Follow a trail of figurines and puppets through an otherworldly carnival installation with Kelly Kirkahm’s exhibition, Site Seer. In this exhibition animal puppets descend from the ceiling, making their way towards a ring that contains what they’ve all come to see—a garden where strange figures romp over rocks and hide behind trees. Balanced on slender legs, their feathered heads emerging from horse-like bodies while the sounds of a summer fair surround them, a sight to be seen.
My upcoming show will involve the installation of a lot of puppets, big and small.
Why puppets? I am interested in the many ways something can be a puppet. Puppets can get away with saying things and behaving in ways that we can’t or won’t. I like their connection to story, show and performance. They can be different and strange looking while at the same time mirroring our own human emotions, mannerisms, and behavior.
Watching and being watched runs throughout this exhibit, with ambiguity around the motives of the watchers, both big and small.
This installation will be realized in a variety of materials and techniques, including painted-on cloth and papier mache, armatures, mold making and plaster. I love to work with a lot of colour, pattern and contrast, especially between pale and saturated, smooth and rough. The colour story of the installation is inspired by small town carnivals, with their flashing lights and garish colour.
– Kelly Kirkham, 2021
Kelly Kirkham is a visual artist who lives and works in the town of Port Hope, Ontario. She lived in Toronto for many years, where she spent her time in both the visual arts community and the puppet community.
Since 2013, when Kelly and her family moved to Port Hope, her visual arts practice has contained and combined both drawing and puppetry, each discipline blending with and influencing the other in new and exciting ways. Protection, play, and watchfulness are themes she likes to explore, along with a love of working with line and colour.
An essay by Ruth Jones
They’re adorable, really, Kelly Kirkham’s creatures. With their big eyes and bright bodies, they look like they’ve stepped out of a storybook. In her installation for the Art Gallery of Northumberland they’re assembled for a carnival. Animal puppets descend from the ceiling, making their way towards a ring that contains what they’ve all come to see—a garden where strange figures romp over rocks and hide behind trees. They balance on slender legs, their feathered heads emerging from horse-like bodies. Big eyes stare out from mouthless faces. Is this a zoo? A circus? Are they performing or being? Three human-sized guardians watch over them, the hosts and directors of this enchanted scene. Swan, otter, and gazelle, they stand, heads slightly bowed, protecting their charges, keeping them contained. The sounds of a summer fair surround them. The walls are the colours of cotton candy. A child calls out in a voice full of delight.
Based in Port Hope, Kirkham began as a puppet maker. It was the process as much as the outcome that appealed to her: molding then painting simple papier mâché forms to make hands, feet, and faces; working scraps of fabrics into softly expressive bodies; watching characters emerge. The fuzzy borders of the medium fascinated her, the way a performer with a puppet was acting but not quite acting, the character traveling through a human who was more conduit than creator. Puppets were an outlet, “a thing to keep scratching at,” full of possibilities. While many of these early characters were versions of recognizable animals—owls, foxes, and other forest creatures—in pencil drawings they began to morph into the furred and feathered, big-eyed quadrupeds she calls Howls. Still colourful and cute, they were stranger than their predecessors, their personalities less certain. “They kept kind of sneaking into stuff,” Kirkham says. They were asking to be made.
The Howls emerge as Kirkham makes them, driven by forces beyond herself, outside of her direct artistic control. She’s tried to find a backstory that would anchor them in a version of our world or make it clear that they’re from somewhere else entirely. Maybe they’re a failed experiment, developed to consume the waste of a consumer society. Maybe they were too good at this—their population exploded, they had to be culled. Kirkham played with this narrative for a while, but admits to not being fully satisfied with it. The story of the Howls has proved elusive. Looking into their big, unblinking eyes, it’s easy to wonder if maybe the problem is that they have their own ideas about things—they’re just not talking.
The Howls and Kirkham’s other creations are inscrutable, and that’s the paradox, really. Their gaze is direct, revealing nothing. They share this uncanny potential with all puppets. “Through its manipulation,” writes the art historian Anthony Alan Shelton, “the puppet overcomes the inertia and stiffness of the doll, making not the divine word, but the gestures of the human hand the instrument of creation.” They are the inanimate made animate, and they are part of us.
Kirkham describes her work as anchored in a childhood filled with puppets, from the animals and pseudo animals that populated television shows like the Muppets, Fraggle Rock, and Sesame Street to elaborate window displays. Different from cartoons, which for the most part inhabit their own, separate universes, amiable sidekicks like Mr. Rogers’s hand puppets, seemingly independent Muppets, and large costumed characters—puppets into which humans disappeared—like Big Bird and Polkaroo addressed their child audiences directly and their adult co-stars selectively. Still sorting out the difference between alive and dead, animate and static, character and performer, children in particular latch onto the way puppets exist between these states. They live in a space of uncertainty alongside imaginary friends and monsters under the bed.
For Kirkham, puppet characters, both the ones she remembers and the ones she creates, are a way of opening up to that child-like sense of wonder, taking us back to before we had disbelief to be suspended. But that wonder is always shaded with something else, a delirious darkness. In her installation, so bright, so joyful, the suggestion of magic—even the twinkling, storybook kind—carries the whiff of power. It’s there on the edge of what Kirkham describes when she calls puppeteering “acting but not acting.” The puppet goes backwards into the person. Which means it has a mind of its own. If you stepped into the swan’s robes you’d disappear; something else would walk out of the scene. The puppet’s uncanniness is always there, no matter how cute it is. And Kirkham’s puppets, more than anything, are really, really cute.
The cultural theorist Sianne Ngai calls cuteness intimate, familiar. When we encounter cute things, we come up against “the continuousness and everydayness of our aesthetic relation to the often artfully designed, packaged, and advertised merchandise that surrounds us in our homes, in our workplaces, and on the street.” It’s the aesthetic of childhood, too, of what we remember reaching for through department-store glass. Our desire for cute things gives them power over us—we follow their instructions, submit to urges to possess them, squish them, consume them. The possibility of violence hovers in the background of even the cutest of our cute things—a teddy bear, a stuffed rabbit. “The emergence of the plush toy,” Ngai notes, “can be easily traced to a new-found awareness of the aggressiveness of children.” Little hands squeezing, twisting, throwing their indestructible toys. Down from the ceiling the puppets march to greet the Howls.
One day, Kirkham says, she’d like to bring her puppets to life. Lift an otter mask over a human head, put strings into human hands. Let them walk into stories where who knows what will happen. The Howls have already romped out of her sketches and into this carnival scene. Are they happy in their garden? Come in and gather close. Look through the tiny trees and into those giant eyes. They’re so small, so fragile seeming, and this carnival is so bright and big. All the puppets have come, why shouldn’t you join in? By the door there are Howls for sale, plaster models of the real ones, and who doesn’t love a souvenir? Go ahead, get one to take home. Build it its own garden. Watch it when you’re working. Talk to it when you’re bored. Watch it. Its big eyes. Its feathered face. It’s so cute. It’s irresistible.
– Ruth Jones, January 2022
Ruth Jones is co-editor in chief of The Site Magazine and a writer and curator whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Literary Review of Canada, Los Angeles Review of Books, and C Magazine, among others; her audio work has aired on CBC radio. She holds a PhD in French and Francophone Studies from UCLA.
 All quotes and details from Kelly Kirkham are from a telephone interview with the author, November 15, 2021.
 Anthony Alan Shelton, “Life’s Flicker, Death’s Spark: Puppet Theatre,” in Nicola Levell, Bodies of Enchantment: Puppets from Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas (Vancouver: Figure 1, 2021), 79.
 Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2015), 58.
 Ngai, 75.