bird by bird: robin #1

I got a call out of the blue for two bird puppets for a production of The Secret Garden (as things normally tend to go around here.) The first one was to flap its wings while perched. I'd done some flapping penguins for Luna's Sea, but those were flat cutouts with exposed mechanicals meant for background atmosphere. So the first order of business was to make sure I could get a mechanism to do the right movement. I did a fast tape and cardboard mock up to see if what was in my head would actually work. 

And it did:

The next step, get to know robins. The director wanted the British species which are quite different than our American version. I use reference through the whole process, but I like to get the feeling of something into my hands, so that when I'm in the passionate moment of manipulating materials, it's a matter of finding, not thinking the shape. 

And as usual it begins with digging through my stock of stuff to see what's telling me it's a robin. (This is why I'll never accept being called a pack rat- I actually use all the junk I stow!) First, a basic structure, hollow to house the wing mechanism, but also sturdy. I ended up with a section of thick cardboard tube and styrofoam which I started covering in several air-dry clays. A cardboard beak as a placer to help me find its expression. 

Then, join them together, and messing around for the right shape and posture. I added more cardboard to get a more graceful bird curve. Because I'm impatient I started ripping the cardboard rather than cutting it, and found that it made a beautiful feather effect. Good thing, because I hadn't even considered surface covering yet.

I went with the happy accident, added more to see if it was as good as I thought. 

And I got really into it, using ripped pieces to do the fleshing out rather than clay as I'd expected.

End of the first day- I'd added eyeballs and a clay beak so it could sit more happily 
with its full senses overnight. When I woke up the next morning it looked all too hawkish. 

While I considered how to fix that I worked on a wing. 
I went back to my comfortable cardboard, having made lots of paper-product wings before. 

Carved down the beak a bit. This is why I only use materials that have both additive and subtractive qualities. And a moment to consider and compare the source. Erm, right, about those wings...

And wing situation handled. 
Attached with canvas for a joint to allow for ease of flapping.

Still wondering if this ripped cardboard is too good to be true, I test it with some paint. 
Yup, I still love it.

Put up to roost for another night. 
Still got to get that other wing on.

Second wing added, beak widened, more clay to smooth and strengthen transition from head to body, and eye sockets carved larger-- because it was still looking like a larger species of bird. Tricky because it is actually larger, for stage effect reasons. 

Then, joy! More cardboard feathers onto the head. 
Larger eyeball. And more accurate paint.

Some wing painting, and a test of adding a bit of real feather for a hint of movement.

Highlights and details coming in. Perched again for the night. 
Morning light after a long work night is always a bit harrowing. 

But I'm still happy with him the next day. 

More to come, but robin #2 needs some coming along. 

a drawing a day

Week 4, still up to it. Memories of Istanbul, contemplative studies, strange synchronistic creatures, sketches of birds for a puppet commission, and my obsession with the news report of the lost ghost ship filled with cannibal rats. I imagine there might be just one rat left. 

fresh hearts

There are 9 new ones today, including 3 blanks for custom lettering. On a secret blog for Antinomia readers first until midnight tonight. Go to love-recycled.

Update: this crop is sold out!

bright new way

Last fall my ridiculously talented friend Travis Knapp recorded an album, and I loved it so much I put my art all over it. It's one of my favourite things I've illustrated; both the music and the way the printing on toned recycled paper came out. I'd already spontaneously done a pen & ink drawing a few months earlier when I first heard his Permaculture Saints, which you might recall from this previous post. That fit nicely on the back of the booklet-style cover.

Travis had a solid vision of the cover piece incorporating a musical "natural" symbol, and a wooded pathway into the sunrise. It took me about 100 tries with a brush to come up with the line work that was just right. Then a little brown paper and watercolour landscape to fit inside. He'd scribbled the album title on one of his layout ideas, and it turned out to be the perfect font.

The inside and lyrics booklet are punctuated with spot art of plants, birds and foxes. A friendly studio headed by Pat Burke handled the design and printing. I wasn't sure how my brown paper illustrations would print on brown paper, but it turned out just lovely. 

