiment and a gorgeous freaking project. I wish I could figure out out to share the video on my blog here, but instead of saying more and giving the whole thing away, I hope you’ll take a peek at Aleksander’s Kickstarter page and consider backing this stunning book of intimate power, vulnerability, and magic.
Juliane has previously reviewed both The Art of Darkness and The Art of the Occult, and it was a real pleasure to share a bit about the process that went into these writings and the curation of the art included in the books, as well as having the opportunity to articulate why I even want to write about–or look at!–these things in the first place!
My fantastical, fabulous friends! I am so excited for Kjersti Faret’s Everyday Fantasy Clothing Collection, which she just launched on Kickstarter earlier this month–and I think you will be, too! I have long been a fan of the fierce, joyous, tender oddball sensiblilities manifesting in her art, which explores fascinating facets of art history, queerness, and the occult (read more about this in a previous interview with Kjersti)
…and now we can WEAR some of this artful magic!
The “Everyday Fantasy: Clothing Collection” is inspired by medieval art and fantasy worlds but made for daily life. A dress, tunic, leggings and cincher belt – each piece has been thoughtfully designed by artist Kjersti Faret, the creator behind Cat Coven. The clothing is made in LA and is available for all genders in sizes small – 5XL. Right now the campaign is live on Kickstarter, which ends October 1st.
Read further for Kjersti’s insights regarding the inspiration and process for this marvelous, and I will insist –MUCH-NEEDED– collection, and get a peek at all of the magical pieces that will be available!
I love dressing up in fantastical clothing (think Renaissance Faire) but most of it is impractical for everyday life. I took the designs I love and made them to suit modern wardrobes while still feeling playful. Most fabric is made from a machine-washable blend of linen and rayon, and everything has POCKETS! Also, when I usually see a beautiful laced-up dress, they’re just a solid color and I wanted to make it more whimsical with the prints. I want my clothing to be fun!
I put a lot of humor in my work and the art that gets me excited are things filled with silliness. Medieval manuscripts are my number one all-time favorite inspiration since they’re serious religious texts with silly doodles in the margins. These monks are spending the majority of their time crafting these, and yet the margins are filled with pooping monkeys or nuns picking dicks off a tree. To me, those manuscripts are the physical embodiment of “don’t take life too seriously.”
The “Tapestry” fabric pattern was inspired by various medieval tapestries and the classic “mille fleur” (“thousand flowers”) pattern that was popular in the middle ages and early Renaissance. I created some of my own creatures to add into the pattern based on other forms of historical art like manuscripts as well. While coloring the design I tried to imagine I was a weaver and what would translate well to graphic shapes in a textile. That’s what helped me choose colors and shapes, to keep it as authentic as I could to the source material.
The patterns were drawn on multiple pieces of computer paper with microns. To make the pattern repeat you have to shuffle the squares around as you draw so all the edges meet. Once the ink part was done, I scanned and stitched it in photoshop and added the color digitally.
The “Armor” pattern was inspired by decorative etchings on armor. A lot of the armor I looked at was “costume” armor, or armor that was worn for ceremonial events and was way too fancy to have actually been worn out on a battlefield. There are so many good examples in the Met’s Arms and Armor exhibit. None of it is a copy from historical references – I created my own filigree swirls and put in creatures that are nods to existing beings or my own imaginings. If you take a close look at this pattern it’s like a weird “where’s Waldo?” game. Little witches, toads, faces, and boobies are hidden throughout.
Being an art history nerd, I also named each piece after some of my favorite artists.
The Leonora Belt is named after surrealist Leonora Carrington. I love her work so much and think she would have enjoyed the sphinxes in the screen printed design.
The Edvard tunic is named after my favorite expressionist, Edvard Munch who you will know as the artist behind The Scream. A secondary layer to the name is that it’s a nod to Edward Teach A.K.A. Blackbeard, because inspirations for the shirt came from “pirate shirts”. By that I mean, shirts pirates usually wear in movies and television shows. It’s got a loose flowy fit that goes perfect with a belt and of course, has pockets.
The Artemisia Leggings are named after Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, who I just love and wanted to name something after her. The leggings are made from recycled water bottles. They also have “chito sante” (organic biomass from crab and shrimp shells AKA food waste) impregnated on the fabric, which gives it anti-bacterial and moisture wicking properties. Side pockets are perfect for cell phones.
The Gunhild dress is named after someone nobody will recognize because it’s my own grandmother. She was an artist and art teacher who passed away in 2020, partly due to Covid. Without her encouragement in my early years, I wouldn’t be the artist I am today.
