Frightened by the loss of our familiar mooring places, shall we become paralyzed and cover our inaction with apathy? If we do those things, we will have surrendered our chance to participate in forming the future... Or shall we seize the courage necessary to preserve our sensitivity, awareness and responsibility in the face of radical change... 

-Rollo May


Rollo wrote that in The Courage to Create in 1972. I just picked it up again, having felt a distinct lack of courage lately, for creating included. I'm usually the Pollyanna of prickly situations. I can usually figure out a way to see how "bad things" can have "good" consequences, and vice versa. Like the zen parable of the farmer and his son: Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows? Sometimes it's more of a challenge. It's felt like we've all been traveling on the dark side of the moon these days. Luckily a couple of more experienced artist friends gave me a good wake up shout. "It's time to get to work," they said. "This is what artists were made for."  

I started by looking at art from other times of flux in our history. Especially appealing were wartime posters, and of those especially the ones calling women to work. And this one in particular by artist Adolph Treidler for the United War Work Campaign and the YWCA in 1918:

Not just because of her rocking overalls with the ample pockets for doing things that take serious tools, but her posture of steely determination, victory, and with one foot forward as if to say, "I'm moving on ahead, no matter what is happening." 

As usual, I let these things sink in to my subconscious while I occupy my mind with something else, like the incessant cleaning of my work space. Then I get cozy somewhere and let my hands do the thinking. I try to keep my thoughts out of it and see what comes. 

The star came in conversation with the former blue "Y" triangle, and the year appeared unexpectedly. The heroine arose with more of an expression of hope and joy than I anticipated. Which was encouraging-- to find out I had some of that still somewhere inside.

I've been watercolouring directly onto my original sketches in my brown paper sketchbook, and I did that here too. First, the figure, then I scanned her into photoshop to work out a background palette, then went back to water media to finish the it by hand from my tiny mobile studio box that I've been working out of in the zen center cabin. (I'm getting used to this downsizing.)

Scanned in again to take out some of the paper buckling shadows via stamp tool. I adjusted the lettering a bit, but not too much. I'm not after slick graphics anymore. Showing the hand-done-ness of things is important. 

I worked on her in between traveling and my zen duties for three weeks. During the process I came to the idea that our work as artists now isn't to convince the public that we are a crucial part of any society, but instead reminding each other that we are a crucial part of every society; to the strengthen the conviction we need to do the work in a world chilly to our efforts.

Courage 2017 is the new print this week in the Polly Sonic Etsy shop. They've been selling out as fast as I can make them, but I will keep making them. Find it here

Forty years forward, Rollo's words are still is required reading for anyone trying to make anything new, or shape a different sort of life, or speak what feels important and unpopular. Again and again. Most recommended for keeping a copy on hand at all times this year.


"Venture out of your comfort zone. Our ability to grow is directly proportional 
to our ability to entertain the uncomfortable. "
-Twyla Tharp

I've moved to central New York for the winter, to be a resident artist at a zen center, hidden in the pines and golden rods off a dirt road near a pond inhabited only by beavers and geese.

I've been coming to this quite sanctuary since 2011, it's been the well that watered the gardening work I was doing in New Haven. This year I detected that my service of sixteen years in that complicated city was complete and it was time to return to the piney wood hills of the north full time. But I find myself in limbo, wondering-- what am I in service to now? And what form will it take?

Like just about every other artist, I'm plagued at times with road blocks; not from a lack of ideas, but rather too many, which is as good as none if they are left in a heap of competing demands for one's attention. Too many interests, too many fascinating leads, too much beauty to respond to.

Wondering if we are all suffering more of this due to the over-stimulation of our see-everything-from-anywhere-at-any-time age, I've become interested in filters and self-imposed limited conditions. This spring, I did an experiment-- for two weeks I resisted looking at art online, I only looked at art in person in museums and art shows. Instead of scrolling through hundreds of images the way I might eat a can of pringles, I stood in front of the real evidence of human effort and inspiration for what seemed like eternity, relatively. I saw that I can be moved to tears by a painting I'm in the same room with, in a way I've never been when looking through a computer screen. I saw I required more from a painting than attractive colour and composition if I were to truly be with it.

