I hope in this time of political strife and cultural intensity in our world, that this painting of the Muppet Show Cosmology serves as an allegorical relief, to show a celebration of diversity, of different minded people (and animals and monsters!) working together in (however chaotic!) harmony, in the theater of life and of our world. This was in part the ideological intent of Jim Henson and his amazing company, and the Muppets help set the stage of my ideological and creative life I still live–this painting is also a celebration of how popular culture and artists can help, to paraphrase Joseph Campbell, in their job to “tell stories for a culture to understand itself in order to progress”.
This painting is based on a 1978 poster I had in my room growing up in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado. I was born in 1966, so I was four when Sesame Street premiered on PBS in 1969 and I was ten when The Muppet Show premiered in 1976, the perfect age to be raised on television by Jim Henson and company’s marvelous Muppets! Sesame Street was conceived in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, wanting to prepare children for school using the same principals found in contemporary television and advertising—but also by continuing the ideology of the movement, teaching cooperation, empathy, and compassion for all peoples, in an urban environment that would showcase children from all races and backgrounds, in harmony with the equally diverse community of adults—and Muppets! The power of the icon when it comes to puppets, cartoons and comics is when characters are reduced to their essentialized traits (eyes, mouths, sometimes ears and bodies), but also amplified by being any/many colors of the rainbow, and also in this case as anthropomorphized animals, monsters, and other crazy beings is that no matter what the background and ethnicity the viewer may be in real life, they can relate to and “suture into” the avatar of the character they see and identify and relate to when enjoying the entertainment of these essentialized beings and personalities. Even though I grew up in a mostly white, upper middle class and conservative neighborhood, when I turned on the Muppets, I was in a world of super diverse personalities and characters, who are also gender fluid in many ways (they don’t have genitals and are performed mostly by men who have their hands up the puppets behinds to make them stand erect and perform?!), and for me as a young, growing up to be gay and out young man, the homosocial relationships between the characters, who all had empathy and understanding and love for one another, was heartening and great.
I collected puppets, some Muppet licensed puppets but also like-minded amazing felt puppets, and would, alone and with friends, perform them, using my own funny voices and skills, but also miming along with the Muppet records and more, much like the start of Henson’s career when he would perform his Muppets to novelty songs on the local Washington DC television station, to great acclaim, with his soon to be wife Jane. I was also, since kindergarten through college, the “campus cartoonist” and at a wee early age was drawing for the school papers and for myself at home. Cartooning (and now painting and fine art!) is very close to puppetry, in that the cartoonist is alchemizing and bringing to life characters and worlds from ink and a pen, the best cartoonists have the ability, like hopefully their readers, to “suture” into the mask-like character of their creations, “becoming” their characters much like a method actor might fully envelop themselves into their roles. Writers will say that “characters write themselves” and when cartooning, very much the same happens, when some part of the creator’s brain is able to find itself inhabiting the role they are drawing—when it’s going well, the creator is smiling when drawing the character smiling, feeling, and thinking what the character is feeling and thinking. Much is the same with puppetry—with the Muppets, often times it was handing the doll (Frank Oz would say to his cohort when about to perform “let’s go wiggle some dolls!”) to a puppeteer, who then would find the character in themselves when playing with the puppet (Frank Oz was able to “find” Miss Piggy, previously a minor cast character played by different performers, when she got angry with Kermit in one playful impromptu scene and karate-chopped him “Hyah-ya!” into submission). Painting is much the same—when looking at a Rembrandt, you might not know who the portrait is of, but hopefully you feel as if they are “alive”, “breathing”, about to “talk to you”. Perhaps this isn’t an act of ventriloquism for the artist—out of respect for your subject you should always recognize and honor your subject (Leonardo da Vinci would say poor artists always “paint themselves”—meaning that the figure resembles the artist who can’t get out of their own head while painting and make images that resemble their maker no matter the subject), but in terms of alchemy, the Pygmalion-like way we hopefully breathe life into our subjects, some matter of transference or channeling is happening when rendering an image that hopefully has a life of its own. In any event, the Muppets not only helped to create my super lefty liberal gay guy with a beard sensibility, but also helped me to become the artist I am today!
When painting this, I was also on my first sabbatical (after 30+ years of teaching!) after a particularly raucous time of being Chair of Painting, Drawing, and Printmaking at the University of Southern California (USC). They say that “academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low” and this was especially true in my experience as Chair, as I was in my role transforming my department from a traditional atelier “nuts and bolts of rendering” approach to one that was more inclusive of DEI, critical thinking, and concept oriented approach to focus on how projects can be stressing meaningful approaches to the student artist, teaching them rendering skills, but with engaging and challenging prompts and ideas that help the student help themselves in finding their voice as an artist (and a person!), in addition to, and importantly, beginning a narrative art program at USC for the first time, much to the chagrin of some of the faculty who still feel somehow that “comics aren’t art” (ridiculous in this day and age—and especially as the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art is being erected across the USC campus as I write this!). In any event, I was able to start this program—after being the head comics teacher and “Cartooning Coordinator” at the historic program for this at the School of Visual Art (SVA) in NYC (in addition to teaching fine art at all the great NYC and East Coast institutions and schools!), which is growing with over five classes that I wrote and found instructors for thriving as an interdisciplinary program, and I’m proud that the 2D program at USC is now really engaged in contemporary dialogs. But to self-heal from this experience, as I truly live through my painting, it was encouraging to paint a series of Muppet paintings, as it helped me psychology to process through all the politics of the school, and my own life. I felt much like Kermit in the Muppet Show as I was in my role helping organize and develop many different personalities and egos, all of whom wanted center stage, and to keep my cool as much as I could dealing with all the teachers, in addition to the students, during this stressful time of COVID in addition to all the changes I was bringing to the program. Also in my personal life my husband and I have recently moved and completely rehabbed a ranch-style home on two acres in the middle of nowhere in Southern California, and adopted 3 puppies (two Great Danes and one Anatolian Shepard!) to go along with our German Shepard, and a kitten to go along with our two cats, in addition to my parrot Picasso (and a Macaw coming soon!)—so we had our own animal brood and chaos to control. Painting this work helped me get in touch with my younger self—I played all the music of my 70’s and 80’s youth while painting—and reminded me what my young soul was all about, to find myself once again amidst all the chaos of real life (and politics!) of a tumultuous time of middle age and transition.
