Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Origin Stories: Mister Rogers' Neighborhood

It's pretty amazing how things can be major influences on who you are, and you don't even really think about it. I do sometimes think about what influenced me to not only do what I do, but to make specifically the things that I make. I feel like the art that I create is this kind of chimera made up of different pieces of all the things that have touched me creatively throughout my life.  In this post though, I want to talk about the earliest ones - which are, I believe, also the deepest ones, as they were connections made in the honesty of childhood.

I was born in 1980. I actually feel pretty lucky about when I was born - I'm young enough for computing and network technology to have been a part of my pre-adult life (we got internet when I was in middle school, and my dad was always into computers) enough that I feel proficient using it, but I'm old enough that it wasn't a part of my childhood at all. We didn't have cable TV either, until I was about 8, so my entertainment when I was a child was books, VHS tapes, and whatever came onto the TV across the airwaves.  And I feel so lucky to have been a kid when I was, because those shows and movies, without the aid of computer imaging, relied on practical effects, handmade props, and puppets. So many puppets.

A lot of this nostalgia that I'm having today came from hearing that some original props and puppets from Mr. Roger's Neighborhood have gone up on display in Pittsburgh. And that got me to reminiscing (and searching Youtube) about the show, and just being flooded with memories about it that I didn't even know I had.  I must have watched hundreds upon hundreds of episodes of that show when I was little. To modern viewers, I'll admit it must seem really weird and awkward, and possibly even a bit uncomfortable to watch, with Fred Rogers' almost tranquilized, hypnotic speech, and the glacial pacing. But that show was probably one of my earliest television memories, along with Sesame Street, and both featured imaginative characters, puppetry, and adults interacting with kids in an honest, respectful, and non-condescending way. There's a total authenticity about it that I think is something I still strive for in my life and work as an adult. If you go back and look at the puppets in The Land of Make Believe, they are so ratty! They're dirty and worn, and very little effort was made to make them look "real". Because they didn't have to look real - they were real because you believed they were real, and wanted them to be. So they were.

Daniel Striped Tiger. Psychological stand-in for the anxious and emotionally sensitive.

I think more than anything, that search for authenticity is what stuck with me the most in my journey into adulthood. I know that "authenticity" is kind of a buzzword these days, and about as inauthentic as you can get, but I do mean it very sincerely. I'm a very emotional person, and I always have been. I know from talking to my mom that I had some troubles coping, emotionally and socially, when I was little. Shows like Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was so important, and I suspect this was true for so many other kids, too, because it was a predictable, quiet world, with a small cast of characters and an authority figure whom you actually believed cared about you.

It's funny that until very recently, if you'd asked me about this show, I'd say "oh yeah, I watched it, it was on TV all the time, remember the episode where he showed how they made crayons?", but the truth is, I think a lot of it stuck, more than I realized. I remember when he talked about death, using a dead fish in his tank as an object lesson. He talked about divorce and body parts and being punished by your parents...all the stuff that was really hard to talk about when you are little. And the puppets like Daniel Tiger - there was an episode where he was scared to go to school because he didn't know his letters and numbers yet, and was flat-out refusing to go. It seems so minor as an adult, but little things create very big and real fears when you're a kid, and I think I was able to turn the tables a bit by rooting for Daniel, not even realizing that he was representing fears and insecurities that I had myself.

I don't know that I can say my Dust Bunnies do the same work as the residents of the Neighborhood of Make Believe. They're not very animate, and their emotional states are usually in the range of "afraid", "uncertain", "spooked", or "excited".  But I like to think that people can insert their own feelings into the narrative, and project emotions onto them. I actually want people to project onto them, because I rarely make them with any specific emotions in mind. If you see an object that you connect to - a painting of a sad looking dog, a figurine of a fat bird, the tiniest grape you've ever seen - and you project emotions onto that thing, you are, in a small way, doing a little bit of psychological work on yourself. You're letting your own thoughts and experiences dictate a "life" that has never existed, and you are telling a story. You're becoming a narrator, even if it is for one or two seconds.

I want to create characters who may or may not have concrete stories attached to them, because I want others to add to the narrative, and become co-writers with me. It may not appear like this on the surface, but deep down I want everything I make to be as meaningful to somebody as Daniel Tiger, Henrietta Pussycat, and X the Owl were to me.


  1. this is lovely.
    i enjoy not only your artistic creations,
    but the things you choose to share here.
    i love it when you blog.
    this was a great post. <3
    in past entries,
    your words have made me smile,
    touched my heart and sometimes let me know
    i'm not the only one...
    so, thank you.
    xox <3

  2. You not only seem to have a talent for creating beautiful dolls ... to put what I really want to say into words is hard for me (that's why I create, I guess) and you hit the nail on the head as they say. I make dolls for quite some time now and I'm always astonished to see where my inspiration for a particular piece comes from. Sometimes it seems to me that all artists are unconsciously building up a sort of treasury in their hearts and souls - bad and good things from their childhood, memories, pictures, books, movies - you name it. And then you go, forget about it (which is important as it leaves you free to wander) and create something and something magical happens: another soul is touched in a certain way by that story and connects not only to that by but to you as well. And so in a way the circle is complete. Thank you, Amanda for this lovely post.

  3. I really love to read your blog, and to see your work. As an artist I really think many of your thoughts resonates with many artists out there, even if they are from distant places and different cultures. Your passion about art and your precious works shows through your beautiful reflexive messages. Please continue to share this! <3 It fills me with hope and makes my everyday battles worth fighting. Someday I will stop dreaming about being close friends with one of your gorgeous bunnies and will finally be able to bring one of them home with me :'}

    (Sorry about my poor english skills ^^- Hope you can understand my message)


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