Tuesday, August 30, 2011

badges of honor and flood marks

I've just learned that this blog feeds onto sites I was unaware of, causing me to have readers I don't know, and didn't know about. That's awesome! Thanks for reading, however you came to see these posts. Now I'm compelled to explain myself in more detail, since it's not just my mom and two cats I'm posting for.

So let me tell you about these merit badges. I can't express in words how much I love badges. I cannot walk by an army navy store without going in to dig through their patch bins. I even love the name patches on utility shirts. Why is this? I'm sure it originated in my childhood (as the root of all obsessions do) when I was a member of several badge-driven activity clubs, starting, of course, with the Girl Scouts. Though my memory of actual events in the Girl Scouts is hazy, I can remember the badges so clearly I can feel the stitches. I was crazy about the badges, and how they would fit on my sash, and how much space should be left between them in order that I could fit many more.

(Brownie "Puppets, Plays, & Theater" badge!)

In sharper focus is my memory of the club I left Girl Scouts for, the Indian Princesses. Yes you read that right. Though now considered inappropriately named and apparently disowned by the YMCA which founded it, this was back in the 70s before they figured that out. Indian Princesses was a bigger deal to me then Girl Scouts because Indian Princesses was a father-daughter outdoor club, and I was the only girl I knew whose father had died, making it impossible for me to join. But my best friend Whitney lent me her dad, and the three of us went to Indian Princess club together. We made native american inspired crafts, went hiking, and tacked badges of accomplishments onto the tan felt vests we wore. It was marvelous. I mean, look at this!

(That's not me, by the way, that's an amazing web find.) We had to come up with an "Indian" name for ourselves. I was at a loss, so a girl in the club gave me the name of her retired sister. It was "Morning Dove", a name I see listed on the remaining Indian Princess club websites. Of course, the bird "mourning dove" is spelled so because it sounds like it is lamenting, which was more appropriate for me then I understood back then.

And all during this time I took very formal, regimented figure skating classes with a USFSA club, with its highly organized system of testing to promote future Dorothy Hamills through levels. Which was recognized with: patches. I was crazy most of all about these patches, probably because they were the hardest to earn. My mum sewed them onto the left sleeve of a red Scandinavian patterned zip up sweater, which I wore to the ice rink with a ridiculous amount of pride.

(That IS me. I wish you could see the sleeve!) I would sit and study these patches for hours, and dream of the next one with its new 2 color combination, which I could see in the window of the skate rink office.

And even when my family moved to a rural area with no scouts or princesses or ice rinks, I still managed to fall into a patch-club by becoming a 4-H'er.

And then I grew up, and nothing I did, no matter how accomplished and hard, would earn me a badge. I find this inexplicably unfair! Adults put immeasurable thought and effort into making fun, creative, and meaningful experiences for children, but we completely neglect ourselves and each other of the same. And I don't think it's that adults aren't interested in things like badges. In just a few hours I've taken dozens of requests for Irene merit badges. I'm not sure, but I suspect it's that we're all trying to give the impression that we're grown ups, when deep down we all know we're not, and we think we'd better hide it. But I wouldn't wish that kind of growing-up on any kid. I'd wish them a lifetime of striving for new experiences, with a beautifully stitched badge to mark each one. And so I've gotten into the habit of making badges for my friends for all kinds of things we've gone through together. This was for the first time two of my friends and I got brave enough to do a marching band street performance. We called ourselves the Boom Boom Brigade:

All of my work has the purpose of bringing playfulness and enthusiasm back into adulthood. I love working with kids because they teach me how to do this, and they alone can remind me what is really meaningful so that I can bring that back to the grown ups. Kids are my teachers. Grown ups are my life mission.

So, this is how I take the news that a big portion of Vermont is in trouble, especially my hometown of Wilmington which was totally wrecked by Irene. With collapsed roads the town got cut off, people were unable to locate their families, people lost their houses and businesses. The famous 1938 flood mark on Town Hall I always assumed was exaggerated, was surpassed. Because I couldn't get there to help or get any information, I drew while I anxiously waited to hear from my friends.