Travis is currently on an album tour, traveling America by bike with his banjo on his back. I ran into him a few years ago at the Ithaca Zen Center where he was the resident gardener and musician. You can tell in the first moments of meeting him that he's a fellow of unusually generous heart and extra bright spirit. Though he's got an illustrious background (including winning the BMI John Lennon Songwriter's award) he joyfully does his work without need of accolades or fanfare in the sparsely populated woods of New York state. But having seen the way his music and gentle way of being affect people, I think it's important to spread it around a little more. So I'm very happy about this album and his tour, and I hope you'll have a listen and follow his adventure on his blog.

After getting very acquainted with my Epson wide-format fine art printer this week, the sepia tone ink work is coming out far better than the laser prints I've been doing for ten years. So at long last, Permaculture Saints is available as a print, and it's part of a deluxe package with the album on my Etsy store. (Yes, my Etsy store! It's back!) 

a drawing a day

Week three. Thoughts dwell on sleep, music, the cold, and things that warm. Days become imbalanced: very fast drawings done in a hurry, very slow drawings done with lots of contemplation. One day a coffee cup filled in for the lack of paper at work. I like the changing pace. 

a drawing a day

The second week. On my mind- Turkey, my new old truck, birds, and pond-leaping frogs. Left-handed observation exercises made way for more introspective pencil renderings. Still enchanted by Ottoman patterns. 

a drawing a day

I find myself going without drawing for too long when freelance work leans towards theater, but drawing is the foundation for everything I do. So might as well take a daily dose of it like a vitamin. 5-10 minutes for these for now-- no need for pressure, and speed forces a giving up of preciousness (which I could also use some practice in). 

The first week was thoughts from Istanbul in December, mostly done with my non-dominant left hand to bring back the good old days

Vague memories of patterns from the infinite patterned tiles of the Topkapi Harem.

Organized birds, stumpy trees.

I'm in love with the Hagia Sophia.

Patterns everywhere.


The Blue Mosque.

The 700 year old or so seraphim in the dome of the Hagia, recently uncovered. 
(and my new old Frye boots my mum finally let me have!)

mermaid tales

That was quite a gap in the blog! This year has been so full I forgot about posting for half of it. Best thing I can think to begin again with is this:

Way back in March The Mermaid Statue was invited to the birthday party of a super young lady named Stevie, who, I think it's safe to say, is the #1 Mermaid Statue fan in the world. We first met when she came to see Luna's Sea in Mystic in 2011. She came back to see it several times, and traveled to NYC where we played at the American Museum of Natural History. The cast and myself were so honored for her to have come all that way with her wonderful family. So the Mermaid couldn't pass this birthday invitation up.

I made this cardboard Mermaid for her, with articulated tail. The kind of thing I'm always wanting to make but never have a reasonable excuse to do. It was a lot of fun, and even better having the Mermaid give it to her when she made a surprise appearance at the party.

And best of all.. this.

And some new acquaintances, with the regular variety of expressions the Mermaid gets on first sight.

Which, in short time turns into this.

It's the first incident I can recall where the Mermaid cracked a tear. This is a really special family. Thank you, Laurie, for the ocean of love you invited the Mermaid into, and for these photos. 

how to make a statue

Step 1. Become a blank slate.

Step 2. Find junk in your house and put it on.

Step 3. Paint everything grey.


flea circus

When life gives you fleas, you can freak out, or you can make a flea circus.

This humid hot weather that hasn't let up in weeks caused an outbreak in my house. Immediately I went to the first option. When the flea drops, baths and vacuuming didn't seem to be working, I began pathologically testing extermination methods on fleas I caught in jars. Then, they became interesting. And I started doing research. And I came upon flea circuses. Which are amazing. Which of course I had to try.

It is delicate and tricky work. Fleas must be caught and collared with thin wire, just snug enough to not harm or impede them, not loose enough to allow them to escape. I had a lot of mishaps trying to get this just right.

The few that came out right deserved names. I was pretty invested in Boris, Caesar, Greg, and Genevieve.

Then I tried hitching them up to things.

This mini-cooper was too heavy so I tried just wheels. A chariot, in historical flea circus lingo.

That was a little easier. But I soon realized my small troupe was indeed dying off from the poison I'd been treating them with. And here came a strange turn of emotion- in less than a day I went from wishing cruel painful deaths upon all of them, to (sort of) not wanting them to die at all.

