When the Saints Go Biking in is the largest painting I have ever painted in my life, and one of my biggest challenges. For this series of Kermit (and the Muppets on Bikes!) I have been creating images of one of my favorite cultural icons, Kermit the Frog, riding his bike into his future destiny where he is able to celebrate his agency with the world. In the original 1977 Muppet Movie, he is in his swamp somewhere in Florida, and the Hollywood Agent played by Dom DeLuise comes upon him singing his woeful but hopeful song “The Rainbow Connection”. DeLuise implores to him that he should go to Hollywood with all his talents so he can make “millions of people happy”. As I am working towards my Karma LA May 25, 2024, show, I have moved to a new house that my husband and I have totally refurbished, and teaching as a full tenured Professor of Art at USC, and at age 57, painting my heart out for our own future to become completely self-actualized and make our dreams come true. Every painting means so much to me, I live through my work, and this painting became a monumental mountain for me to climb, taking a month and a half to paint, every day all day throughout the latter half of the summer (short trips excluded!) with intense life moments happening throughout (visiting my parents, with my father at the beginnings of Alzheimer’s, my childhood best friend’s mother dying). I’m feeling my mortality, but hopefully life continues through the work, and if not actually making artists immortal, hopefully what we put into a work gives it a life of its own.
In this scene, from the second Muppet film—The Great Muppet Caper (1981)—set in London, Miss Piggy and Kermit have just reconciled from a quarrel and begin their courtship in full of Kermit trying to impress Piggy by his tricks he plays as they are biking through Battersea Park. In the first film, audiences were astonished to see Kermit, like Pinocchio, “a puppet without strings” able to miraculously ride his bike out of the swamp, and here, Jim Henson and his company were trying to beat themselves with a show-stopping scene that would astonish, with BOTH Kermit and Miss Piggy being able to ride bikes, soon joined by a company of their Muppet Friends. Last year at London Frieze, I exhibited the latter half of this scene, and, like I tell my students, to “be a great artist every work needs to be your new Masterpiece” I tried to beat that work with this painting, which is even larger and more micromanaged, and although with less characters, hopefully even more animation in my painting and focus on the more crucial, intrinsic allegory of the scene. As an artist, we are always trying to appeal to our audience, and more than this, the audience of one who is the creator, to challenge oneself to achieve greater heights. Although ironically, in most of the Muppet universe, Miss Piggy is always trying to throw herself at Kermit in the hopes he too would show affection towards her (and the characters did love one another), here it is the reverse, where Kermit is trying to impress Piggy, as she is pleasantly distracted, loving their company but lost in her beautiful day. I find in my own life I’m constantly trying to be the best I can possibly be, the best version of myself, but also, as an “A Type” personality, to give it my all to my husband, my family, my students, and my art. I do believe in “My American Dream,” to which this and all the paintings I’ve created since the turn of the century that espouse what I hope is, if we can still say this, truly great about the America that my husband and I can live in peacefully, and I hope this painting encapsulates this journey. Although I’m not religious, I’m spiritual, and in Buddhism, they would say if you said hello to somebody who doesn’t return the sentiment, that it doesn’t matter, as at least you are shining a light and bringing about good energy to someone who might just be having a bad day. Here, if Kermit is trying his outlandish trick, speeding up to Miss Piggy to impress her, like a child might to a parent, whether or not she acknowledges him doesn’t make a difference, as this is the plight of life, to gamely put a strong step forward, and try one’s best, all through life, in our personal private and public work and leisure life, to achieve our goals but also to raise our (and hopefully other’s) spirit, as Kermit does here. I almost called this “The Long and Winding Road”, the title of Paul McCartney’s ballad, as I feel this is the road of life depicted here—but it doesn’t appear, at least in this image, so long and windy, and the melancholic nature of the song doesn’t feel appropriate. One of my favorite paintings of all time is Albert Pinkham Ryder’s “The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse),” where his version of the Grim Reaper appears with a scythe (to “cut down the living”, on a horse on a circular race track, with a snake representing evil and temptation in front—in honor of a friend that committed suicide after losing a $500 bet at the race track—but also a grim metaphor for a cycle of life—and my painting might be the antithesis of this.