I love this dress because it looks like a princess dress but it’s actually comfortable and there is a practicality to it – the laces in the back are adjustable. If you gain or lose a few inches, the dress can be adjusted to your shape. And of course, pockets!
The inclusive sizing was really important to me. Right now the range is from small to 5XL, but if I continue doing clothes like this in the future I’d like to expand it further. A lot of brands (both small and large) barely go beyond 3X (and a lot of times they aren’t even true plus size measurements). I looked at other true plus-size brands to make sure we got the measurements right. As a very small business, I understand how expensive it can get to grade so many sizes. But at a certain point (for larger companies) it becomes a conscious choice to exclude larger bodies.
When it comes to how clothes fit, I personally dread it when I gain or lose a few pounds over the years because then my favorite pieces become too tight or too baggy. Each piece in this collection is meant to be forgiving. The leggings are stretchy and the laces on the bottom give a little extra room in your calf if you want. The dress has adjustable lacing, as does the Leonora belt. The tunic has a flowy, loose shape that can be worn as is or cinched with a belt. So while the prices are more expensive, it’s because they are made of high-quality materials and fair labor and are made to evolve with your body.
This collection is really an ode to art history and the craftspeople that came before me. So many artisans throughout history were anonymous or just lost to time. Printmakers, etchers, weavers, embroiderers, woodcarvers, engravers – these and more are all crafts that inspire me and require much time and dedication to become a master. Some of these I’ve tried myself so I know the patience required and how tedious the processes can be. A big project like this couldn’t have been created without many hands. I had a great production team and factories in LA that helped make this collection a reality.
All the chainmaille in these photos is hand woven by It Is Known, a women-owned small business in NYC. Get 10% off on Itisknown.net with code COVENXKNOWN10 until October 1, 2022.
I still can’t get over the beautiful vision that Alyssa Thorne brought to life with the darkly flamboyant gorgeousness of these promotional photos for The Art of Darkness. I mean…JUST LOOK AT THEM.
I realized that I’d shared them everywhere except for here on the blog, so today I am rectifying that oversight. And once you are done gorging your eyeballs on the profound beauty of these images, I entreat you to have a look at Alyssa’s website, where she has this week released her stunning Autumn Collection!
One of my very favorite things is to work closely with a beloved artist whose work I adore and together, we endeavor to bring a weird vision or dream to life. Granted, my input is minimal and vague and probably not too helpful, so trust me when I sing the praises of these creators’ brilliance. Taking my infinitesimal, unformed inkling of an idea and somehow these makers are able to coax forth, conceptualize, develop, construct and create exactly what was in my head? What witchcraft, what wizardry!
But not really magic at all, as fun as that is to think about. It’s the hard work of *really* listening when someone shares their dreams with you, and the knowing which are the important questions to ask to tease out further details to gild the lily of that special dream. Its dedication and diligence to excelling at their craft, and all of the hard, sometimes weird, and vulnerable work that goes into it. Knowing this as I do, I am so appreciative every time someone has wrought something beautiful from my reveries!
The Midnight Stinks Patreon vanity banner by Becky Munich is one such meeting of minds and the fabulous artistic consequence that ensued. Today I wanted to share another such dreamy bit of synergy: this glorious Midnight Stinks tableaux by Alyssa Thorne, photographer of lustrous blooms and kindred glooms in the fluttery signs and tenebrous twilights of her gorgeous midnight floriography.
I am a firm believer in accessible art for everyone, and I am always so pleased when artists offer smaller-sized prints, postcards, and even bookmarks. Working with Alyssa, we have made a limited number of postcard-sized versions of this piece, and they are not for sale. They are *only* for the stinkers on my Patreon. I hope to get them in the mail for patrons sometime in the next few weeks and I hope that you love them as much as I do.
It’s mid-August. I am ready for you, Autumn. Any time now, okay?
Well, until you see fit to grace us with your presence, I’m just going to slip into the warm, waning light of these paintings and the shadowy autumnal promises of a few poems. Care to sit quietly with me for a while?
UNDER THE HARVEST MOON BY CARL SANDBURG
Under the harvest moon,
When the soft silver
Over the garden nights,
Death, the gray mocker,
Comes and whispers to you
As a beautiful friend
Under the summer roses
When the flagrant crimson
Lurks in the dusk
Of the wild red leaves,
Love, with little hands,
Comes and touches you
With a thousand memories,
And asks you
Beautiful, unanswerable questions.
FALL, LEAVES, FALL BY EMILY BRONTË
Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen day and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.
FIRST FALL BY MAGGIE SMITH
I’m your guide here. In the evening-dark
morning streets, I point and name.
