Wednesday, February 20, 2019

MOVE IT: kinetic art making nights in Ithaca, NY

I'm now a bi-state puppeteer. This October I moved the half of my studio that had been at the Ithaca Zen Center into a new artist community called Artist Alley.

To launch our first twice-monthly Open Studio nights, I'm hosting a cardboard automata making party. Automata are art machines, art moved by mechanisms. Not unlike puppets. Drop in any time between 5-8pm this Thursday, February 21 and try making a simple cam-driven automaton. All materials provided, open to adults, and kids accompanied by an adult. Free. No artistic or mechanical mastery necessary.

Until then, if you haven't seen The Stringpullers website lately, find it at

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

discontinued: the perfect sketchbook

These are 16 volumes of the daily sketchbooks I've kept dating back to November 2011. Actually, once I found this brand they became my everythingbooks, or zibaldones, because I enjoyed writing in them as much as sketching. There has always been one within a hand's reach of me since then.

Alas, now it appears one can no longer purchase Daler Rowney Cachet Earthbound sketchbooks, and I am unconsolable. Seven years ago, unsatisfied with the usual glaring white, flimsy-floppy variety I'd had since art school, I went on an extensive search for something better, and these were my reward.

This is why they are brilliant: the spiral binding lets them lay open flat, or be folded back, which is so much easier for drawing than signature bound books. The back and front are both hard-covered, and sturdy, which means you can shove them in a backpack without wrinkling the paper, and that they can easily be held or set on a knee when sketching in the field. By far, they are the best sketchbooks for traveling. They went with me everywhere, from the local cafe, to India, Israel, Canada, Egypt, Turkey, Italy, and Germany. Their gorgeous, substantial pages are the perfect warm neutral, a colour that just makes me want to draw on it. And they are not perforated, which means the pages don't separate and fall out like a lot of other books do.

These 16 volumes are every inch filled with fleeting ideas, storyboards, mechanical diagrams for puppets and automatons, day dreams, lecture notes, grocery lists, personal histories, research, and anything else that crossed my mind.

The first drafts of Luna's Sea reside here, as well as plans for the Mermaid Statue, sketches of Istanbul, and the mysterious meanderings of my subconscious. 

In the later sketchbooks, so enamored of the paper itself I started it using it as a final surface, often manipulated digitally later which brought out the fiber-fleck texture in a great way.

I've come to the last one I have left, #17, a small 5x7. A scouring of the web brought me to the dreaded conclusion that they are no more. This has happened twice before in my artistic career, first with Strathmore's 5-ply hot press Bristol board, from which I still haven't recovered, and later with Winsor & Newton's Finity acrylics. From those I learned not to become reliant on a single art supply, but alas, for the Earthbound sketchbooks, I mourn.

If anyone has a lead on surplus, I'm all ears!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016


Frightened by the loss of our familiar mooring places, shall we become 
paralyzed and cover our inaction with apathy? If we do those things, we will 
have surrendered our chance to participate in forming the future... Or shall 
we seize the courage necessary to preserve our sensitivity, awareness and 
responsibility in the face of radical change?  -Rollo May

Rollo wrote that in The Courage to Create in 1972. I just picked it up again, having felt a distinct lack of courage lately, for creating included. 

I'm usually labeled the Pollyanna of any situation. I can almost always figure out a way of seeing how "bad things" can have "good" consequences, and vice versa. Like the zen parable of the farmer and his son. Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows? 

Sometimes it's more of a challenge. It's felt like we've all been traveling on the dark side of the moon, these days. Luckily a couple of more experienced artist friends gave me a good kick in the pants. "It's time to get to work," they said. "This is what artists were made for."  

I started by looking at art from other times of flux in our history. Especially appealing were wartime posters, and of those especially the ones calling women to work. And this one in particular by artist Adolph Treidler for the United War Work Campaign and the YWCA in 1918:

Not just because of her rocking overalls with the ample pockets for doing things that take serious tools, but her posture of steely determination, victory, and with one foot forward as if to say, "I'm moving on ahead, no matter what is happening." 