Although “When the Saints Go Marching In” is a somewhat apocalyptic traditional Black spiritual song, often played at funerals, especially in New Orleans, home of Dixieland Jazz, it’s also played in other, more celebratory times and concerts. My father is from here, and my grandmother would always make sure to bring us to the famous Preservation Hall in the French Quarter, to hear (and meet the grand players!) where they (still!) have a sign in the back, saying “Traditional Requests $5, all Others $10, The Saints $20, as The Saints is such an amazing standard that they have to ask the most for this incredible tune. While I was painting this work, as I aspire to be one of the best painters of my generation, I listened to (most all?!) the 2020 version of Rolling Stone Magazine’s “Top 500 Albums”. Before I got to the last five, as I love them so much, and it seemed to fit the theme so well (and for a painting that was set in London, for the Muppets, whose entire Muppet Show production was in London, as was this film—in many ways the spirit and humor of the Muppets is British!) I listened to all the Beatles albums (and the Super Deluxe versions that exist of all the outtakes and alternative singles), before ending finally with Marvin Gaye’s timeless (and Rolling Stone’s #1 album of all time!) “What’s Going On”. But for the very end of this painting, as I’ve done in the past with important Muppet works, I listened to Jim Henson’s Memorial Service, which ends with “The Saints” being played (and always making me burst into tears).
Jim Henson died on May 16, 1990, just two days before my 24th birthday, and this service was on May 21st, the day before my husband Andrew Madrid’s 24th birthday. This was a time of great transition of my life, the Spring before I went to graduate school after I chose this path (after first wanting to be a cartoonist, I lived in NYC and worked at an art magazine and then Robert Miller Gallery on 57th street, when Cheim & Read were the directors and they showed my recently deceased heroes Basquiat, Mapplethorpe, along with the likes of Alice Neel, Kusama, Gilbert and George, Louise Bourgeois, Alex Katz and more, inspiring me to become a fine artist). At the funeral, Henson had instructed for people not to wear black, and to have a jazz band, to celebrate life in this Southern tradition. He had died suddenly from organ failure at the age of 53 from a rapidly spiraling flu-that turned to sepsis. Born into a Christian Science family, Henson too wasn’t religious but not resisting going to doctors was a residual perhaps of this, and he let a flu overwhelm him until it was too late. He believed in an afterlife, and spirit lives that live within our world (Fraggle Rock was exemplary for this). As his son Brian Henson reads at the service his letter to his children and family:
“I’m not at all afraid of the thought of death and in many ways look forward to it with much curiosity and interest. I’m looking forward to meeting up with some of my friends who have gone on ahead of me and will be waiting to say hi to those of you who are still back there… I suggest you first have a nice friendly little service of some kind… It would be lovely if some of the people who sing would do a song or two, some of which should be quite happy and joyful. It would be nice if some of my close friends would say some nice and happy words about how much we enjoy doing this stuff together… Incidentally I’d love to have a Dixieland jazz band play at this function and at the end have a rousing version of Saints—that would be something to look forward to… Have a wonderful time in life everybody, it seems strange writing this while I’m still alive, but it wouldn’t be easy after I go… And to his kids specifically: “Don’t feel bad for me if ‘m gone—while I’m sure I’ll miss spending time with you it won’t be bad for me, it will be an interesting time for me, and I’ll look forward to spending time with you when you all come over. To each of you I send my love. If on this side of life if I’m able to watch over and help you out, know that I will. If I can’t I know that at least I will be waiting for you when you come over. Please watch out for each other and love and forgive everybody—it’s a good life, enjoy it! This may sound silly and over the top to you guys, but what the hell, I’m gone, and who can argue with me!”
