Skip to content

An Unavoidable Influence–or More About the Muppets

Posted by Blake

I thought the title for this post would have the word “inspiration” in it somewhere. My better judgement told me that an artist’s post about inspiration would provoke eye-rolling galore.

I meant to write a post about our day-trip to Atlanta to visit the Center for Puppetry Arts and the High Museum over Christmas break. Instead, I got side-tracked and wrote a post in defense of Iowa and the caucus. The Iowa post was too personal to be an effective argument, but hey, that’s what blogs are for right?

The High was pretty neat; it’s a novel complex of galleries, and I got to see a large number of Kiki Smith’s prints in person for the first time. Also got to see Romare Bearden’s work in person and some work by Gerhard Richter and Anish Kapoor that impressed. For the most part it was interesting to see a lot of lesser known works by big time artists. We had a lovely lunch at the restaurant there as well. Goat cheese and watermelon salad with basil and balsamic vinegar is a beautiful thing. However, once again, it’s the puppets that steal the day.

Hannah, her mother Meg, and myself began the day at the Center for Puppetry Arts, a very modest-looking building just off the interstate in Midtown. Since Christmas was just around the corner, the parking lot was jam-packed with school buses hauling kids to see the Center’s puppet performance of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (has anyone noticed yet I’m using a lot of hyphens—–?). Luckily, the performance was going on when we arrived so the rest of the museum was very quiet. We entered the special exhibitions section first featuring a number of exhibits on the career of Jim Henson. Patrick, the print grad. at Tulane had told me the museum had a full-size Skeksis from the Dark Crystal in it’s collection which inspired the trip in the first place, but I was unprepared for the sheer volume of Henson Workshop gold on hand.

The first thing you see as you enter is Big Bird, in the feathers, as if Carrol Spinney were still inside. He’s in immaculate shape, unlike some of the other Muppets on hand, so I wonder if he was ever actually used on Sesame Street. Also in this main room is a large display devoted to Fraggle Rock with Fraggles and Doozers on-hand, another to Labyrinth equipped with the door-knockers, the card-guards, and Sir Didymus (the tenacious terrier looking knight who rides the sheepdog). A lot of these exhibits were devoted to the technical developments Henson and his Workshop came up with to create the increased realism needed for the Brian Froud inspired Labyrinth and Dark Crystal characters. Breakthroughs in animatronics and motion-capture technology were discussed briefly–the center is geared for children after all–but it’s clear that the current film community owes a lot to what the Creature Workshop developed. The Henson company still holds a lot of the copyrights.

As we left the main hall a small display discussed the relationship between Jim and Kermit, who was very much the character most like Henson. The next room was a protracted version of what will become an entire wing of the Center devoted to Jim Henson. The Henson family donated a good deal of money to the Center upon it’s founding and has maintained a supporting relationship. This exhibit followed the career of Henson from struggling actor, to Sam and Friends ( a D.C. based show of the 50s that introduced the Muppets), to the advertising campaigns that gave rise to Rowlf and  the Chow Mein Dragon, to Sesame Street and the Muppet Show. Several Muppets were on display, all voiced by Jim including Dr. Teeth, Rowlf, the Swedish Chef, and Ernie. Some of these puppets are a bit worse for wear–foam-rubber seems to deteriorate over time–but it was great to get to see how they were constructed and the thoughtful craftsmanship that made each character unique even when the voices were so similar. At the back of the room was a video montage of Henson’s work, and even though the wing is arbitrarily cut-off and poorly lit at the moment, I still got a bit choked up, especially when Kermit sang Rainbow Connection.

By the way, sorry no pictures from the Center, but they don’t allow photography. I’m including a link to the Center and some Henson clips to supplement.

Hannah and I moved on to check out the main wing of the museum. Meg, a woman of hilariously short attention-span when she’s not interested, went to read in the car. It certainly didn’t help that by then the performance had let out and the museum was now crowded with rug-rats. This wing addressed the history of puppets around the world, their construction and function in the culture. There were some spectacular examples of shadow puppets, marionettes, and full-body puppets from Thailand, Mexico, and Africa respectively. There was also a discussion of the function of puppetry as a means for satire and social commentary. Puppets are often seen as youthful or simple so they are allowed leeway in the way they interpret and communicate with the world around them.

Later on Hannah and I overheard a family discussing Jim’s sudden death. The two young sons asked their mother how Henson died. The mother said “I think it was AIDS”. I just about lost it, but I didn’t want to push the issue and she didn’t mean anything by it. More importantly I couldn’t remember the particulars of how he died. I looked into it later. Jim Henson died of a streptococcal infection. In essence he had walking pneumonia and didn’t seek treatment because he didn’t want to be a bother. He was so weakened by the time he finally went to the hospital there was little they could do. Hannah and I talked about it later and I wrote the Center an e-mail suggesting they add to the future exhibit a bit discussing Jim’s death and the importance of health and hygiene. In the current exhibit there’s a pile of well-loved materials used to build puppets that children are encouraged to handle. That would be the optimal place for the sign and a hand sanitizer station don’t you think?

This past week, after reading about Henson’s death and memorial service on-line, I went to YouTube and found clips from the service. We just got the internet at home on Thursday, so Monday I spent an hour trying to hide that I was weeping in the library.

It’s hard for me to explain why Henson inspires so much emotion in me. Part of it is surely nostalgia, Hannah got me The Great Muppet Caper and I watched it three times in as many days, and I had wanted to work with Jim more than anything as a kid, but I think it’s mostly about the purity of Henson’s vision. The Muppeteers always wanted to promote fun and love even when the Muppets themselves were a bit naughty. They were also working in a medium that was seen as out-dated and goofy. As a printmaker I can appreciate the craft and nostalgia that goes into puppetry and helps to fuel it’s impact. But the Muppets gave the troupe license to explore our collective childlike natures and get away with a message that was at times beautifully naive, and at times quietly radical.

This is what I want from my own work. I’m losing the fire in my belly for confrontational satire, just as I was told in undergrad I would. If I can instead engage an audience in a story that is funny, but also has a heartfelt social conscience, I’m on the right track toward change. Maybe not change in policy, but change in attitude, and one eventually follows the other. Finding an audience well outside the gallery, where it’s not just preaching to the choir will be important too. Don’t be surprised if you start to see more performance from me in the future as well. Perhaps some puppets, but definitely some dress-up. These are high aspirations for a guy who makes art about dinosaurs in dresses. But then again, it was a lot to ask of a guy with his hand up a sock too, and he got an awful lot done.

I know some of you–if you make it this far–will be asking yourselves why I’m dwelling on this so much. In truth, I am intellectually stimulated by contemporary art, but sometimes I need a creative recharge from outside the insulated confines of the art community. This talk may hurt my credibility as a “serious artist”, but serious is a state of mind, not necessarily product. For evidence perhaps I’ll give you 2000 words on Duchamp, another on Jeff Koons, and another on Trenton Doyle Hancock or Walton Ford. Maybe not.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.