Kevin Titzer: Artist And Puppet Maker
Interview with Kevin Titzer
Kevin: A couple of years ago an artist named Kevin Titzer contacted me. An American living in Quebec in a small town called Saguenay, he mentioned influences from Švankmajer and the Quays and that was enough to pique my curiosity. This is an interview about his art and his newfound experiments in puppetry that might find eager interest here.
Byrne Power: When did you start making these figures?
Kevin: I first started making figures when I was in University. I had a woodworking class and a clay class. I wanted to save time, or I was just lazy, and decided to start a project that I would cover an assignment for both courses. So I made these sort of puppet figures with wooden bodies and clay heads. I really enjoyed making them, so I kept exploring what else I could do with them and just never stopped. That was around 1995.
On a side note, people often think the heads of my figures are still made out of clay. They haven’t been clay since I left school and lost my access to a kiln. Since then they have all been carved from wood. Although I surface them with many layers of paint and varnish which gives them a very smooth look.
Byrne: Why figures? Why not paintings?
Kevin: I do a little painting every once in a while, but I don’t feel like I’ve ever been very good at it. I always feel like there’s a barrier between me and the work. The same feeling when I have to create something in a computer. It’s like I’m a scientist working behind glass controlling mechanical arms to do a task. I feel really detached when I can’t manipulate a material more directly.
As far as why figures in particular, I’ve found it’s much harder for me to make art that doesn’t have a face or at least eyes. I have some pieces I’ve been working on currently that are prosthetic arms. I really enjoy making them but there still feels like something missing.
Byrne: The puppeteer in me sees a relationship with puppetry. Is there a conscious connection there? Did it start off consciously?
Kevin: Since I was a little kid I’ve had a fascination with puppets. Yes, I think there’s a definite influence on all of my work.
Byrne: I notice that you are inspired both by music and stories. I find that fascinating in a time where quantities of art reek of a suspicion of narrative. Where does that come from? Does puppetry come into play in this aspect at all?
Kevin: There’s always a thread of narrative in my work. I feel that I’m presenting a show or performing with my work. Or at least showing a sliver of a show. I think I’ve always been a frustrated performer and I express that part of me within the presentation my art. I’m not always in a situation where I can dictate the atmosphere of a venue or gallery space, but when I can try to incorporate the space into the viewing experience of the show. Kind of setting the stage as it were I suppose. I think this is going to become more prevalent in my exhibitions now that I’ve started doing more work for the theatre recently.
Byrne: What puppet influences are you drawn to?
Kevin: I love the Eastern European style and aesthetic of puppetry. I would really love to travel to that part of the world.
The French puppet group Royal de Luxe does just mind boggling stuff. I just had the opportunity to see them for the first time in Montreal and it was amazing. I also love the company that split off from them Les Machine. They will be coming to Ontario soon and I hope to make the drive over to see them as well. That would just make my year.
I had an opportunity to visit the Bread and Puppet property in Vermont a couple of years ago. They have a big barn full of old puppets they’ve made going back to the 60’s. It was a breath taking collection of work.
Byrne: If you are ever Vermont again you must visit the Sandglass Theatre. Ask to visit the older puppets. I think you’d find some real inspiration there.
Also if you ever get to Europe there are so many places I could recommend. But research this site more for that.
Are you familiar with Jan Švankmajer or the Brothers Quay? Any other puppet filmmakers?
Kevin: I really enjoy the films of Jan Svankmajer. He’s such an inspiring man. I find it so bitter sweet that he is currently working on his last film. I so respect that he’s leaving fully on his own terms. The looseness, chaotic quality, the bluntness are all aspects of his work I connect with wish I could be more like in my own work.
I enjoy the Quay Brothers also but for different reasons. The Quays have been more about atmosphere for me. They are much more moody and ambiguous. Both have been influences on my work. If an artist works with rusty dusty found materials, it’s a safe bet they’ve seen “Streets Of Crocodiles” at least once .
That movie is the gateway drug for that whole aesthetic for loads of people.
I love the movie “The Mascot” (1933) by Ladislas Starevich.
I think Robert Morgan is doing some of the most interesting and adventurous work right now. I walked into a screening of one of his shorts a few years ago titled “Bobby Yeah”
I saw it totally cold with no idea of what I was about to sit though. I felt punch-drunk when I walked out. I can’t recall the last time a film had that kind of effect on me. It was wonderfully disturbing.
