Saturday, November 19, 2011

Jim Henson Tribute

Kermit croons a spellbinding theme called Rainbow Connection.
When a friend called to ask me to contribute a piece or two for a tribute to the visionary muppeteer Jim Henson to be held this month, I couldn't say yes fast enough. I had worked briefly with Jim and Frank Oz on their first muppet feature, "The Muppet Movie," as what else? A muppeteer. I was Emmet Otter and my classmate and future wife Patty Paulick was ironically MA otter. On the movie set we quickly learned important terminology like, "Muppets Up!" That popular ditty would soon be followed by the equally unforgettable, "Muppets down!" As Jim explained, "you new people have no idea how tired your arm will get just holding it in an UP position. A few minutes here and a few there and soon you realize the entire day has gone by and for some reason, your arm is really sore." Many seasoned muppeteers grinned in silent agreement with Jim and so we took that tidbit to heart rather quickly. It was and IS  great advice by the way. We found ourselves surrounded by talented people from all walks in life that somehow shared a passion for puppetry. These people were amazing to watch as their performances brought each character to life before our eyes.

Frank Oz, but you can call him MA Otter
We performed to a pre-recorded soundtrack and worked below floor level, watching small TV screens to check on the movement we couldn't see above our heads. After a few hours sped by we were enjoying our first lunch break when a lanky figure ambled over to sit with Patty and I. It was Kermit, followed very  closely by his alter ego Jim Henson. Jim asked us in his soft spoken voice how we were enjoying the shoot so far and as Kermit entered the conversation I found myself looking and speaking to him, along with Jim. It was magic. If you have ever met or worked with Jim you realize I am not exagerating when I say how friendly and pleasant to be around the guy was. A shrill voice soon interrupted  our talk as Miss Piggy invaded our little circle dragging along Frank Oz by the arm. It was hilarious watching and listening as Kermit and Miss Piggy went at it while the human counterparts below seem to almost disappear. Miss Piggy complained about many things including how drafty the sound stage was, which was why the curls were not staying in her hair and the fact that Frank's hands were too cold (and a few other remarks )and we all cracked up. That was hands down, (or is that muppets down? ) one of the most convivial crews I have ever worked with. 

As Frank was the voice for MA he took some time to help Patty out with her characterization of the little woman. Jim likewise gave me pointers on Emmet but also threw some real compliments my way concerning my muppeteering skills that I will always cherish. I actually felt guilty when I got my paycheck for doing what was truly a thrill for me. I did eventually cash the check, I mean come on, starving artist, remember?  Like many people reading this blog, I have been a fan of Jim's work back when the muppets were more or less nameless monsters and were featured in black and white television commercials and on the Ed Sullivan Show. My brothers and I would squeal with laughter at the antics of a small lizard like creature, nameless at the time but after a few more design modifications like webbed feet, we would all know him eventually as Kermit the Frog.  We also enjoyed Rowlf the Dog on the "Jimmy Dean Show". So when the Gallery  came a' knocking for a tribute piece, I was thrilled at the opportunity to share my deep appreciation for Jim Henson and what he has done for me and so many other childhoods in sharing his love for life.

"Soul Mates" basic blocking
"Soul Mates" adding washes
First thing I did was to knock out lots of quick little sketches. The second thing I did after looking at those embarrassing little doodles was realize it had been a long time since I had drawn these guys, and I had better get some good reference out and get reacquainted with the Muppet clan. I went ahead and spent the day looking through the many books I have on the Muppets, from "Jim Henson, The Works" to various Story books and record albums even resorted to sketching while watching a DVD of "Muppet Movie" and before too long I was once again comfortable with his wonderful world of muppet magic all over again. In fact with this sudden inundation of muppet mythos, I felt a "Rainbow Connection" forming or maybe it was just the tune stuck in my head. Anyway, eventually the two pieces I came up with for the Tribute show are as follows:

"Soul Mates" ready to ship
"Soul Mates"  is an acrylic on canvas with Kermit enjoying some quiet time with his favorite playmate (Jim Henson of course!). I thought it would be fun to see these two switch places with Jim as the puppet and Kermit as the muppeteer. I usually work in water color or gouache so doing this in acrylic was really a fun exercise for me. I had some Winsor Newton acrylics but had read some great reviews on the Golden line of paints. Found collections of Golden at a local art store that blended beautifully on the canvas and of course I destroyed a few of my brushes in the creative process.

"Muppets and Mullions"
"Muppets and Mullions" is inspired by a beautiful photograph taken of Jim sitting in an alcove window with a view of the New York City skyline holding alter ego Bert on his knee between shooting takes of Sesame Street. His fellow muppeteer Frank Oz brought Ernie to life and the two contrasting muppet personalities made for lots of muppet mirth. I wanted to silhouette Jim and Kermit against a chaotic cacophony of cutups (pun intended) of many familiar faces from the muppet family. I kept the "crowd" in white to be seen as a grouping and further simplify them as a light value to make the darker Jim and Kermit foreground pop. I cut this project out of hundreds of little snips of paper, slicing, scoring, folding, gluing until it all seemed to finally come together. (Thank you Mr Bill Moore our Design teacher from Cal Arts! ) I also must add that I along with my wife Patty are thankful we have a vacuum cleaner that works.

It's an honor to be a part of something that says thanks to a man who has brought so much enjoyment all over the world. The exhibition will be from December 10, 2011 to January 2, 2012. Opening reception is December 10, 7:00 PM to 11:00 PM.  If you get a chance, come on down to the Gallery and say hello, I'd love to meet you as we pay tribute to the "man behind the muppets,  JIM HENSON."


  1. Wonderful Blog Mike and I love your tribute pieces. I too am a huge fan of Jim Henson and will try to make your show.

  2. Hi Tish, hope you can make it down. Patty and I would both love to see you and thank you for the comments kiddo.

  3. Mike, these are just wonderful. I had the joy of working briefly with Jim Henson during my stint at Disney Character Voices. He was a lovely man--and you've done him proud.

  4. Thank you Paula, your comments are very appreciated. Meeting and getting a chance to work with Jim Henson was definitely one of the highlights in my life. By the way, I didn't know you were in Disney Character Voices. That must have been a blast.

  5. Such a pleasure to meet you Saturday at Nucleus! These pieces are just glorious up close. My Niece Julia was thrilled when I showed her your signed page in the Design Disney Archives book. A grand holiday season to you & yours Mike!

    P.S. can't wait to hear more about Cars Land East!

  6. Thank you Diane, that was a wonderful opening! It was a treat for me to meet you and I certainly wish you and Julia my best for a very Merry Christmas.