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Sebastian the crab—wood, leather, cast resin, hand-held puppet. Made for Paramount Theater's production of Disney's The Little Mermaid, 2016

#TraditionsTuesday: Jesse Mooney-Bullock

It’s #TraditionsTuesday, and today we’re featuring the work of Jesse Mooney-Bullock, who received a 2023 OAC Individual Excellence Award in design. Jesse is a Cincinnati-based puppetry artist who has designed, built, and performed with puppets for more than 20 years. Polar Bear—reed cane, jute, wood, aluminum, fabric, backpack puppet. Made for House Theatre of Chicago's production of The Snow Queen, 2021

Jesse did not intend to become a puppetry artist when he enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC)—he wanted to be an illustrator. But a performance class piqued his interest in live art. Not considering himself an actor, he brought sculptural pieces into his performance assignments. He and some other students soon formed a puppetry club and worked with mentor artist Blair Thomas to create a puppetry class for themselves at SAIC. 

Jesse makes a living as a puppetry artist largely by designing custom puppets for mainstage theater productions. Awards like the OAC’s Individual Excellence Award are important because they allow Jesse to pursue his own artistic projects and collaborations. 

Puppetry has existed as an artform in many cultures for thousands of years. Jesse’s style of puppetry exists at a crossroads of the traditional and the avant-garde, drawing on classical artforms like Japanese Bunraku where puppeteers remain visible, rather than hiding behind a stage. Jesse says approaching puppetry this way allows for unique, imaginative collaboration between the performer and the audience:  

Anne Frank—wooden bun raku style puppets. Made for Next Theater's production of Compulsion, 2014“I think the fascinating thing about puppetry is that it requires the audience’s imagination. When I perform, I always try to keep myself as the puppeteer visible. There's something about seeing how this object is moved—if you can see the materiality of the object, you're reminded that it's not a living thing, but yet, it still feels like it has life. And so, there's this dual realization in your mind of, it's non-living AND it's living, and that element of imagination is what that brings it to life.” 

EXPAND: Visit Jesse Mooney-Bullock’s website

EXPERIENCE: Check out clips of Jesse’s puppets-in-progress over the years

EXPLORE: Learn how to make a rabbit puppet from Jesse using materials in your home. Video by Walter Hoope performing arts company. 

Article by Cristina Benedetti, Folk and Traditional Arts Contractor
Photos courtesy of Jesse Mooney-Bullock. Feature photo: Mooney-Bulluck with Sebastian the crab—wood, leather, cast resin, hand-held puppet. Made for Paramount Theater's production of Disney's The Little Mermaid, 2016 

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