Lessons from Jim Henson

The first weekend of the month Atlanta residents are able to visit the Center for Puppetry Arts for free. Since my daughter is at an age where she likes to wander around and point at things, this activity seemed like a perfect fit. The Center has an incredible Jim Henson exhibit featuring classics like Ernie, Big Bird, and Kermit. The Fraggles are there. And so is the Swedish Chef. It’s pretty much amazing.

I was deeply inspired reading about Henson’s life, experiences, and perspective. I don’t think I ever realized the scope and innovation of his work. Here are a few lessons on creativity I learned:

You don’t need a PhD in Puppetry.

“When I was a kid, I never saw a puppet show. I never played with puppets or had any interest in them.” Henson asserted that this fact was probably a good thing since he then dove into each new challenge and learning so much. In fact, you may be interested to know that Henson’s college degree was in Home Economics. Any time I think of trying something new, I find myself wondering what type of degree I will need now. Sometimes it’s better to take the risk and tackle the new challenges. Then, I get the adrenaline-pumping experience of conquering something that once seemed impossible to me, the girl with no PhD in Puppetry.

Bring your own felt.

Home Economics? Really? Well, it turns out that’s where Henson learned so much about textiles that helped him revolutionize puppet-making. I had no idea that really, before Henson, puppets were predominately wooden. He incorporated fabric so facial expressions could be more varied, something he “felt” (get it?) was important for the new medium of television. No skills or experiences are wasted. Instead, they equip you with something innovative to bring to the table. Don’t get stuck doing things the old way just because – use your gifts to change the game for good.

It wasn’t just the Muppets.

The Center is home to many of the cast of Dog City, a lesser known Henson series. It was here that the sign noted that Henson tried many other projects besides Sesame Street and the Muppets, many of which are barely remembered. A little research also uncovers his 1986 film Labyrinth, which was considered a commercial failure.  And I imagine there were others as well because it is almost always true with revolutionary people that the successes did not come without their share of failures.  Still, it’s nice to be reminded when you’re in the middle of your unmemorable projects.

Embrace creativity in all its forms. 

I’ve written before about Sid, El Nino Scientifico, or as he’s known in English… Sid, the Science Kid. Turns out Sid is produced by Jim Henson Productions and is once again experimenting with techniques, having actors dressed in full, robotic-like gear to act out the motions of their digital characters. From the very beginning, Henson was pushing the envelope, but when someone has made that mark, I think it can still become easy to cling to a once revolutionary style and refuse to change. Henson was constantly seeking ways to innovate. Where have I gotten complacent and stopped engaging creativity? 

If you find yourself in Atlanta, I encourage you to find inspiration at the Center for Puppetry Arts. However, I must also give you the same fair warning the ticket attendant gave us. 

There is also an international puppet exhibit. She described it as a bit “dark.” I would say that you should imagine yourself in a closet surrounded by nothing but floor to ceiling marionettes. It inspired me in a different way… to walk quickly.

Did you grow up watching The Muppets or Sesame Street? What inspires you or encourages your creativity? 

1 comment

  1. I LOVED the Center for Puppetry Arts when I was there 10 years ago. And Labyrinth is one of my top 5 movies. I can recite it by heart.


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