True to the title of this blog (which has been going for eleven years) my quest is still antinomian as I define it- to live with the knowledge that apparently opposite things can all exist as truth at the same time. I superimpose this on my work to mean that there must be some way to synthesize all these seemingly disassociated passions. I just have to figure it out. It's a puzzle that engages me every day.

A rural zen farm seems like the best possible place to boil down all the many aspects of my work into their rawest forms and find what connects them. At the same time, doing this to the many aspects of my self. I suspect at the heart of this is bringing my contemplative meditation practice together with my art practice, as they've been on trajectories to converge for quite a while.

I clean out the old basement sheepskin shop the zen center has offered me for a studio (which is just around the bend in path in the photo above) and become homesick. My house and the attic studio that had come to feel like an extension of my own body is now a phantom limb. My network of freelance jobs is daringly left behind, and my community is reduced to digital blips. It feels like a risk to step out of the momentum of everything I know. It could be a mid-life crisis, but I prefer to call it the start of my rumspringa, the year the Amish give their young people to go out and be in the world. Some go back in, some go outward. Neither is considered right or wrong.

As part of that simplifying, I'm coming back to this blog as my central communication. It's a better place to write honestly than social media. If you are reading I'll know we're connecting, and this post is not another pringle in your can. I have to offer less opinions, but lots of questions I'll never answer right, mostly about creativity and spirituality. I'd love to hear your unanswerable questions, too.

stay in touch

A certain social media platform seduced me away from this blog for a while. I drank of the sugary instant gratification of easy feedback, and was left with a malnourished connection to my community and a scattered, inaccessible record of the history of my work. 

If you and I have been communicating over there, I hope you'll come with me back to the creator-controlled back-alleys and dim, abandoned lots of the internet. It takes a little more effort, of course. But it also causes us make more thoughtful choices about what we engage with. And our time is most precious. 

You can sign up for my infrequent newsletter, right over there ---> on that little MailChimp widget in the right column, that'll remind you one or two times a month to check the blog here. Newsletters always have discount codes for my Etsy shop, which is stocked up again. 

If you have a blog, there's some way we can follow each other. (I'll have to remember all this old fashioned technology.) My Instagram is still streaming pictures of work in progress, exhibitions, and regular everyday inspiration. 

If you use a non-algorithm controlled social network that you are happy with, I'd love to hear about it. Leave a message in the comments or email me at merfire(at)

image above: The Letter Writers, wood cut window display for ArtFish42
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you may be an artist if... notice your perspective is wildly different from the majority of the population around you.

You might have felt this way for a long time and didn't realize it could mean you are an artist. Or, you might be feeling this way (in a big way) for the first time.

Luckily, there is endless advice to be found from the legacy of artists who navigated this terrain before us, people whose inner world was drastically different from the outer world they found themselves in. They made art to make the outer world look a little more like their inner world, in an instinctual desperate need to align the two in order to make sense of anything.

A nudge to those just finding this out about themselves: begin with a rediscovery of yourself, both the bright and the shady places. Pick yourself apart daily, bit by bit. Turn the pieces over, inspect them gently. Be ready to be surprised by what you find, both pleasantly and terrifyingly. Without this self-inspection, the rest will be much harder, so do this hardest part first. Then you'll be more ready (though never completely ready) to spiral back outward into the absurd and gorgeous world.

"Be interested in what disturbs you. Rebel against your inclinations. Find beauty in the imperfect. Interrupt yourself. Disorder and chaos will serve you if you direct them. Cultivate elasticity, expand. Dismember the expected. I believe in the unbelievable." 

(-selected from Philippe Petit's Creativity: the Perfect Crime)

(Photo from Rise Up and Shine, Butterfly: Chrysalis Sky Funeral, Linda Wingerter)

it's got legs

There's been a flurry of calls for "puppet legs" with the popularity of two musicals making their way around the high school theater scene like wildfire: Shrek and Addams Family. I'm getting the hang of making and rigging these up to adventurous students. Here's the most recent set resting in the audience, for Uncle Fester's love song to the moon in Valley Regional High School's Addams Family.