As is my usual process, I let these things sink in to my subconscious while I occupy my mind with something else, like the incessant cleaning of my work space. Then I get cozy and quite somewhere and let my hands do the thinking. I try to keep my thoughts out of it and see what comes. 

The star came in conversation with the former blue "Y" triangle, and the year appeared unexpectedly. The heroine arose with more of an expression of hope and joy than I anticipated. Which was encouraging-- to find out I had some of that still somewhere inside.

I watercoloured her directly in my brown paper sketchbook, then scanned her into photoshop to work out some color ideas. I went back to water media to finish the background from my tiny mobile studio box that I've been working out of in the zen center cabin. (I'm getting used to this downsizing.)

I scanned it back in, and took out some of the paper buckling shadows via stamp tool. I adjusted the lettering a bit, but not too much. I'm not after slick graphics anymore. Showing the hand-done-ness of things is important. 

I worked on her in between traveling and my zen duties for three weeks. During the process I came to the idea that our work as artists now isn't to convince the public that we are a crucial part of any society, but instead reminding each other that we are a crucial part of every society; to the strengthen the conviction we need to do the work in a world chilly to our efforts.

Courage 2017 is the new print this week in my Polly Sonic Etsy shop. They've been selling out as fast as I can make them, but I will keep making them. Find it here. 

Forty years forward, Rollo's words are still is required reading for anyone trying to make anything new, or shape a different sort of life, or speak what feels important and unpopular. Again and again and again. Most recommended for keeping a copy on hand at all times right now.

Friday, November 25, 2016


"Venture out of your comfort zone. Our ability to grow is directly proportional 
to our ability to entertain the uncomfortable. "
-Twyla Tharp

I've moved to central New York for the winter, to be a resident artist at a zen center, hidden in the pines and golden rods off a dirt road near a pond inhabited only by beavers and geese.

I've been coming to this quite sanctuary since 2011, it's been the well that watered the gardening work I was doing in New Haven. This year I detected that my service of sixteen years in that complicated city was complete and it was time to return to the piney wood hills of the north full time. But I find myself in limbo, wondering-- what am I in service to now? And what form will it take?

Like just about every other artist, I'm plagued at times with road blocks; not from a lack of ideas, but rather too many, which is as good as none if they are left in a heap of competing demands for one's attention. Too many interests, too many fascinating leads, too much beauty to respond to.

Wondering if we are all suffering more of this due to the over-stimulation of our see-everything-from-anywhere-at-any-time age, I've become interested in filters and self-imposed limited conditions. This spring, I did an experiment-- for two weeks I resisted looking at art online, I only looked at art in person in museums and art shows. Instead of scrolling through hundreds of images the way I might eat a can of pringles, I stood in front of the real evidence of human effort and inspiration for what seemed like eternity, relatively. I saw that I can be moved to tears by a painting I'm in the same room with, in a way I've never been when looking through a computer screen. I saw I required more from a painting than attractive colour and composition if I were to truly be with it.

True to the title of this blog (which has been going for eleven years) my quest is still antinomian as I define it- to live with the knowledge that apparently opposite things can all exist as truth at the same time. I superimpose this on my work to mean that there must be some way to synthesize all these seemingly disassociated passions. I just have to figure it out. It's a puzzle that engages me every day.

A rural zen farm seems like the best possible place to boil down all the many aspects of my work into their rawest forms and find what connects them. At the same time, doing this to the many aspects of my self. I suspect at the heart of this is bringing my contemplative meditation practice together with my art practice, as they've been on trajectories to converge for quite a while.