Look, the sycamores, their mottled,
paint-by-number bark. Look, the leaves
rusting and crisping at the edges.
I walk through Schiller Park with you
on my chest. Stars smolder well
into daylight. Look, the pond, the ducks,
the dogs paddling after their prized sticks.
Fall is when the only things you know
because I’ve named them
begin to end. Soon I’ll have another
season to offer you: frost soft
on the window and a porthole
sighed there, ice sleeving the bare
gray branches. The first time you see
something die, you won’t know it might
come back. I’m desperate for you
to love the world because I brought you here.
Note: this interview with Han of Handsome Devils Puppets was a collaboration between Maika and I for Haute Macabre, a few years back. I love writing with Maika, they are the most thoughtful and imaginative partner-in-crime to work alongside, and I know this interview was a dream come true for both of us. Unfortunately, the Haute Macabre blog is gone and it broke our hearts to think that no one would read Han’s marvelous insights or get to peer inside her big, weird, beautiful heart again. So, we fixed that. And so now you can find it here, at Unquiet Things, eternally. We love you, Han.
Speaking from a writer’s perspective, interviews are funny things. Although this introduction is what you’re reading first, it was the very last thing written. It was also, somehow, the hardest part for me to write. Sarah and I had a wonderful time composing questions for Han. The hard work, as far as I’m concerned, was for Han herself, answering all our queries, which she did so thoroughly and thoughtfully, with grace and humor, with beautiful frankness and vulnerability. Sarah and I were both a mess of tears while reading her answers. (Consider yourself forewarned: have the tissues handy.) All I’m supposed to do here is get you from the top of the screen to those Qs and As. But I have such deep, intense feelings about the work of Handsome Devils Puppets. I’m so ensorcelled by Han’s every creation and performance, and I’ve been fortunate to grow to count her as a dear friend, that I don’t know how to verbalize any of those things.
Thank goodness you’re not here to listen to me rhapsodize about how much I love Han and everything she does. You don’t actually need to know that I first began interacting with Han when I contacted her in hopes of commissioning Eve and Adam from Only Lovers Left Alive.
Or about how last year I sat down and lost myself in the process of describing a piece of my heart to her and how she has since created an exquisite vessel for it.
You also don’t need to know that I finally got to see Han perform here in Portland during her 2018 West Coast tour. Or how my cats met Pips. Okay, maybe you do need to know that. My cats met Pips! Mutual nose sniffing took place. Who am I kidding? I met Pips! And I got to give Han hugs, which I want to do pretty much every time I exchange messages with her.
I hope you enjoy reading Han’s interview as much as I did. It might seem straightforward and simple, but I find there’s something magical about coming up with questions for another person – someone you consider extraordinary – and having them answer those questions and trust you with their answers. Sarah and I so enjoyed this co-interviewing process that we’re hoping Handsome Devils Puppets marks the first in an ongoing series of cooperative interviews with singular people who endlessly inspire us.
S. Elizabeth:Do you recall your first knowledge of the existence of puppets? I sure do. It was lady Elaine, the eccentric and (to my three-year-old brain) oddly glamorous old broad who ran the Museum Go Round in Mister Roger’s neighborhood. I was both captivated and vaguely disturbed by the stillness of her ruddy wooden features and unblinking blue eyes fixed in an eternal semi-squint, as contrasted by the scratchy, but lively, and very human voice asking the silly questions and posing ridiculous solutions that came out of her inanimate scarlet smirk.
This initial awareness of these uncanny vessels that we can bring to life by manipulation and mastery of their tiny movements has led to a life-long…not quite fascination…but a sort of hushed reverence, stupefied awe, really, for puppets, and puppetry, and the artists who create and control them. The idea that we can give voice to our thoughts through the mouth of a completely separate entity, even and especially when our thoughts aren’t actually very nice, seems to me like a fantastical catharsis, and is partially what brought about the idea to commission Han, whose Handsome Devils Puppet work I had quietly admired for ever so long, for a mini marionette version of Sei Shonagon.
Shonagon was a brilliant diarist, poet, and courtier, but also a bit of a Heian-era mean girl and guru of gossip, rumor, and scandal. I have long loved her writings: her elegant lists, her acerbic observations, her beautifully intimate and wonderfully catty diaries; these strangely random and tangential stories have informed and inspired my own writings for many, many years now, but if I am being honest, it is this mean streak that appears throughout her beautiful, clever writings that fascinates me endlessly.