They're a lauan plywood frame under carved insulation foam, knees hinged with cord, and secured to a belt over a black apron the actor wears over his biological legs. Two puppeteers operate the fake legs with rods, with the right lighting giving the effect he is floating in the sky. It's pretty simple, practical theatrical fun. Here's the test maquette: 

And the final legs in progress. I love this electric turkey carver! 

The tricky part was making hinged rods so the legs could be operated from above or below. These are PVC pipes wired into a pivoting joint inside the calves. 



I'm an occasional student of a Russian Orthodox icon painting class in NYC. It's in a perfectly organized, quiet little basement studio in Soho, and it is as old school as painting gets. The method is egg tempera on carved gessoed wood. Not thin board, but big, glorious chunks of wood, covered in linen and 30 coats of gesso to make the silkiest, glowing white surface. A saint or archangel is traced onto the gesso and etched into it. Pigments are ground with a pestle and mixed into egg yolk. Real gold leaf is applied with breath onto red clay. It is a pure kind of heaven for a painter who truly loves paint.

Every step is carefully instructed by dedicated teachers Tatiana and Dmitri. And no small step comes without spiritual meaning which is explained with likewise care. It is as much a ministry as an art class. Painting is meditation. The students work quietly to monastic chanting. I get to indulge my teenage fantasy of being an medieval monk-artist. ("I and Pangur Ban my cat, 'tis a like task we are at....!)

Where much of my art-life is art-work: complete with the usual deadlines, decisions that may or may not be liked by a client, doubt, pressure and all that regular life stuff; to paint like this, with time, no decisions, no client, just yourself and these basic materials from the earth. What relief! What joy! A 6 hour class, with mid-way tea break, flies by. 

And I love icons and early Christian art. My picture book art was always leaning toward this elegant, posed formality, but modern publishers wanted action any dynamic expressions. So my work sort of drifted between the two. The closest I got away with was some of the formal montage pages of Chiru, when it made sense to depict Tibet with thangka-inspired scenes. 

It's going to take me a year to finish my first icon of Michael, since 12 hours to travel to NYC and back for a 6 hour class isn't a reasonable weekly activity for a puppeteer. But with this, there is truly no hurried destination, it's all about the glorious slow process. 

marionettes and Roses at the O'Neill

National Puppetry Conference, photo Richard Termine

Because YOU helped send me to the O'Neill National Puppetry Conference again this year, I had the great joy of spending 11 days intensively studying and making marionettes. 

For the pre-conference strand I got to participate in The Language of Material and Objects: Movement and Experimental Puppetry with Alice Gottschalk of FAB theater of Stuttgart, Germany. A student of the preeminent string master, Albrecht Roser, Alice's sensitive way of discovering new relationships between the body and things through play and attention will be a method I'll use and teach with from now on. It was one of the most liberating and creatively fruitful workshop I can remember.  

Alice Gottschalk's class, National Puppetry Conference, photo Daniel Gill

The next week was dedicated to traditional marionette construction with Jim Rose, with some performance training with Phillip Huber. Rose is a big name at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, it graces the entrance of the Margo and Rufus Rose performance barn in honor of Jim's parents who were local Connecticuters and famous puppeteers (the creators of the Howdy Doody puppets) and helped found the Center. Much more about this important puppetry family here.

Margo & Rufus Rose with son Jim, photo Henson Foundation

This week was extremely special to me, because my grandfather David Bogdan was a great fan of the Rose family and studied their techniques for building, which Jim is still teaching to this day. Here's a photo my grandfather took of Margo and Jim teaching a mold making workshop at a Puppeteers of America Festival in the 1970s:

And here's my photo of Jim teaching the same workshop this year at the O'Neill: 

I spent every minute I could with Jim and his wife Judy, who are in their 80's and have been coming back to the O'Neill every June for 25 years to help ensure this tradition carries on. It was a tremendous honor to learn and spend time with them, including their famous daily 3 o'clock tea times, when everyone in the shop is required to stop working and connect with each other in philosophical conversation for an hour.

Getting to sit with Jim while he demonstrated old marionette tricks went pretty deep emotionally for me. My grandfather passed away when I was 15, long before my grown-up passion for puppetry emerged. He had helped raise me in his puppet shop, taught me how to sculpt clay and put things together, and gave me a remarkable education I didn't recognize the specialness of at the time. Getting to talk to Jim, who is of the same era and dedication as my grandfather, was like getting to know my grandfather as an adult for the first time. This accounts for all the red-eyed, wet-nosed photos of me during this week. Here's me with Jim after I convinced him to sign the rear end of my puppet, which was of much amusement to him.

