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October 9, 2021

My first attempts at making felt dolls were painful in more ways than one and eventually aborted.  However, I did do further research as I was beginning to be drawn to the work of Outsider or Brut and did not want to miss an opportunity before going back to navigable path.  Whilst also considering animation I came across a book called Animo about an artist who makes dolls at first glance they do look a little like my first dolls, but the resemblance soon abates.  Michel Nedjar is one of the most important artists in the French Art Brut movement who drew inspiration found on his travels to South America.  His dolls are fetish figures made with waste materials; the result of ‘magic, artisan skills, baroque and death’.  (Feilacher, J. 2008)

In 1972 Nedjar’s first dolls as a tailor were used as commercial products to be sold in Parisian boutiques described as ‘little masterpieces of handicrafts, but nothing more’ made with fine fabrics and high-quality manufacture.  It was later after travelling in Latin America with a friend experimenting with hallucinogenic mushrooms and colourful fabrics found in the Mexican markets and learning about the dolls and figurines used in Catholic death cults and magical rites when his dolls changed.   No longer smooth and well behaved, now, ruffled with troubled grimaces as if ‘liberated from handicraft’.  While the fabric remains an important element; colour, light, and playfulness has disappeared.  Instead shades of earth and grey, the fabric is dyed with paint and sometimes animal blood that when dry appears brittle and fragile. The stitch work is replaced with violent wrapping and tying. Nedjar stopped making dolls in early 1990s and began painting. However, 10 years later when a close friend died of AIDS and the pain was so intense, he ‘felt the need for dolls again’. These figures are quite different, while the fabric is no longer dyed and appear softer, they are coarsely stitched.  At first sight they look more colourful almost cheerful; nonetheless with a patched and eyeless demeaner they seem to have a darker story to tell.  (Feilacher, J. 2008)

Nedjar’s second dolls called the dolls of darkness where representative of the horror and tragedy in his life and that of his friends and family during the Holocaust and discussed by Allen J. Weiss fully in Silent Screams; the dolls of Michel Nedjar.  Weiss considered the words of Nedjar from the radio programme and the screams of mute dolls and the way in which they are performative not sculptural, needing staging, not display, theatre not gallery.  Suggesting that while these monsters lead us to an underworld that is no need for particular of language and for this work, he used a Yiddish babble and imaginary language that seems to make sense of the ‘nonsense of death’ (Weiss, J. Allen 2015)

Dark or not …

September 28, 2021

Unlike those artists who use the art and skills in a playful way to educate and lessen the grief and hardship of physical and mental hardship; there artists that use their work skilfully to expose the harm and in some cases the perpetrators they have encountered.  During the course I attended a lecture by Erin M. Riley an artist whose work focuses on women’s issues in woven tapestries.  Her work is used to expose the harm that she has encountered at the hands of her family and lovers and self-harm.  While the tapestries are of the highest artistic and technical standard the subject matter is graphic, shocking, and some not far from the pornographic realm.  Her narrative, tone and attitude during the lecture was dark, poignant, and strangely beguiling.  I was reminded of an essay by Susan Sontag about Antonin Artaud the poet, dramatist, actor, and theatre director and major figure in the early 20th century theatre and European avant-garde and well known for his raw and transgressive themes. For Artaud, it is the extreme mental and physical pain that is transformed into artistry.  Although he was part of the surrealist scene he was at odds with their thoughts as ‘connoisseurs of joy, freedom, and pleasure, Artaud is a connoisseur of despair and moral struggle’. (Sontag, S. 1980)  

For me this is harsh and unattainable.  My tutor pointed out that we all have personal grievances and while they are not comparable or measurable some artists chose not to share or address them explicitly/publicly, they might use artistic tools, metaphor, irony or merely sanitise their work. 

‘Dolls are something scream, something mute.

Something of childhood, something of death,

Something of cruel, something of joyful…’  Michel Nedjar 1996.

Puppets in education …

September 23, 2021
I have taken this image from @DoctorSusanLinn

When I began animating my coat hanger people, I had not realised the amount of dexterity and concentration needed for a few seconds of film. I had expected my people to do all manner of activities and that I might make an epic film. Thus far they can walk about trying to look nonchalant or dance and a long way from making entertainment and educational intent is not possible so far.