Now, though, this marvelous vessel that Han created from the wisp of an idea and from what beautiful bones and scraps I could scarcely guess, I have an exorcist for my unkind scrutinies, my snarky opinions and observations, and my highly critical notions. Little Sei Shonagon with her clever brush and invisible ink coaxes my ugliness into the ether and leaves no trace of its unflattering existence. From her perpetually suppressed smile, I almost believe that she derives no small amusement from the expulsion of my cranky demons, and, while indulging myself in daydreams, I often recall the long-ago Lady Elaine’s tiny sneer and I am quite certain these two would either be great friends, or great rivals, or both!
But back to the business at hand. As Maika mentions above, we had such great fun in our back and forth brainstorming and bouncing ideas off of each other for this Handsome Devils Puppets interview. It was terribly daunting but so massively thrilling to put together these questions for Han about her inspirations and processes and great loves and wonderments– and for me, who has not yet had the opportunity to meet this incredible artist in person yet, it was an extraordinary look into a dazzling mind and a heart so big, there seems no end to the pieces of it you’ll find in her remarkable creations.
Prepare to be thoroughly enchanted and to have your heart broken and humbled and reformed anew as we take an intimate, emotional, and powerfully human peek at the lives of Han of Handsome Devil Puppets and her sentiment of spirits. I hope you will take as much pleasure in reading the following interview as we have in dreaming it, creating it, and sharing it with you.
M+S: Why puppets? You’ve spoken about how making and performing with puppets came to you during a particularly dark period of your life. Without prying into what was going on in your life at the time, why do you think it was through puppetry that you found your voice, as opposed to another creative outlet or form of performance?
HDP: I actually fell upon puppets quite by accident while accompanying a friend to a craigslist audition to be her ‘muscle’ (because what screams ‘murder’ louder than a puppet show audition in a warehouse?). I was recovering, floundering, alone, reclusive and without a voice in a city that was far bigger than anything I’d ever experienced. Life seemed a fanged, gaping mouth and I a mere scrap in its teeth. The audition ended not with murder but with an offer to help build the upcoming show. I wasn’t an actor, I had previously wept my way through a failed semester of 2D art, quit ballet after 6 years, piano after 10. I had so much to say, so much to feel and suddenly there was clay in my hands aching to sing and dance, to do everything and say everything I thought I couldn’t. There were no rules here. It was salvaged components and salvaged people weaving the silliest, saddest stories. It was all so heavy and so light.
Do you find yourself expressing things through your puppets that you’d never say otherwise? Not even necessarily things you’d dare not say, but simply things that wouldn’t have occurred to you until the puppet brought them forth. Conversely, do you ever find yourself saying things to puppets that you wouldn’t say to a human?
This is one of my first and favorite things I learned about puppets. Being a ragtag group of starving, drinking artists, how we were going to get people to listen to us? The city was full of us, how do you make them listen? One beautiful example of our solution came when we performed a piece based on the Tom Waits song “Georgia Lee.” It tells the true story of 12-year-old Georgia Lee Moses who disappeared in ’97. She had a troubled home life, she was poor, she was African American, she was not reported missing, there was no front-page news story and no rallying cry. Georgia’s body was found under a tree next to the highway far too late and her killer has yet to be found. How do you address that? How do you bring people together and force them to care, force them to listen to this sickening, heartbreaking example of a much greater problem? Our solution was puppets, a little girl made of sticks, buried in the earth who emerged to dance with the moon before her twigs shattered and she returned to the earth. How could we have accomplished that ourselves? How else would we have made people face this darkness?
(And now a shorter answer if you prefer! I often will not address certain darkness in me until suddenly it’s coming to life in my hands, or until it’s being written in song. You become so accustomed to your own particular melancholy that you sometimes fail to feel its subtle shifts. I trust no one, connect with few, but I have poured forth every shadowed corner of my Self to a puppet on many a night.)
Why do you think it is that puppets appear to connect with people differently than humans connect with each other?
Puppets cannot lie! What you say, they say. What you do, they do. They are honest little vessels. They look like us, but stranger. They are us, but innocent. They are both cosmic and primitive. We want to believe in their magic. It may not make any sense right now, but I spent most of my life screaming into an abyss of faces and never truly felt heard until those screams were screamed by a puppet.
I had so much to say, so much to feel, and suddenly there was clay in my hands aching to sing and dance, to do everything and say everything I thought I couldn’t. There were no rules here. It was salvaged components and salvaged people weaving the silliest, saddest stories. It was all so heavy and so light.
Have you ever found a puppet? Something you didn’t make with your own two hands, perhaps something that one wouldn’t necessarily even recognize as a puppet, but you knew it for what it truly was when you saw it.
