Thursday, October 01, 2015


I'm an occasional student of a Russian Orthodox icon painting class in NYC. It's in a perfectly organized, quiet little basement studio in Soho, and it is as old school as painting gets. The method is egg tempera on carved gessoed wood. Not thin board, but big, glorious chunks of wood, covered in linen and 30 coats of gesso to make the silkiest, glowing white surface. A saint or archangel is traced onto the gesso and etched into it. Pigments are ground with a pestle and mixed into egg yolk. Real gold leaf is applied with breath onto red clay. It is a pure kind of heaven for a painter who truly loves paint.

Every step is carefully instructed by dedicated teachers Tatiana and Dmitri. And no small step comes without spiritual meaning which is explained with likewise care. It is as much a ministry as an art class. Painting is meditation. The students work quietly to monastic chanting. I get to indulge my teenage fantasy of being an medieval monk-artist. ("I and Pangur Ban my cat, 'tis a like task we are at....!)

Where much of my art-life is art-work: complete with the usual deadlines, decisions that may or may not be liked by a client, doubt, pressure and all that regular life stuff; to paint like this, with time, no decisions, no client, just yourself and these basic materials from the earth. What relief! What joy! A 6 hour class, with mid-way tea break, flies by. 

And I love icons and early Christian art. My picture book art was always leaning toward this elegant, posed formality, but modern publishers wanted action any dynamic expressions. So my work sort of drifted between the two. The closest I got away with was some of the formal montage pages of Chiru, when it made sense to depict Tibet with thangka-inspired scenes. 

It's going to take me a year to finish my first icon of Michael, since 12 hours to travel to NYC and back for a 6 hour class isn't a reasonable weekly activity for a puppeteer. But with this, there is truly no hurried destination, it's all about the glorious slow process. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

marionettes and Roses at the O'Neill

National Puppetry Conference, photo Richard Termine

Because YOU helped send me to the O'Neill National Puppetry Conference again this year, I had the great joy of spending 11 days intensively studying and making marionettes. 

For the pre-conference strand I got to participate in The Language of Material and Objects: Movement and Experimental Puppetry with Alice Gottschalk of FAB theater of Stuttgart, Germany. A student of the preeminent string master, Albrecht Roser, Alice's sensitive way of discovering new relationships between the body and things through play and attention will be a method I'll use and teach with from now on. It was one of the most liberating and creatively fruitful workshop I can remember.  

Alice Gottschalk's class, National Puppetry Conference, photo Daniel Gill

The next week was dedicated to traditional marionette construction with Jim Rose, with some performance training with Phillip Huber. Rose is a big name at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, it graces the entrance of the Margo and Rufus Rose performance barn in honor of Jim's parents who were local Connecticuters and famous puppeteers (the creators of the Howdy Doody puppets) and helped found the Center. Much more about this important puppetry family here.

Margo & Rufus Rose with son Jim, photo Henson Foundation

This week was extremely special to me, because my grandfather David Bogdan was a great fan of the Rose family and studied their techniques for building, which Jim is still teaching to this day. Here's a photo my grandfather took of Margo and Jim teaching a mold making workshop at a Puppeteers of America Festival in the 1970s:

And here's my photo of Jim teaching the same workshop this year at the O'Neill: 

I spent every minute I could with Jim and his wife Judy, who are in their 80's and have been coming back to the O'Neill every June for 25 years to help ensure this tradition carries on. It was a tremendous honor to learn and spend time with them, including their famous daily 3 o'clock tea times, when everyone in the shop is required to stop working and connect with each other in philosophical conversation for an hour.

Getting to sit with Jim while he demonstrated old marionette tricks went pretty deep emotionally for me. My grandfather passed away when I was 15, long before my grown-up passion for puppetry emerged. He had helped raise me in his puppet shop, taught me how to sculpt clay and put things together, and gave me a remarkable education I didn't recognize the specialness of at the time. Getting to talk to Jim, who is of the same era and dedication as my grandfather, was like getting to know my grandfather as an adult for the first time. This accounts for all the red-eyed, wet-nosed photos of me during this week. Here's me with Jim after I convinced him to sign the rear end of my puppet, which was of much amusement to him.

A particularly amazing moment was sharing my grandfather's marionettes with Jim and some of the other marionette masters at the O'Neill. They were able to show me the process my grandfather went through to build each puppet- how extra holes were where he'd experimented with alternative stringing, what particular lineage of puppet building he'd tried on each character, how one puppet had possibly once been rigged to emit smoke from his mouth. Below is me barely able to contain myself in the presence of Annette Mateo, Phillip Huber, Ronnie Burkett, Kurt Hunter and Richard Termine.

photo Richard Termine

In all the years I've had his collection of 20 or so marionettes, not once had I attempted to operate them. I think I was holding onto a childhood habit from when I'd probably not been allowed to touch them for fear of a child's fingers tangling the strings. So this year for the first time, I played with my grandfather's puppets.... and they were marvelous! They also encouraged me to begin a serious digital archiving of his puppets and the accompanying photos, the start of which is here on my Stringpullers website.

Dana Samborski, myself and Fred Thompson, photo Richard Termine

I can't leave out a major element of the O'Neill: Fred Thompson, exquisite puppet maker, shop manager and generous mentor. You'd have to meet Fred to get the full effect, but he's a character like no other. A sometimes seemingly prickly outer layer over the sweetest man you can imagine, rolled in a sparkling sense of humor that pervades the entire conference. My puppet life would not be the same without Fred.