I hurriedly tried some other acts I'd read about, including ball rolling and tight rope walking.

But my fleas were clearly weak. 

I tried to keep them in jars,

but alas, everyone died.

I am grateful that my house and animals are much more comfortable. And for the reminder that relentless curiosity can turn even the most intense hatred and loathing into compassion and appreciation. 

Anybody got any fleas?

we are all islands

As we speed east along the chain, each occasional island looks perfectly inlaid into the blue enamel of the sea below, like a piece in a sacred mosaic. Yet each seems to float. It's hard to fully comprehend that these are just the tips of an enormous mountain range, grown from a seafloor thousands of feet below. Anne Morrow Lindbergh responded to the idea that no one is an island by saying, "I feel we are all islands- in a common sea." That is an appealing refinement of the idea, but there is something else deeper. Perhaps we only seem like islands because all our shared underpinnings, which have brought us up and hold us into the sunlight, lie unseen below the surface. Now and then we think we might detect submerged connections by a whiff of something familiar, by an upwelling of memory or empathy or the urge to show kindness to another creature, like a visible pattern of ripples at the surface caused by something lying far below. The rock-hard ties to all these other islands-- human and nonhuman, current and past-- lie out of sight, deep in time, massively holding together all our fragile little islands, yet barely recognized and seldom acknowledged. What a different view of life we would have if we mapped our islands not by their perimeter as seen from the surface, but by their profile and foundation, showing always the roots and connections within the shared mountain chain. Could we not recognize ourselves as part of the same chain of life, originated from the same hot spot? Are we not little kindred isles adrift a sea of time, on a conveyor of space? We are born. We have our adventures. And we are sucked back in, to be reintegrated, recast in the continuing saga of our singular island home afloat the oceanic universe. 

-Carl Safina, Eye of the Albatross

the best roller coaster ever!

The spring is always a tricky time, to transition from steady academic jobs into scrapping for summer seasonal work. There's financial worry and scheduling fiascos here, but also excitement in all the possibilities, all the places I might go, all the people I might meet.

This year there's more uncertainty, the worries feeling lower, the possibilities feeling higher. When people ask how's it going, I teeter on saying either: it's terrible! or, it's wonderful! And so I've said instead: it's a roller coaster. That image makes me feel even more stressed out.

But this weekend within the first few minutes of meeting a five year old named Felix, he burst out with an exuberant description of his vision of "the best roller coaster ever" which involved rubber snakes, a car wash, an angry tiger, a mud pit, going upside-down, and going as high as space. This seemed important so I drew it out with him. It expanded to travel through several pages of my sketchbook, along with many modes of transportation for exotic animals which seemed to be the theme of the evening.

I've looked at it every day when I sit to sketch, and it makes me think- Oh right, roller coasters are fun! And the more extreme ups and downs, the more surprises they have, the better. I forgot!

So I'm keeping my eye on this sketch, and applying this philosophy of joy and excitement to my daily up and down life. Hands up! Scream hard! Enjoy the rubber snakes!

people of the spirit-in-the-hands

The last of the three-part puppet appeal is a little short, as I've had the great fortune to have to switch from appeal-ing to thank-ing sooner than I thought. And so many more thanks to send than anticipated, too! Luckily I have a prolific amount of cards and posters from years of illustrating for Peaceable Kingdom Press.

If you didn't hear, I met my tuition fundraising goal in 19 hours. On Monday I was able to pay the balance to the Eugene O'Neill, and am officially on my way to the National Puppetry Conference on June 5th. I have no idea what will happen there, but it is certainly meant to be. I'm looking forward to sharing it all with you here. 

I also discovered today that I am a more diligent worker in my studio when I wear a kitchen apron. Not sure what that's about, but I'll go with it.



(From the "Intended Contribution & Achievement" portion of the NPC application:)

After bumbling along mostly alone for years, grateful for the luck and coincidences that have unexpectedly brought me puppet opportunities, I am more than ready to find first-rate training, and the camaraderie of other People of the Spirit-in-the-Hands. My greatest wish for an experience with the National Puppetry Conference is to become more courageous, more knowledgeable, more subtle, more confident, and more connected to the puppet community and my own creativity. The prospect of working with such experienced and genius puppeteers is thrilling and humbling. I have a little experience, I have a little know-how, but mostly what I have to offer is an open heart and an open mind just itching to expand. 

