Tuesday, November 26, 2019

'Invisible Octopus': (1) Background

Living in the shadows of an Invisible Octopus

 Working on ‘Invisible Octopus’ inexplicably forced me to examine and establish
the truth about what is my normal.

First day of mentoring in my studio.
Me (Corina Duyn), Emma Fisher and Aram Wahhoud
(photo my Marwa Wahhoud)
During the past five months I have been working with Dr. Emma Fisher through a mentoring bursary from the Arts & Disability Ireland Connect Scheme. The aim was to write a script for my existing puppets, as well as explore alternative forms of puppetry to accommodate the physical challenges due to my chronic illness/disability M.E.. 
In this paper, which I will share in sections over the coming week, I explore the background to ‘Invisible Octopus’ and the challenges, opportunities and personal revelations it brought.

* Abstract may be quoted, but please reference the source: 'Invisible Octopus', Corina Duyn, 2019. www.corinaduyn.blogspot.ie, (please include direct link) and date accessed. And it would be great to hear from you where you have used my writing. Thank you

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

I have been a puppet maker all my life, but the design and emphasis has changed significantly in recent times. I became a full time Doll Artist after my move to Ireland in 1989, which followed my time working as a palliative care nurse and social care worker in my native Netherlands. My medium is air-drying clay, which allows me to create very delicate detail in facial features, as well as hands and feet. My Fantasy Folk Artist Dolls and Puppets were fantasy figures, and reflections on life around me.

In 1998 I taught puppet making in a group home for teenagers. One fun and engaging young man of about thirteen sculpted a clown’s head. In complete contrast to the funny faced he sculpted; the puppets hands were made as fists. This experience became the pivotal moment where I realized the power of art, especially the power of working with clay. The clay does not lie. Our deepest fears, joy, wishes and challenges appear from our hearts and minds, and make their way through our hands into the clay. 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.).

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. I lost all my finer motor skills to hold my tools and to manipulate the clay. As a result, my creative output changed dramatically both in substance and intensity. No longer reflecting on life around me, I examined my innermost thoughts. 

Initially I was only able to do very quick sketches or write a few words. Over the years I created a visual and written account of this journey through illness, using whatever materials and methods accessible to me at any given time, eventually returning to my love of sculpting and becoming a writer along the way. 

drawing of a marionette puppet with cross help by hand, words  about who is in control scribbled over it.

One of my early drawings was that of a marionette. 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, makes me walk, makes me move gracefully, or lets me stumble at times, makes me stand my full length or lets me buckle at the knees, makes the arms move or leaves 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…”

This early reflection undoubtedly, but subconsciously, influenced my puppetry work in more recent projects.

Disability Puppetry Project Life Outside the Box

still from Life Outside the Box puppet  film
still from Life Outside the Box film

After accepting that full recovery was not within my grasp (2012), I fulfilled a long-held dream to attend a part-time college course in Disability Studies. A year or so later I became an active member of the Irish Wheelchair Association (IWA – an organization for people with physical disabilities). While attending the IWA Resource Centre, the then Centre coordinator asked me to facilitate a puppet-making project. We received funding from theCreate - Artist in the Community Scheme’, funded by the Arts Council of Ireland. Our group consisted of 12 people with a variety of disabilities: acquired brain injury, MS, 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 the puppets out of the box. Perhaps this is the hand in my puppet drawing…

We documented our project in a blog, a book, and a short film in which our puppets are stepping out of society’s disability box. Knowing the participants in advance of the project, I was able to adapt tools and work methods to suit their specific needs. For one young woman who has no lower arms but is still able to hold a pen, I created a workstation to enable her to sculpt most of her puppet. I also adapted the cross so she could animate her beautiful finished puppet. Another participant, a man with an acquired brain injury, felt uncomfortable working in the large group, so I supported him working one-to-one with him on the large paper-machĂ© hand. It was encouraging to see the pride in his work and hear him make the connection with having worked as a chef.