A particularly amazing moment was sharing my grandfather's marionettes with Jim and some of the other marionette masters at the O'Neill. They were able to show me the process my grandfather went through to build each puppet- how extra holes were where he'd experimented with alternative stringing, what particular lineage of puppet building he'd tried on each character, how one puppet had possibly once been rigged to emit smoke from his mouth. Below is me barely able to contain myself in the presence of Annette Mateo, Phillip Huber, Ronnie Burkett, Kurt Hunter and Richard Termine.

photo Richard Termine

In all the years I've had his collection of 20 or so marionettes, not once had I attempted to operate them. I think I was holding onto a childhood habit from when I'd probably not been allowed to touch them for fear of a child's fingers tangling the strings. So this year for the first time, I played with my grandfather's puppets.... and they were marvelous! They also encouraged me to begin a serious digital archiving of his puppets and the accompanying photos, the start of which is here on my Stringpullers website.

Dana Samborski, myself and Fred Thompson, photo Richard Termine

I can't leave out a major element of the O'Neill: Fred Thompson, exquisite puppet maker, shop manager and generous mentor. You'd have to meet Fred to get the full effect, but he's a character like no other. A sometimes seemingly prickly outer layer over the sweetest man you can imagine, rolled in a sparkling sense of humor that pervades the entire conference. My puppet life would not be the same without Fred.

National Puppetry Conference, photo Richard Termine

I also completed my first marionette (above). Named Rosabella in honor of the Roses, she's been my constant companion this summer as I discover this whole new feeling of bringing life to an object through delicate strings.

Then there were my fellow participants, 5 builders, and 5 manipulators working with Phillip Huber, and Kurt Hunter his assistant. By the end of the week these puppeteers were family.

I'm continuing to make more marionettes in my studio on my own. Most fascinating is the real dance with gravity they create, and how inserting a string just a little differently can change the posture of a puppet enormously. It feels much more related to my love of gestural figure drawing and dance than I ever expected. It's a whole new world!


I was one of 15 cohorts of the New Haven Make.Art.Work, a six month visual artist career training program run by the accomplished and lovely Ryan Odinak (right), funded by the Tremaine Foundation. A peer support group with monthly meetings on career-building topics like time management, marketing materials, funding and strategic planning, it was a perfect structure for my 2015 goal to streamline my many artistic pursuits into a more focused goal. Amazingly, it resulted in a new puppet website, which was long overdue! (More on that in the next post.) I came out of the program feeling much more positive about wrangling my chaotic arts life.

We concluded with a group show at the Arts Council of Greater New Haven and Koffee, both on Audubon Street in New Haven. I have a few of my puppet-inspired, jigsawed wood pieces up, including this new one.

The show is up until September 4th. Link to the event on the Arts Council site here.

radio show: art in bars

Todd and Nancy are the charismatic duo behind the New Haven epicenter of the weird, wonderful and winsome Fashionista vintage clothing and costume store extrodinaire. They know the Haven underground art scene like no one else, and now they have a radio show about it on WPKN: New Haven Mavens. I was lucky enough to be invited on to the second episode about art in bars, to talk about puppets. It's a great show, not because of me, but the other guests who are all awesome friends: Dot Mitzvah, Craig Gilbert, Robin Banks, and Anatar Marmol-Gagne.

You can hear the entire show online, archived here.

2015 National Puppetry Conference

I was accepted into the Marionette strand of the Eugene O'Neill National Puppetry Conference! If I raise the tuition by Friday I'll be building wooden marionettes with Jim Rose, a master puppeteer who greatly influenced my grandfather. It's my first time stepping into the string world. The fundraiser is here which is also helping to start the Puppet Wagon. More on that in the next post.

The thank you gifts are some of my most requested art this year, and a few divination-themed surprises.


$1-up: Every donation helps, and gets an artful snail-mail Thank You.

$15 Box-O'-Chance: Matchbox of mystery, randomly chosen for you, containing objects for predicting your good luck.

$25 The Fairy Stash: Selection of some of my fairy merchandise from Peaceable Kingdom Press.

$35 eyeCloud mini: A palm sized version of my wood cut clouds.

$50 The Bins: 11 x 17" fine giclee print of the 84 bins that make up my eclectic studio.

$75 Personal Icon: miniature hand drawn ink on wood spirit, drawn specifically for you.

$100 Patron's Reception: invitation for you and a guest to a post-conference gathering on Wednesday July 8 with puppet show, puppet display, light fare, and good camaraderie.

$150 Shebang: Patron's Reception, personal icon, The Bins print, and an eyeCloud mini.

$200 Your Shadow: Patron's Reception and an articulated shadow puppet, the character of your choosing.

$250 Monster: Patron's Reception and Muppet monster style hand/rod puppet, your choice of color and personality.

$500 Shadow Play: Patron's Reception and a 2 minute original shadow puppet show on the subject of your choosing-- a Greek myth? A wedding proposal? I would love to make one of these! Show to be performed in person at an event local to New Haven, or videoed. You receive all puppets and show elements to keep.


finding Trekkie Monster

I'm delighted to get to stay on another semester at Fairfield University! This time to design the puppets for their spring production of Avenue Q, and teach a puppet building class to get them made. This has been one of the most challenging projects I've attempted, but the crew of 9 students are an incredible, dedicated and resilient team. 

I built a new version of Trekkie monster, inspired by the student actor playing him in our show, and based on the Project Puppet Borsa pattern, adapted. Here are some photos of me figuring him out, I'm too tired to add commentary yet. 

Moby Dick

The ever lovely Tori Rysz invited me to march in a Mardi Gras parade through the annual fundraiser party of the New Haven Free Public Library. The grand space, my love of books and parades, and a recent revelation of the beauty of the language of Moby Dick immediately came together in a vision of this costume. Also, I have always, always wanted to wear a boat on my head. For serious. 

Using matte medium to transfer the text enlarged by copier, I sewed the first paragraph of the opening chapter "Loomings" onto a damaged bodice tossed at work. I'd planned for the whole dress to be text, but alas, it was a labor intensive process.

The ship is completely cardboard and chipboard, layered and shaped with wood glue and hot glue. The sails, muslin stained with walnut ink. 

My grandmother's box of lace contributed, especially for the mask I decided I needed an hour before the party. 

I'd dreamed up a rattan whale, but still not having manifested one by Tuesday morning, rigged up a cardboard Moby Dick that bobbed and opened his mouth via string operation. 

Lotta Studio set up a photo booth environment at the Library, and took the top photo with a polaroid. Thank you, guys! This completed the spirit I was going for. 

what an artist does all day

I saw a series of video documentaries under this project title and had a revelation-- it is a mystery to even my closest friends what I actually do all day. Often it is to me, too.

So I photo-documented my activities on Instagram during four days of making a new caryatid statue costume for the Hamburg Fair in August... minus the boring things like eating, sleeping and basic hygiene, (though there is precious little of that going on before a deadline anyway, as you can tell from the general decline in my appearances throughout the photos).

It's interesting, even to me, to see in photographic evidence the variety of skills that goes into building a living statue: sewing, painting, sculpting, building, prop shopping, plumbing, weightlifting, acting... there is occasionally a benefit to being a jack-of-all-trades.

Even with all this effort, the statue had some pitfalls the first round through-- the pedestal was to be rigged with a novelty trick that ran into technical difficulties, the dress didn't fall as statue-like as I'd imagined, etc, so there is more to be done. You have to love process to be in the statue arts!

On a side note-- though usually more of an art history major's interest and not mainstream knowledge, caryatids turned up in the news right after the Hamburg Fair debut. What are the odds!

And the result, thus far:

Many curious and happy tigers!

puppets in the city

     photo Brian Pounds, Connecticut Post

In a decade of leading workshops for kids and adults I've figured out that though I might teach adults sometimes, kids are really my teachers. I can show them some things they didn't know about, but I always come out of schools having gotten schooled myself. 

Last September I joined the teaching team of After School at the Klein (ASK), a performing arts program free to public high school students in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Brand new, thanks to a grant from the Board of Education, we were building from scratch and I was lucky enough to be invited to create a puppetry class.

