Jewelry, hand-stitched clothing, and tiny tattoos – it’s all in the details with Handsome Devils Puppets. Add to that, elongated, knuckly, wicked fingers and a dry brush skin effect that is positively chalky (like some kind of delicate bone-skin that has lasted eons beyond the grave) and you have a puppet that succeeds at evoking an atmosphere of dark wonder. In the 1999, fantasy-comedy film Being John Malkovich, (which the artist – who prefers to remain anonymous – claims to have seen many years ago while sick in bed) a puppeteer played by John Cusack finds a mysterious portal that leads into Malkovich’s mind. Later on in this highly original script, Cusack and his love interest begin carefully leaking the news about the portal, charging customers two hundred dollars to spend fifteen minutes inside the mind of Malkovich. “I cannot recall any of the film,” the artist said. “It has become a question I’m asked so frequently I guess I’m long overdue for a re-watch!”
Let’s face it – most of us would gladly pay top dollar to leap into the mind of someone else – even a Hollywood actor. That’s because the majority of us will admit to having fantasies about being someone (or some thing) other than ourselves. But since we can’t invade Malkovich (or anyone else for that matter), consider a real alternative which exists in the world of puppetry – specifically Handsome Devils Puppets. When animating one of these beautiful creations, the puppeteer is transported into the body and mind of the cryptic marionette, and if said puppeteer slows down enough and lets it happen, an out of body fantasy may begin to unfold.
( Above) The Sleepwalker | Exclusive video link for Handsome Devils Puppets: Death and the Maiden exhibition.
The 1920 German silent horror film ‘The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari’ is about an insane hypnotist who uses a sleepwalker to commit murders. I won’t spoil it for you, but there is a twist ending involving the lovely Jane, portrayed in this puppet.
Hand-sculpted, half marionette Materials: paper clay, human hair, small grandfather clock
Have you ever imagined how bats flap their leathery wings in a jerky, erratic fashion, and how stunning they look silhouetted against a full-bodied, silvery moon? Or have you thought about how a lanky, skeletal, anthropomorphic deer might step as it walks, horns adorned with fall-colored flowers and dead leaves? It would be a delightful challenge, a wondrous treat, to animate any member of this crew – and once you add a little set with props, and illuminate the scene with eerie lighting, the night sky’s the limit.
Per the promise made on their website, the Devils are sturdy and quality-checked, so whether you feel happy and wish to jiggle your devil around to make it dance, or you feel pensive and wish to enact a theatrical scene rich with slow, poetic movements, you can do so with zero restraint. As their creator states, “Puppets are infinite. If you know love, they do. If you know sadness, they do. If you breathe, they do. You give them steps and they make them strange. They are sometimes silly, sometimes serious, always honest little vessels.”
As you are beginning to gather, working with puppets isn’t just kids’ business. Making and controlling puppets helps people of all ages express powerful emotions and say things they might not normally be able to say themselves. Therapists often invite young, shy, or anxious clients to speak through puppets when talking out loud, or clients may use a puppet to confront abusive family members in a safe, indirect way. Again, to quote the artist, “I started making puppets when I felt I didn’t have a voice. I sculpted powerful, magical women to dance and sing and cry and give me that voice. When I feared death, they showed me it could be beautiful. When I feared life, they showed me it could be weird and wonderful.”
In this same vein, we’ve all experienced the personality changes that manifest themselves when a Halloween costume or mask is donned at party. To varying degrees (depending on the individual), one is likely to act the part of the character or thing they are representing – more sexy, more outspoken, more creepy, etcetera. There is a much similar phenomenon with puppets and marionettes, for they are diminutive costumes for your hands, serving effectively as safe vehicles for emotional and creative expression.
One might ask, why are all the Handsome Devils dead? Well, to quote what’s stated on the website, “We’re all alive, we all know what it’s like to be that, but there’s often a lot of fear toward the unknown of death.” And it was by making these puppets that the Devils’ creator was able to come to terms with mortality: “There was a time in my life where death was immanent, and seeing it as something beautiful, as something to be treated with normalcy and even liveliness helped me get through those times. My intent is not to offend but to accept and help others do the same.”
Beautiful Bizarre Magazine author (and fellow puppet lover) Jennifer Susan Jones spoke with the creator of Handsome Devils Puppets, about the therapeutic benefits of making and animating puppets, how she got into the business, and more, in an exclusive interview.
bb: What life events led up to you first starting to make puppets? What were some aha moments or revelations that initiated the shifts towards the type of work – the type of puppets – you are making now.
