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The otherworldly puppets inspiring delight to 'primal fear'

WOODLAND creatures, wizards, witches, grumpy old men, clowns: it all comes vividly to life at the hands at these puppet makers, with at times unsettling results.

The menagerie of Squeaking Tribe Marionettes will be on display for just five more days in Yandina's Black Duck Gallery before husband and wife artist duo Sol Puppetman and Sara Hughes pack up on March 18.

Puppetman, who no longer uses his birth surname, first started making marionettes in 1996 at 21 years old, after dropping out of a Visual Arts university degree.

He was living in a gallery with a potter and a drum maker in the Adelaide Hills when he made his first real foray into three-dimensional art.

Sara Hughes and Sol Puppetman are exhibiting their range of marionettes in Yandina.
Sara Hughes and Sol Puppetman are exhibiting their range of marionettes in Yandina. John McCutcheon

 

Mrs Hughes joined him about eight years ago, and the pair have since made countless marionettes between them, from whimsical fantasy characters to frightening ghouls.

They now "live like gypsies" as touring artists, travelling around Australia to showcase their art at markets, events and galleries.

Some residents will already have met Puppetman, a fixture at almost every Woodford Folk Festival since the late '90s.

"I've only missed one Woodford in all those years, so I've become something of a small institution within the festival."

And, unlike most artists, he encourages anyone to play with the puppets on display, and after decades of practice could free the most tangled puppet "relatively blindfolded" after its rough encounter with children.

"Very much it's the interaction that's important," he said.

They complete custom orders, and have even been asked to make puppet versions of real people to give them as gifts.

Some of their most common buyers are teachers, who use the puppets for educational purposes.

Sara Hughes and Sol Puppetman are exhibiting their range of marionettes in Yandina.
Sara Hughes and Sol Puppetman are exhibiting their range of marionettes in Yandina. John McCutcheon

But Puppetman said some people who came into the gallery would be unsettled by all the eyes staring back at them.

"Puppets aren't everybody's cup of tea, they're a bit of a curiosity," he said.

"There's a primal fear underlying it all when it comes to things like effigies, masks, clowns, and all those hidden messages.

"Our work is certainly left-field."

A marionette is a type of puppet operated by wires or strings, and is considered one of the most difficult puppets to make.

Each puppet takes at least two weeks to complete from clay moulding to assembling, costuming and finally stringing.

Puppetman said he was thinking of new characters faster than he could make them.

"That's just been snowballing for almost 22 years now," he said.

He said they kept a "policy of upcycling", and would rarely use new materials.

"We're constantly trawling through op shops and garage sales."

Fans from across Australia will even search for materials to send to the puppet makers.

The gallery is open daily from 10am-6pm at 20 Collins Rd, Yandina.