I had lots more to add to this about why supporting me in this endeavor would be helping projects of the future, by showing you previous experiences and spectacles I've brought to the community. But, it seems like you already knew that. 


the mask of the moon

Last week the impossible happened: I was accepted into the Eugene O'Neill National Puppetry Conference, a dream I've had for 17 years. 

This week the impossible happened again: in less than 24 hours friends and strangers from all over the country (and world!) donated to my tuition fundraising campaign, making it possible for me to go. And, blowing my mind even more, in another half day they exceeded my goal, allowing me to pay for all the other associated expenses. 

Last week, I was pretty sure I would not get to the O'Neill. I had a short deadline and three days of blog post material to appeal for donations to my cause. I knew I had generous friends, but to the degree and speed with which they were ready to help.... I still can't get over it. 

I now have the most wonderful work ahead- putting together thank you gifts and love letters. And I'm going to continue with the Puppet Appeal blog posts as planned, so these incredible supporters can know what they are a part of.

Thank you to EVERYONE who donated, shared, linked, tweeted, cheered. Everyone's gracious help, small and large, is equally and immensely appreciated. Every moment of my being at the O'Neill this June is going to mean so much more, knowing how much you wanted me to be there. 

With all my love and gratitude for years to come: thank you, thank you, thank you. 



(From the "Mini-Manifesto" portion of the NPC application:)

When I am not puppeteering or making, my hands feel empty and ache with asking to hold. For some, the spirit lives in the mind, and this age of disembodied words and digital signals satisfies them. For others like myself, the spirit lives in the hands, and it is through the tangible that the world is understood and navigated. I puppeteer to keep that way of being and learning, for myself and those to come, though I haven’t always been aware that’s what I was doing.

Last May at the American Museum of Natural History, exhausted by long rehearsals, anxious if I’d prepared my young performers enough, wondering if I deserved to be there, I stepped out of the chaos of the last tech of my show Luna's Sea and into the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians-- dark, empty, and silent in the hours after closing. Alone in dim light with those ancient objects, from a wall full of strange faces one face in particular stared at me with inquisitive humor, much like the Moon puppet I had made for the head dancer of my oceanic show. Trepidatiously approaching through a thick air of something very old and alive I wasn't sure was welcoming or warning, I saw it was labeled: Shaman’s Mask of the Moon, and it said this:

These masks were worn by shamans when they danced in various rites. A shaman is a person who can control and use supernatural powers. The shaman had a special mask for each of his spirits which he used when appealing to that spirit. There were many occasions for ceremonies, among them births, funerals, and memorials. Tlingit shamans cured the sick, brought good weather, and caused large runs of fish.

In that moment I understood that what we were doing was more than a show, that it was part of thousands of years of an ongoing human activity, and that puppetry kept resurfacing in my life because of my corresponding need for visual art, movement, and ritual combined.

I had experimented with all kinds of art forms that I succeeded in. I had tried all kinds of athletics that thrilled me. I had sought all kinds of spiritual practices that I felt fulfilled by. But only in the meeting of object, physical exertion, and precise intention is where I experience a deep artistic, embodied, sacred satisfaction that feels like it expands beyond my self. 

Only through puppetry have I seen my work stir others the way I have been stirred by grand unseen things. It took me a long time to understand that consciously, and understand that puppets are a major force and source of my life.

My day jobs have been in traditional theater, but it has never felt for me as right and true as puppet theater. Perhaps because I was raised with puppets and the sense that life is in all inanimate objects. But I think it's that a character created by an actor, no matter how transformed, is still linked to that actor. 

While an object, made with care and moved with intention, has a chance to connect to something beyond the personal, to characters beyond human, to the vast space of myth and collective dreams, to the audience’s own souls. 

And it can be done in the smallest and humblest of places, making it accessible to everyone. This is so extraordinary!

Despite all the struggle and worry, Luna's Sea played at the AMNH for four shows last May to great audience response and reviews. It ended too quickly! The amazing and fiercely dedicated cast and crew dispersed, the puppets and set were packed into a neat space in my basement. There are discussions with local theater companies about re-launching it as a community theater show, and as another smaller professional show for another science museum, including a possible sequel. It might take some time, but it feels like there is more in store for Luna and the Moon. It's my hope that the Puppetry Conference is going to help me figure that out, among many other things. But, I'll save that for part 3!

never say never!

