In the Studio

My current project is a photo-illustrated picture book series set in nature, of two wire-framed puppet animals I designed. Though my main studio is in the forest (see On Location), I spend a lot of time in a walled studio too, making the puppets, props and indoor sets. Until my books are published, I can’t show too much, but the process of making this little homemade world will give you a hint at what these books will look like. There have been a lot of failed attempts, but when something finally works, it feels great!

All the pieces required to make one of my puppets. I made four of this character because when I photograph in nature, the puppets get muddy and wet. Sometimes I have to switch them out if something untoward happens before I get the shot! I hand-dyed the fabrics and designed and printed the patterned bits. The inner armature is made of twisted wire, memory foam and magnets, which took many tries to achieve the right flexibility for posing the puppets.
Knotting a tiny hammock, attempt #2! It took four hours to knot just one.
The hammock was for a test shot I wanted to try with this Maileg toy I use for practice. The hammock never made it into my picture book, which explains why it takes time to create! Lots of trial and error.
The practice toys at sunset. This boat and dock were made by my friend Dave Johnson, whose love for miniature-making gave me a huge push towards developing my little world, and for that I am very thankful!
Setting up the above shot at Dalem Lake, Cape Breton. Dave made this boat just for fun for my practice toys but the puppets I designed for my book are bigger, so a different boat was required. (see below)
Dave did such a great job of the practice boat that I commissioned him to make the one for my book. I drew the design and emailed it to him, and he mailed the boat back to me. Best mail ever! I added the final bits like the pine cone life preserver and rustic paint job to make it look lovingly used, or ‘realistic’.
When I make props like a bridge or furniture, I spend lots of time in the woods looking for the right twigs – curved twigs are especially desired! This rocking chair is joined with toothpick dowels (I avoid glue so it looks as rustic as possible). I crocheted this 3cm cushion with a 1mm crochet hook and embroidery floss.
It comes in handy to have many years’ experience drafting patterns and sewing for humans in the film industry. Puppet costumes require the same skills, though small scale presents different challenges. Tiny pieces of fabric fray easily with their narrow seam allowances, so I glue the edges to make sure they last many weeks ‘on set’.
This tiny knitted sweater measures 10 cm across the bottom. It was one of the most challenging costumes I’ve ever made – big or small. The stitch chart was mind boggling to design and navigating several colours of yarn over 1mm bendy needles made for cramped hands! The difficulty was probably tied with this sealskin-lined canvas coat I sewed for Sebastian Koch in Sea Wolf, when I worked in the film industry. (See below)
(2009, “Sea Wolf”, coat design Martha Curry) I had never worked with sealskin before, and I gained extra respect for the Inuit, who use this material frequently. It is stiff and heavy! But the final look made the effort worth it.
Working on films like Sea Wolf has been important to my artistic journey, as I got to see production designs come to life on set. Set design can make a story more convincing, and the thoughtful work of scenic painters, sculptors, and carpenters is inspiring. As production designer in my tiny world, I like to create items out of the materials my characters might find on a forest trail – what could a tiny woodland creature make from a twig, a torn scrap of cloth and a nutshell?
The inspiration for my sets comes from the colours and textures of nature, because that’s where my characters live, and I want their world to feel ‘real’. In my stories, I imagine my characters live in hollowed-out trees all connected underground by a maze of tunnels. This stump rotting near my house became a novice sculptor’s nemesis, but I was determined to turn it inside out! After a few hours of careful hacking with a wedge and sledgehammer, I divided it into five pieces, which I later puzzled together as an interior ‘hollow tree’ set.
Here’s a corner of the hollowed tree set – the entry way of my characters’ home. I’m brushing sand in between the mini slate rocks, which I puzzled together over several days. Even though the floor is only a tiny part of the scene, it contributes to the feel of their homemade natural world.
Before I took the stump pieces indoors, I was inspired to take a photo with my practice toys for a Christmas scene, to experiment with icing sugar and a sieve for snow (my next story is set in winter). Even in the middle of the day, I still need to use portable lights to get camera focus in the shadowed areas.
 
Before I make an interior set, I sketch the image in my head, to guide my prop design and set-up. The final set may not look like the sketch, but it’s just the feeling of my original vision that I want to evoke. Looking forward to sharing with you how this set turned out!

To see my process in the forest, click On Location.

You can also follow my journey on Instagram.