Adam Izen ’10 utilized corsetry techniques he learned at Emerson College to make fantastical puppets that dance around a suburban public library at night.
His current show, Ball of Beasts: A Fantastical Fest, at the Howland Public Library in Beacon, New York, is up through September 3.
The show started with eight puppets, but Izen has been sneaking in more as the show has continued. The puppets are painstakingly created over many hours, and throughout those hours he heard Professor Emerita Mary Harkins’ voice in his head.
“She made a huge impact on me and I literally thought about her every time I used the sewing machine and remember things she taught me,” said Izen. “Mary taught a corset instruction class. The raccoon in the exhibit is wearing an 18th-century Parisian gown that has exaggerated hip structures like Marie Antoinette wore. I built the raccoon an undergarment that supports the dress using those same corsetry techniques I learned in college.”
Harkins’ class about fashion in the 20th-century went decade-by-decade, discussing silhouettes, undergarments, lack of undergarments, the evolution of corsetry, costumes of the era, and the psychology of why certain fashions become popular. Izen, a Theatre Studies major with an emphasis on directing and costume design, said that in a broader sense, he applied what he learned from that class to his show.
Izen’s love of puppets dates back to his childhood when he wanted his very own Muppet. When he learned that Muppets are not available for purchase once they’re no longer being used so they don’t end up in the public’s hands, he figured he could make his own.
Through the years, he created his own style, sedulously focusing on beading details, playing with textiles, and realizing the Jim Henson aesthetic wasn’t what he wanted. He started making soft sculptures using mixed media.
As time went on, Izen became more focused on his branding and marketing career. When he was furloughed due to COVID, he returned to making puppets and created his current show.
“I built a ballroom structure that sits on top of the children’s area. It goes to the ceiling, it’s 20 feet long. I wanted to create it so that when you’re walking in, all these animals are having a really fancy house party,” said Izen.
Adapting to the library landscape, Izen built a chandelier around a security light on the library wall. At night the security light turns on, illuminating the chandelier, and lighting up the puppet party.
“That was a happy accident that was cool. I did check with the library to make sure no one would set it off. It seems like every night the light comes on and they have their ball,” said Izen.
While they party at night, during the day they fascinate library patrons.
“Librarians love to tell me stories about kids coming in, and [it’s been said that] it’s like The Nightmare Before Christmas. Everything is kind of black, and tonal, and I went with a more mature color scheme so the puppets really pop,” said Izen, whose favorite movie happens to be …The Nightmare Before Christmas.
The puppets are truly a labor of love. They’re made from all types of fabric: padding from garments, remnants from costumes, fine dress muslin, polyfill, and scraps from designers, artists and other associates Izen’s worked with placing their projects at installation sites.
“I repurpose costume jewelry from flea markets and stores. I had to paint the puppets. I use acrylic paints and treat it like watercolor. I water it down to get the puppet wet and then paint on so it takes on that watercolor type of look, so it bleeds and has a layer of its own,” said Izen.
The eyes are actually very tiny beads sewn directly onto the puppet that sometimes require a couple hundred beads. That’s several hours of work just for the eyes.
“I find from the eyes you realize it’s handmade and it’s really special,” said Izen. “I also really love how it catches the light. They’re a little bit shiny and because they’re a lot of [beads], it bounces the light and makes them feel a little bit more alive. I haven’t found another method that I love as much. But it’s very time-consuming, and I’m going to have carpal tunnel syndrome.”
The puppets are hand-rod puppets without rods while on display at their library ballroom party. In the future, the puppets may get moving, as Izen has eyes on creating a live cabaret show starring himself and his creations.
“For this show I’m toying with making ostriches. I have a concept of building 10- to 15-foot-tall ostriches that actually form the proscenium of the stage that can also move so the puppet cabaret is made from puppets and has puppets performing inside of it,” said Izen. “I do want to stay in the realm of these fantastical animals. I really love animals and love learning about them and getting into animal rights and talking to that, especially if I have an audience of kids.”
And no matter what he does, Izen’s Emerson education influences him.
“At Emerson there was a fearlessness to do things. The whole community was making these incredible projects,” said Izen. “COVID let me get back to basics and learn it is super important to me to tap into that energy at Emerson of letting myself pursue what I love and not focus on the consequences of how hard it is, but do it because I love it.”
Visit adamizen.com to get in touch with Izen about his puppets, to commission a puppet, and learn more about his fantastical world.