My son Skyler has spent most of his life turning nearly everything into a puppet. By age 4 he corrected me regularly that his stuffed animals were actually puppets. I take responsibility since I was the first one to make them talk. Skyler learned nearly everything by example then always did his own thing with the acquired information. He also has an uncanny ability to see a face and give voice and personality to any object that he can make move.
The seasoned salt tins in the kitchen ‘talk’ and tell us which dish they’d like to be in, and every appliance, including my Bonny Doon Deep Draw Electric Hydraulic Press, sports a pair of sticky-backed googly eyes. In our house the Swedish Chef speaks regularly via at least two of the inhabitants. As my husband began feeling like he lived on the set of The Muppet Show, the running argument became that if you’re a regular on The Muppet Show, it’s because you too are a Muppet and not a guest human. (Sorry, Chris.)
Last year as a joke, while on a trip to the National Gallery, my husband and I bought our then nearly grown son Skyler a disconcertingly sentient stuffed animal, knowing that its spiky fur and piercing eyes would soon be popping up over our Mac monitors and around corners in the house, freaking us out at every opportunity. Skyler made the odd creature, aka Jellycat, come so vividly to life that I began threatening to buy him a proper puppet, “One whose backside you can put your hand up and control for real,” I told him as he perpetually sighed at my interference in his comedy routines.
My studio assistant Uduak just looked at the dancing fluffy toy staring her down over my Mac and told Skyler straight up. “You need to feel the love you’ve been given.” It was a turning point. When he later caught me shopping online for a hand and rod puppet, instead of getting annoyed he said, “That purple monster is kind of cute.”
‘Manny’ began developing his character quickly with Skyler’s innate talent at micro movements and expressions. Manny was a great bargain, but, like most bargains he was limited, so in my non existent spare time I signed up for a 12-hour, online, hand and rod puppet building course through Stan Winston School of Character Arts taught by master puppet maker and puppeteer B.J. Guyer. We’re talking the secrets of the Muppets here, a window into the genius of my hero Jim Henson. I applied what I learned to the characters that Skyler and I began scheming. I haven’t done many artistic collaborations that come to fruition, but like Giving Voice, when they work, they’re stellar, bringing out the best in each other to create something so much bigger than the sum of our individual contributions.
“He needs to be a really big mouse called, Eek. If those were his initials, what would his name be?” Skyler asked one day while we were all cooking.
“Eureka Edward Kensington V,” my husband fired off in a genius moment of creativity. Perfect!
We began designing Eek’s proportions and selecting fake fur. All I could do was persist as I do with all major projects: with a deep breath, a respect for the materials, a guiding idea, a willingness to change tactics at any moment, and an alternating fear that I won’t pull it off with a workaholic level tenacity that I will pull it off anyway. Welcome Eek into the world, where he was a huge hit at the 2018 SNAG conference in Portland, OR, and the 2018 Southeast Regional Puppeteers of America Conference in Asheville. No one in this family does anything by halves.
Eek is a large mouse who talks constantly of his favorite types of cheese in his unusually deep voice, and prefers to wear his dexterous tail over his head for easy storage. His ears and nose wiggle, and he giggles frequently in a low octave.
Once I had conquered my fear of screwing up sheets of reticulated foam and fun fur, I was on to Gel E. Monster, again, designing him with Skyler’s guidance on movement and how his as yet embodied personality determined his form and fur patterning.
For Christmas, I took a big chance and designed Deacon as a complete surprise. There’s nothing quite so challenging as keeping under wraps a 2.5’, silver tinsel shedding creature that reeks of contact cement. If I could have made Deacon before Skyler’s Xmas break at GSU, the build would have been easier, but I still have my day job as a pro artist…at the holidays….that never remotely feel like a holiday. Had I not been under such a time constraint, I might have stuck to the original leg plan and not given Deacon such large wings. I hate admitting that I do so well under pressure because it’s so exhausting to work that way.
At the end of the next to last frantic foam-and-fur-fest, Chris and a seriously annoyed Skyler returned from a long day of bowling and Xmas shopping so “mom could wrap presents.” Though I worked on Deacon outside in the cold for safety, I hid him in the studio. As soon as he walked in, Skyler began lecturing me. “Why does this place smell like glue?!? What have you been doing?!? You shouldn’t breathe that!!!” I worked to keep a straight face as our usually hyper-intuitive son didn’t suspect a thing other than that his parents were acting like idiots.
There is a long tradition in my life of staying up all night on Christmas Eve to make things for kids that money couldn’t buy. Complex and thoroughly edible gingerbread houses for my godson Cody when he was young, a train table for Skyler when he was five, that was bigger and worked better than the Brio variety, and also matched our living rooms colors. I didn’t expect I’d again relive that thrill of bringing in the gift too big to wrap or fit under the tree, of surprising our 19-year-old adult with a non-metal object that only I would make.
There was a lot of “What should I name him?” and “What should his voice sound like?”
“Your department,” I’d reply.
“Give me some ideas.”
I don’t remember the whole list of contenders, but ‘Deacon’ popped to the top of it in answer to his blue fur and our joint love of the song ‘Deacon Blues’ by Steely Dan. His voice is quite British and posh, originally inspired by Graham Chapmans’ character in the ‘Woody’ sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus but now quite uniquely Deacon’s and without the upper class twit aspect.
“What is he?”
“I based him on the Tanuki at Zoo Atlanta and owls because you love them. He’s multi-specied.”
“He’s a Canavian,” again Chris to the naming rescue. “Part canine, part avian.”
“AAAAAAhhhhhhfff,” replied Deacon utterly drily, though friendly, and in his most posh manner.
Deacon and company fly into the studio nearly every day to see what I’m working on and fly into our bedroom nearly every night to talk politics just when Chris and I are trying to wind down from the day. Skyler says Deacon is the best surprise ever.