Saturday, 2 August 2014

Unknown Jester - the making of a puppet


I HAVE BEEN WOODCARVING! For the last few months a puppet has been in the making in my studio-on-the-other-side-of-a-trapdoor, as the summer rains and suns have lashed my windows.
Puppetry, as you know, has been an art that has long sung to me, and niggled at me, and perched on my shoulder as I've done other things over the years, prodding me with wooden fingers to not forget. And finally with a combination of meeting puppet-obsessed friends in my local village to create a fledgling puppet company, and being heartily encouraged by artist and theatre professional Clive Hicks-Jenkins that I have a natural affinity for puppeteering, I have been spurred into the creation of a "constructed actor" (as Eileen Blumenthal cleverly describes puppets in her amazingly inspiring and far-reaching illustrated survey of the art - Puppetry & Puppets). As a final incentive, Clive announced earlier in the year that he would be running one of his wonderful and inspiring online exhibitions - this time for puppets (you can see all the other incredible entries here). I decided to take part, and use this as an opportunity to make and finish a puppet. So many times I've roughly sketched puppet ideas which never become flesh, so this was an opportunity to make it happen!


Growing up as a daughter of sculptors with a particular leaning to woodcarving, I couldn't help but be drawn to carve my first proper puppet in wood. Using tools, a sharpening device and a carving vice as well as seasoned lime wood from my Dad, I began in a rather haphazard but enjoyable way to create the head. It also gave me the excuse to buy a fantastic Japanese saw which cuts on the pull.
I gradually sawed and chiseled away corners from the block of wood, working all the time from no drawings or plans, apart from rough lines on the wood itself.


Despite having grown up amongst woodshavings, I wasn't prepared for the hard physical work involved and extreme length of time woodcarving takes! Painting seems a doddle in comparison! 
Eventually though, a face started to emerge...


I sanded as I got closer to a discernible face, to find the finer bits that needed altering. 


As I reached the stage of carving the finer features and subtle curves, I began to realise my mistake of having carved the face with the grain heading toward the tip of the nose - carving back down into the face would be carving against the grain, and so tear the wood and make it very difficult. Nevertheless, I made do, and overcame the problems created by my own lack of planning, and on the whole it seemed to work. 


What I found most interesting at this stage was the character that began to emerge beneath my tools. It was the face of a quite serene and knowing person - nothing like the one I'd envisaged to start with!


And when I say "envisaged" - this is the extent of the sketching I did prior to making my puppet! As you know, I'm not a great preliminary sketcher and planner, but my rough plan with this puppet was that he'd be a kind of Till Eulenspiegel - popular folk fool of European story - a trickster figure who carries an owl and a looking-glass as his emblems. I am fond of him, and of trickster/jester figures in general.
 

But as I went along, with the face of my puppet having emerged as the face of someone entirely different from a slapstick laughing jester, and with the whole creation process taking me far longer than originally predicted, I had to re-think the construction of the puppet quite radically. I had gone from an ambitious intention to carve this puppet fully out of wood with beautifully fitted hinged joints, to realising I had to finish him in a much more patchworky way using different techniques and perhaps not making the whole body. I decided this would be the perfect opportunity to try out different materials and test untried construction techniques. This would be a kind of prototype-apprentice piece where I could learn from my mistakes. He gradually moved from being Till Eulenspiegel to a lesser-known Jester...
And so I modelled some hands from Sculpey (an oven-hardening clay) which were fun to make, if a little fiddly, much faster than carving, and slightly larger in proportion to the head than they should have been, but I kept their larger size as I liked it, and it purposefully made the hands more expressive, as they must be in a puppet who cannot speak.


I played around with dressing the puppet before he was painted, and made holes in the backs of the hands for the operating rods, as well as inserting wire loops at the wrists to make the joints.


I then proceeded to burn them rather drastically in the oven due to misreading the suggested temperature!


Though scorched, they luckily remained solid, and I had intended to paint them anyway! I experimented with various paint effects, struggling to find the right look. So I left the hands whilst I finished the face, planning to come back to them and match them with the rest of the puppet once he was finalized.


His face needed a final sanding to achieve the smooth finish that the shapes seemed to need. I ignored some small blemishes on the head that I knew would be hidden with clothing.


I played some more with fabrics and colours of clothing, and thought about how it could work over a puppet with only a rudimentary body.