The Girl Scout's Juliette Gordon Low said this: "Badges show that you have done something so often and so well that you can teach it to someone else." Vermonters, and many people in other states, have a long haul ahead to put their lives and communities back together. By the time roads and houses are rebuilt, they will be experts. As in tragedies that happen everywhere all the time, most of them won't get any recognition for what they've been through. I made this for my friends because I want them to know they are seen.

There are lots of ways to help, by the way, from financial donations, to physical volunteering. Here's some pages with good resources:

(I'm relieved to report that my mom is a-ok.)

Hurricane Irene merit badge

If you want one (and of course you do), either find me or email your snail mail address to me at merfire@gmail.com. 2 1/4 inch fabric patches you can sew on anywhere you like.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


The anticipation of Irene brought my porch garden in to the living and dining rooms. It's like a tropical jungle in here with all the foliage and steamy pre-hurricane humidity. The tomatoes are making the place smell so good. Another pleasure of a storm.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

storm poem

New Haven, Connecticut looks to be on Irene's agenda this weekend. This'll be my first hurricane as a coastal resident. I've got to take at least one trip down to the sea before things get too wild, then I'll burrow down with some projects and poetry. Starting with this.

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can't bear without a friend,
I can't love without a sister

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it's with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler's sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
-Rainer Maria Rilke

Monday, August 22, 2011

ashes and snow

This is a photograph by Gregory Colbert. Years ago his photos of people with animals were all over the commuter trains to New York. You could stare at them the entire trip and become lost. They were part of a traveling exhibition called Ashes and Snow. I'm so glad to see it is still going, and the website has expanded into an audio/visual/video experience. I'm putting in the permanent link list, I hope you visit.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

big puppet build

As promised, the giant puppet "tutorial" in one giant post. Are you ready?

There are lots of ways you can make a big puppet, and lots of ways you shouldn't. I discovered a few of both during a recent build. I also found some fixes to my mistakes, so you can use this as a companion guide to your own build. For more thorough resources on the web try the Puppeteers Cooperative's 68 Ways to Make Really Big Puppets, and the Hillsborough Arts Council parade puppet instruction site. Most importantly, like all puppets, you can start with traditional methods, but it usually comes down to doing what works for that particular puppet because with so many variable factors, they all have a unique mind of their own. Puppet building takes a willingness to experiment and make mistakes, and the ability to change course depending on what unfolds.

I've built giant animal puppets for large groups of puppeteers to operate together, but I'd yet to build a traditional upright human puppet with the back pack system for one person as famously used by Bread & Puppet, and I've wanted to try one for a long time. I envisioned a fleshed out conical body, not just hanging fabric you often see on parade puppets. I wanted it over 10 feet tall.

With 2 weeks to build before the scheduled performance, I decided to use an existing big papier mache head I'd built spontaneously several years before. The head was a bit heavy, about 2 feet tall with a chicken wire armature and lots of paper layers (straight up flour and water and newspaper mix). But I'm strong and in good shape, so I figured I could take it for a 2 hour performance.

I'm also pretty bent on using existing materials. This is what I'd gathered up from around my house including the head:

OK, so half of this wasn't from around my house, including the walker and ratan. Let me tell you about the walker...

Ultimately, I wanted a metal frame backpack like you're suppose to use. I'd been trying to score one for years at the Goodwills, but no luck. In desperation this time, I looked around for anything similar. One thing that was plentiful were old walkers, and they too were light weight and super strong metal frames. And turned upside down, they had four hollow channels to insert poles into if desired. With a little padding and added straps, how could this not work? This was BRILLIANT! For six bucks I brought home a revolutionary idea in giant puppet building. (Well we'll see about that.)

The other acquired material was ratan. I'd seen my co-builder Jen on Luna's Sea use it for her seahorses and giant angler fish. I needed to stay as light as possible to compensate for the heavy head, so off to the ratan supply store, I picked up some bundles, and on the advice of the store owner, a 10 foot ratan pole for the spine instead of bamboo as is traditionally used. (Keep this point in mind.)