This painting was so tall (I ordered the stretcher before I realized my new converted garage studio ceiling was too low to accommodate!) I had to begin and finish the painting sideways on my easel, so it further abstracted the allegory of the Muppet Show to other realms while painting, but for the characters, and the bulk of the work of painting, I painted it vertically, leaned up against my wall of my studio. The Muppets had a wonderful designer who “baptized” each puppet with Jim Henson present, to put on the eyes—the Muppet Triangle was important—the placement of the eyes with the mouth, essential for bringing the Muppets to life. The same is true for rendering—students have a hard time when rendering figures when they DON’T first put the eyes and mouth on their figures, as its too much of a “left brain” ritual of critical thinking about form—but when they put the faces on, suddenly they can relate to the characters they are portraying, and their “right brain” comes into play, and they think about the personality and thoughts of the character, making the rendering much easier and better, as they are bringing life to their “puppet” in the alchemized space of the world in which they are in the act of making. I can “do” all the Muppet voices, and know them as characters quite well, and in my off time of painting this picture, watched many of the early Muppet shows, skits, and movies, and was fully entranced when painting each one, thinking about their character and what they were saying and doing—and sometimes relating the character to those in my real life! Also somewhat embarraseingly now, but it used to give me a sense of agency and fun, I used to “mirror dance”, air guitar when I was a kid to my favorite records—and when some of the most poignant ones came on my playlist while painting, I would try to see the reflection of my child self, through the mirror as it was, relating to who I was then, and hopefully becoming a model of what I wished I could have been then, now—uncannily trying to communicate to the younger me through the mirror of my memories and imagination, letting my younger self know that all will be good-and reminding my current self all that my younger self was like and aspired to be. But also, I listened to the entire Jim Henson biography by Brian Jay Jones on audiobook while painting (which I’ve listened to before while painting Muppets!) as I truly want to paint homage to this Master.
In this time of great political strife (where Big Bird still dominates the headlines as conservatives continuously pick on this famous child-like character then they want to defund PBS and more), it is heartening to remember the ideology of the Muppets, and as an artist, creator. Academic and administrator (who is putting his money where his mouth is by creating an academic program teaching students to think critically and artfully in addition to teaching the tools and techniques of not just fine art but the narrative art of comics, illustration, and more that create content for the world like the Muppets!). Jim Henson and his group of dedicated performers, artists, and businesspeople that helped to form his company worked together in harmony to create something much bigger than its parts—now the Muppets have influenced generations (and still entertain and educate children) of people who, like myself, an aging Gen Xer, to make the world a better place. The Modernists delighted in the circus, whether it was Calder making his own to entertain his Parisian circle, or they themselves (Picasso with his harlequins, Degas with his dancers—the poster—and painting—seems to be quoting Degas’ “Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando”, of the female trapeze artist holding herself aloft above the audience by gripping a rope with her teeth in this version with Miss Piggy’s rival Annie Sue hanging upside down!). They must have felt that “all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players”, and this was allegorized by their circus and performer imagery. Jim Henson also was able to amalgamize the trials and trivialities of the world his creations, The Muppet Show was, in its 5-year heyday, one of the most popular shows on the planet—even in Russia they watched, listened, learned, and laughed, and it was amazing how he was able to captivate the world with his essentialized iconic characters and stories. I hope to relate back to this, appropriating the popular imagery of this pop culture, and bring it back into the “high art” of fine art and painting—while bringing life to the work and animating the original to another realm. I wanted this painting to be like an old-world automaton toy—like a giant music box of characters all with their individual movement and actions (I believe there are over 80 in this image?!)—but contained in a painting, with the Muppet Show logo within the atmosphere of the scene, paying homage to the source of this fantastic mayhem. Andy Warhol would bring pop imagery to painting by flattening it out, taking the life out of it like culture took the life out of Marilyn Monroe. I hope to bring about the sensibility of Rembrandt, breathing life, emotion, and feeling into my work, and when I appropriate found imagery, to honor the life that it brought to me and the world, recognizing it as the art it was and is. The original poster I grew up with on my wall had in the bottom right-hand corner the company name that produced it wrapped in an oval cartouche—I realized while painting this that I signed all my cartoons when I was young with my last name also wrapped in a similar cartouche-with an exclamation point in the end—so did this here, too. I was proud of my creations then and now, and Henson and Co., and the amazing Muppet world, helped to give me the confidence and agency to do what I do in my life and work of all kinds, with pride and confidence, then, and now. I ended this work by listening to the incredibly moving memorial service for Henson, who died too soon at age 53 from a rare pneumonia. I am 56 currently, and realize there is so much work to be done as an artist and more in my own humble way, there is no equaling Henson, who was like Disney for our generation (it’s interesting they are now owned by them—but not nearly the same), but he continues to inspire me and the world—and bring humanity, warmth, and humor that I hoped to be able to make in my own way within this painting.