National Puppetry Conference, photo Richard Termine

I also completed my first marionette (above). Named Rosabella in honor of the Roses, she's been my constant companion this summer as I discover this whole new feeling of bringing life to an object through delicate strings.

Then there were my fellow participants, 5 builders, and 5 manipulators working with Phillip Huber, and Kurt Hunter his assistant. By the end of the week these puppeteers were family.

I'm continuing to make more marionettes in my studio on my own. Most fascinating is the real dance with gravity they create, and how inserting a string just a little differently can change the posture of a puppet enormously. It feels much more related to my love of gestural figure drawing and dance than I ever expected. It's a whole new world!

Sunday, July 12, 2015


I was one of 15 cohorts of the New Haven Make.Art.Work, a six month visual artist career training program run by the accomplished and lovely Ryan Odinak (right), funded by the Tremaine Foundation. A peer support group with monthly meetings on career-building topics like time management, marketing materials, funding and strategic planning, it was a perfect structure for my 2015 goal to streamline my many artistic pursuits into a more focused goal. Amazingly, it resulted in a new puppet website, which was long overdue! (More on that in the next post.) I came out of the program feeling much more positive about wrangling my chaotic arts life.

We concluded with a group show at the Arts Council of Greater New Haven and Koffee, both on Audubon Street in New Haven. I have a few of my puppet-inspired, jigsawed wood pieces up, including this new one.

The show is up until September 4th. Link to the event on the Arts Council site here.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

radio show: art in bars

Todd and Nancy are the charismatic duo behind the New Haven epicenter of the weird, wonderful and winsome Fashionista vintage clothing and costume store extrodinaire. They know the Haven underground art scene like no one else, and now they have a radio show about it on WPKN: New Haven Mavens. I was lucky enough to be invited on to the second episode about art in bars, to talk about puppets. It's a great show, not because of me, but the other guests who are all awesome friends: Dot Mitzvah, Craig Gilbert, Robin Banks, and Anatar Marmol-Gagne.

You can hear the entire show online, archived here.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

2015 National Puppetry Conference

I was accepted into the Marionette strand of the Eugene O'Neill National Puppetry Conference! If I raise the tuition by Friday I'll be building wooden marionettes with Jim Rose, a master puppeteer who greatly influenced my grandfather. It's my first time stepping into the string world. The fundraiser is here which is also helping to start the Puppet Wagon. More on that in the next post.

The thank you gifts are some of my most requested art this year, and a few divination-themed surprises.


$1-up: Every donation helps, and gets an artful snail-mail Thank You.

$15 Box-O'-Chance: Matchbox of mystery, randomly chosen for you, containing objects for predicting your good luck.

$25 The Fairy Stash: Selection of some of my fairy merchandise from Peaceable Kingdom Press.

$35 eyeCloud mini: A palm sized version of my wood cut clouds.

$50 The Bins: 11 x 17" fine giclee print of the 84 bins that make up my eclectic studio.

$75 Personal Icon: miniature hand drawn ink on wood spirit, drawn specifically for you.

$100 Patron's Reception: invitation for you and a guest to a post-conference gathering on Wednesday July 8 with puppet show, puppet display, light fare, and good camaraderie.

$150 Shebang: Patron's Reception, personal icon, The Bins print, and an eyeCloud mini.

$200 Your Shadow: Patron's Reception and an articulated shadow puppet, the character of your choosing.

$250 Monster: Patron's Reception and Muppet monster style hand/rod puppet, your choice of color and personality.

$500 Shadow Play: Patron's Reception and a 2 minute original shadow puppet show on the subject of your choosing-- a Greek myth? A wedding proposal? I would love to make one of these! Show to be performed in person at an event local to New Haven, or videoed. You receive all puppets and show elements to keep.


Thursday, March 26, 2015

finding Trekkie Monster

I'm delighted to get to stay on another semester at Fairfield University! This time to design the puppets for their spring production of Avenue Q, and teach a puppet building class to get them made. This has been one of the most challenging projects I've attempted, but the crew of 9 students are an incredible, dedicated and resilient team. 

I built a new version of Trekkie monster, inspired by the student actor playing him in our show, and based on the Project Puppet Borsa pattern, adapted. Here are some photos of me figuring him out, I'm too tired to add commentary yet. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Moby Dick

The ever lovely Tori Rysz invited me to march in a Mardi Gras parade through the annual fundraiser party of the New Haven Free Public Library. The grand space, my love of books and parades, and a recent revelation of the beauty of the language of Moby Dick immediately came together in a vision of this costume. Also, I have always, always wanted to wear a boat on my head. For serious. 

Using matte medium to transfer the text enlarged by copier, I sewed the first paragraph of the opening chapter "Loomings" onto a damaged bodice tossed at work. I'd planned for the whole dress to be text, but alas, it was a labor intensive process.

The ship is completely cardboard and chipboard, layered and shaped with wood glue and hot glue. The sails, muslin stained with walnut ink. 

My grandmother's box of lace contributed, especially for the mask I decided I needed an hour before the party. 

I'd dreamed up a rattan whale, but still not having manifested one by Tuesday morning, rigged up a cardboard Moby Dick that bobbed and opened his mouth via string operation. 

Lotta Studio set up a photo booth environment at the Library, and took the top photo with a polaroid. Thank you, guys! This completed the spirit I was going for.