Professional animators and puppeteers with scholars are seeing children worldwide exposed to trauma and those whose social-emotional wellbeing has been destroyed. Puppets ‘speak to immediate moral crises … after the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi, UNICEF-sponsored puppet shows in a refugee camp that urged non-violence.’ In the South African version of Sesame Street, a HIV positive Muppet was added to the cast.  Characters from the Israeli and Palestinian versions of the show, play together (Blumenthal, E. 2005)

Doctor Susan Linn, psychologist, play therapist and ventriloquist believes her puppet Audrey speaks and becomes a person with healing skills. In March in response to Covid 19 when the people worldwide were instructed isolate in their homes Linn was deeply concerned with the difficulties families with children would find themselves in.  Since becoming an awarding winning ventriloquist with her duck puppet, she has worked with children from many backgrounds ‘helping them cope with challenging situations, including long term hospitalisations, painful sickness and frightening medical procedures’.  (Amato, F. 2020 p. 26-27)

always something to think about …

September 18, 2021

While my journey into animation has been closely mixed with the notion of marionettes and puppetry for me, they are symbiotic; until one discusses the stage required.  I use a Black and Decker Work Mate as an animator might use a tabletop; with an adjustable pair of vices with the use of clamps I can rig up a back screen. This, Binyon suggests, is a plain curtain or painted background and best so the puppets so they can be seen as clearly as possible.  ‘Your marionettes must be so expressive so the audience will imagine the scene’ (Binyon, H. 1966) As my puppets do not have strings or hands to govern them, I do not need a complicated structure or a proscenium stage with more complex lighting system.  Filming outside, while I do not have light difficulties, I am limited to daylight hours.  I have experimented with back screens and discovered that while they might add another element to the action and story, they do cause technical problems with camera, when it focuses on the back cloth instead of the characters. With careful stitching I have learned to make them less attractive to the camera lens.  It is for this reason Binyon does not advocate scenery.  As I am a Textile artist first and puppeteer at present by default and due the Covid isolation I am keen to find an alternative to my garden limits, such as the bushes, trees, and my neighbour’s washing as it blows in the wind. 

After washing and unpicking the seams of some seed potato sacks found in the shed, I draped one over the back screen. With its open weave, drab colour and no adornment it served well as a background.  So, while I have managed to navigate a rather a haphazard path through the busyness of animation, puppetry, stage, and costume design; to leave an opportunity to stitch something is an anathema.  Especially as Covid and its restrictions has given me time to consider stillness, silence and space and a chance to the perfect juxtaposition. 

Silent vibration …

September 10, 2021

As I allow light and shade on my stage, I want to maintain silence; or at least understand the noise and master it.  ‘Silence is all of sound we don’t intend. There is no such thing as absolute silence’ and John Cage says that it is ‘the multiplicity of activity that constantly surrounds us. (Cage, J. 2010) This knowledge gives me permission to allow the silence of the world to permeate my work in a refreshing and creative way. Furthermore, adding sound to stop motion animation is complex and costly.  Early films without the necessary technology were a silent medium so the moving images and the spectacle were more important than the plot.  (Kenny, C. 2011) One more of those comforting thoughts that gives me the opportunity stitch and ‘embroider’ the costumes and allow the audience to use their imagination in the name of art.   

My coat hanger people have no character or life of their own; they are ‘governed by the law of gravity’ (Buchan, S. 2011) until me as the animator gets involved.  I must make them move, perform, and dance and give them soul like a ‘neoplatonic god’ (Buchan, S. 2011) grand words for magic.  Even after the painstaking frame by frame photography it does feel like that.   However, as an animation beginner, movement and animation are in the hands of the gods especially when the action is complex.  For instance, dancing the Flamenco I need to hear the rhythm of the guitar, footsteps and handclaps and castanets in my head; I must become the dancer and immerse myself in the music while the puppet does the mirror action. ‘Unless the operator can transpose himself into the centre of gravity of the marionette. In other words the operator dances’ (Buchan, S. 2011) However, it is the unwanted movement that concerns me; since I have learned more about the Stop Motion Studio Application and its very basic editing features, I am able to eliminate awful intrusions. Stillness, like silence is long lost in the bluster of life.  Movement cannot be eliminated unless we have died and gone to heaven.  No matter how I try I cannot still my beating heart, the wind in the trees or vibration of the train as it rumbles by.  So, while I must learn to dance and maintain a healthy relationship with my camera and editing device, I must allow the vibration of life to carry on. 