I began work, starting with the ratan torso. I'd watched Jen make elaborate and well planned jigs to shape her structures, by wetting the ratan and letting them dry around the nails. I, being not so planning-oriented, figured I'd wing it. Using cord and fabric strips I tied the wet ratan into basic S shapes. I measured nothing.

This did work, the ratan took on the new form beautifully. That was exciting. I began "sketching" out a torso by free-form gaffer-taping the ratan together. Again, no measuring. I ended up with something that looked pretty good and sturdy, though very flexible. It seemed the tape alone even was good enough.

Knowing I'd want something to sew the costume onto, I took eggshell bedding foam, and cut to shape over the ratan like skin, using fabric glue at the seams. I do not have a photo of this, because I quickly realized this was no good. The tightening of the thick foam over the ratan torqued it, because my ratan was too thin and not structured enough, and, I then realized, completely asymmetrical because eyeballing it was not enough. I ended up with a giant, lumpy gob of a torso. No amount of fabric could hide it, and it probably wouldn't fit in my car to transport, a factor I'd forgotten to consider.

Back to the drawing board and time ticking, I decided I didn't have time enough to learn proper ratan. I went to an old hoop skirt abandoned from a giant octopus project. This time I pre-planned out the steps starting with a solid foundation.

I got a wooden board for shoulders and drilled a big hole for the spine pole to fit through, and two more holes at each end where the arms would attach. I hung this from my ceiling with a pulley system, to make the work easier. This was a huge help. Then I draped the hoop skirt over the board. Not feeling there was enough volume in the chest this way, I added 2 white flexible PVC plumbing tubes, which I attached onto the boards by wiring them down through drilled holes, with wood glue for extra hold. Then I gaffer taped them to 4 spots on the hoop skirt. This also gave more stability to the hoop skirt which has a lot of swing. This time I measured everything, the length of the tubing, where they attached on the boards and the skirt, down to the millimeter.

Next, scraps of foam staple gunned down to bulk out the shoulders and hide the shape of the rigid board.

Then I sewed thin foam panels around the upper torso (not the bulky eggshell this time), just enough to prevent fabric of the eventual dress blowing against the hard shape of the tubing.

Here I put the head nearby to see how my head-to-torso proportion was doing. Another challenge in making a big puppet, especially when you're in a small space, is getting a complete view of the whole. It's probably best to build outside when possible. The puppet being taller then my room, I resorted to laying out all the pieces on the floor and climbing on a ladder to get a distant enough view to tell me how my proportions were, and that still wasn't always a good gauge.

Hoisting the torso up on the pulley, and getting to work on the ladder, I started draping some disassembled Goodwill dresses and other scrap fabric onto the form, using just pins as I continued adjusting until I got the effect I wanted.

Once all was pinned in place, I put the body over the ladder so it would be steady as I hand sewed the fabric on. The upper part of the dress sewed directly onto the foam and stapled onto the board at the top, the under skirt stitched onto the lowest hoop in the hoop skirt.

The body now well on its way, I went back to that walker.

The walker needed shoulder straps, to start. I'd tried some heavy cotton straps, but in order to put on, it needed to be lose to get into, then tightened once on. I realized an old regular back pack would do the trick, and just rebuckled its straps onto the walker. Then I added hollow foam pipe insulation anywhere the metal would contact my back. Then I gaffer taped the rattan pole on, just to see if it would work, and went for a test run outside with just the head on the top of the pole.

Terrible! The head was so top heavy, the rattan pole so flexible, and the walker so unsecured to my back that the whole structure kept bending and tipping side to side, nearly taking me with it. Modifications desperately needed. First, I shortened the rattan pole by a foot, (taking the full puppet from 12 to 11 feet tall), then drilled a piece of wood onto the walker as a third crosspiece to attach the ratan spine to. Then I gaffer taped the backpack onto the walker, and added 2 leather belts to go around my waist and chest, anchored onto the bottom 2 rungs of the walker with- you guessed it: gaffer tape.

