“…from Hell’s heart I stab at thee…

Ahab Portrait 1…for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” Eloquently stated by Captain Ahab from Melville’s “Moby Dick”. A few months ago I received an email from a gentleman out west who had come across my self-indugent blog. He asked about the puppets; inquiring which were available. I suggested to him that if he was interested in something  in particular, something of his own choosing, I could put together a marionette specifically for him. There are conditions of course. I’m not Gepetto so making puppets is not my day job. An open ended “due date” would be nice. Also I was interested in trying something new with the construction so if he was willing to be patient he could have a a custom puppet whose armature was entirely unique (at least to me). He agreed and I asked what kind of subject he had in mind. “Captain Ahab”. “Oh”, I thought. “This is going to be fun. I never would have thought of doing a puppet of Ahab myself.” I was in.

I hadn’t made any puppets in almost four years. The large scale puppets I made for the show in Columbus were the last ones I had made. I was really happy with how they turned out, using a mortise and tenon type joint for the elbows and knees. I’m willing to wager that mortise and tenon joint probably isn’t the proper term but I feel the disclaimer of my identity above absolves me of any responsibility in being exact with my carpentry vocabulary. The joints are a bit more work but once you have a pattern and a system you can knock out the pieces with some efficiency. This type of joint allows for a bit more control and more realistic movement. (Let’s be honest here. I’ve seen some really good puppetry and some puppeteers can work a Marionette and make it move like Fred Astaire. When I’m at the reins they move more like one of the  cadaverous protagonists in a George Romero movie). I also wanted to try out a new type of control bar. In particular I wanted to get the legs to move with a bit more control.

I had the benefit of having seen a great show of Czech puppets in Columbus not too long ago and took a ton of pictures trying to accumulate as much reference material for construction methods as possible. When I walked into the show I could feel a huge grin stretch across my face. There were rooms and rooms of puppets. Old and modern, traditional and experimental. Like a kid in a candy store. I wanted to incorporate some of these Czech methods into this puppet.

I began with a drawing of how to construct the armature. I planned most of it out in my head and then made adjustments through drawing. The thing I like about working on the puppets is that it is a very different process for me then when I am drawing or painting. Having spent the last two summers studying at the Academy, I had learned to slow down, to analyze, to plot, plan, and execute down to the smallest detail. I really love that process. But the puppets I make more spontaneously. Making it up as you go along is a nice (and necessary) counter to the structure I have been imposing on myself in my two dimensional work.

The joints were constructed like the ones in the rod puppets but I reduced the scale a bit. If the puppet was too large he would be too heavy to be comfortable to work with just one hand supporting the weight. Also I wanted to make sure that any supplies I needed did not have to be anything special. I wanted to be able to walk into any DIY store, pick up what I needed, and then get back to work.

Originally I was going to use a long rod descending from the control bar to support the puppet and allow for movement. Basing it on the Czech puppets the rod would pass through the head of the puppet and attach, by a hook bent into the wire, to a eye screw in the torso. This would allow solid control and dispense with the extra strings on either side of the head. I also wanted to modify how the legs were controlled. Two wires, one on each side of the control bar were bent in an “L” shape and inserted through the control bar. Using the thumb to control one wire and the index and middle finger to control the other the puppeteer could keep a firm grasp on the control bar and easily make make the legs kick forward rather than an awkward “kind of forward but kind of to the side” motion of my earlier puppets. Granted, the control bar was not the thing that solved the erratic movement issue. The joints and the hips being made of a single threaded rod did that. The new leg controls gave greater movement however. (I also made a hinged ankle for the non-peg leg which I was pretty pleased with.)

Instead of a solid spine I made one of heavy cord with knots that held three wooden “ribs” in place. This would allow the figure to bend and twist in ways that earlier designs wouldn’t. All together the parts worked great. However there was no way I was going to be able to ship this guy out west in a reasonable way with the solid rod running down from the control bar. I opted to go back to the three string control for the head. This reduces the control for flexing the spine but I think I can work that out for a future puppet.

I started reading Moby Dick to get a feel for the character. The book is great but dense. Melville really paints a vivid picture. You can almost smell the fish and salty air. I haven’t finished it yet but I will (Seriously, I promise. Just don’t give me a due date for that either) I remember watching the movie version from the 50’s with Gregory Peck as Ahab. I’m pretty sure I watched it as a kid at my grandmother’s house on a Saturday afternoon. It had to be on Superhost. If you are my age and live in north central Ohio or further north you have to know Superhost. superhostHe was a guy on TV (WUAB I think, out of Cleveland, channel 9 on the ol’ dial on the idiot box) that dressed up as a Superman-like character and hosted a Saturday afternoon show  whose staple fair was primarily Godzilla films and old monster movies like Dracula and Frankenstein. I still love those movies. Superhost was the Saturday afternoon version of Big Chuck and Little John. Man, I loved staying up watching Big Chuck and Little John. That opening scene where King Kong attacks the TV station https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sqI5_RA-o4s  …… seems I digressed a bit. Back to the puppet.

So when I started working on the head the Gregory Peck image was in the back of my mind. It’s not supposed to be him but he was kind of the inspiration. I tried to make him all gnarled and rough. I think he turned out well. I wanted to reference other parts of the book and the film and I though about a life spent working the sea. Personally, I won’t get on a boat. I can look at the water but setting foot on a boat will lead me to “feeding the fishes” as a couple of my seafaring (Lake Erie-faring) friends would say. Plus, I’m very uncomfortable around deep water so reading Moby Dick is as close to “going to sea” as I’ll ever get. While the sculpting compound was still soft Ahab HandI wrapped  heavy twine around the hands to put in some textures like Ahad had spent his life pulling ropes on sails and tying knots. It also sort of references him being tangled in the rope at the end of the book (Peck went out in a very dramatic way in the movie which differs from the book. That is one of the most iconic scenes in film, I think). I painted the grooves purple and pink; bruised and scarred. Battered. I took liberties with the peg leg. First of all  I thought of Ahab as a fiendish, callus man driven by a single obsession. He seemed like a guy that would strike up a Faustian bargain with Ol’ Scratch. With that in mind I recalled the Czech devil puppets. They had one “regular” foot and the other cloven. Perfect. I made sure to put a little black end cap on his peg leg, apparently held on with a leather strap to hint at this iconography. The peg was made from the jawbone of a whale. I decided that I would take further Peg Legliberties with the figure and add a little primitive scrimshaw to the peg. This isn’t in the book but I like to imagine a man of Ahab obsessiveness in his cabin at night, the whale oil lamp swinging as the ship rocked on the rolling seas. In the distance he hears whale calls and he sits at a rough table scratching images of the white whale into his leg.

Ahab HarpoonHis ensemble turned out pretty well but I still need to work on my tailoring a bit. Outfitted in a vest and coat with a striped hat on his head and a harpoon on his back Ahab is ready to hit the high seas.

If you’re interested in a “one of” puppet of your own send me a note. But don’t call me Ishmael.

Ahab Full 1


~ by Kelson Barber on January 28, 2014.

One Response to ““…from Hell’s heart I stab at thee…”

  1. I love it!

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