After years of stumbling into puppetry again and again, through strange coincidences and seemingly inherited family fate, this year I decided to fully embrace it and apply to the prestigious Eugene O'Neill National Puppetry Conference in Waterford, CT.

Heavens to Betsy, I got in! I was awarded a scholarship from the Terry and Taylor Fator fund, which is "intended to financially and emotionally support puppet artists with a 'never say never' spirit." I'm still $1,175 short of the remaining tuition balance for the 11 day conference, due April 28. This seems like a lot to raise in less than a week, but-- Never say never! So I am fundraising for myself for the first time. 

This series of blog posts is an appeal for donations, a history of my life-long tango with puppetry and community art, and why I want so badly this experience at the O'Neill, which you can read about here. Any small amount you can give to help me get there will be so appreciated for years to come!

To donate, please go to my GoFundMe page by clicking right here!



My grandparents David and Helen Bogdan started making and performing with marionettes in the 1950s in West Orange, New Jersey, along with their 2 daughters, Bonnie and Judy. They called their family theater company The Stringpullers, and put shows on for the community, built theaters for other puppeteers, and taught art and puppetry to school groups. This is Helen and Judy in my grandfather's stage construction diagrams.

By the time I came along in the 70's, their house and their lives were full of puppets. From before I can remember, I was making and playing with puppets, too. And there were always shows going on for neighborhood kids. That's me in the crowd on the right in a pink dress, looking very dramatic.

As I grew up, I strayed away from puppetry and towards the introversion of books. I trained in classical visual art at the Rhode Island School of Design and became a children's book illustrator. But I, too, went into schools and taught kids about illustration, as my grandfather had (he was also a cartoonist). Here's my grandfather and me, both talking about illustration to school groups, 30 years apart.

Though I wasn't making puppets, I couldn't stop making dolls. I joined the Original Doll Artisans of Connecticut and focused on figurative sculpting. But I always had an uneasy feeling when these dolls were stiff and posed, which for some reason I felt I had to make them. But secretly, I wanted them to be loose and moveable. Secretly, (obviously now) I wanted them to be puppets. This is "Grace", which I made for Robert's Snow, an art auction fundraiser for a dear friend's very personal cause. 

When my grandmother fell ill years after my grandfather passed away, she was most anxious about the future of their large family of marionettes. I had always promised I would take care of them, but she doubted me, expressing regret that I didn't become a puppeteer. These are just a few of the dozens of puppets my grandparents made together.

The last time I saw my grandmother, the day before she died, to comfort her I lied and said I had found people who I was going to puppeteer with, which brought her tremendous relief. Two weeks later, by the strangest of coincidences, I heard about an open apprentice puppetry position with Bob Bresnick, Leslie Weinberg, and Margaret Carl of Puppetsweat theater company, and suddenly I was in my first puppeteering roll in a show called James Mars. (I'm the one on the far left!)


I performed with Puppetsweat for many more shows, operating table top, rod, bunraku-esque, and shadow puppets. Puppetsweat productions are mature, dark, brooding, sophisticated, and gorgeous. Puppeteers are visible, and body awareness is crucial. I had never been a stage performer before, and I learned everything from Bob, Leslie and Margaret. With them I got to perform in amazing places, including the Pontine Movement Theater, Wesleyan University, Manhattan School of Music, and Galapagos Art Space. And I began helping them build puppets for Master Peter's Puppet Show, which we took to the Kennedy Center in DC. That's me in the center as Don Quixote's right hand, and the monkey puppet I built from Leslie's design on the right. 

In 2006 I began teaching for the first time, as co-instructor of an Intro to Puppetry class with Bob at Quinnipiac University. I taught building and operation of rod, hand, toy and shadow puppets, while Bob taught history, theory and direction. Again I found myself copying my grandfather. Here's his puppet building class at St. Cloud School in 1976, and my class at QU in 2006. 

