Back in the day, I wanted to work in the movies, building animatronic puppets and larger-than-life monstrosities. You can blame the likes of Rick Baker and Rob Bottin for my fascinations, the transformation from An American Werewolf In London (1981) and this physical effects tour-de-force from John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).
Some would argue I haven’t transformed all that much myself since those days on my Art Foundation course, when I walked about the place in collarless shirts and floppy ‘curtains-style’ hair, wielding jars of latex, hot glue guns, tubs of PVA … and nylon stockings. Okay, so I’m older, greyer with a lovely bald-spot getting bigger, and I’ve dropped the collarless shirts, but I still have a real fondness for a big bug, creature or too-many-legged thing and the haptic, tangible delights of an old-school puppet.
I thought I’d lost these sketches, of two of the creatures I made during my fun, busy Foundation year. The big ‘spider woman’ was indeed very big by the time she was completed, fashioned as she was around a shop-floor mannequin I’d purloined from someplace or other. Her abdomen was fashioned from large hoops of MIG welded steel, and each of her legs made from jointed steel rods, their ends fashioned onto cruel-looking points by successive hammer blows by the heat of the workshop’s forge. She was ultimately a formidable sight, though I can’t seem to find any final images of her. I suspect they’re lurking somewhere and may one day surface again.
The other sketches are for a large snail glove puppet, his shell made from carved polysterene, the process of producing it littering my studio with extraordinary amounts of bright white beads. His eyes were controlled by wires, which, when you tugged on them, caused them to wriggle about comedically.
I suppose this is what fun looked like when you where a certain kind of nineteen year old, his head stuffed with monsters.
An old wallet of photographs surfaced recently from an era of my life I otherwise have no tangible reminders for, including a set of very poorly exposed snaps taken one bonfire night. The subject of the photographs is the burning of a human-sized alien effigy in the small garden of a pebble-dashed house somewhere in the largely unlovely environs of Hemel Hempstead. It was to this pebble-dashed house I’d go every other weekend following my parents’ divorce, where I’d try and make the best of the new arrangement that had seen me acquire a step-mother and two step-siblings. To be honest, I’m not sure I did always try and make the best of things during those visits. I suspect I often had a face on me like a slapped arse, raining on various parades like a passive-aggressive sprinkler, and radiating generally my very deep displeasure at the new arrangement and all that led to it.
One of my more positive strategies for getting through these weekends, which I would otherwise find to be both stultifying and rage-inducing, was to invent stuff; I’d write plays for my step-siblings and we’d perform them. I’d invent entire fantastical worlds to escape into, taking my step-siblings with me, who little suspected I was only using our adventures together as a tool for tunneling my way as quickly as possible from one side of the weekend to the other. I was a storyteller and I was the clown, and like a clown, my smile rarely reached my eyes.
It’s different now, but back then, Bonfire Night was a big fucking deal. I loved fireworks. I loved boxes of fireworks, those colourful collections of cylinders, cones and coiled discs with their twists of blue touch paper and ‘hope-over-reality’ nomenclature promising extraordinary spectacles but rarely delivering them. Dad liked fireworks too and could always be relied upon to take the moment seriously and put on a good show – a bit of risk, a bit of showmanship, a precious annual ritual making daring little boys of all of us.
I do not recall why I decided to create a green alien guy for Bonfire Night. I suspect the effort I gave this task was directly proportionate to my effort to bend my dad’s new family to my will, or rather I was seeking to re-make that pebble-dashed house in my own image – to make it look more like somewhere I could reside more comfortably. I can absolutely recall making the guy, sticking together two old lampshades for the head, and papier-mâchéing over them. I remember where I made it too – in the narrow strip of landing outside the front door of the first floor flat I lived in with my mum and stepdad, making the whole building stink with the smell of metallic green spray paint.
My stepdad was suitably perplexed. Why go to all this effort to make something that was destined to be burned in a barrel? I’m not sure I ever gave him a satisfactory answer. I probably went sulky, feeling criticised and misunderstood. The answer lies in the act of making itself (is the answer I didn’t give at the time), the restorative and mediative process of bringing something into being; the satisfying wet slick of the papier-mâché, the delightful pop and wobble of all those ping-pong ball eyes as I skewered them one-by-one onto their antennae of wire.
And it was a monster, of course, a happy fiction dragged from the unreality of 1950s b-movies and creaky episodes of Dr Who, and made-over as concrete and tangible in my personal quest to put things into the world that were larger than life – to do away with what was mundane, to summon into being freaks and creatures and monsters and ghosts. It was never just that house in Hemel Hempstead I wanted to re-configure in the image of my imagination, it was everywhere else too.
When the time came, the alien burned very fast in his barrel. Looking at these blurry photographs today, I worry about the Chernobyl-levels of lung-corroding toxins produced by setting fire to something as caked in paint, varnish and plastic as my alien guy. There’s likely scientific data somewhere that dates the opening up of new hole in the ozone layer due exclusively to this extraterrestrial immolation.
In common with all those tantalizing boxes of fireworks, the burning of my alien was a great big anti-climax, not least because it didn’t achieve any kind of seismic change to the reality of my weekends at dad’s house. It didn’t make me more popular with anyone, more likeable or more interesting. They probably thought I was just showing off. In truth, I probably was.