Bridgeport is a rough and tumble city. Walking home isn't necessarily safe, much less self expression. Arts classes in public schools are not usual. The ASK program was made to bring students together with artists working in theater, expose them to all aspects of the performing arts, and be a safe environment for artistic and self exploration. 

It was also made to bring life and community connection back to an equally underserved entity, the Klein Memorial Auditorium, a grand 1400 seat theater from the 40's that became neglected when the surrounding neighborhood fell into disarray.

One of the first orders of business was to carve out some teaching spaces with very little budget. We turned an old office into a dance studio with a sprung floor thanks to some materials donations.

It was down to the wire, teachers and interns found themselves in the midst of construction during orientation.

Just in time we got it done. Here, before the paint went on, but the tremendous mirror installation in place.

Puppetry happily made its home in the Trap Room, the basement under the stage. Here we could make every kind of mess possible. We started the first semester with an exploration of materials, all easily found and often discarded, to discredit the notion that you can't make art unless you can afford expensive things from art stores. Then we played with every type of puppet: finger, hand, shadow, rod, bunraku-esque. And then moved into making large papier mache puppet heads.  

With this group I encountered the largest force of self-doubt I'd yet come up against. I had some self-doubt, too, unsure if I had the spark to combat it. So many students arrived each week already defeated, discouraged by their abilities and what was available to them. Even the need for developing basic motor skills was something I hadn't planned for, nor were the distractions from the more than usual challenges of their daily lives. So we borrowed this manifesto from Bread and Puppet which was always posted. Whenever spirits needed raising we would gather round and each shout a line.

There were a couple of natural born puppeteers. Anthony had a love for fabric that surpassed even my own, and could pull a puppet together out of anything. I once found him in a stairwell listening to someone practicing violin. "Brahms," he said. "I really love Brahms." Anthony! This is him discovering his phoenix.

And Tameika, a blossom of ferocious artistic determination. More like myself than any student I've yet met, but a hundred times braver and more sure of herself. She knows what she needs in order to do what she loves, and doesn't put up with anything that gets in the way of it. She came to my class because she had a dream of herself as a puppet. Here she is working on her Ghost Girl head. 

It wasn't always easy-- the concept of sticking through for the long haul was new to many, and no small obstacle to overcome was the keen aversion to cornstarch papier mache paste. 

But by the end of the semester they were looking at junk and puppets in a new way, and we put a foot in the doorway opening to the limitless possibilities in their own hands. 

But true to my theory, the biggest revelation was mine. Somewhere along the way I realized how lucky I had been to have art given to me through my family, and how it empowered me to create a world of my making to be in when the outside world was less than ideal. 

Some of these students are living in a world that is failing them all the time. Art isn't going to sustain all of them, but for the ones which it can, ASK is determined to make a space for them to be able to find it. 

In puppetry, it might just be the introduction of a new tool, or instruction on something as simple as how to angle scissors to get a good point cut.

And in other cases, maybe it was more. But with this work, seeds are planted for trees you don't expect to ever sit under. You just keep planting and planting because someone planted for you.

But puppets were just a fraction of the program which also included acting, stage craft, hip hop, Shakespeare, flash mob, film making, singing, and drumming. A great article about it in the CT Post is here.

We went bigger in the second semester, so big it needs its own post! That's coming next. 

shaman masks, puppets, and dreams

Here is part 2 of an appeal for donations to fund my tuition to attend the 2014 Eugene O'Neill National Puppetry Conference. Thanks to so many great friends and allies, I have just a little more to raise! The fundraiser is here on Gofundme



(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!

National Puppetry Conference!

There has been much puppetry afoot and afloat in 2014 already. The latest big news: I've been accepted into the prestigious Eugene O'Neill National Puppetry Conference for the second time! As much as a surprise as last year, since this time I took a risk and went for the writing strand, the skill I need to work most on.

Even more incredibly, I won a Jane Henson Memorial Scholarship award! I still need to raise the remaining balance of $1175 for tuition and board so there is a GoFundMe campaign running, full of new thank you gifts like giclee prints, true tales, Peaceable Kingdom journals, signed books, and puppets.