Byrne: Your faces are often quite perplexed, bewildered even a bit glum. Comments?
Kevin: Yeah, they’re kind of bummers. My guys never get invited to cocktail parties.
Byrne: What’s with things growing, popping, from holes in the head?
Kevin: Hmm, I don’t know. What’s your interpretation?
Byrne: Something’s happening in the brain evidently, probably something trying to get out. Hopefully not the physical gray matter itself. Then again it could be somehow related to trepanation, an antique medical practice involving cutting a hole in the skull to relieve the pressure.
I also love the materials and texture of your work. What kind of materials do you prefer? What is your approach to texture?
Kevin: I use a lot of recycled materials. Wood, cloth, whatever. I like to use old hardware, screws and washers as well. I buy up whole boxes of that kind of stuff any time I can. I can’t make them look as good as they already do.
Byrne: I’ve often found hardware stores a source of fascination, not to mention Salvation Army stores, junkyards, etc.
Kevin: I’ve always been drawn to objects with a history or a timeless feel. I’m from Southern Indiana originally and there was always lot’s of things that feel like that around. I guess I’m also just naturally nostalgic.
Byrne: I’ve often found that in the art world one is often given a stark white wall as a context. I find that this objectifies the work. Abstracts it into a kind of thing it may not have meant to be. In my own puppet work I find we have to totally colonize the space to communicate. Putting our puppetry onto a modern stage turns it too much into ‘theater’, thus rendering it only theatrically communicative. I worked for years in New York City moving art from artist studios to galleries and office buildings. I was always sad to see the work in dead white space, usually the artist’s own studio was a much more human and unsanitized space. What does your studio look like? What is the best environment for your figures?
Kevin: My studio is pretty much a packrat nest. As far as presentation of artwork, it all depends on the context and the intent of the artist. I’ve taken many different approaches in different kinds of venues in the past. Some times white walled galleries are very good to focus the viewer in on detail. If the intent is to construct a little world in a box, that is a good presentation. There have been other times where I wanted the world to be the whole space. To set a mood for the viewer as soon as they walk into the room. I’d actually like to do more installation work where the room is the art. It’s interesting to extend the world of the art like that sometimes.
Byrne: What do hope people see in your work when all is said and done? Obviously everyone will see something different. But what’s the minimum you hope they take away from your figures?
Kevin: I hope they take away anything. I don’t expect everyone to like what I do, but the worst reaction there is, is indifference. I’d rather someone hated my work than to have no reaction at all.
Byrne: You seem to have a storytelling aesthetic. How far are you willing to take your work in that regard? Have you ever thought of collaborating with a puppet troupe to make your figures move? Or to make them with armatures for puppet films?
Kevin: My newest work has been for a new stage production called “Mémoires d’un Sablier”. It’s a cross cultural collaboration between two puppet theatre companies. La Torture Noir from here in Quebec and Luna Morena from Mexico. I did an art exhibition at a puppet festival two years ago and they saw my work there and later brought me on to the project. My sculpture work often references puppetry, but this is the first time I have actually worked in the theatre and made functioning puppets to be used night after night on stage. It was a very different experience for me. There are many different things to consider in construction and it was very technically challenging. I built props and two puppets for the show. One was life size and probably one of the most difficult things I’ve ever made.
Byrne: What part of it was so challenging. Was it the translation of your puppet art into functioning puppets.
Kevin: Yes, it’s very technically different. In my own work I only have to worry about the aesthetic. It’s much easier designing improbable things when they don’t actually have to work for real. So I kind of had to work in reverse for this project and focus on the function first. If the puppets and props don’t work on stage it doesn’t matter one bit how good the look. All told it took a year to finish the production and I’ve also never worked in that kind of time frame before. Theatre is a much longer process than I’m used to and that took some adjustment. It’s very easy to frustrated that everything is not moving faster but that has more to do with me being use to only working alone for the last twenty years. Coordinating a whole company of people takes time and much more work. I just had no experience with that. Being a part of a whole took some getting use to, but in the end I learned so much more and created work that I never would have thought to make or technically could have made working by myself. I even had the opportunity to travel down to Mexico and work in the Luna Moreno studio where I learned more about traditional puppet construction.
Byrne: Well Kevin thanks for your time and work. It certainly does provoke a reaction in me. Continue!