In my trunk of fabrics, I enjoyed coming across old thread spools I'd cut from puppet show flyers years ago!


Then it was time to paint the face! And this proved far more difficult than I'd thought (can you see a theme emerging here?!). 
Under the paint I put a layer of gesso, and then with oils, I proceeded to paint him as I imagined, but found as I went along that I wasn't sure if I should paint his face to just look like a face, or was I making stage make up here? Slowly a kind of Pierrot with Indian embellishments appeared. I leafed through books on masks to see how people painted faces such as these in other places and centuries. I saw the importance and beauty of the bold lines and colours, but found my bold lines and colours too harsh.


And so I went over his face with sandpaper, to antique him a bit, added paint and removed paint, slowly feeling happier with him, until his face was done.


Then it was time to make his body! I had come up with an ingenious plan to make a rudimentary body that wouldn't require days and days of construction. I cut a rough body cross-section from many layers of glued together card (easier than it sounds - I'd tried to make it as strong as a piece of wood, and thus it was so thick I could barely get through it, despite employing both saw and scalpel!)


I then carved a rough shoulder shape from florist's oasis - super light and easy to cut, if rather crumbly. This I stuck to the card base and then covered the whole thing with a layer of papier-mâché to make a smooth and more stable surface.
By now I had painted the hands satisfactorily to match the face - with little red designs adorning the fingers.


And I began to construct the arms. A very simple device: sticks for upper and lower arms, leather for the joints. I glued the strips of leather and wrapped them with wire for strength. 


At the joints, I tried to make realistic movement by allowing extra leather where full bends were required and keeping the leather short where there is restricted movement, as can be seen in this elbow joint - allowing fairly realistic movement both ways.


I left the arms and the shoulders drying in the sun at my studio window.


These separate parts were then joined together - you can see that by now I've attached the operating rods for the hands and added little leather cuffs to hide the wrist mechanism.


And next (now with the genius introduction of a wall stapler - why didn't I think of that earlier?!) I began to join the whole thing together! Here you can see strips of leather stapled to the base of the wooden head.


These strips were then attached to the base of the shoulder section, allowing for adequate forward/backward and side-to-side movement in the head.


I have also attached a head operating rod - a rather steampunk affair made from some copper I found in my studio when I moved in. It is flexible enough to bend, but strong enough to hold the weight of the head. On reflection, I might paint this black at some point so as not to distract from the head.


I actually quite liked him like this, all naked with his workings on show, but it was time to dress him, and bring him into the world.


And here he is! My Unknown Jester. I'm still unsure as to who exactly he is, what his name might be, or for that matter his story.


I feel like he is some kind of sage-jester, a wandering taleteller perhaps, walking the fine line between fool and wise one. Sitting in uncomfortable, unexpected places and telling us things we didn't know we needed to hear.


He wears a fool's motley and colours and bells, and sits remarkably well at a table, as I discovered by chance when we visited my parents recently and he made himself at home at the kitchen table for the duration of my stay, occasionally attempting to steal a grape!


He has a gentle and knowing way about him, which I am just beginning to acquaint myself with. 



Puppets can wield a great deal of power by being able to say things we as humans cannot, and a well operated puppet can suspend the disbelief and enchant even the most jaded adult or computer-game-addicted child.


I have learnt a huge amount in the making of this Unknown Jester. I would certainly next time be sure to hollow the head out before operating - this one is heavy enough to make long stints of puppeteering too uncomfortable. I have found my way around a number of new materials and techniques and have happily also made a character with whom I am happy. His arm movements are very pleasing, despite their crude construction, and as a first woodcarving, I am very pleased with this thoughtful, magical face.
Here he is sitting on the steps to my studio trapdoor...


I made a little test film of me playing with his movements, a very rough thing indeed with rough puppetry too, so please excuse that. This puppet is really designed to be operated by two people, hence my resting of the head rod on my hip in order to move both hands! But I hope it gives you a clearer feel of his character, and perhaps you'll be able to offer me some ideas as to who this Unknown Jester of mine is...




56 comments:

ullam said...

Rima,
Like everything you do, your puppet is pure magic! How wonderful to see its birth in it's many mutations... And the video - oh my - you have created a fool filled with love, whimsy and attitude!

zooms said...

Rima thank you for posting all the steps that you went through to create this ethereal character, he is astoundingly beautiful.

Andrew Grundon said...

You always engage with the materials and the spirit of whatever project you undertake totally. This is what I admire most about your work, and the resulting being is imbued with its own personality and life. What a lovely enigmatic face. It's an honour to be in the exhibition with you.

Heather said...

A fascinating post - your jester is a triumph and such a lovely character. He came alive under your care and I kept thinking he would stand up and dance to the music. I was mesmerized by his hands - they are so expressive. It is no surprise you are the daughter of sculptors - it must be in the blood.

Anonymous said...

Outstandingly expressive character. Beautiful work from the depths.
Me thinks he might be Rineheart.

Charlotte said...

He is magnificent, and a masterclass in the making process. I love the elegance of his hands and the mechanisms of each joint. The weighting of him is particularly interesting as this is something I struggle to get right with every puppet I make. I look forward to seeing who emerges next, so beautiful.

Rags said...

What a wonderful face you've created. He seems to have just awakened in his body - young, and new...just beginning to learn the purpose in all of those graceful parts! Pure magic - and a joy to see how he came to be. Thank you for a completely delightful post!

acornmoon said...

He is magnificent, you are so clever to be able to create such a thing. Somebody else just said it before me- pure magic. x

Sara Crowe said...

I love him, and this whole post. So beautiful, so fascinating to see how you made him, and magical that he brought his own character to the process. Just wonderful!

Callisto said...

How wonderful it must be to have artists as parents. How wonderful it is, that you are walking in their tracks, on your own way of doing. Be blessed, and I hope, that your parents love you, and your way of being and doing and standing on your feet with all your talent. <3

Yael said...

This is an amazing journey from a simple piece of wood arriving at a marvelous puppet with great character and a gentle soul - thank you for showing us the way from the beginning till you breathed life into him.
You are talented in many gorgeous ways!

artisjokken said...

impressive ! Wonderfully made , I am sure that whole process of making the puppet was just amazing.

Franny said...

The Unknown Jester is magical, Rima. My impressions watching him take form and then the sensitive way you engage with him: I agree with 'Rags' that he seems to be just awakening. He seems so tender and new ... almost as if he's just finding himself in this body and isn't quite at ease in it. A tiny bit world-weary... that he's found himself back here again. Is he the offspring of a human and a Woodland Spirit? To me, he is fey, but finally will enter completely this Earthly form and will share with us his softness, gentleness and wisdom. A sooth-sayer. Thank you Rima!

Ravenroot Forest Farm said...

Rima, I was dazzled watching this--what feels like an actual being--be born. Excellent work! x

I've just turned my Hermitage calendar, inside our wheely house, to August which, to my delight, shows a wheely house scene itself :)

Happy ripe summer xx
Tiff

sandie said...

What a strange and splendid character, and I enjoyed watching the video, I found his movements mesmerising! I'm also so impressed with the way that you overcame each 'problem' , I think I would have cried if I had made those hands and then burnt them! But it all turned out brilliantly in the end, he is a triumph. He may be your first puppet, but I am sure he won't be your last!

Anonymous said...

Rima, your creature is beautiful. You have captured the soul a being so new, so tentative, yet full of wonder and awe in your wonderful work of art.

Trudy in Mariposa

Mo Crow said...

Wow Rima magic in the making!

gz said...

stunning. xx

Anonymous said...

WolfRaven says: I think she was a handmaid in the House of Medici, always making jokes about her Masters. She was poisned by a vicar, because she rejected him. But her soul is still alive.

Anonymous said...

On his character- his head isn't hollowed out, which makes it heavy, but full of wisdom from the wood. I wonder if he's some kind of savant? He has certain imperfections but this makes him wise in a unique way, and that's what makes him a fool. He's not slow, just gentle.

sarah said...

So amazing! Thank you for sharing all this with us, I feel utterly ensorcelled by the beauty and power of the work and its result.

Penny said...

He has a quiet magic about him. A wonderful piece of work.

Velma Bolyard said...

what a wonderful being, what is his name, his story? when will he tell us more?, or, will he keep silence, and keep us questioning?

Shelley Noble said...

He is marvelous! The post read like a thriller. So exciting to follow along. Found myself cheering at several points for you.

I love how he is a Rima Staines art piece like one of your paintings, only in full dimension. The finished paint work on the head is perfection itself.