Are we counting Pedro, The Man Stuck in a Coffee bag? (….it was my child-hand…in a coffee bag…a riveting living room dramatic performance). Every single day. Everything is a puppet, I say this at all of my shows. If you feel powerless, pick up the nearest thing to you and literally have power over it. Make it fly, make it scream, make it dance. There is actually a form of performance very similar to puppetry call Object Theatre in which everyday, found objects are manipulated to tell the story. In a way it’s very therapeutic, to imagine how this plastic bottle would ‘breathe,’ watching the rise and fall of your own chest to and mirroring it in your little plastic pantomimist. In a different way, I also have a crippling need to puppet when I people-watch. There are some people who would make the most incredible puppets! (I was reprimanded at a job long ago for telling a woman that her “baby has good shapes.” …In my defense that baby was round and adorable and cartoonish and was just begging to be a puppet. Y’all, I haven’t an ounce of social grace…)
You have previously observed that, “The power of the puppet is vast, but it is little without the power of your person.” What, in your opinion, is the role of the puppeteer?
Just be honest. Above all things be honest, be human. You are bringing something to life, there cannot be any insincerity, there cannot be any pretense. I am just up there crying and sweating and manically jiggling a puppet around and there is truth in that, there is vulnerability despite me being in ‘control’ of them. It’s not about power in terms of skill, it’s about your willingness to pour your soul into this little vessel.
In your experience, do you find that puppets have a will of their own? Do your puppets develop opinions about each other? Do some prefer each other’s company or need to be kept apart?
Ooooh this is such a shameful bit of me. Maybe it’s a symptom of being a recluse, maybe I’m just unhinged but yes, yes and yes. With the increase in film and book characters in my work the strangest friendships are forged between puppets who share time on my table. Frida Kahlo mingled with Vincent Price. Tom Hiddleston chatted with a conjoined sheep.
If you feel powerless, pick up the nearest thing to you and literally have power over it. Make it fly, make it scream, make it dance.
In a 2017 interview, you shared that you started making puppets when you felt you didn’t have a voice, and that you “…sculpted powerful, magical women to dance and sing and cry and give me that voice.” This lends to a curious question on our part regarding that voice and how it factors into the genesis of each new creation. Do you start with that small soul’s voice, and give it form? Or create a vessel for it to take root? Further to that question (or perhaps to ask it another way?) at what point in the creation of a puppet do they come to life/wake up for you? Or are they alive from the moment you conceive of them?
It honestly happens in each of these ways, depending on the puppet. Sometimes while idly fiddling with clay it will take form and begin telling its own stories. Sometimes I sculpt from dreams. Sometimes I will experience something unbearable and the only way I can process it is by creating a puppet capable of doing so. In those instances the intention and the emotion are so potent it feels the puppet is crying out from the moment the mouth is carved. Now that I’m working with original songs more it has happened that a melody came first, the melody searches for the right voice to embrace it, and a character takes shape. It honestly can take some time for that spark of life, sometimes longer than I’d like. But oh when that spark catches tinder, I just cradle that little soul and let forth a litany of coos, cries, praises, affirmations, and REALLY embarrassing giggles.
Tell us about Grannie Good-Witch’s jewelry box! I believe this is a box of heirlooms that you incorporate into your various creations as are working on them, even to the point that you travel with it and it accompanies you on the road. We’d love to hear more about these precious pieces of your family history and are interested to know how/where/why you decide to parcel them out.
(I am coincidentally typing this on Granny’s birthday!) My Granny was an absolute bat. She had her faults, she had her lows, she was forgiven, she was accepted, a pattern for our gene pool. She would take my sister and I on adventures across the state in her car, “Pokey,” made of cigarette smoke and dog hair (or so it seemed to be to me) and tell us stories of her childhood adventures in China. Fortunately for me, grannie was a hoarder and I inherited many a box of her trinkets from jewelry to small toys. I, on the other hand, move around far too much to amass very much, so when I first needed puppet accessories I pulled from this magical tiny wooden chest. Since then my collection has grown to include other boxes of the baubles of a few other powerful, magical, misunderstood women who have left this plane. Some pieces I can’t bear to part with (great-grandma’s itty-bitty miniature pink hand-fan) but others are so special they beg to be shared. A fingernail-sized bird to perch on the edge of a victorian infant’s coffin, a tiny silver cross on a commissioned memorial piece, a snippet of her hospital bracelet in a Plague Doctor’s pouch, an onyx earring post becomes a brooch. The possibilities are as vast as the depths of her strangeness.