Jim Henson and the Muppets were a huge influence for me and my life and creative work. As the “campus cartoonist “ since kindergarten and through my time at Brown University, where I created the daily comic strip of the Brown Daily Herald, I loved writing and drawing cartoons and comics (and illustrations, in addition to my “fine art” work as a Semiotics and Studio Art major, and writing and directing and performing in plays on campus) that would relate to people and make them think and laugh and ponder. Henson had no problem making his work “for the people” and was incredibly successful and inventive, creating a whole new genre of puppeteering, one that was made specifically at the advent of television, where the screen of the TV would be the proscenium of the new puppet stage and the world within would be expansive beyond heretofore imagination. His work always embraced, beyond the mayhem, a sense of warmth, love, and humor, and of course the Muppets were the anchor for Sesame Street, a new kind of children’s show, specifically and consciously built around the ideologies of the Civil Rights Movement, that taught about empathy, compassion, and cooperation, with the Muppets as its Muses.
I was the absolute right age for all this—4 years old in 1969 when Sesame Street premiered, 10 years old when the Muppet Show—which I watched religiously—first came out, 13 years old for the Muppet Movie, and so on. The Muppets helped to form my consciousness about what entertainment could be—and my ideology for life. As an adult, Kermit has been also a unwitting avatar—for my time as Chair of Painting and Drawing and Printmaking at USC Roski, dealing with a lot of artists egos from the faculty (and the students) Kermit’s role as the non-patriarchal leader was helpful to vent as I painted him, giving me catharsis, and after, allowing me to retreat to a place of my youth, capitulated with my present, not in a mid-life crisis kind of way, but a process that has been mutually satisfying in my meditation of projecting myself into the avatars of the puppets as I paint them as a puppeteer would, to bring them life, but also like a method actor, bringing my own life into the work to make it hopefully feel real and come alive, the whole painting hopefully alchemized as each stroke is like a thought for me in the transcendent meditation of painting.
For this work specifically, I have been going through events, in both my personal and professional life, where I have sought to “prove” myself and my abilities to others—in friendship, love for family, and of course painting, and felt very much like Kermit performing his “tricks” to impress Miss Piggy. Like Miss Piggy, at 57, I am at a station in life where I also feel somewhat satisfied with myself and life, making the most of what I have to offer, and fully embracing who I am, warts and all, and not worried too much about what is ahead of me—but also striving to be my best, and hopefully in a not Miss Piggy diva kind of way, demanding my centrality. But the thoughts and prayers for people recently diseased—my childhood best friend’s mom, another best friend recently passed, some of my art heroes that I think about—could be found maybe as their spirits manifested in how I perceived the foliage of the trees and more.
Da Vinci said that an artist always paints themselves—I think he might have meant, for portraits, sometimes the painter ends up painting pictures that ultimately might look more like their creator than whom they are portraying—but I also think, in micromanaged moments in the old masters, and especially In Modernist painting, from Van Gogh and further, where it was less important to make things look “real” (photography already did that!), it was how an artist projected themselves (and their subconscious!) onto the subject matter, and interior faces, feelings, synesthetic atmospheres emerge. If you look at Van Gogh’s Cypress trees, you can see interior realized, iconic forms of his face, same with Cezanne’s “holes” in the middle of his canvases, where almost like mirrors, were in front of his face while he used painting as a meditation—that look like “inner masks” of the man—mustache, beard, eyes, and more. For this work I was thinking of the famous queer painting of “Hide-and-Seek” by Pavel Tchelitchew at MOMA, that infamously has consciously realized figures within its large tree and branches. Here, I’m trying NOT to actually realize these, but allow them to come out as I’m looking at the interior space of the figurative form (and also gazing upon glossy photo paper the image is printed on while painting, so hypothetically also might be seeing reflections in my mind’s eye on the actual surface of the paper), but want, like the world of Fraggle Rock, to bring out whatever “spirits” I might see there.
I love the work of the symbolists and Romantic visionaries (including artists, thinking specifically of for this work, the British Romantic visionary artist Samuel Palmer, influenced by Blake, who would obsessively find figures and forms in his foliage and landscapes), Charles Burchfield, and even Thomas Cole and the American Transcendentalist spirit, that could find other spiritual lives in nature. But I’m also a lover of the impressionists, and specific to this work, was looking for a lot at the later Monet, when cataracts had taken over much of his objective vision, and he created the sublime Water Lily panoramic landscapes like the one at MOMA and the rooms at the Musée de l’Orangerie. These so impressed the AbEx artists to transcend into pure abstraction, and Monet’s obsession with bringing out the atmosphere—not just of his incredible constructed landscape architecture of Giverny, but also of the war that he could hear and smell just beyond his property, into his work.
I also love and teach comics (and started an entire Visual Narrative Art program at USC after being the head comics teacher at SVA for decades), and wanted to bring movement and comic ideas to this work, by utilizing the idea of “subjective motion” (where the person/object that might be moving is in focus, and the background or vehicle they are in might be out of focus), and “action lines” that indicate movement. I’m hoping that Kermit seems to “rush into the scene” with the action lines/emanata (symbolic marks that represent something invisible) coming from his body and bike, the spokes of which are invisible, the background surrounding his bike seems out of focus, fragmented, broken up, the grass on the lawn also seemingly in motion from the wind of his “entrance” vs. Miss Piggy, who is biking more at leisure, a bit more in focus, her hair and marks surrounding her emulating a more slow-on-the-gravel of the path leisurely bike peddling jaunt in the park. In the background, for me by the house (which symbolized at different points of the painting both the institution I teach in, USC, but also the one that I live in, my home—but also the home of my friends mother, who in a way appears as the figure, who ended her long life while I was painting this from a chronic illness, and on the right, perhaps a version of myself now, looking into the scene—but also of Jim Henson, who like his son Brian, who lead as a puppeteer the procession of “Muppets on Bikes” in the second half of the scene—looking onto his world, and maybe earlier versions of myself on the left looking, like a time machine, into later versions of my life. I hope it’s not too vain, but as like some artists of the past (Cole did this, but specifically thinking of surreal Milanese artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who in his bizarre portraits of personas created from fruits, vegetables and other organic matter, would literally weave in his name as a signature—I painted in my name and the year this work was painted in Miss Piggy’s spokes and grass within her rear tire.
Ultimately, I hope this work has a life of its own, and feels animated and whimsical, but with a gravitas of the life surrounding it and the way it has been lovingly, obsessively rendered, has a weight that transcends its initial whimsy. Like Tristan and Isolde, this is a couple that lives beyond their creators Jim Henson and Frank Oz, a true “queer” relationship (these characters are so gender fluid, as of course they aren’t “cis” anything, not having genitalia, and their personalities are binary and go against the gender conformity of “male” and “female”—and of course this was an extension of the bromance love affair of the Henson and Oz). The model of “loved” and “beloved” is perpetual throughout humankind and history, one is always chasing the other and appeasing and loving towards another, we hope, in our lives and world. And this is always a constant, throughout times of strife and abundances. We live in such an apocalyptic age, and yet, must seek our own pleasure, romance, and happiness in a time that feels burdened and, in some ways, doomed with the rising of fascism, global warming, war, poverty, increased social tensions and cultural politics. But the Muppets, like many iconic avatars, represent not one ethnicity, politic, culture, or people, but loving beings spreading love to the world. To paraphrase Joseph Campbell, who spoke so eloquently about the Power of Myth and the Hero’s Journey, an artists’ job is to tell stories for a culture to understand itself for the culture to progress”—this is exactly what these characters—both Henson and Muppets did for the world. If the hymn “The Saints Go Marching In” is ultimately about the good souls that go to Heaven during Revelations and the end of the world, hopefully this isn’t the end of our world, but I sure would like to be in that number with Henson and Friends who have made the world a better place.