a journal of my creative efforts, past and present

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Location: Berkeley, California, United States

Sunday, April 30, 2006


A few years ago, I spotted an ad on a posting board in the Arts section of the library. A puppet theater group was looking for volunteers to work on their bunraku puppet play. I answered the ad and met with a very nice couple. C was a professional set builder for theater and television. E was in grad school for directing. They had both worked in theater for many years. The play was an adaptation of a Russian tale called "Vasilisa and The Tale Of Baba Yaga." Volunteers could choose to work on any aspect of the production that they wanted so I decided to paint a few of the puppets. The very first puppets I painted were representatives of the three different parts of the day: morning, afternoon and evening. These puppets also marked the three acts of the play:

It turned out that C and E were very pleased with what I had done so they kept on giving me more and more characters until finally, I had painted the entire cast. Regarding the main cast - initially, C and E specifically instructed me not to paint with any distinct outlines to the eyes, mouth and other features. The heads and bodies were somewhat fanciful to begin with, so I think they had it in mind that the painting should also be out of the ordinary - in other words, no wide-eyed cartoon like eyeballs and rosey pinked cheeks. This is what I had in mind when painting the stepsisters and stepmother, as you can see by the pictures posted below.

Stepsister one:

Stepsister two:

I tried to go by instinct alone and use colors that might be associated with feelings of jealousy, envy, and bitterness. This same approach was used when painting the stepmother:

I loved her pendulum-like breasts and fox throw.

The lack of distinct lines worked for the three characters above but it did not work on the remaining characters Vasilisa, her father, the Prince and the dying mother. The first person that had worked on them had attempted to follow C and E's instructions, changing the tones and colors only where there were clear differences created by peaks and valleys in the contours of the face. The result was that Vasilisa and the Prince ended up looking like a pair of very red, raw steaks with large insect-eyes where the sockets are indicated. (no distinct outlines for pupils.)

Many puppets are symbolic and archetypal in nature. The audience needs to be able to look at the puppet and immediately identify him/her as the kind one, the scheming one, the evil one...etc... This was certainly the scenario with this cast of puppets, although the witch Baba Yaga was a little more nuanced and complex - more about her later on.. In the case of Vasilisa, she had to be instantly identified as kind, innocent, young AND attractive. So, I decided to give her smooth, natural-toned skin, wide-open round eyes for that innocent look and a rosebud pale pink mouth. This is how she ended up looking after her makeover. I wish I had the before pics to show you but I didn't think of it till it was way after the fact:

Vasilisa's father:

The sick and dying mother:

The love interest and local Prince:

A closeup of Vasilisa's hands:

These hands were made of fimo, which turned out to be problematic because of its tendency to chip and break off. Vasilisa may even had had a missing thumb in the above shot but I positioned it so that you couldn't completely see the whole thumb. The arms and body of each puppet were made of wood with metal joints. The head was constructed of paper mache. Each puppet was approximately three feet high and needed to be maneuvered by one or two puppeteers. The puppeteers were dressed in black, except for Baba Yaga, which was a full-body puppet.

Baba Yaga was also given to me after another volunteer had attempted to paint her. For some reason, the first painter decided to cover her in blurry rainbow colors - !?!?!. She looked like a Wavy Gravy 60s psychedelic Baba Yaga and not at all like the forest crone and keeper of bones in the fairy tale. I'm not really sure what the first painter was thinking in making these color decisions but it clearly wasn't working. In some ways, it looked worse than the intial raw meat, insect-like appearance of Vasalisa and the Prince because Baba Yaga is intended to make a very dramatic first appearance. I could picture the audience reacting with both puzzlement and laughter if she suddenly appeared in rainbow colors. I wanted to go in the opposite direction so I tried to think of a creature in the wild that was frightening but that would also blend into the forest and reflect the stage lights. I came up with the idea of a shark. With this in mind, I painted her head in pale greys and tan colors, with a slight tinge of blue and green:

She was actually a lot more greenish in tone but you can not really see that in this picture. The bridge of her nose and the eye sockets had several varieties of dark green and brown. Her nostrils are packed with dried green moss and little pieces of bark. She also had a shriveled up deformed hand, which unfortunartely, you can't see in either of these pictures. Here is a newspaper clipping from a review to give you a better visual reference of her actual size:

M and I borrowed this costume for Halloween one year and answered the door as Baba Yaga. The youngest trick-or-treaters were amazed. A little three year old boy took one look at the witch, turned around and went the other way, leaving his nervous sister to collect the treats on her own. The older kids asked us how much she cost and were skeptical when we said that the costume was handmade. I guess that was their way of saying they liked it.

I also used Baba Yaga in my second film, shot on BW super 8 film. I shot the film at the Botanical Gardens in Tilden Park. The BW tones abstracted things, making the visual differences between the natural and the man-made less obvious so she blended right in with the setting. While we were shooting the last scenes of the film, a family with a small child of aged two to three years old decided to watch us. They kindly asked permission first and promised to stay quiet during the filming. We told them not to worry because it was a silent film and not to expect too much because we were only beginning film students. They laid out a picnic blanket and ate their lunch while we continued to film.

In the film sequence, Baba Yaga is seen walking through the forest searching for food. She spots a dragonfly on a rickety bridge but it manages to fly away just out of her reach. We were able to show Baba's rolling eyeballs in that scene as she schemes to catch the dragonfly. Angry and frustrated by the dragonfly's narrow escape, she continues on the path, slouching and panting with her hunched back and shriveled claw-like hand. She spots a giant water bug near the edge of a small creek and begins to chase it down. This is where the family began to watch the filming. She reaches down and picks up the scurrying insect, opens her jaws wide and swallows it whole. A rolling, slurping tongue emerges from her mouth as she licks her chops in satisfaction. Upon seeing this last bit, the child squealed out with delight and approval, clapping her hands several times in pure glee.

That was all it took. I was completely hooked.


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