Most of your work is individually commission-based, but every once in a while we’re delighted to see a HDP small collection of roses, skellingtons, animals, or wee babies. What sparks the ideas/motivations for a limited release of these coteries of clay creatures?
There’s a technical, business reason behind them as well as emotional. I try to have a few releases a year to give people who cannot afford a marionette a chance to welcome a puppet into their home. It is so important to me to drown the world in puppets and I don’t want anyone to feel excluded due to finances. Once I feel it has come time for a release I keep a little portion of my brain open to receiving little whispers of what it should be, but you can’t rush it. They have to be simple but effective. They have to be puppetable. They have to tell a story. I think of themes or visuals that are accessible to people who are taking baby steps into strangeness but that are also of meaning to me. Often times you can catch a glimpse at where my life was by the collections i was releasing at the time. Conjoined animals when I longed for closeness. Post mortem victorian infants when I was coming to terms with my unpromising body. Little Roses that blow kisses when I decided to scoot the gloom aside for a moment.
What is your favorite thing about making and/or working with puppets? Between painstakingly creating these creatures, vs. animating, storytelling, performing with the pieces–which do you prefer? What do you get out of performing for an audience that you can’t from creating your puppets and working with them solo?
I know it’s cheating but I could never choose! They are such different beasts. When sculpting I get to be alone, crawl into myself and create and it is heaven, soothing. I learn so much about myself while creating. I learn so much about the world while researching for them. By all accounts I should hate performing. People everywhere, looking at me. Me making an absolute dingus of myself, spilling my guts, singing through stage-fright tremors, the opposite of the solitude of creating. But despite all of the terror, stress, anxiety, and vulnerability that comes with a show, I am addicted to it. The shows are a humbling chance to keep sacred the sorrows and needs of strangers. Yes, it is wonderful to get to sink into my own world, but there is a whole world of people out there just as human as me. And if just one of them leaves my show feeling heard, feeling healed, feeling something, then it is worth it and I will never stop. I will always come out of hiding for it.
Some puppeteers are actors more than puppeteers – their puppets serving as props more than anything else – but the puppets of other performers seem to either be living individuals or extensions of their puppeteers. How do you view your own method of performing?
I have seen some incredibly effective shows where the puppeteer is fully shrouded and the illusion of a sentient being is achieved, or where the puppeteer acts as their own character opposite the puppet. Both are effective and respected by me, but I make it no secret that I prefer to treat them as an extension. I believe in the magic of the illusion, but I don’t want that to become a distraction. You know it’s a puppet, you know I’m back here moving it, let’s focus on the story as opposed to the trick. These puppets are small and they can only emote so much so I make sure I’ve got a big ol’ face chock full of feelings. I feel their pain because it is my own, I celebrate their joys because they are my own, if I make a mistake, they make a mistake. It’s a far far cry from performing, it’s really just a conversation. That being said I (being the consummate professional) sometimes catch myself congratulating a puppet during a song for completing a move well, or console them if they look especially sad. It’s accidental (and embarrassing) but it helps me be easier on myself. If I can have empathy and love for these little creatures while they tell my story, shouldn’t I be able to love myself? Basically shows are my therapy and I am the most undeserving dirt-person to be able to do them for a living.
It’s not about power in terms of skill, it’s about your willingness to pour your soul into this little vessel.
During your live performances, you don’t use particular voices for your puppets, rather you serve as their respective voices. It’s as though you’re a puppet medium, a channeler. That represents a great deal of trust between you and the puppets. And there is clearly a great deal of affection between you and most of your puppets. But you also speak directly to them during your shows – do they speak back? We won’t ask you to divulge any of their secrets, but is there a language we cannot hear, that only you can?
The puppets are true professionals, I’m up there drinking and crying and talking, but I’ve never seen one break character. Even though I perform the same songs on each show of a tour, every show is different. Audiences respond differently to different songs, to different puppets. If I see certain faces reacting more I feed off of it and in turn the puppet does. The puppet becomes tasked with gaining that person’s trust, carrying them through to the end. I often find myself comforting a puppet when a piece is over or congratulating them. They pick up pieces of every person who connects with them. It’s a blessing and a burden and their little clay shoulders must carry it with grace night after night. Yikes, I’ve never sounded crazier than I do when I talk about puppets. With friends like these who needs hallucinogens?
Have you always performed solo? Or perhaps you’ve previously performed as part of a troupe/ensemble? Have you done other sorts of performances besides puppetry?
I never performed with that troupe I started out with, I only built. Used to having absolutely no organized idea of what I’m doing, I stuck to solo performing once I made my own company. I attempted theatre in high school (we don’t talk about it) and spent a good deal of time on stage during my ballet years (we can talk about half of those) but really my shows the past couple of years are my first attempts at singing/puppeting in public.
