Thursday, July 29, 2021

Presentation at Cork Puppetry Festival 2021 (transcript)

Transcript * to my talk: ‘Living in the shadows of an Invisible Octopus’ at Cork Puppetry Festival 2021, as part of triple bill of three female Irish Shadow puppetry artist, 29 July 2021.

(*When available I will add a link to the video-presentation)

Thank you Cork Puppetry Festival 2021 for the invitation to share a short reflection on how decades of writing, art and puppetry ultimately led to the ‘Invisible Octopus’ project.

During a mentoring period with Puppet Master Dr. Emma Fisher in 2019/20 I was introduced to shadow puppetry which led to the video poem which I will show towards the end of my talk. This wonderful mentoring opportunity was funded by Arts & Disability Ireland. As my reality is ever changing I will explore in this talk where my creativity might bring me next.

Due to very limited energy and voice fading easily I am unable to give a live presentation. I have therefor prepared a written document over the past few weeks. I did voice recordings over a few days, some in my room, others in the library of the nursing home where I now live. The video poem is a previous recording. Hence the different sound quality in the video.

I illustrated the talk with shadow puppetry image and other related works.

I will make the transcript available on my blog, including links if you wish to explore my work further. 

I hope you will enjoy this reflection and I look forward to hearing from you during the  Questions and Answer sessions.

Background: Puppetry, me and M.E.

Although trained as a nurse and social care worker in my native Netherlands, it was a move to Ireland in 1989 which led me to become a full time working artist. My work centred around making one of Puppet and Artist Dolls under the name of Fantasy Folk.

In 1998 I taught marionette puppet-making in a group-home for teenagers. One young man of about thirteen sculpted a funny clown’s head. However when it came to making the hands, they were created as fists. I wondered if they express his true emotions, perhaps of anger or fear. This experience became the pivotal moment where I realised the power of art. The deepest fears, joys, wishes and challenges appear from our hearts, our minds, through our hands into our work.

Unfortunately, I did not get to finish the project with the young people as I became very ill with the neurological illness Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E). Not to be confused with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  In a very short time I lost the ability to look after myself, to walk properly, to sit up and talk, to remember, to read, to write, to prepare my food, or do even such simple tasks as open a tube of toothpaste. In terms of my work, I lost all finer skills to hold my tools and to manipulate the clay. The total lack of energy and being in constant pain made creating my dolls and puppets impossible.

However, I realised soon that my creative mind was not going to stop. It challenged me to find new ways to create and explore my totally altered existence. As a result, my creative output changed dramatically both in substance and intensity. Initially there were just quick drawings, mainly of eggs… and later birds. Over the following years I slowly regained to ability to sculpt again. I learned a great deal about life with illness, and life in general through my creativity. 

As I won’t have time to go through these works, I’d like to invite you to explore my website for a selection of the created works, published books, as well as lecture transcripts and videos of puppetry & disability talks. All explore the reality of illness, the good, the bad, and the beautiful as well as the improvements and subsequently decline again over the past two decades. 

Who is the hand that hold the cross?

One of the drawings in the early years of illness was that of a marionette puppet with a hand holding the cross. These words were scribbled over the image:

 “A puppet, not a great drawing, but…the puppet is me with M.E., I have little or no control over my body. WHO is the hand who keeps me upright, make me walk, make me move gracefully, or let me stumble at times, makes me stand my full length or let me buckle at the knees, makes the arms move or leave them hang like useless objects. Who is the hand that has control 

What is the hand that holds the cross and moves 'my' strings at its will.  

Can I become the hand over M.E., have control over me?  

Hand, whatever you do, don't drop me altogether, hold on, but stop playing tricks…”

At the time I had no idea how much this one image subconsciously influenced my puppetry related work more than a decade later.