Let there be light …

August 11, 2021

While gathering thoughts about the use of animated puppets in a Textiles MA course I looked again at the words of Helen Binyon and the point she makes about Puppetry being a dramatic art, a communication between performers and audience.  The work of art is not the puppet but the performance, the drama being the verbal art.  She goes on to say that puppetry is a visual art and communicates by visual means (Binyon. H. 1966) This is reassurance for mixed media artist who champions costume, fabric and colour before enforced narrative and unnecessary sound.

I am a gardener and read a little about Gertrude Jekyll and her ideals in ‘natural beauty, in the exploitation of natural shapes, colour, and harmonies …’ in the garden and her claims for gardening to be a ‘fine’ art.  As an artist wanting to express ugliness, disharmony and as Jekyll says ‘things jarring and displeasing’ as well being a textile artist with the use of puppets and animation one can apprehend puppetry as an art not so fine but not be disregarded fully.

Letting in light (Chatto, B. 2002) I live in a Victorian terraced house with a tiny north facing garden.  I value every moment of the rising and setting sun in my back yard; where I sit and enjoy the world and of late do my filming.  Light for a prolonged period is vital for the lengthy stop motion process.  During the months of lockdown and specially in the winter when filming was not an option, I discovered that that lack of light does have effect on my mood and wellbeing.  As a gardener depression can be addressed to some degree with careful planting.  Beth Chatto the noteworthy garden and plants woman talks about this, trees and shrubs planted years before were advancing at alarming rate since the winters were becoming milder.  ‘Spaces between the shapes were closing in I am losing too much sky of wonderful cloudscapes … I feel hemmed in and depressed.’ She went on to describe how she would cut back and replant to let in the light and bring balance to the overall structure.  On a smaller scale and no less important on my workmate in my back yard I have to allow my people to move and grow, be watchful of changes in the season, daylight and shade.  I must cut back to encourage regrowth but more important add light. Not with pruning shears but with needle and thread and colour or conversely embracing the negative spaces and allowing the sky or light to touch our souls and illuminate our imaginations.

a role model …

July 31, 2021

As I tried find a way to animate my coat hanger people for my MA in textiles without previous experience in isolation I was at a loss. Until, while researching my childhood memories and scrapbook images of Margot Fonteyn, Alicia Markova and Anna Pavlova I discovered Alexander Shiryaev who died in 1941, was a principal dancer at the Imperial Ballet in St Petersburg.  He was also a teacher and choreographer and worked for decades with many of the greatest stars of Russian ballet.  So, while his first love was dance very early in his career and even more remarkable working alone and in isolation, he became the inventor of stop-motion animation using techniques that still astonish professional animators today. (Breumers, B. 2009) He produced hundreds of pencil drawings in sequence and built an ‘optical’ device’ to play the drawings.  Soon after this he moved from 2-densional to 3D and used wire puppets with flexible joints and filmed them frame by frame using a 17.5mm camera.  His puppets only 25cms tall perform on a small proscenium stage.  His longest film at 15 minutes called Harlequin’s Jest is masterful and entertaining.  This aspect of Shiryaev’s work was not seen art but an education tool for his students and kept in storage until many years later.  Now they are considered art and in my opinion jewels of delight. 

I have a long way to go to reach such lofty heights, but it is reassuring that he more than 100 years ago he was able to achieve so much with limited tools and technical knowledge. He was surely ahead of his time.

is there too much technology?

