Letter “A” is for tongue; balloons are for toes

When handed a piece of a stranger’s childhood to bring to life, I always find it funny how many more questions I have for the stranger than the other way round. The essential being: where to begin?

Emphasis on experience, investment in quality, and breath held for perfection all risk sacrifice in the bustle of building up a small business or big idea. We ask “Who’ll notice?” and we scout for shortcuts. We speed-read through our thought process and burp results that’ll simply do. But simply-doing is a crime in an age when there is so much potential to explore. We ought to be pushing past crowd-pleasing toward thrilling individuals, inviting that ripple that’s got the entire audience swelling with the collective giddiness of having their hunger catered to, exceeded and promised more.

The work I do appears small and simple as an example; it isn’t. Understand it as the illustration of a larger thought; its applicability on a grander scale.

I build posable (armatured) puppets using repurposed material; people approach me with thoughts and I sculpt something new from something old. They’ve given way to alarmingly genuine, unfiltered and often ongoing correspondences. I refer to the process always as collaboration, and explain to newcomers that each puppet is brought to life by an intimate network of storytellers. By the time one reaches the hands of the intended, so many thoughts have been thunk into it, it’s just about grown a mind of its own.

Before I dive in, I soak up every insight the giver is willing to share and incorporate these into the puppet to maximize its personality. Inside jokes, childhood stories, dreams. Like a kid gearing up their Radio Flyer with household treasures, I am en route to the sandbox. All I need is material in my hands and then they’re off. In my head there are no images and I’m designing by pumping questions down through my fingers:

Might they have kids later on, and will they be rowdy? I blunt the edges, reinforce the joints. Will it live beyond a conversation piece for adults to a teaching aide and plaything for the kids? I give it ten fingers that grip, point, tickle, fold hands, hold hands. Ten posable toes to wiggle and count as pigs. Was there a face their dog made that always made them give in? Are they a serious, solemn lot or are they elaborate pranksters? As kids did they prefer stuffed animals with neutral expressions so they could channel their own feelings? Will they need something to cheer up their spouses after a fight? Throughout an illness? Before a meeting? Just because? I make the eyes simple but sincere, the mouth capable of smiles and frowns, the tail waggable, the neck flexible so that the head can tilt to its side and express everything in between.

I live in their shoes — in all the shoes these strangers might own — until I finish building. Woven into a Sesame Street blanket I saw more questions:

Did they have favorite characters, and seek them out on the blanket to see what they were up to? Did they carry on conversations in their heads, pretending the characters interacted? I section off the fabric so that no character is divided, and allocate each to a body part where it can get the most face time. The monsters holding hands remain holding hands across the puppet’s brow. Cookie’s belly doubles as the puppet’s belly. Oscar sits contently perched on the tush because, well. And did they count the balloons, how many of each color? I carve out the balloons and jacket each toe in its own color. There’s just enough surface area on the pink letter “A” to piece together an inner mouth and tongue, contrasting with the busy body. And so on.

No space unaccounted for, nor detail added without cause. Everything in it’s right place — not because of sufficient planning, but sufficient intention.

Conversations vary, materials become exhausted, and new ships come in. There are two constants in the formula: process and response. I happily report that every exchange yields one or all of three reactions: that I’ve brought something to life, that I’ve built with love, that it’s been a good chat.

Homespun character. Repurposed material. Stopped motion. @restlessleg on Instagram