HDP: Years ago, in an event I’d rather not specify, I nearly lost my life. It was the climax to a traumatic period that I had yet to come to terms with. I was numbed, floundering, in need of a way to understand this darkened, hardened person I’d become. I moved to Chicago, trying to escape my past and find my future. The city was so beyond what I’d ever experienced and I became so aware of just how small and uncertain I was. Not long after I arrived I stumbled upon a ragtag puppet company; the puppets were even smaller than I felt, equally in need of guidance, and similarly begging for a way to be heard. It was my chance to sculpt, beautify and control my fears. Here was something haunting but lovely, dead but full of life. We dragged our little stage around the city, wrangling a mountain of shadow puppets made from frozen pizza boxes and beer cases (remnants of our daily meals), suitcases of maidens and thieves and monsters and glitter blood and homemade instruments, it all tends to sound exceedingly ‘hipster’ and more than a little bit silly, but truly the release that resulted was unprecedented for me. After leaving the company, armed with this mighty tool, I created and retreated into my own world of puppets.
bb: You mentioned that you have worked with children your whole life and that you have always wanted to share the joy of puppets with them. What type of work did you do with kids? Do you feel that like children, you possess a wide-eyed sense of wonder and the propensity for reverie (I know that I sure do – that’s why I am drawn to stop-motion, puppets, dioramas, and miniatures)?
HDP: Oh absolutely. It’s peculiar, when you see me, you see this gloomy gothy towering woman stomping around, and you’d never guess that at more than one job I’ve been named “The Baby Whisperer.” Even I don’t understand it! Maybe it’s because I’m a lot like a puppet, I’ve got a giant face, gangly limbs and no shame and that seems to be the winning combination. At nearly all of these jobs there were parents and employers with no shortage of disapproving, strange looks to give, but kids just don’t care. They’re still one foot in another realm, still seeing people for the supremely weird creatures that they are, and I feel very much the same way. There are horrors and delights and vast unknowns everywhere – find them, create them, let yourself get a little lost in them. You’re never too old for that.
bb: Do you think you’ll work with puppets and kids someday, in some capacity, whether it be puppet show performances or puppet making workshops?
HDP: I don’t foresee my shows becoming super kid-friendly in the near future, but I’ve always wanted to teach a workshop, not so much in crafting but in manipulating. Object theatre is nothing short of magic and I would love to show them how to turn something as simple as their favorite stuffed animal into a living breathing companion.
bb: You said that you lead a very private life. Have you always been this way, and is it because you prefer to retreat into your own world of art, beauty, and fantasy, where you control your surroundings, or is it something else, like you prefer people in small doses, or perhaps you have social anxiety (or am I off in both cases here)?
HDP: I haven’t always been so reclusive. Over time, my experiences shaped me into someone who suddenly craved solitude; as I mentioned in my ‘puppet origin story’ there was this strangeness, this weight in me that I had to start becoming acquainted with. I had neglected myself for so long, it was time to unearth and cultivate this uncharted, unchained ‘me.’ After so much destruction I desired to lead a life of creation, of discovery. At times it gets out of hand and I find myself using puppets as a crutch, unable to function outside of my studio (and yes there is definitely some seriously crippling social anxiety in the mix too). It’s not so much escapism, with the world being as it is today its incredibly important to me to remain vigilant and informed, but it is certainly a realm in its own – vast and terrifying, and at the same time comforting. It’s wholly mine.
bb: How is making puppets therapeutic for you? What about performing the puppets – how is that healing for you, and how do the puppets give you a voice that you feel you otherwise would not have?
HDP: Sometimes it’s not just about needing puppets to express and understand what’s inside you, sometimes you need a little help grasping what is happening in the world around you. I first remember experiencing this with a song we performed while I was with my first troupe. There’s a Tom Waits song called Georgia Lee that tells the true story of the disappearance of 12 year old Georgia Lee Moses in 1997. She had a troubled home life, she was poor, she was African American, she was not reported missing, and there was no front-page news story and no rallying cry. This was a stark contrast to the disappearance of Polly Klaas, a white child from a well-to-do family, of the same age, in the very same town, dubbed “America’s Child” who went missing a few years earlier and sparked a national media outpouring of search and sympathy. Georgia’s body was found under a tree next to the highway, far too late, and her killer has yet to be found. How do you address that? How do you bring people together and force them to care, force them to listen to this sickening, heartbreaking example of a much greater problem? Our solution was puppets, a little girl made of sticks, buried in the earth who emerged to dance with the moon before her twigs shattered and she returned to the earth while Wait’s song was sung. How could we have accomplished that ourselves? How else would we have made people face this darkness? The answer, in this case, was with puppets.
bb: What are some of the “limitless lessons to be learned” from the puppet you make?