The training I get at the O'Neill is world class, and goes directly into projects like this giant fish puppet, part of an ambitious vision to start a year round puppetry class for underserved Bridgeport high school students within the After School at the Klein arts program. Since this pilot program began last September I've worked with dozens of talented students who have little or no exposure to the arts, teaching everything from the motor skills of basic tool use, to dreaming up and manifesting their own puppets. But that deserves a post or two for its own.

I applied for writing for two reasons: to help me complete some short personal puppet shows I've been wanting to finally present to the public, and to bring full narrative productions into my work with young people and the community. Both of these are long overdue!

Any amount no matter how small is greatly appreciated! And every amount receives something as well as endless amounts of hugs and gratitude. If you can't afford monetary donations, cheering on is equally welcomed!

To donate to the tuition, click here!

To read about my puppeteering family and their puppet troupe I'm reviving, click here!

To read about me in an article by Teaching K-12, click here!

bird by bird: robin #2

The role of the robin in The Secret Garden is shared by two puppets I'm building, so it can quickly appear in different places on the stage. While #1 has a wing flapping action, I wanted #2 to tilt its head along with the flute voicing its song. Wing flapping I'd done before, tilting is new to me. So again I made a quick cardboard mechanism to see if my idea would work. 

The simplest solution seemed to be a pivoting joint with 2 strings coming from paddles on either side.


This required getting more serious, so I went into the wood shop. Some experimentation 
and much reshaping resulted in this sloppy but adequate interior neck joint. 
The smaller holes are where the two strings will start from.

First mantra-- use what's on hand. Old paintbrushes are aplenty, 
and their hard coating makes a smooth twisting action as pins for the pivot.

Here it is put together: the crescent pieces will glue into the shoulder, 
while the round piece will pivot between them. Dowel inserted at angle to hold up the head. 

A wicked fight to get it into the cardboard body, which I'd already built. 
I would have done it the other way around, in hindsight. Der. Glued and stapled in.

A double strand of thick fishing line threaded through the holes, held down solid with 
epoxy and hot glue. I won't be able to get back into the body
easily for fixes, so extra back up strength is going in from the start. 

Clay-over-styrofoam head put into place. 

 And now, cardboard feather layers again, for texture and shaping. So much fun!

With robin #1 I was inventing from scratch, this time I'm recreating robin #1. 
Easier now that I know what to do, harder now that I have to match something.

Eye sockets carved, beak and wings added.

The first robin poses and watches on like a cheerleader.

"You're doing great, Robin #2!" says Robin #1.

End of a long and fruitful day 1, a moment to look at the evolution of the robins,
from maquette to finish.

Day 2: constant checking to get the second body similar to the first, 
using the cardboard feather pieces to add roundness and disguise the much different 
shapes created by the two different mechanisms.

Face and head feathers added. Carefully measured overhang to hide the gap between 
head and shoulders without obstructing the tilting action. Beak reshaped. 
It's always nice to finally get eyeballs in.

Looking like a bird now.

Remembering how the paint went on. Glad I took process photos to put on my blog.

And here they are, not quite identical, but twins nonetheless.

The tails might not be seen much from the audience, but they didn't look complete without them.

Robin #2 shows off his head tilt.

Next, a less visible rubber band for #1, and dowels for both, and then we'll be ready 
to head to rehearsal. 

a drawing a day

Week 6. Squeezed into a busy 7 days of puppet finishing, puppet teaching, heart-selling, Etsy shipping, weight-lifting, and an Olympic figure skating watching obsession. Some done waiting in check-out lines, a good place for drawing. 


Always am I trying to catch the thing that comes and brings a great need to make something, that your hands become so distracted, they are clumsy with anything else you force them to do. And when you finally let it through, it's as if it makes itself, and you are just watching on mystified. I would like to know how to invite that to visit more often. 

Another Travis Knapp piece, this time a poem for Pete Seeger you can listen to here. 

a drawing a day

Week 5! I've stuck with something past a month! Some bus-ride drawings which made me ill, Baba Yaga, another lady with a cat, and a little deviation this week: working on a larger ink drawing a little each day. It's nice that this drawing-a-day project has carved some space in my schedule to be able to feel I can work on my own art every day like that.