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...