I spent most of my life screaming into an abyss of faces and never truly felt heard until those screams were screamed by a puppet.
Your live performances are very small and intimate. Do you see yourself ever performing in larger venues or is small and intimate your preference for the foreseeable future?
Every once and I while there will be a flash of that fantasy, a vague little pipe-dream of something bigger. But I really don’t think it suits me right now. The puppets would have to be larger and in turn I would likely have to recruit company members, something I am strongly opposed to doing. I’m too stubborn and horrible and intimately attached to this to subject innocent humans to the complete disaster that is my methods/life.
What do you hope your audience members get out of your performances?
HDP: Anything, any little thing. A glimmer of hope, a moment of levity, an assurance of their power. Hell even if it just brings them joy to see me making an ass of myself, I’ll take it. I’m genuinely floored each time anybody chooses to leave their house for what, on paper, sounds like an evening of watching that crazy old man on the street corner rave at you except he’s holding puppets and you have to sit on the floor. I open each show with a song I heard at a time in my life when I needed it most. It seemed to be written just for me, it calmed me, it gave me strength, I held it close until I didn’t need it anymore and now I have to believe that somewhere in some city is somebody who needs it as I did. I am humbled by the stories people bring to me after shows, completely reduced to rubble by their ability to so beautifully and purely be a part of this bizarre little journey.
If it’s alright with you, Han, we’d like to switch things up for a moment and ask a few questions of Pips and any other members of your menagerie who’d like to participate in the conversation.
How did you feel the moment you first opened your eyes, and what was the first thing you saw?
P: “Familiar. They say I had closed them for such a long time, but this same familiar face pressed close to mine. There was that same familiar feeling of being the only two creatures in the world. I saw my legs in a pile, my patient body waiting, I saw tears in two familiar eyes, two unfamiliar cats, curtains of lace. I felt real.”
Do you consider yourself a puppet?
P: “I do but it isn’t a bad thing. I’ve spent a longer time on this earth as a puppet than I did as a deer so, in a way, to be a puppet is to be more alive than ever before.”
In your opinion, what is the role of the puppet?
HDP: From a box in a corner comes a chorus of dusty voices, “Yes, tell us, Han! When comes our role?!” From atop a makeshift stage a wearied woman cries, “To mourn when the human heart can no longer bear to.” A ball of clay with the suggestion of a face mumbles through carved lips, “She had a recurring dream that plagued her, I’m here to understand it.” Pips glares, irritated at being interrupted, but softens to say “To tell a story, whatever that story may be”.
What have you learned from Han?
P: “I helped her survive. And my story could help others do the same. It seems like quite a task for a wee fawn that creaks and crumbles but I am powerful. Oh also, you can get out of a traffic ticket if I’m riding shotgun.”
What’s your favorite thing about working with Han/performing?
P: “The post-show chin-scratches from the audience! But mostly the post-show nighttime campsite/stranger’s house/cheap motel/truck stop cuddle times. I don’t want to embarrass Han but…she might have more successful relationships if we didn’t spoon so much…”
Now back to you, Han, what have you learned from your puppets?
I am powerful. I am incapable of sculpting ears but I am powerful. I am a great writhing, unstable mass of flesh and boiling blood who really didn’t need another excuse to stay inside and talk to herself but I found one and it made me powerful.
HM: Can you share any puppetry-specific influences? For those who don’t know much about puppetry, who else should we check out?
So many! Kevin McTurk and his company The Spirit Cabinet are creating the most truly breathtaking puppet films. I learned of them when I was just starting out on this journey and I remember thinking “Welp, I’d better just give up now cause I’ll never be this good and the real world will never be as perfect as the one he’s created.” Bruce Schwartz created and manipulated some of the most achingly beautiful puppets in the most poignant pieces. When I first learned of him my heart leapt to see a puppeteer whose methods were so similar to my own, from his decision to show his hands to his desire to force folks to feel. Watch his performance in The Double Life of Veronique and his bunraku feature on The Muppet Show and get ready to see what makes me cry. Ilka Schonbein will show you her viscera and make you like it. Handspring Puppet Company will make you question reality. Ugh, puppets are great.
Knowing that you’re a self-taught puppet-maker and puppeteer, do you have any advice for someone looking to get into puppetry themselves?
There is no wrong way to puppet. That’s the whole point of puppetry, it’s limitlessness. Learn from those who came before you, those you admire, but always count yourself among your muses. If what they did doesn’t work for you, do it your own way. Keep your eyes more open than ever before to the world around you, to muscles, to movements, to faces, to moments; you will then become your greatest resource.