Over the course of the project I witnessed a shift in focus from disability to ability. Skills were explored and exchanged and as a result the group became more cohesive. Each week the puppets’ personalities and stories became more profound. One participant said that his puppet took on its ultimate personality because of the obstacles he faced along the way. Being in this group, 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. We certainly laughed a lot too, which was a great tonic. We all had staff members to support us with practical work. For me, this made it possible to teach again after a 17-year gap.

 Whilst the project was about puppets coming out of their box it was the service users that also ‘came out of their box’ to realise they could do more than they thought they were capable of. It was the most inclusive project that we ever did.” 
Andrea Lloyd, Centre Coordinator at time of the project.

We filmed Life Outside the Box  in our local shopping centre. We specifically chose this location to seek interaction with the public. People engaged with us, often by way of talking to or about our puppets. This was a big shift from being ignored, or our mental and physical ability being dismissed, as is the more common experience. We certainly caught the public eye with our story. There were full spread articles in the local newspapers, interviews on radio, and we had two well-attended launches at libraries. Our video has since been shown at Disability Film Festivals in Canada and UK, and for one week in our local cinema. Every three months an adapted one-minute version is screened on Irish national television before the evening news.

For me Life Outside the Box represents pride, inclusiveness, freedom, empowerment, an insight into our abilities, a tool to raise awareness, as well as breaking many personal and social boundaries. I encouraged all members in the group to take full responsibility for the project, including the publication of our book, organisation of the launches, speeches, publicity, and marketing. We kept the funds we raised from the sale of our books and the accounts were managed by two members from the group. All of this was a big step away from the usual control of the IWA organisation staff.
I witnessed how the puppet makers responded with much more honesty to questions about their disability when they let the puppet speak. Therefore, Life Outside the Box had great potential to be used as a communication tool about disability, for example in schools. In most cases, children respond with great empathy to puppets. This provides for a wonderful opportunity to engage in a discussion about ‘otherness’ in society. However, a change of leadership at the Resource Centre stifled that opportunity. Higher up on the IWA organisational ladder, the management team did not utilize the potential of the project to promote the ability of people with disabilities. I had requested to speak about the benefits of this project during the yearly meeting with IWA members and staff, but I was informed that it did not fit into their chosen theme of that year, which was ‘Breaking Boundaries’.

I believe that the overall Life Outside the Box project challenged the stereotypical view of us, as people with disabilities. The shift in perspective was either not valued by the organisation, or the power of puppetry as a medium not understood. In any case, I had to stop going to the Resource Centre. The struggle for autonomy became too much for my mental wellbeing. I do miss my fellow members.

My presentation via Skype:  
However, the message of Life Outside the Box has lived on through the invitation from Dr Emma Fisher to give a talk at the first Broken Puppet Symposium, on Puppetry, Disability & Health(2017) in Cork, Ireland. This was followed by invitations in 2018 to give the Keynote Speech at the Broken Puppet 2 in Bath, UK. As well as talks at Nottingham Puppet Festival, Puppet Place in Bristol, and Puppet Festival in Cork. I gave a presentation via Skype as part of the Puppet Therapy Seminar of Belo Horizonte: Puppets and the person with disabilities. Practices in Culture, Education and Health in Brazil. In 2019, I held a video-conference at Andrea Markovits’ DiplomadoMuñecoterapia in Chile. These are of course a very select group of interested people. With my own puppetry work I endeavour to continue to bring awareness of the lives of people with hidden disabilities, to a more general audience.


I will share the next section from my paper on 'Invisible Octopus' in the coming days.


  • Puppet design dictated by illness/disability
  • The metaphor of Birds
  • Introducing Octopus’
  • Hanging on by a string
  • The play of shadows

Copyright: * Abstract may be quoted, but please reference the source: 'Invisible Octopus', Corina Duyn, 2019. www.corinaduyn.blogspot.ie, direct link to post, and date accessed.  
Thank you

No comments: