By ROCCO THOMPSON
Puppets get a bad rap. From GOOSEBUMPS to SAW, these handcrafted homunculi are often seen as more creepy than cute, and as likely to kill as entertain. But for Han, the mononymous mind behind Handsome Devils Puppets, the world of articulated miniatures and marionettes is all about the liberating power of creation and the dark romance of death. Taking inspiration from iconic purveyors of the gothic—Poe, Jackson, Rice, and Burton—for her delicately-rendered, lithe-limbed creations, Han’s puppets ooze a lugubrious sense of declining, antique beauty. Below, the self-described “self-taught, self-employed, self-deprecating” artist tells us how she got started in such a specialized craft, what it’s like to live for the work you do, and how her Mario Bava obsession has shaped her practice.
What’s your artistic background?
I was always a ‘crafty’ kid, constantly drawing and gluing and glittering, but I didn’t begin sculpting until the day I made my first puppet about four years ago using cheap clay, hot glue, beer/pizza boxes, and an old weave… it’s art I swear! Through this process I came to believe that your hands are unlike anyone else’s, and your clay becomes an extension of them, so who better to teach me than myself? By no means does that mean I think I’m good at what I do, but I just know and understand my own artistic language and practice. So, I wake up, eat, breathe, and sculpt until I come up with something I don’t feel like throwing against a wall. My degree is in costuming–and though it’s on a much smaller scale than I ever anticipated–it’s been an invaluable tool.
What first drew you to horror?
I was raised strictly Catholic and horror wasn’t really something we were exposed to, but, honestly, what’s more grim and horrifying than Catholicism? I remember catching a glimpse of the Crypt Keeper on television at the single sleepover I ever attended and it ruined me! I stayed up all night in a cold sweat, the other girls made fun of me, and my mom got mad at me for watching it. It was this whole horrible thing, but because it was forbidden and got my heart thumping, all I wanted was to know more about what the hell it was that I had seen!
Was there a moment when you realized you could combine your loves for art and horror?
Once, I had to pull together a performance art installation/haunted house event with no budget and no time. I spent a day skinning store-bought animatronic toys, covering them in fur, burning, splicing wires, attaching sculpted baby heads, cleaning animal bones, and covering them in fake blood. I plopped those abominations on stage and turned them on and in the midst of all the whirs, flashes, clatterings, and groans was the realization: “This is unsettling and unorganized and visceral and ridiculous…and people care?” That feeling of suspending a viewer in my web between beauty and fear became an addiction.
What’s your preferred medium?
I hate to admit it, because it’s expensive, smelly, and pretty typical, but it’s polymer clay. I can’t go anywhere without a ball of it and my sculpting tool! It captures the fine details in my faces and has that perfect, fleshy look. Most importantly, it’s sturdy but lightweight for all the aggressive jigging these little beings have to endure, while still having a delicate appearance and feel.
Can you tell us a bit about your creative process?
It’s either hours of reading, research, sad music, singing, crying, writing, sculpting and other unbearably goth activities to really dig into the depths of my soul; or it’s a mountain of empty fruit snack wrappers and beer cans while I watch the X-Files for the 400th time and rant and sweat and accidentally hot glue my hair to my pants. There is no in between! Every project demands different bits of me. It’s less of a “creative process” and more of a lifestyle at this point. I puppet because I would cease to be if I didn’t.
Can you describe your artistic style in three words?
Visceral. Mystical. Motley.
What has been your greatest challenge as a maker?
Puppets began as an extremely personal, therapeutic outlet for me and they continue to be. So many of my creations are made to help people cope, to symbolize something for them, or help me take power over my fears and turn them into something beautiful. That level of intimacy is difficult to put a price on, difficult to call a business. I will forever struggle with separating soul and sale, and the heartbreaking act of shipping a puppet off after connecting with it during its creation. If this sounds like the over-romanticized raving of an unhinged recluse, that’s because it is.
Who is your horror muse?
Lately, I’ve been sculpting a lot of…emotional women. Big dresses, wide eyes, tormented expressions. I have to credit/blame Mario Bava (and all of the Giallo directors, really) for my affinity for bloody, screaming, beautiful, murder-y babes. Oh and Barbara Steele!
Is there anyone else’s work you’re inspired by?
Guillermo del Toro is one of the masters of that balance between beautiful and horrifying that I’m always after. I’ve been poring over images of his creatures lately, in particular the make-up for the many ghosts of CRIMSON PEAK, probably because of my recent sad, decomposing lady phase. And where would I be if Kevin Yagher’s Chucky (of CHILD’S PLAY) hadn’t scared the shit out of me every time I walked by the grocery store video rentals as a kid? I cite his creations whenever I rant in support of the effectiveness of practical puppets in horror, which anyone who ever watches a movie with me always has to hear, because I’m a passionate asshole.
When not creating, how do you like to spend your time?
I wish I could say that just the thought of not making puppets doesn’t make me have a tiny panic attack, but it totally does. When I find the will to step away from the clay, I love throwing some puppets in the car, driving around the country, stopping wherever I can gather enough sad strangelings like myself, and calling it a tour. I write my own songs, so I spend a good amount of time sitting in a bathroom or closet pretending I know what I’m doing and calling it ‘recording.’ I’m a fairly reclusive, socially anxious person, so I’ll generally sad-goth around whatever city/forest/backwoods town I happen to be in. Or I’ll just drown in a book, searching for the next big feeling to put into clay.
What’s your next big project?
I’m currently writing two new pieces for an upcoming show in Philadelphia on the 15th of December, one of which will require a full-sized functional owl puppet, so that’s what I’ll be screaming at for the next couple of weeks.
What can an audience expect from your shows?
My shows are pretty raw and drastically different from the work I sculpt and post. I wanted to take that power and courage that puppets gave me and pass it along, so I wrote songs and vignettes based on past traumas, healings, losses, murder ballads, folk tales, childhood horrors…all allowing me and the audience to just get perfectly, horribly, beautifully vulnerable. I plop my little table down wherever folks will have me: tattoo parlours, art galleries, oddity shops, warehouses, your basement, anywhere people are weird and willing! I don’t hide behind a curtain, wear a costume or do silly voices. It’s not about theatricality or illusion. It’s about puppets’ ability to make magic out of the tragic. It’s storytelling, it’s human, it’s intimate and strange and laughable and I make an absolute ass of myself. I can hardly express how fortunate I am to get to do it. Hopefully, I’ll be embarking on another tour very soon! I’m a bit by-the-seat-of-my-pants to a fault, so you kinda have to just stalk me occasionally and hope you catch the good stuff.
What would you like people to take away from your work?
That there is beauty in what frightens you, and you have the power to take ahold of that and manipulate it. My puppets all have pieces of jewelry from magical, strange women in my life who have passed on, and all the fabrics are antique or vintage. There is life in them! Anything can be a puppet, and everyone is a puppeteer.
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