In 2007 I created a painting of Kermit the Frog, from an image of him magically (as you could see his full body, without any strings or hands) riding a bike—a film still from the first Muppet Movie. The Kermit painting wasn’t exhibited until the Whitney Biennial in the spring of 2014, in my installation entitled "My American Dream," where it symbolized for me the very idea of what had occurred in the movie—where Kermit was bicycling to Hollywood from his swamp to "make it big," and for me vicariously as he was an avatar I identified with and I have kept pressing on trying to be the best person and artist I could be in my work and my life. The image was picked up by the New York Times in their preview piece that they ran the week before the Biennial opened, and people seemed to really enjoy it, including my friend, who commissioned me to create another for his partner for his birthday, as he is a huge fan of both Kermit and the painting. I had so much fun recreating the image, with even more detail and nuance than before (hopefully we grow as artists and painters, although hopefully each stage is good).
The wonderful thing about the Kermit on the bike image was that he really seemed, in this moment, to have a life of his own, beyond his creator. Kermit continues to enthrall children of all ages despite the fact that Henson has died, and the Muppets are owned by Disney, and so on. I do think that characters (and hopefully paintings!) can have a life of their own that evolve—like Frankenstein monsters, great characters live on the imagination of their fans, and as different people work with them, they also develop the characters who can morph and change as the eons progress (just think of ancient mythical characters, Punch and Judy, or characters from operas and Shakespearian plays, and Superman and other cartoon characters that grow with the ages).
While painting this work this time, I listened to the unabridged audiobook Henson biography, which was excellent, in addition to the music of 1979 (when the film came out, and to spark memories of my childhood when I first saw the movie), and many sketches and music from the Muppet show, and most movingly, the broadcast of Henson’s funeral. There are many amazing things about Jim Henson, who truly was an American genius showman and businessman, but most striking for me is that he came from a Quaker family, and though not religious himself, he had quirky notions of spirituality that manifest in his work. He believed in other dimensions, where the characters in Fraggle Rock and the Labyrinth aren’t merely flights of fancy for him, or at least unconsciously. I love going to nature to do something new, as the Old Masters always advised, and its terrific to get lost in the foliage of any image one might conjure from reality, which truly can be stranger than fiction. I don’t believe in fairies, but I do believe in the other worlds that great artists such as Victorian illustrator Arthur Rackham could create in his knotty pines and elves that inspired Brian Fround, the famous more contemporary artist who created the Faeries books and was a collaborator with Henson on the art direction of the Dark Crystal and Labyrinth and more, and really enjoyed getting lost in the foliage here where all sorts of faces and forms emerged in the positive and negative space of the sepia-tinged image in the old Muppet Movie book this was appropriated from (and the same book I would look at for hours on end when it was published soon after the movie came out). They seem more alive in some ways than Kermit, who if you look very closely, does have strings to help hold him up—something I found when truly scrutinizing the image in blown up form. Henson, in some of his later projects and in interviews with his Muppets literally in hand, would have fun teasing his creations to let them know they were merely puppets—he would tell Rowlf the dog this, for instance, in interviews, who would be incredulous until he looked down to see Henson’s arm manipulating him. I feel that Henson had an almost Buddhist like sense of self, knowing that the spirit is something perhaps more than the flesh, or at a constant debate at least of are we more our minds or our bodies, a combination thereof, or separate. Where does consciousness come from, and what happens when you objectify yourself? A puppeteer is much like a cartoonist or fine artist—we are all about alchemy, breathing life into in animate objects. From Edger Bergin and Charlie McCarthy to Henson and Kermit, more than merely throwing one’s voice, you are projecting your imagination into another non-living being to make it have a life of its own in your mind and in others, alchemizing a doll to make it seem alive. While not an occult occupation and not voodoo, there is some strange magic in all of this, and one wonders where it stems from to make a character that truly has a life beyond its maker. When Charles Shultz created Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and friends, I feel it was a good-natured healthy schizophrenia—Charlie Brown was Shultz’s "wishy washy" side, Snoopy his "joie de vivre," Lucy his divorced wife, if you believe his recent biography! As he was sitting at his drawing table the characters would talk to each other, taking on a life of their own, a bit like the tiny people in the vitrines of the mad scientist in the Bride of Frankenstein. When making a painting, whether it is a Rothko, which were coloristic machines to transport people into synaesthetic other worlds of feeling, or the figurative narrative worlds of Goya and more, artists throughout time have used the vehicle of oil paint, first created to make things more "real" than other medium, to make their own dreams come alive and feel real and palatable through the ages, something that hopefully I can comment on in this work where hopefully Kermit has a life of his own as I micromanage to the minute detail trying to detail all aspects of his nature, and my memories and thoughts projected onto him, making him come alive thinking of Henson and my own childhood.
The great thing about Henson too is that he didn’t compromise for his art, and he was incredibly successful bringing his own art spirit to the world. I’m a big believer in Joseph Campbell, where I have written elsewhere believed that an "artists job is to tell stories for a culture to understand itself in order for the culture to progress" and Henson DEFINITELY did this in all of his work! I feel so privileged to be a part of the Muppet age, and it DEFINITELY had a super strong impact on my life and career. I grew up watching the Sesame Street, and then graduated to the Muppet Show, which I watched religiously, every Sunday— it was on after mowing the lawn and after Siskel and Ebert. I was the exact right age for the movies when they came out, and collected the puppets, the records, and much of the Muppet paraphernalia. Their kind, gentle (and sometimes not so gentle!) humor and spirit still hold up today—for even an ADHD generation growing up with fast paced edits and video games, the old Muppet humor and videos still are capable of enchanting children of all ages, and I sometimes still put on a video, film, or skit on Youtube and watch and it warms my day. Even at its silliest, or most grotesque, when monsters are eating one another or blowing each other up, there is still a empathy and compassion the characters have for one another, and a mystery and wondrous haunted quality of making three dimensional other worlds palatable and believable. The humor and stories are done with intelligence and knowing, and aren’t just at all about making a buck, but rather wildly entertaining you to want to see more—like any great art they seduce you into looking, while compelling you, with their allegorical intent on bringing their fuzzy and hairy great ideological energy, to make you think about loving compassion and how it can make the world a better place. I love that Henson was so wildly successful, and had little of the demons that plagued others like Disney—he wasn’t ultimately quite as "successful" as Walt, but there was very little compromise in his life, and he brought his amazing sense and yearning for innovation and creative imagination to everything he did—he was a visionary that had a major impact upon his audience, and as we all sutured into his iconic characters, especially Kermit, his avatar, we learned something in the process.