Teresa Kasner said...

Hello Rima.. from acros the sea and across America in Oregon. I truly enjoyed your little man emerging from the chunk of wood. You are an amazing artist. I just made some crocheted bunting and added bells on the tips of each pennant.. I will post it on my blog tomorrow. I think you'd like it.
((hugs)), Teresa :-)

Bedford Gypsy said...

Rima, it was wonderful seeing the making of the puppet and how he comes to life. He is stunning, I especially love the painted hands to match the face. Well done, you must be very proud. I can't believe he is your first attempt, looking forward to the second. ...and third

Anonymous said...

Annette said:
Last night I dreamt his name is "Nevertheless"...

Jodi Le Bigre said...

A mesmerising, beautiful creation Rima! Looking at your lovely puppet I can't help wondering if we are seeing the kernel of future work... maybe it's just that looking at this I am already wishing for a theatre full of such wonderful puppets as this one!!

adriana said...

Wow!

ola czajnik said...

rima! what a wonderful person has been born by your hands. he certainly gets the creative juices flowing, and many strange creatures have begun walking around my head, after weeks of quiet! so many thanks to you and the unknown jester :)

as for the identity of the unknown jester, it seems to me that he has a young face, but old hands, and an air of serenity and wisdom to his movements. i think he may have been an enchanter long ago, who strained for eternal youth or beauty, but failed to attain it completely. (or, he was cursed with an old body, maybe). but after many years of his mismatchedness, he grew to accept it, hence his wisdom despite his young face. i suppose i would name him bon, as in 'good', but also quite close to 'bone'.

i cant wait to see more of him :)

Natasha Hadleigh said...

What a truly amazing girl you are.

Helen Suzanne said...

Amazing! Thank you so much for sharing his development. I very much love how those final touches to soften his face brought him to life.

suzy said...

How utterly mesmerising! Thank you for sharing this wonderful character and the fascinating process of his creation.

EAJ... said...

The shadow shots of the emerging face are stunning. You could almost tell a story leaving the jester stationary and moving a light around him.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins said...

You listened and allowed him to come into the world as he needed to. Puppets can be old souls, and they require makers who will heed them.

You've clearly played with him a lot in the process of producing him, and the result is that you've tailored his operating to your sense of what's right, rather than slavishly following instructions from a book. The operating rods in the backs of the hands… rather than in the palms or outside edges... is a really unusual call, and one I wouldn't have thought would work particularly well. Yet in your hands the technique works beautifully, and I can see it is the best solution given that his hands look to be quite heavy.

The film of him is beautiful. It's as Franny noted, that he is discovering himself and his own capacity for movement and shape. I love the way he watches his hands as though marvelling that he finds himself with such things attached to his arms, and his trying out of positions, such as when he enfolds his head, laying one hand elegantly to cradle it like a Javanese dancer.

I think No-name is perfect for him. He's new and brimming with potential. Your puppeteering of him is both tender and mesmerising. Never lose that sense of discovery in your puppeteering. What is fresh for you, is fresh for him, and projects a heartrending fragility. He has your attentiveness and wonder in his DNA, and anyone who knows you can see you in him. I think he may be your avatar. Or perhaps you are his!!!

Jess said...

It had to happen!! :) What a wonderful job you've done here! His face changes with each angle he moves, so expressive! The many facial expressions you've created within the static wood is breathtaking. He looks as though he's about to say something and would make a fantastic storyteller himself. The scale of the hands are just perfect, so tender and quite spookily realistic.
I love your first film test, the way he watches how his hands behave he actually looks as though he's discovering his own creation for the first time.
Amazing work Rima!
Jess x

Anonymous said...

He is totally exquisite, and he seems to have such a gentle character. His face gives me goose pimples, it is so lovely, and to see him appearing bit by bit was exciting. You always make me laugh, I loved him sitting at the table waiting for his meal, something tells me he's a member of your family now :-)

Louise Lily King said...

How amazing to see one of your characters actually come alive in three dimensions- quite beautiful...

Sylvia Linsteadt said...

Dearest Rima,

He is utterly fabulous and wise and strange. Yes, what a serene face, and what an eerie beauty you & he create together. Magic flows from your hands in every way, there's no doubt about it. And your ability to coax faces with such story and feeling out of paint and wood-- I admire this so much. I think it is why your work is so storied, so moving.