July 20, 2021

As the lock down and restrictions tightened their grip; I was not able to research fully and going to university less and less likely, I began to despair about my opportunities to learn about doing stop-motion animation.  Having read much about puppets and was beginning to see a divide between puppetry and animation and any research I was discovering that stop-motion animation was a lot about a tabletop with small 3d models or cartoons.  With computer technology, hardware, and software, and more recently apps, animators can manipulate, space, time, and sound with dazzling effects. (Laybourne,K. 1998)  I was at a loss without technology and knowhow I could not hope to dazzle anyone.  Also, I did not want to enter what is described as artistic explosion and produce high-quality high artistry animation; I want to explore the possibilities for the movement of my large 3D dolls, develop my own voice and style as simply as possible.  So, when I did find a book to help me out of the quagmire it was highly technical and not readily accessible to a child of the last century and not fully functional around 21st century technology.  However, all was not lost; there was a chapter on clay, puppet and stop-motion animation which proved to be most helpful and reassuring.  I was at least going down the right path.  More interesting and inspiring was a list of ‘history’s seven leading puppet animators’ most of whom from eastern Europe where there is a longstanding tradition of puppetry (Laybourne, K. 1998) So while the book, a weighty tome may not be the best for my needs at present it did prove to be of some benefit. 

What about Punch and Judy?

July 7, 2021

It was not until I started to think about animation and stop motion that I considered puppetry and drama together.  I did not think of my creatures more than dancing things.  Even when I researched animation the books I read were about the techniques, Wallace and Grommet, moving table lamps and computer games.  I could not see how my coat dolls would fit in.  It would seem that puppets performed, ‘for entertainment the 5th Century BCE for ‘common folk at public gatherings and for the wealthy at banquets’ Beside this there were elaborate automatons that moved with cogs and levers or activated with water flow.   Some scholars believed the Greeks also had shadow theatre. Then with the fall of Rome and the growth of Christianity puppetry became anathema, seen as idolatry and a device of the devil.  So, it too did not fit into society and the new culture.  In the hostile environment, puppetry during the Middle Ages was considered to be a low form of entertainment alongside that of trained dogs and monkeys.  Puppeteers came from outcast groups such as Gypsies and Jews. (Blumenthal, E. 2005)

As a child I did not understand Punch with his long-suffering wife Judy ‘who emerged from the political turmoil in the 17th century in England’ (Diptee, J. 2011) It seemed neither funny nor educational. I have since learned that Punch for all his failings was a hero of the outsider and the neglected, with first-hand experience of the poor.  He took the opportunity to ply them with knowledge that in his opinion would bring change and freedom from the oppressors. Diptree points out at the end; that puppetry is not only a means of communication, but also an opportunity for the ‘public’ to criticise and voice their opinions about apparent oppression, hostility, and inequality.

What next …

June 28, 2021

So now, having perfected the wire twisting and felting the beginnings of the coat hanger dolls; they were dunked into dye baths.  Using, foraged, and finding eco-friendly suppliers I experimented with different shades that varied from green to yellow to indigo and brown and black using different mordents it all became a game of chance.  So, moving from the sculpture that needs a degree of uniform and structure so came an element of serendipity and playfulness.  Nonetheless, they were still a little statuesque, without properly formed and disproportionate hands and feet and rather odd wire heads and subtle differences of colour they were characterless.  They needed clothes, not costumes, they were not yet performers, nor strategically placed fig leaves or silken drapes they had nothing to hide.  They are made of twisted wire with a little felt to hide the joints; but need more not for warmth or dignity but for the artist’s 4th dimension; depth and furthermore distinction.  It was now I looked at artists who were masters of capture such as Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse, and Pieter Bruegel dressing my sculptures as a ballet dancer, odalisque, old guitarists, glamourous girls, blue boy and girl, peasant etc.   With my adopted characters came colour I needed little or no imagination the masters had done it for me.  However, I had not considered this an issue until I attended a webinar at the Society of Dyers and Colourists about the importance colour, costume, and stage design.  Julane Sullivan explained how a costume designer must help the actor tell the story and ensure the audience understands what he is seeing.  Colour is a tool often used to give insight into themes, location, status, relationships, and personality.  While my performance will be very unsophisticated this knowledge will allow be to make informed decisions about my characters and their roles with colour, not only in the costume but scenery and lighting.  Which is important as my performance will be silent.

As the characters developed so I began to consider storytelling and performance; it was deliberate and necessary step if I were to show my work in the lockdown and/or socially distanced situation at the end of my course. However, while I was and remain without extensive technical knowledge it was to become for a while a stumbling block. While the characters were formed, and I was confident in the workmanship, the story telling and animation was completely unknown.