Life Outside the Box, Disability Puppetry Project (More on the puppet blog)

During 2013, 15 years after becoming ill I became an active member of the Irish Wheelchair Association (An organisation in Ireland for people with physical disabilities, not just those using a wheelchair). My main reason was that I hoped I would get practical help with making my work. Experiencing yet again a decline in my health I could no longer knead or roll the clay to make my sculptures and puppets. However, the then centre coordinator asked if I could facilitate a puppet-making project with my fellow members. 

We applied and received funding from Create - Artist in the Community Scheme, funded by the Arts Council of Ireland. We started our project in summer 2014.  Our group consisted of twelve people with a variety of disabilities: acquired brain injury, Multiple Sclerosis, Polio, congenital birth defects, and M.E; ages 27 to 72. Over the course of eight months we created nine marionette puppets, a large ‘disability’ box, and a large hand to help us out of the box. I hadn’t realised at the time that this might be the hand in my drawing at the start of my illness. 

During this extended project I witnessed a shift in focus from disability to ability. We all explored how our disabilities challenged us, but over time found alternative ways to create our puppets. All puppets very much  had their own personalities, but none depicted their disabilities, indeed mine.  

Busy with our hands there was a great sense of ease to talk about our lives, our challenges and hopes. It was a safe place. Although the final outcome was a short film of our puppets - us - stepping out of the Disability Box, for me ‘Life Outside the Box’ represents pride, inclusiveness, freedom and empowerment. The benefits went beyond the making. We celebrated our Ability. See puppet page on my website for links to this project including the short film we created.

Further work

Although I stopped attending the IWA Outreach centre in 2016, ‘Life Outside the Box’ lived on. Emma Fisher and Laura Purcell-Gates referenced to it in their research paper “Puppetry as reinforcement or rupture of cultural perceptions of the disabled body”.  This led to the invitation by Emma to give a talk at the first Broken Puppet Symposium in 2017 during Cork Puppet Festival. I suddenly found myself in a beautiful and astonishing world I did not know I was part of. I was made more aware of how puppetry can bring awareness to living with illness or disability. I have since researched this topic and have been fortunate to be invited to give talks worldwide about my experiences.

I created some further puppets exploring my own reality of ill health and disability. The main puppets created were ‘The Reflections Girls’ marionettes and wheelchair top puppet ‘Póilin’.

However as the illness continued to challenge me and my creative abilities with rapid decline, I am now no longer able to sculpt my puppets. To explore a way forward, I asked Emma Fisher to mentor me in 2019 through an Arts and Disability Award. Working on what became the ‘Invisible Octopus’ project inexplicably forced me to examine and establish the truth about what is my normal. It was a hugely confrontational and yet beautiful time. I learned a great deal more than the aim of the mentoring, to write a script with my puppets in the leading role. (Again see my blog for articles about this time).

During our first face-to-face mentoring the word ‘shadow’ triggered a memory of a book I had been working on years ago. A fictionalised story about my great grandmother’s spirit whose presence I felt on my body like the tentacles of an octopus. I lived in her shadow. “The Shadow of an Invisible Octopus”. This sensation is relatable to the experience of M.E.; the hard to describe, changeable neuropathic pain; the feeling of something invading my body; the many cognitive problems; and not being in control of my movements, of my life. As if an invisible hand holding the cross of a marionette is animating the strings attached to my body. During the process of thinking, writing and discussing my intended film project, the octopus became this hand.

After designing an Octopus glove-puppet to bring this feeling to life, it was actually shadow puppetry which proved to be the most powerful medium to tell my story. 

During the last mentoring day in October 2019 Emma introduced me to the use of an overhead projector. She attached a small screen to the bed-end of my profiling bed (a hospital-type bed) and placed the projector on a bed-tray standing over my legs. Totally wedged in I was breathing life into a whole new world, playing with light and shadows, movement and stillness. 