Any tours or other big projects planned at this point?
A million things planned but nothing on paper! A North/Northeast tour or two for sure. A west coast return for sure. Writing more music, some longer pieces. Hoping to gather up the courage/abandon my stubbornness and record audio of some of my songs (but no promises). Hopefully some music video work (fingers crossed). Other than that, everything in the world. I want to do everything.
Have you ever come across a piece of art so bold and breathtaking, so heart-stopping and jaw-dropping, that you feel dizzy and faint but also wildly ecstatic and a bit crazed, all at the same time? Perhaps a soupçon of le Syndrome Stendahl?
I’m sure I must have, at some point, seen some of Noriyoshi Ohrai’s works, a prolific master illustrator of iconic film posters for movies that we all know and love–Star Wars, Mad Max, Goonies, etc. But somehow, he flew under my radar until last month I saw his Godzilla movie posters, and frankly, I lost my shit. They are freaking fantastic! So beautifully vivid and detailed, gorgeous and terrifying all at once! More than an artist of poster art approved by George Lucas, Ohrai created thousands of illustrations, usually in the genre of science fiction and special effects films like the Godzilla series, as well as numerous artworks for pulp fiction books and video games.
Elusive and somewhat mysterious, he was known to be an immensely meticulous worker who immersed himself in an incredible amount of research before working on a commissioned piece. It is said that moviegoers would comment that his illustrations of Godzilla looked even more powerful and violent than the real thing. Ohrai passed in 2015, sadly before I had even heard of him. He’s left behind a vast body of work to discover, though, and I have been having an absolute blast scouring the internet to see all of it! This post took me a while to put together because I like to be able to share both the artist and give some details about the work itself if only just a title. It took a little digging and a lot of Google Translate, but here are some favorites, below. Please forgive any errors in translation, I tried my best!
A few weeks ago I woke up to see that one of my sisters had posted the following on Facebook, along with the photo below.
“My mother was a DEEPLY flawed woman. She probably did the best that she could with what she had to work with at the time, but ultimately, her daughters still suffered quite a bit from the baggage and damage that SHE carried. That said, in the end, if she did ONE thing right, it was raising three girls that grew up to be each others’ VERY BEST friends. I know that she would be proud if she saw us now. I love my sisters.”
LOOK AT THOSE LITTLE WEIRDOS. There doesn’t exist enough or maybe even any language at all to express how much they mean to me. But then again, it’s probably beyond words anyway. I love them beyond anything I could write, or say or think, beyond bone, beyond blood, beyond time. Always and again, in every lifetime. And we’re probably gonna be fucked-up weirdos forever, in all of ‘em,
Anyway, it got me thinking about us and just how OFTEN I think of us. Certainly anytime I see a painting or an illustration with three women doing whatever, or three kids looking strange and derpy…or three graces…or three queens…or three fates…or three witches. It’s always us. I see the three of us in every trio, across every genre and movement, across every era, in every stylistic detail and brushstroke.
Here are a few canvases that I always return to. I can’t always have my sisters close by, but it’s a trip to imagine these characters bickering and laughing and gossiping and scheming and making each other cry (WHY is that so much satisfying fun?? I don’t know. I’m mean.) Sestras, I always see you everywhere, in everything. I love you with my whole, stupid, mean heart.
Today I am experiencing : that incredibly intense, violent prickle of compulsion to share ALL of the incredible art, ALL OF IT, ALL AT ONCE that has been contributed by the shadowy coven of contemporary artists who appear in The Art of Darkness. Because while I’ve given some peeks here and there…it’s just not enough!
In the immortal words of Bilbo Baggins, “…after all, why not? Why shouldn’t I SHARE THE REST OF IT??”
So here’s where a bit of magic comes in, between you, me, and the pages of this book. I am going to share it, and you are going to be mesmerized by the stygian kaleidoscope of these works–utterly ensorcelled–and you are going to follow the links and tags back to the artists and take a gander at all of the other incredible things they create, and then you are going to hit the “order” button on your bookseller website of choice, and then you are going to PROMPTLY FORGET ALL OF IT! Like it was all a strange, tenebrous dream! And then you will be surprised and overjoyed when The Art of Darkness appears on your doorstep on September 6, and you will get to see all of these pieces again for the first time.
<<INSERT BIG WINK IN THE KEY OF WEIRD>>
…but in the meantime, if you would like to learn more about a handful of these creators, you will find features and interviews on this very blog on the following artists…