HDP: Honestly, it is whatever you wish to learn. I can’t force you to listen to me but I start jiggling puppet in front of you and chances are you’re going to pay attention. Nothing is out of bounds, nothing is too fantastical, too weird, too frightening – puppets can do anything. These tiny beings can scream and dance and fly and fight, but they can’t do it without a manipulator. You are the beginning and end of their brief, petal-like lives. They are as much your voice as you are theirs. They hold the key to immortality. I lost my grandmother and I learned she could live on through every trinket of hers I affixed to my puppets.
bb: Where do you live? Are there puppet theaters nearby where you can watch shows? Would you ever perform shows there or have you already?
HDP: Currently I am in Austin Texas. At this time I mostly perform wherever someone will have me, art galleries, tattoo parlours, store fronts, I’m quite portable! I’ve done a couple very brief shows here and will hopefully have another in November. I’ll be heading up to Salem Massachusetts for a show in late July and will hopefully make a couple more northerly stops at that time. Since it is all very much by the seat of my pants I will always keep folks abreast on my Instagram and will be trying my hand at live feeding bits and pieces of them so be on the lookout.
bb: Where I live there is The Bob Baker Marionette Theater and I have been there about five times and talked with Bob himself a few times before he died. He believed in the magic of puppets and truly loved entertaining adults and kids with his creations. The theater’s mission is “to provide unique theatrical experiences; to educate, celebrate and rejuvenate puppetry and the allied arts.” If you had to write a mission statement, what would it be?
HDP: I guess, unofficially, I could give writing one a try. As you’ve seen, I’m not exactly the master of brevity. I sculpt the strangelings, the outsiders, the broken, batty outcasts struggling to make sense of their emotions, their bodies and their place in it all. The power of the puppet is vast, but it is little without the power of your person. P.S. I want so badly to go to Bob Baker! That’s some real magic right there.
bb: You seem to be a lover of poetry. Who are a few of your favorite poets? What about authors/books? I love Lovecraft, Poe, Bradbury, Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, and the poet Mary Oliver (and much much more!!).
HDP: This is the questions I could go on the longest about! I’m all over the map and books are second only to puppets in my life, I could never choose. Lately as far as poetry goes Marjorie Cameron and Frederick Mortimor Clapp have really been feeding my soul. Don Marquis is one of the first poets my father ever introduced me to and my affections have never faltered. To make it easy on my emotions let’s go with this month’s books ha. This month I’ve been reading Arthur Machen, Kelly Link & revisiting one of my all-time favorites, Bram Stoker. Tolkien is never far from my side as is Mark Danielewski, both mega favorites of mine. (totally in love with the big four you named too, Lovecraft, Poe, Bradbury & Dahl, where would I be without them?!).
bb: What do you listen to when you are making your art? Music, podcasts, audiobooks? Please list some favorites.
HDP: Oh man this is gonna be a weird one. It really depends what I’m working on, if it’s just slapping layer after layer of paper mache onto something I can really plow through some terrible true crime TV a’la Forensic Files and Unsolved Mysteries. It’s ridiculous. Oddly enough I really can’t focus with music playing unless it’s classical or foreign language. Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf, Prokofiev and Vivaldi are a couple of my go-tos for those. I can’t lie, my favorite podcast right now is Mysterious Universe, two giggly Australian guys talking about aliens, high strangeness, cryptozoological creatures, the good stuff. I spend morning to night in my studio and as therapeutic and spiritual as the process is, I’ve learned I can’t take every minute of it too seriously or I’ll lose my mind. Sometimes you just need to grab some clay, turn on The X-Files and plow through it.
Follow Handsome Devils Puppets on their website, Facebook and the videos on Handsome Devils’ Instagram feed… it’s as if Henry Selick were let loose to experiment with deceased marionettes in a beautifully lit, miniaturized version of Disney’s Haunted Mansion.