I experienced the beauty of creating a mini world with herbs from my garden and marvelled at the possibility to change the colour of the light on the screen through movement of hands under the source of light. While gently moving a paper puppet in a wheelchair over the ‘grass’ made from fennel leaves, we had a shadow of Octopus appearing in this tranquil scene. As it slowly encroached over the puppet, it pushed her about, lifting her up in the air and dropping her, wheelchair and all. Changing tranquility  into chaos. Just like the illness does…

As I realised how shadow puppetry could bring me renewed creative freedom, I sourced own overhead projector. It was set up in such a way that I could access it without the need of support. This was a hugely liberating feeling as with almost all my other creative work, including the making of the glove puppet Octopus, and trial recordings of the proposed short film, I needed a lot of practical support. 

With shadow puppetry I realised that I was able to cut small paper puppets, birds and other images while lying in my recliner or in bed. Using the overhead projector with each tiny movement of my puppets I was able to create instant stories. 

I may be trapped in my body, but on the screen I can fly with the birds. I can express what it feels like to be ‘knocked out of my wheelchair by the ‘Invisible Octopus’. I can deal with the frustrations of being on the receiving end of a failing healthcare system. I can share the feeling of being housebound, in pain, as well as the poignancy of depicting resting in the healing energy of my garden.

The starkness of the black and white imagery leaves nothing to the imagination. This is it. This is my realty. No frills, Nothing dressed up to make it look sweet or beautiful. 

The power of possibility is immense.

I decided to develop the ‘Invisible Octopus’ poem I had created as narration for the intended film and one day make a short animation using shadow puppetry…

As I realised, puppetry forced me to look deep into my reality. Poetry defined the experience. As in this abstract from my poem

M.E. as Invisible Octopus 

acting as puppeteer 

keeping me upright 

or making me stumble at will 

inflicting pain 

challenging my brain 

its crushing weight

taking my breath away

The animation of the poem was much more complicated than I anticipated. As I can only work for a few minutes at the time. At times only one session a day, it would perhaps take me a year to make the animation the way it had formed in my mind.

But, one day, I put a voice recording and twelve shadow puppetry images I had chosen for an exhibition together and suddenly I had a version of my animated poem. It took all of ten minutes to create this piece of work which I feel encompasses my 22-year long journey into 2.2 minutes...

I felt at the time that this work was the last of my creative explorations of life with M.E.

The responses to this video-poem have been beyond my wildest dreams. It has been shown at film, puppetry as well as a poetry festivals. The poem will be published in a Dutch anthology. Reading the reactions to my work I realised that many of us have an ‘Octopus’ in our lives.

Big Changes

Over the past two years I had to accept that ‘Octopus’, my illness, has greater power over my life than I ever wished to imagine. December last I conceded that I needed more care. It was no longer possible and safe to live independently at home, even with seven day care. At the end of April I moved into a nursing home. It broke my heart and yet it is right.

So far my creativity has been dormant. (If one excluded making my room my home). The occasional creative spark happens. But I lack the needed energy. But maybe I am also afraid to let the power of my creative mind help me deal with the immense changes I am dealing with. I am becoming more ill. I am loosing so many more abilities, like the simple things of chewing food, or sitting up for any length of time. Even communication can be severely affected of late. I need soo much more personal and practical care. I lost my beloved home and garden, and with that a level of independence. Maybe, just maybe it was ‘safer’ to not have to confront all these realities through my art. As yet.

For now, I am hiding in plain sight. Living in the shadows of Octopus. But as carer Daniel said, ‘if you don’t do your art you crumble away altogether…’

How true.

My projector is outside my door in the hallway, my shadow images are in the drawer at easy access. My iPad, pen and notebook are also within reach. One day I will be brave enough and find the necessary energy to explore ways to create again. To continue to delve deep into my mind and share my world with all whom have followed and supported me with such deep interest during the years of illness.

Although I have used many forms of creativity over the past two decades, I believe puppetry has been the most confronting and at the same time healing art form of all. With shadow puppetry the most powerful. Hopefully my story will continue through and into the shadows.

Many thanks for your interest in my work and thank you Cork Puppet Festival. By inviting me to give this talk, they have possibility reignited the created spark, and made me evaluate how I came to this point in my creative life.

Further reading/viewing:

No comments: