In conversation with puppeteer and FDAD alumna Sue Cooper
Over lockdown, Foundation Diploma in Art and Design (FDAD) alumna Sue Cooper's colourful puppet characters made quite a stir on Instagram and were enjoyed 'live' on the roof of a barge on the Thames Path; with their humorous and heart-warming stories, bringing joy to her local community and challenging stereotypes around ageing. Here Sue tells us more about her latest project and where her love of puppets stemmed from.
How did you first get into puppet-making?
“I am never quite sure whether to describe my work as puppetry, sculpture, doll-making or a combination of all three! I have however been fascinated by puppets for as long as I can remember. On a family seaside holiday at the age of six, I attended the beach puppet show every morning and afternoon for the whole fortnight – and each time, it was the identical show!
Four courses at West Dean College (during the FDAD and before) helped me develop the technical and performance aspects of my making: dancing with a life-size puppet, carving a puppet, making puppets from scrap and ‘fantastical figures’.”
What do you most enjoy about the process of making puppets?
“The best part of making members of my troupe is the moment of recognition that comes as the face is sculpted. However painstaking the design, there comes a point when the piece develops in a direction of its own. Each time, there is an ‘aha’ moment as the character emerges and their styling and role in the troupe becomes clear.”
What project are you most proud of since finishing the FDAD?
“Since lockdown, I have been creating a series of coronavirus tableaux/ installations in the open air on the roof of a Thames barge. The local feedback has been amazing. I was particularly touched by one person’s comment: ‘Just wanted to say that the joy you have brought me each week from your wonderful tableaux has sometimes been the ONLY reason to leave the house and avoid depression. Thank you so much. I have shared every picture with so many friends across the world who have been lifted by your gentle humour and respect’.”
Can you tell us about the experience of visiting care homes with your puppets? How did this come about?
“The FDAD crystallised for me the sort of artist I want to be. I want to work as a Community Artist with broad appeal. I want to entertain. I love to connect with old people, but anyone who likes to laugh at their own absurdities and frailties will do.
I love to see what happens when somebody encounters one of my sculptures or automata. It’s like my inner child connects to theirs, and for a moment, we share the joke and all believe in magic.
I started by taking my elders to see a 95 year-old friend. I continued this throughout her care path: hospital, rehab facility, care home. They were very well received and it seemed like useful work to me. I had a couple of invitations from care homes to visit before lockdown. Recently, the Mayor of Hounslow invited the elders and me to tour local care homes with him.”