My American Dream: City of Angels
The World of Jim Henson and the Muppets, 2023 Oil on linen 60 × 62 inches
The World of Jim Henson and the Muppets, 2023
Oil on linen 60 × 62 inches

The World of Jim Henson and the Muppets NOTES by the artist

This is from a publicity image of Jim Henson and the Muppets, from what is most likely 1975, around the time of the first Muppets special that inspired the official Muppet Show, “Sex and Violence” a pilot episode of sorts, that had the character on the bottom left hand corner, Nigel, as host (later relegated to a minor role of leader of the orchestra), and a very early incarnation of Miss Piggy, who appear on the top right of the image.

I love Jim Henson and everything he stands for, and have painted now many Muppet paintings, most “starring” Kermit the Frog, Henson’s avatar, whom I also personally identify with.  Growing up in the suburbs of Denver, Sesame Street was my access to the Civil Rights Movement, which was the foundation for the show, very consciously, with those leaders helping to establish the “neighborhood” where people of different color and class could all cohabit with cooperation and peace and understanding.  The Muppets, who are all colors of the rainbow, made out of felt without any genitalia, are truly queer subjects, despite any desires or orientation they might perform, and not only were civil rights propagated in the show but also queerness—the very essence of “It’s Not Easy Being Green”, Kermit’s signature song, was edifying for a still undeclared queer kid growing up uncoordinated with glasses in the 70’s.  I was the perfect age for the Muppets, born in 1966 (Sesame Street began in 1969, the Muppet Show in 1974) and literally grew up with them, and the genius that is Jim Henson, who was a total inspiration to me as an artist as he was to the world.

I was the campus cartoonist growing up, from kindergarten illustrating the cafeteria menu pages in the elementary school paper to creating the daily comic strip at Brown University for the Brown Daily Herald.   Although I didn’t become a professional cartoonist, I became a professional exhibiting artist who has taught comics all his life in addition to fine art–and now have created a Visual Narrative Art program at the University of Southern California Roski School of Art and Design, in collaboration with the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, and the Lucas funded School of Cinematic Arts Animation and Gaming departments. I believe in power of art to transform culture—to paraphrase Joseph Campbell “an artists’ job is to tell stories for a culture to understand itself in order for the culture to progress”, and Henson has done this as I have tried to also do in my humble way.

I listened to the Henson biography by Brian Jay Jones, and watched all the Muppet Shows on my laptop in the background, played soundtracks from the Muppet albums of my youth, and watched Muppet films and the documentaries about Henson when not painting during the rendering process of this picture. One of my favorite artists is James Ensor, and I love the painting of his Self Portrait with Masks from 1899, where he is immersed amongst masked characters from his mother’s gift shop below his studio in Belgium that populated his cartoonish paintings, and here I was consciously thinking of the uncanny valley of Henson in the center of his own cosmology, bringing out with painterly form the feelings of each of his beloved characters—in this image, his own self portrait as a puppet appears with some of his cohort puppeteers, so this is a portrait of him and his own portraits of different sides of his cosmology and company, an appropriation of what must been an approved publicity shot for his world. I’ve been interested since my first oil paintings in college in rendering cartoon characters as if they are “real”, and certainly puppets inhabit our own 3-d space, but to amalgamate both human and puppet into an image is how I’m hopefully transforming the original appropriated photo—in addition to the semiotics of putting this image in context with the rest of the My American Dream oeuvre and this “chapter,” City of Angels.  I love Warhol for his contextualization of popular culture and his Duchampian moves of bringing everyday readymade pop iconography into a fine art realm—but feel he must have been on the spectrum as his imagery has flattened out real people into icons—not just like religious icons, but also how, in a post-Modern view, the agency of his figures have been reified into Capital, like how Marilyn Monroe must have become lost in the machine that transformed her for popular consumption. I love the painterliness of Rembrandt, where we might not know the subject of his portraits but can synesthetically “feel” the emotions and passions of the interior soul of his subjects.  If we could marry the pop relevancy of a Warhol with the empathy, compassion, warmth and painterly emotion of a Rembrandt, maybe we could have something new, something I’m trying to do with my paintings—and to have them have an allegorical resonance in the context of my framework of narrative allegory for our times.

These are all personal paintings for me, too. When I was Chair of the Roski 2D program of painting, drawing and printmaking at Roski, I had to suffer the slings and arrows of how the “the politics of academia is so severe as there is so little at stake”, but sometimes there is a lot to accomplish for the good of the school and humankind.  I had to turn around the dept. from an atelier, “drawing from the model” and “still lives with eggs and candles in pristine white environments” to a more critical thinking and relevant program, in addition to creating the Visual Narrative Program, in a place where the old guard gave me such pushback—“cartoons aren’t art” and “we don’t want to be a vocational school” that it gave me Crohn’s Disease in my fight to update the program to make it relevant and to open up a channel that the students desperately wanted to make work for the world.  One of the most moving videos on YouTube about Henson was his public memorial held on May 21, 1990, just five days after his death, at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in NYC, which ended with (and printed on the program), his son Brian reading from a letter written to his children to be read on the occasion of his death, ““Please watch out for each other and love and forgive everybody. It’s a good life, enjoy it”.  I ended the painting listening to this and weeping, painting Henson’s face as if he was talking to me, allowing myself to let go of the anger and frustrations of my life as I was, hypothetically, “channeling his spirit”, much a like a puppeteer might when projecting into their avatar their own soul.