Love

xo Sylvia

p.s. He DOES remind me a small bit of a more serene version of Bells, Perches or Boots; a wise wandering tale-bringer from Tatterdemalion... But of course that's just the landscape my imagination goes to now when I see your work.. it is quite a vast one that I am still discovering. :) :)

Linda E Clarke Illustration said...

Wonderful to see your process in creating this little character. I particularly love the anatomy of his hands. Incredible how much expression can be created from a character with a fixed expression.

Larraine said...

Before.....my roost in the linden tree.....flying on feathered wings, to hunt by moon and stars. And now.....these unfamiliar limbs, this firm, smooth face.....fascinating. I feel I shall find this new, earthbound form challenging, but interesting in its versatility.

Mokihana Calizar said...

It is you who have made me smile, all through the seeing, and then watching the first movements ... yours and your No Name. Enchanted, enchantment. Generous soul you are, Rima Staines.

Della said...

Now I have to go back and read what you've actually written :) because I was too impressed with the photos and flew through. Really magical work here, Rima.

Nao said...

Dear Rima,

He is incredible. What an astonoishingly beautiful creation. My goodness, he is truly unbelievable. What exquisite work, what dedication, what inspiration.

Wow.
Really, just wow.

Blessings to you and all the marvelous things you do.

suz said...

he is wonderful - he seems ancient as time and new and the sunrise!

rosierabbit said...

unbelievable!! you made that on your first go at puppet making...that woodcarving is sooooo beautiful. the face so expressive...he is quite luminous and also serious, but with an eye to laughter for sure. if a jester then he is an unusual one. a friend of rumi and hafez, and then of neruda and snyder...old-new, full of moon-grace and fool-knowing...many congratulations, i can see you two are understanding each other...

Els said...

I just sat and looked and was amazed how your beautiful jester came alive ..... He is wonderful Rima !!!!!!!!!
Thanks for showing the birth of this person out of simple wood, sticks, leather and cloth ...
(you're the best ;-) !)

Pixie said...

...wow, words fail me, he is breath taking, i have dabbled with puppetry myself but your beautiful jester blows me away..
magical x

Anne-Marie McDonald said...

Your puppet has a beautiful face. I know little about Jesters and such but I imagine him to have come from Turkey or Egypt, somewhere ancient. He looks like a wise man.

tanaudel said...

Oh, Rima, he's just enchanting. Luminous and sensual, in an austere, lime-washed fashion.

I imagine he has another life, out of the velvet jostle, out of the cap and bells, in a high, plain, many-windowed room where he keeps birds. He seems world-weary, wise and secret, but his mind is full of doves.

Jane said...

How lovely he is. I'm impressed by your first stab at carving a face. I worked for a number of years at Cannon Hill Puppet theatre run by John Blundall. The figures carved by John and Craig had true life to htem. Sadly John died unexpectedly just a few days ago but your post inspired be to get out a book I have of his - The world of Puppetry. It is wonderful if you can find a copy. Good luck on your next adventure - Also check out The World through Wooden Eyes - John's website.

india flint said...

such a poignant and beautiful face. i could swear he blinked and moved his lips...and if in the future you ever feel he might need a change of clothing, for example something printed with leaves from the hedgerows...do be in touch :)

Bhagya Shree said...

Wow Rima,

I am just amazed at the entire hard working procedure of making a wooden puppet. Your work is commendable. Congrats!

I am glad that I stopped by, for reading your experience was indeed an experience for me as well. You just won an another follower today :)

And if wish you can find me here..
bhagya-s.blogspot.com

Hugs and greetings,
Bhagya
India

Rori Healy said...

Wow... I am in awe. Pure amazement. What a beautiful creation. You have been graced with such an astounding talent! <3 Love & Light.
Rori

Aga Gasiniak said...

Amazing work! It looks like creating a human almost. Beautiful!!!!
http://agagasiniak.blogspot.co.uk/

Anonymous said...

Haunting & wonderfully beautiful! You personification of what a real artist should be and is.. your talent is like a fountain ... abundant and flowing! there is no boundaries or limit to what you can do and do! you are a Gem..a unique talent that is worthy of celebration.
keep creating beautiful Art Rima! - as if you can stop doing that at all :)
Lily Al-Tai