But the second test run with the head was not much better, it still swayed far too much to be safe, and endangered my back. It was clear the ratan was not the material for the spine. Bamboo has far less flexibility and would have been the right choice. With just one 6 foot piece of bamboo at hand (too short to replace the ratan), I gaffer taped that to the ratan just up to where the shoulders would sit. That did it. The third test run was tolerable, though I still was in for a workout for my back during the 2 hour gig and adding weight. But I was out of time to replace the ratan altogether.

Now, how to get the body on, and keep it on the pole at the right level?

I found these two shelf brackets, thinking I'd use them temporarily for a test run with the body. But gaffer taped on, they actually did really well holding the shoulder board up, so they stayed. No need to even attach onto the shoulder board, it stayed right where it needed to because of the foam in the body, and could easily come off for travel. Just some foam taped over the sharp ends for safety.

And here is the full back pack structure. Almost as tall as my ceiling while sitting on the ground. Time to go out for another test run, but first a break to sit down and do some less intense decorating.

The giant white head as it was, with torn and tied cotton strips for hair, and a silver crown cut from an insulation sheet. As much as I love all white sculptures, this will need color to make a splash, and I'm going with a sea theme.

I got the hair simmering in a dye pot on the stove with blue and green mix Rit dyes. Then with acrylic and sequins, did up her face.

Then I rough cut 2 very simple hand shapes out of 4 inch thick blue foam insulation, with minimal low relief paper mache sculpting so it would dry fast, because time was ticking. Then outside for another test run. One clearly-too-long arm in place (simply 2 lengths of pool noodles thread with rope, thickened with bubble wrap taped around, and tied to the hole in the shoulder board.) BUT, it was all working this time, however scrappy so far.

Last I added the lower skirts, a patterned green sheer that would act as a scrim, so that I could see out but hard for people to see in. I left a window at face level, and lined the rest of the sheer with metallic silver to hide my body. Chopped some length off the pool noodle arms, and painted the hands. I stuck thin, 5 foot bamboo poles into the bottom of the hand, almost straight in, near where the rope is tied to make a wrist. I cut small slots in the underskirts for the poles to go through, from my hands to the puppet hands. This was always awkward, and I have to research more solutions. Or maybe this is just big puppet awkwardness.

And with some glitter seaweed added to her crown...

...we were ready to go! Jen's angler fish from Luna's Sea was going to be her companion, great because this was a street fair and not a passing parade, we needed a shorter and more agile puppet to connect to the smaller people in the crowd. Off we went, packed up good for the 1 hour highway trip to Torrington.

Here she is assembled and waiting in the alley. She'll get another 3 feet taller once I'm strapped inside. Getting her on takes a big wall like this, a strong helper like Jen, a good back, and roller derby leg muscles.

And here she is up and performance ready. My head is right at the top of the the lime green fabric.

The giant and the angler on the fair midway:

This was a challenging 2 hours inside the giant. I was lucky there was not a lot of wind, as on her own she was a constant fight to keep upright. My back was never not correcting side to side, and forward to back swaying. As I got more confident, now and then I'd lean forward and kneel down, to connect with kids, but this was an extravagant move my muscles paid for the next day. Having never been in one of these with a properly built back pack system, I don't know close this is to normal strain. But I'd definitely suggest trying to score a frame back pack! The walker I think still has a lot of potential for some other forms of puppets, but I wouldn't go with it for another one of these.

No matter how challenging the build (this ended up taking me a week of full time work), the reward is always in the performance. One more video, this time from the inside.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

paper doll

Another thing I've wanted to try making forever, and it was trickier then I thought. I started working on a paper doll of my friend and go-go partner Dot Mitzvah more then two years ago, and finally finished it for her tonight. So much trial and error! My studio was covered with little paper bits this week.

Friday, August 12, 2011

brown paper

Making pictures for no reason on anything nearby cultivates a real joy of drawing. This was the craft paper packaging from one of the ink on wood paintings I sold at Koffee. Sharpee markers and a white out ink pen.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


My derby sister Wender Bender took this shot of our fellow rollergirl Faith this week, when we were having a skate-a-thon on a go-kart track. It says so much with so little.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

praying mantis

A walk in my favorite place in New Haven, Edgerton Park, always brings messages from the more subtle worlds, answers to pressing questions, and a peacefulness as still as its mirror fountain. Last week there I met a small brown praying mantis. Maybe only the third I've ever run into in my life. I filmed him (or her) with my iPhone (below). The quick turn of its head when I get too close cracks me up.