I clean out the old basement sheepskin shop the zen center has offered me for a studio (which is just around the bend in path in the photo above) and become homesick. My house and the attic studio that had come to feel like an extension of my own body is now a phantom limb. My network of freelance jobs is daringly left behind, and my community is reduced to digital blips. It feels like a risk to step out of the momentum of everything I know. It could be a mid-life crisis, but I prefer to call it the start of my rumspringa, the year the Amish give their young people to go out and be in the world. Some go back in, some go outward. Neither is considered right or wrong.

As part of that simplifying, I'm coming back to this blog as my central communication. It's a better place to write honestly than social media. If you are reading I'll know we're connecting, and this post is not another pringle in your can. I have to offer less opinions, but lots of questions I'll never answer right, mostly about creativity and spirituality. I'd love to hear your unanswerable questions, too.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

stay in touch

A certain social media platform seduced me away from this blog for a while. I drank of the sugary instant gratification of easy feedback, and was left with a malnourished connection to my community and a scattered, inaccessible record of the history of my work. 

If you and I have been communicating over there, I hope you'll come with me back to the creator-controlled back-alleys and dim, abandoned lots of the internet. It takes a little more effort, of course. But it also causes us make more thoughtful choices about what we engage with. And our time is most precious. 

You can sign up for my infrequent newsletter, right over there ---> on that little MailChimp widget in the right column, that'll remind you one or two times a month to check the blog here. Newsletters always have discount codes for my Etsy shop, which is stocked up again. 

If you have a blog, there's some way we can follow each other. (I'll have to remember all this old fashioned technology.) My Instagram is still streaming pictures of work in progress, exhibitions, and regular everyday inspiration. 

If you use a non-algorithm controlled social network that you are happy with, I'd love to hear about it. Leave a message in the comments or email me at merfire(at)

image above: The Letter Writers, wood cut window display for ArtFish42
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Friday, November 11, 2016

you may be an artist if... notice your perspective is wildly different from the majority of the population around you.

You might have felt this way for a long time and didn't realize it could mean you are an artist. Or, you might be feeling this way (in a big way) for the first time.

Luckily, there is endless advice to be found from the legacy of artists who navigated this terrain before us, people whose inner world was drastically different from the outer world they found themselves in. They made art to make the outer world look a little more like their inner world, in an instinctual desperate need to align the two in order to make sense of anything.

A nudge to those just finding this out about themselves: begin with a rediscovery of yourself, both the bright and the shady places. Pick yourself apart daily, bit by bit. Turn the pieces over, inspect them gently. Be ready to be surprised by what you find, both pleasantly and terrifyingly. Without this self-inspection, the rest will be much harder, so do this hardest part first. Then you'll be more ready (though never completely ready) to spiral back outward into the absurd and gorgeous world.

"Be interested in what disturbs you. Rebel against your inclinations. Find beauty in the imperfect. Interrupt yourself. Disorder and chaos will serve you if you direct them. Cultivate elasticity, expand. Dismember the expected. I believe in the unbelievable." 

(-selected from Philippe Petit's Creativity: the Perfect Crime)

(Photo from Rise Up and Shine, Butterfly: Chrysalis Sky Funeral, Linda Wingerter)

Sunday, February 28, 2016

it's got legs

There's been a flurry of calls for "puppet legs" with the popularity of two musicals making their way around the high school theater scene like wildfire: Shrek and Addams Family. I'm getting the hang of making and rigging these up to adventurous students. Here's the most recent set resting in the audience, for Uncle Fester's love song to the moon in Valley Regional High School's Addams Family.


They're a lauan plywood frame under carved insulation foam, knees hinged with cord, and secured to a belt over a black apron the actor wears over his biological legs. Two puppeteers operate the fake legs with rods, with the right lighting giving the effect he is floating in the sky. It's pretty simple, practical theatrical fun. Here's the test maquette: 

And the final legs in progress. I love this electric turkey carver! 

The tricky part was making hinged rods so the legs could be operated from above or below. These are PVC pipes wired into a pivoting joint inside the calves. 


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.