Inexplicably I started being asked to teach other places, including Jake Weinstein's Circus class at the Educational Center of the Arts in New Haven where I experimented with my first all-student-designed giant puppet project. We built a giant cardboard monkey puppet with rolling eyes and performed it on Audubon Street in New Haven. Now I was really hooked.

photo: Rich House

In 2007 I became a puppet cover girl (how many people can say that?) when Teaching PreK-8 Magazine came to my attic studio to interview me about book illustration and puppetry. 

In 2010 in my art class at the Common Ground Summer Ecology Camp, I used the resident chickens as study subjects for my elementary school students to translate live animal movement into giant puppet construction. The two giant chickens were completely designed, developed, built, and performed by them as a communal project. Here's my grandfather's students building at St. Cloud again, and mine at Common Ground. (You can see more of these amazing chickens and their design process at the Giant Chicken Blog.)

Around this time I began experimenting with producing my own short acts combining dance, shadow play, and puppetry for a vaudeville festival called Forgot to Laugh curated by Tony Juliano. Over a few years I recruited circus friends as cast members, and two recurring characters began developing who I called Polly and The Moon

photos: Mike Franzman & Chion Wolf

More and more opportunities began coming from my collaboration with circus artists, including building and teaching giant puppetry for student shows and street festivals. This giant sea spirit was built for the Torrington Main Street Market and Matica Arts in 2011. 

And, a whole new experiment combining living statue and puppetry called The Mermaid Statue that I built and performed for Hartford First Night on December 31, 2010, and has since been my most prolific project, appearing all over New England at county fairs, private parties, festivals, street corners and museums. 

But most epic yet: in 2011 I was commissioned by Cornerstone Playhouse and Mystic Aquarium to write, build, and perform a show about the ocean for family audiences. Polly and The Moon turned into Luna and The Moon, and became a 40 minute, full stage, 7 cast member production called Luna’s Sea, directed by Karl Gasteyer and choreographed by Christine Poland. After a summer run in Mystic Luna was unbelievably discovered and contracted by the American Museum of Natural History in NYC to perform in 2012. 

photo: American Museum of Natural History

The story isn't done with Luna's Sea yet! But I'll leave that for Part 2 of Puppet Appeal blog post series. Perhaps in the meantime you'll be dazzled enough to throw a dollar, or two, or a hundred into the virtual hat that will help send me to Eugene O'Neill this June by donating at this link! Or if you are unable, but still feel moved to help, please share this post. I promise more shows, more community events, and more participatory spectacles that will be a thousand times better for you having helped send me to the O'Neill!


The extra long-ness and cold-ness of this winter is making the spring so much more dear and wonderful. I've been listening to gardening music and feeling mono-chromatic. This pen and ink came out inspired by a rousing Travis Knapp song, Permaculture Saints which you can listen to here

Crow quill was the first art tool I became adept with beyond the pencil, but I never used it much past RISD. It feels real nice to say hello again. 


I hate not doing things right. It's a real problem. It keeps me from doing things I don't do perfectly, which is a lot of things.

I've been venturing out into some new things lately, many that turned out to be things I didn't do so well. I guess naturally that brings you to a place of seeing a lot more of your own weaknesses than you do when you're gliding along in the places and activities you're familiar with. It can be kind of shocking if you haven't roamed from your comfortable habits in a while.

(Reminder to myself: make sure to regularly roam out of your comfortable habits.)

When the new rollergirls I coach get frustrated with falling down, I tell them how encouraged I am to see them on the floor. If you aren't falling, you aren't learning, I say. Why is it so much harder to say that to myself?

I am imperfect.

Somehow today I'm going to make myself love the sound of that phrase.

digitus impudicus bionicus

It's been 6 years since my finger epic that was documented all over this blog, and I still haven't lost my fascination for finger traumas, nor the nausea that comes with thinking about it. And finger injury stories mostly seem to be about that poor dominant middle finger, digitus impudicus, the one that is most in peril of all the fingers. (There's even a club: the IFPWMF, or, International Foundation for People Without Middle Fingers.) Now comes along this guy. He made a new one for himself. Out of bike parts. It looks a little like the one Holly Hunter had at the end of The Piano. But it is articulated. He is a hero.

I'm very very grateful for every funky bit of my freaky frankenfinger.


Happy P-Day!

The third marching fellow of the year:

And because I just realized I didn't post the second: