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Fiji Mermaid seeks friend

By October 23, 2016November 9th, 2016puppets

The other puppet I made for the Somnambulist Puppet Sideshow is the Fiji Mermaid!

This ‘What Is It’ has its roots in an exhibit by P.T. Barnum in Barnum’s American Museum in New York in 1842. The mermaid subsequently disappeared. There have been many copies, and many artists have had fun creating various versions of the Feejee or Fiji Mermaid over the years… but the original has been lost for over a century and a half.
And now… she’s back! And this time, the “ALIVE!” claim is TRUE!

1. Concept Painting

conceptpaintingAgain I start with a concept painting… this time the final puppet will develop in its own way and I’ll end up deviating from the concept somewhat, but the painting gives me a starting point. I’m not really happy with her face, but I figure the sculpting process will clarify her features.



2. Sculpt


Ugly. Not what I am looking for!


Dec. 2015: I am not sure what I really want the Fiji Mermaid to look like. I want her to be creepy and freaky, but I also want her to be able to communicate with people and be approachable and friendly. A tall order! I start with the building blocks of Barnum’s original creature: a mummified monkey’s head and torso attached to a taxidermied fish tail. Following the concept painting I give it huge cheeks and a smiling mouth, but I am hating it. I turn to other projects.
Feb. 2016: I tackle the sculpt again. There is the Fortune Teller in the background; I am very happy with her. But the Mermaid is being stubborn. I research monkeys and try to work with the features of Capuchins, which seem to be related to the monkey whose mug graced Barnum’s original mermaid. I still do not like the sculpt. I decide to quit beating my head against the wall and put it on the back burner.
Sept. 2016: Many months go by with this sculpt bugging me, looking at me every day from my table. How can I make this thing look cool and be all the things I want it to be? Finally I don’t have the time to mess around anymore; it’s due to be in performance on October 20th. I am starting to be slammed with all of the puppets and rehearsing I am doing for various projects all coming up mid-October, so one evening I sit down with the sculpt. I decide to quit thinking and trying to make it something it doesn’t want to be. “Hello,” I say to the soul of the mermaid. “Would you like to show yourself?” Then I pick up a sculpting tool. Finally things start to go right. Where half of this stuff came from I have no idea!

The mermaid exhibits a lot of the things that have been banging around in my skull: monkey features, a kind of a friendly look to the eyes, and the remnants of old taxidermy stitches start to seem to flow together. Hours later I have a good working start on the sculpt and decide that she will have large incisors to suggest her monkey roots, so I create sockets for those. A few more tweaks over the coming days and I am finally happy enough with her to make a mold. Her mouth is sculpted open so that the latex casting will create room for a puppeteer’s hand and she will be able to talk.
Unlike her face, the mermaid’s tail comes together easily in a couple of hours. Now she is ready for molding!

3. Mold

To cast her full head, I need to create a two-part plaster mold (hard molds for soft casts, soft molds for hard casts).

I use my favourite technique — the ‘desert’ — when mixing my plaster.
I always start with molding the face first, then I flip the whole thing over and create a clay dam with wedges for the second part. These are not the pretty molds, truly works of art in their own right, that I’ve seen in special effects shops created by artists like my old colleague Brent Baker, but they work.

Since I am making a big plaster mess, I am going to mold the tail at the same time.

My 2-part molds are sloppy and clumsy but I always get the results I want and I save on plaster by not building nice blocks. However, storage of these rolling, heavy things is always a problem. And it’s so hard to throw them out. I mean, what if I need another mummified monkey face one day?Puppetry is for hoarders!


The mold cures and I take it out onto the porch to pry it apart. I need a studio! Basement, your days as a catch-all are numbered!!Turned out great! Now to strap it back together and do a latex slush cast. This both keeps the two-part foam from sticking to the plaster, and gives the puppet a skin that doubles as a great way to make a hollow mouth for the puppeteer’s hand.


4. Casting

After slush casting the latex skin, it’s time to pour in the 2 part foam, which, when mixed together, increases 10 times in size, filling with bubbles and making a nice soft foam to fill out the puppet. Thanks to the good folks at Douglas & Sturgess for shipping to Canada!The other puppet head on the table is for Rüya, the Prairie Puppet Underground’s Dream Show, presented at the Saskatchewan Arts Awards. The house has been a puppet factory lately!
The components are carefully measured by weight, then mixed together…

…poured into the mold… and the magic begins! Within 3 minutes the foam rises to a perfect pillowy hill at the top of the mold.

Et voila! The Fiji Mermaid emerges from her plaster womb, ready for teeth and a body. The seams are carefully cut off and mended in some places with thickened latex (left out to dry so as to be of a buttery texture), a trick I learned from Lauren Vogt when I had the honour of working with her on The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Meanwhile, I’ve started on the arms and hands: wire covered with foam and wrapped with cotton string, and claws of plumber’s putty. Plumber’s putty and wire also form the incisors, which are glued into the sockets with contact cement. So many puppets staring at me!

5. Fabrication


Now it’s time to build the body. I want the Mermaid to be a carry-around roving puppet, so her body will be designed to conceal the puppeteer’s arm. The body is sculpted of foam, then foam details such as scales and janky, mummified fins are added. All of the foam construction is held together with contact cement.

Because this is Regina, I have to order in the specialty cans of the magical 3M Spray 74 Foam Fast that is needed to seal the cells in the foam rubber. Without this, the latex coating I want to cover the body with will soak into the open foam cells, not only making for a heavy puppet, but wasting my precious Douglas and Sturgess latex. Great trick I learned from Mike Wick on a Final Fantasy II commercial, way back when…

I have collected a few globby bits of latex from my various pours and seaming jobs over the course of recent projects, and I stick those on in places to look like bits of old flesh.

The Mermaid gets her latex coating and dries overnight.


6. Painting and furring

Sculpting and finishing work are always my favourite parts of any project, and I’ve been really looking forward to painting the Mermaid. Using Douglas and Sturgess Label and Foil Adhesive mixed 50-50 with acrylic paint, she gets a white base coat to unify the colour. Without this step, the acrylic paint will peel off the latex, but the label adhesive/paint mixture creates a flexible bonding layer that adheres both to the latex below and the paint above.

As usual the first coat is a light Pthalo Blue wash to give the final colour depth. Then a series of layers of colour are applied with a makeup sponge, mostly Burnt Umber, Ochre, Pthalo Blue and Titanium White. I want her to look aged, old, mummified, but I do give her rosy cheeks and nose to give her a little life. I also add a button eye and some gloss medium around the eyes to give them a sparkle. She’s finished off with a fur collar and a cool furring technique that I learned from Mike Wick (again while working on Nightmare Before Christmas). Finally, I apply patches of fur here and there on her head and body.


7. The Fiji Mermaid Puppeteer: Shelby Lyn Lowe

My talented friend, theatre designer and puppetientist Shelby Lowe will be operating the Fiji Mermaid at the Sideshow. She’s in Saskatoon, so we do all of our preparation via internet. I send her a drawing of what I would like her costume to look like, and she does the rest!

First she finds the perfect skirt at Value Village, and the perfect hat, and designs her makeup…


…then she paints the sign for her back and completes the costume, adding a black taffeta bustle, a red glove and striped tights. She is the spitting image of the design I sent her! This is a remarkable skill! I am so lucky and grateful for Shelby’s hard work and enthusiasm for this project! She looks great.


Shelby arrives the evening before the show, so I take the Fiji Mermaid over so the two can get acquainted. And so that Shelby feels connected to the puppet, I bring her some fur, and show her how to attach small tufts wherever they seem to be needed. Shelby is an artist and I trust her completely to finish the project, and this way the two of them can bond in preparation for their performance.


8. Performance Time!

I was in the Fortune Teller booth all night so didn’t get any pictures of my own, but here are three of the Fiji Mermaid in performance! The gist of her appearance throughout the evening was twofold: to convince the world that she is, indeed, ALIVE, and to find a companion of her own kind. Shelby did a fantastic job puppeteering and the few times I did step out of the booth, it was fun to watch Shelby, the Fiji Mermaid, and the public interacting. Thanks, Shelby, for bringing her to life!

“The Fiji Mermaid was over the top creepy.” – Gerald Saul


photo by Gerald Saul

With Jason Rister, photo by Jason Rister.


With Mike Rollo. Photo by Gerald Saul


Now it’s time to clean up the puppet factory and turn my house back into a home.

Until next time… ADVENTURE!

puppetz rule