Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Perky 'Possum Puppet

Little Pink Pig Puppet
Annake with the Little Pink Pig Puppet
'Tis the season ... for craft shows and Christmas bazaars. We have been doing our share of them. The hand puppets are always a popular item. I've been pleased with the number of people who have come up to me to say they enjoyed the story behind the little pink pig. If you have read that blog, (April 17, 2013), you know how I got into making puppets in the first place. I'd always done realistic art work, so making the caricatures that were necessary for a child's puppets was hard for me at first. I wanted to put in too much detail. My class members, who were making most of the puppets, soon convinced me that this was both unnecessary and undesirable!

Fox Puppet, Front View
Red Fox Puppet, Front View
The more I worked with the designs, however, the more I enjoyed the cartooning process. Now I design and make puppets for my own enjoyment as much as for that of the children who will eventually receive them. I especially enjoy making animal puppets and giving them “personalities” of their own. They're one of the few items I make more than once. Even then, no two versions of an animal turn out to be exactly alike. For some time I've wanted to make a perky 'possum puppet. (Say that out loud five times quickly!) Let me share the process with you.

Fox Puppet, Back View
Fox Puppet, Back View, showing tail
The most important part of a hand puppet's design is the face. The bodies are pretty standard for animals with paws or hooves, but need to be modified for ones with wings or flippers. I try to make the backs of the puppets interesting, paying particular attention to their tails. The first thing I do is cut out two stock bodies, a front and a back., from the appropriate color of felt --- gray, in this case. The back of the 'possum's body is medium gray and the front is light gray. These pieces have a “wrong” and a “right” side since I adjust the patterns for the fact that a hand's thumb and little finger are joined to the hand at slightly different levels. I have small hands, so a puppet that fits me will work for most children, although it is sometimes necessary to pad the tips of the puppet's “arms” with cotton or fiberfill for very small hands.

Possum Face Sketch
Possum Face Sketch
I make a cartoon sketch of the animal's head, using colored pencils that approximate the colors of felt that I plan to use. Once I have the basic features and have captured the expression that I want, I trace the outline of the head, cut it out, and place it over the front of the body. Sometimes the sketch is too large or too small and has to be adjusted for size. Or I may have to make some small changes so that the left and right sides match. When I'm satisfied with the head shape, I make a new pattern out of a heavier, more durable paper and cut one out of felt. I place one on the front of the body to decide how far it should overlap the “neck” of the puppet, pinning the head in place. I make a second paper pattern for the back of the head, leaving off the “chin” or “muzzle” and rounding off the back of the head where it will overlap the neck in a gentle curve. I cut out the felt for the back of the head and turn it and the back of the body over.

Possum Body and Head Pieces
Possum Body and Head Pieces
I match the front and back, wrong sides together, adjusting until they fit exactly. The back is now ready to be sewn together. I mark the position of the head on the front of the body with a couple of small pins. Then I remove the head so that I can put on all the facial features. Some of these are sewn on in layers, while others are drawn with permanent markers.

I wanted my puppet to be a mother opossum with some babies. When I was in college, someone brought our biology class a female opossum that had been hit by a car. There was nothing we could do to save her life, but six of the babies in her pouch were alive and apparently unharmed. Working in shifts around the clock, we fed them with doll's bottles and carried them in our pockets to keep them warm. They gripped our fingers with their tough little tails and dangled underneath our hands. Eventually they were weaned onto solid food and we were able to release them into the wild.

Possum Puppet Pouch Detail
Possum Puppet Pouch Detail
A mother opossum's pouch is a slit that runs along her belly from front to back, with babies tucked in on both sides. If I were making a stuffed animal, I would make it that way, put in a zipper, and stuff it with babies. This wouldn't work for my 'possum puppet, however. So I made a side-to-side pouch like that of a mother kangaroo (another marsupial). When making puppets, I sometimes have to take liberties with Nature.

Possum Puppet Tail Detail
Possum Puppet Tail Detail
I try to avoid having loose parts on my puppets that a small child might pull off and swallow. That's why I don't use buttons, beads, ball fringe, sequins, etc. Therefore, I chose to applique the “babies” to the mother's body rather than having them loose in her pocket. On the back, I added a long tail for the mother and appliqued a single baby hanging from it. Up to this point, all sewing was done by hand. The two halves of the puppet were sewn together by machine and the head was stuffed lightly with fiberfill.

Opossums are not particularly intelligent, or even attractive, but they are survivors. They have been around much longer than we have, spreading from their original home in South America throughout the United States and well into Canada by now. As scavengers, they are a part of Nature's clean-up crew. I hope this new puppet will help children learn to respect them as much as they do the more “cuddly” creatures. They all have their parts to play in the great scheme of things.

Season's Greetings,


Finished Possum Puppet
Finished Possum Puppet, Front and Back Views

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