But making something is always a magical act – lead into gold, straw into gold, two old lampshades into a monster.
“I’ll be honest… I couldn’t connect with the painting itself so, I ended up going down a more literal word association route. There was just something whimsical about the idea of the moon in a little bottle, like it was something homemade and stowed on a higher power’s kitchen shelf or something. Plus I learned a new AE trick in the process!”
Time was when you only had to worry about sleeping with a pistol and a silver bullet by your bed once a month. It was a chore, but, well, once a month, most people could handle and attacks were rare in the city anyway. That was two years ago. Everything has changed – everything!
I remember seeing the first batches of the Supermoon stuff on the shelves in the corner shop; ‘Like the Moon in a Bottle’ the advertising said. People laughed, and we bought some, drinking it for dares int the local woods. Everyone was telling us kids it was so dangerous, that it should be banned and we shouldn’t touch it, so what else were we going to do? Government ministers and various ‘experts’ dismissed the stuff as a hoax, said it was just soda water, marketed by charlatan looking to fleece the gullible. Just a few weeks later, though, and stories began to emerge on the news; odd, gruesome killings, usually in remote parts of the country.
Still no need to worry, they told us, it’s a one off, a ‘lone wolf’. Then, very quickly, the truth emerged. Supermoon WAS like the moon in a bottle, it really DID make werewolves transform into their wolf self with just a mouthful, at any time, even in broad daylight and a week away from a full moon.
Then the authorities started to take it seriously; hunting for the makers, the labs, the factories, the supply lines. But it was too late. There was so much of it out there by that time. The werewolves had got hold of litres of it and the havoc and devastation they were causing was like something from a movie. Things fell apart in a matter of days. The cost of silver went up to 7000% times that of gold, wars broke out to take control of the silver mines, communities turned on each other. Rumours and conspiracy theories spread like wildfire, weird cults sprang up; crazy people wanting to get bitten, join the emerging new power, get out of their mundane little lives and have an adventure – and they got bitten all right.
We’re the lucky ones, we keep being told. Mum and dad took us all to one of the compounds and made it in just in time.
But we don’t sleep much. We thought were were safe here behind the 3m thick concrete bunker walls and the gun towers but things aren’t going well. It seems the werewolves are getting smarter and working together. We heard that the compound down south near Southhampton has fallen, that they got in somehow. How can this be happening?
No, we don’t sleep much, and we all have a pistol by our bed with a silver bullet. It’s the new normal.
So, who’s up for another kick-about in the park with jumpers for goal-posts? We have a brand new prompt, courtesy of Emily ‘Sun-In-A-Jar’ Clarkson, and a new submission date. See below – and if you’re looking at this thinking you’d like to get involved too, get in touch and we’ll sort it.
Okay, full disclosure. I spent a good part of my late teens and early-twenties with a serious glue habit.
There, I’ve said it. Some weeks I’d get through pots of the stuff, one after the other. In addition to my acute reliance on industrial quantities of adhesive, I was rarely without a pair of American Tan nylon tights, and not just one pair – actually dozens of pairs, hundreds of pairs…
Depending on your own proclivities, how I now go on to contextualise this rather lurid opening paragraph will either disappoint you horribly or pique your interest further. I haven’t just ‘fessed-up to the dissolute wilderness years of a misspent youth but instead described a particular model-making technique in which sculptural elements fashioned from scraps of nylon tights packed out with toy-stuffing are then plasticised using lashings of Polyvinyl acetate, otherwise known as PVA. Once primed and sealed with the glue, the surfaces of the models can then be painted and varnished.
Given the soft, squishable origins of the technique – and the Victor-Frankenstein-in-his-laboratory way in which each fleshy chunk is sewn lovingly to another chunk to create bigger elements – it’s little wonder the resulting sculptures all share a certain wobbly organicism. That many of them – okay, most of them – also pay homage to the blobby, slime-shined creatures of my favourite movies and television programmes – points to my artistic muses of the time – not Henry Moore or Hepworth, but rather the likes of Rob Bottin and Rick Baker, and Giger, of course.
At a push I could marshal a very convincing case for the cultural value of monsters. I’d likely throw Freud and Kristeva into the mix and suggest too that outsiders have always been drawn to ‘the other’ – that monsters are good company for introverts who are otherwise away with the fairies. I’m not going to do that because in some way I’d be apologising for all this work I made once with such unfettered enthusiasm, and with a total lack of self-consciousness about a) its artistic merit or otherwise and b) the spectacle of a young man sewing monsters together from sackloads of tights donated to him by various female friends and relatives…
Anyway, it wasn’t always monsters. Alongside the ‘clipboard chestburster’ I made for the canteen of the supermarket I used to work in, alongside all the big bugs, baby-heads and giant brains, there was the HUGE chocolates-thing that stood at least as tall as I did (though who it was for and why it got made I can’t even recall). There was the ‘piggy-bank-on-a-pile-of-steaks’, commissioned by a lawyer, who quite understandably hated it on sight and gave it to her sister (who also probably hated it but was loyal enough to hang it on the wall outside her toilet!). Oh, and there were the bouncing meat pies and severed legs rustled up for a local am-dram production of Sweeny Todd, though I suspect the level of meaty gruesome detail I lavished on the severed legs was just a little excessive. Don’t blame me, blame my other muse at the time, Tom Savini.