Some animal encounters feel more meaningful then others. When they do, I try to figure out their qualities that I might benefit from by developing in myself by reading scientific entries as well as spiritual ones. I found this on a shaman practitioner's site: "
I considered the attributes of the Praying Mantis – devotion, stillness, patience and Divine Timing. A Mantis waits motionless for its prey to draw near and then strikes with impeccable speed and accuracy. Mantis knows what Mantis wants and is willing to wait for just the right time before making a move."
She has a lot more to say about praying mantises, but this part was most relevant to the reason I was at the park that day. The mystical marriage is an alchemical reference:

Another expression of the Mystical Marriage is the integration of the spiritual and mundane life or the inner and outer worlds. We all have busy schedules and for many spiritual goals and ideals are put right at the bottom of the to-do list. When things get busy it is easy to skip our yoga or meditation class and forget that we promised ourselves to give up smoking, forgive the ex or find a job that really utilizes our talents. When our daily life reflects our spiritual values, when we act and speak from our inner truth and our habits and behaviour reflect this, then we have really integrated our spiritual and mundane worlds. Some sensitive souls find the mundane world extremely difficult to live in and tend to retreat into their own private world of dreams, thoughts and visions. Whilst this can develop a deep and rich inner life, there comes a time when that richness must find an outer expression, must be allowed to bloom and add colour to one’s daily living or it will create only fantasy. The ability to realize your dreams, that is to turn them into something real, workable or solid is a good indication that your inner and outer worlds are in balance. Finding your true calling in life, where your daily work uses your talents and abilities to the fullest and where your personal beliefs, ideals and values are put into practice and reflected in those around you, shows that your spirtual and mundane lives have become one.

Thanks, little mantis, and Misha Hoo. I'll take your advice. Starting right here.

we got wheels

I've had only a vague memory of something I saw on TV as a kid that made a deep impression and stuck with me. Typing a few words into google: "tv show airplane bomber tire draw 80s landing" brought it right up. Amazing Stories, episode "The Mission". 1985. 26 years ago. And in 2 seconds it's on my screen on youtube. This is a miracle. Really. We take this for granted now, but this instantly accessible collective memory we've grown in such a short time is mind blowing.

A WWII bomber crew has lost their landing gear in battle. They are running out of fuel, and the gunner is stuck in the basket underneath the plane, sure to be scraped to a pulp upon landing. He's an artist, and he begins furiously drawing. They are about to shoot him him to spare him a hideous death, but he begs the captain (Kevin Costner!) to try engaging the landing gear once more and out comes 2 giant yellow cartoon wheels, big, patched and puffy. They land, Kevin Costner touches one of the wheels which blubs and sparkles. The gunner is in a trance in the basket. Understanding the tender magic at work, the captain commands silence as they gently pull out the gunner still in a trance. Safely away, they slap him awake and the wheels disappear, the plane crashes to the ground. Of course I love this. It's high 80s fantasy, when outright joy and optimism were displayed without apology. And because an artist is able to manifest his imagination through drawing (not unlike my other favorite 80s masterpiece, Xanadu.)

But, I also love it because it's not so much fantasy. Things like that happen every day. We're surrounded by the impossible happening, we just don't notice because it's so commonplace. The impossible happens when someone has such immense fortitude in their desire and belief for it. It doesn't happen when we think it can't, or when we have too many small desires dividing our attention. The gunner had only one big thought in his mind: wheels. Impending death made no room for anything but that. His imagination was completely filled by wheels.

My natural tendency to look at everything everywhere all the time (like, oh, say googling 1980s tv shows) can have its benefits, but it's a drawback when it goes unchecked. This year I'm actively working on focus, and finding a balance between being a rain storm and being a fountain at the right times, and deciding which thing I want to be a fountain for. This is an art that will take a lifetime to never perfect. But I'm keeping this clip handy to remind me.