Making monsters

Inspired by turn-of-the-century silent film and comic mutants, you won’t find Mary Kim’s dolls in the Mattel aisle.

A block or two from the Via Rail station in Halifax’s lower south end, a nondescript shoebox-style apartment building houses one of the plucky Argyle Gallery’s stable of young creative talents—artist Mary Kim.

Her shared flat, really an enlarged bedsit, is hived off into four small rooms, intended, it appears, for tightly budgeted living and diminutive artworks production. Facing the street, the front room doubles as sleeping quarters and Kim’s art supplies repository. Boxes of fabric, polyester fibrefill packages and multitudes of socks in plastic bags occupy at least half of the limited space like rumpled squatters.

In the living room, various containers holding more art supplies and personal effects, crowd the flat’s entrance as if in a random queue for a bus. Upon a worktable butted up against the room’s longest free wallspace lie stacks of sketches and several unusual ceramic figures (imagine T-Rex interbred with a marmot); action figures in states of frozen motion, like 3D stills from an old black-and-white fantasy film of The Lost World.

Music plays quietly from a boombox at the foot of an imposing, overstuffed armchair covered with a white fun-fur throw. Then you see them, in ordered rows across the chair’s seat, riotously colourful cloth mutants, a whimsical blend of Hopi/Zuni/Pueblo kachina dolls and the Blue Meanies from Yellow Submarine. The Odd Squad doesn’t end there. More “Soft Uglies” (as Kim’s dubbed them) sit lined up on a gilded retro iron radiator beneath a side window. She used to sell them at the Halifax Farmers’ Market, but hasn’t lately. Fashioned from socks then boldly decorated in blocky geometric carnivals of sizzling colour, each sports little horns, ears and sometimes a pair of shorts and a cape. No mouths. No arms. Just legs with absurdly clawed feet. Their eyes, created by Kim, collectively register a look of startled surprise.

Weird looking? Sure. They are resolutely the antithesis of “the trashy, vulgar and treacly sentimental Disney-puppet style.” But they are definitely non-threatening. “They’re cute,” says Kim, “and innocent, not knowing why they exist, why they’re alive. I think of them as a story rather than individual creatures. Lost little guys. Looking for a home somewhere. Curious. Interested in where they are in the exact moment of existence.”

For approximately 25,000 years, dolls in all their guises have served as tools with which to delve into or winkle out the good and evil meaning of life. And, secularly, to plug into one’s inner self. In Kim’s case, it’s the strange T-Rex/marmot figurines that provide a conduit into a wholly astonishing side of the outwardly benign artist—what Jung classified as “the shadow.”

Her psyche’s “darker dimensions” surfaced in a series of four short animated films she produced while completing her Masters of Fine Arts at NSCAD-U. In these, she elbowed aside the moral-standardish superego and made straight for the wild-side id. The process spooked her.

“I did a lot of all-nighters, “ she recalls. “It was great because there were no distractions—except fot the things that went on in my head. I was alone in the studio and it was pitch dark. I was also listening to a lot of experimental music much of the time. I began to make these deformed monster puppets out of fired clay and, as I was making them, my work was freaking me out. This ‘making monsters’ business was a new venture for me. As new and exciting as it was, it was a little frightening at times.”

From Kim’s Hyde-side came The Dead Rabbit Awakes, in which a deceased two-dimensional rabbit wakes, perplexed, in a forest in the third dimension. In others, a block of clay splits apart to reform as some gophers who, lemminglike, jump off a video table; and a monster who blankly devours chopped up plastic animals. “I like monsters, predators, lions, tigers,” she says. “As a kid, I was fascinated by animals that have fangs and claws. Such an advantage for them.” Reading comics, she liked mutants “with all their idiosyncratic powers.” They seemed cooler. And they were subversively taboo in the Kim household.

Kim was born in Calgary, Alberta, the second child of four. Her deeply religious parents, corner store keepers, raised their children on bible stories, stringent rules and strict regulations. Young Kim read Stephen King novels and X-men comics in secret. She began her own zine, featuring herself as a character discussing daily events with an alter-ego, a little rabbit. “I was born the year of the rabbit,” she says, “which used to bug bug me. A stupid rabbit! As a kid, you wanted to be something cool. My older brother was a tiger. My other brother, a horse which could run fast.”

After high school graduation, she received a BFA in ceramics from The Alberta College af Art and a BEd from The University of Calgary. Paralleling her fascination with ceramics was a fascination with silent movies like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, Nosferatu, Charlie Chaplin, and early horror movies like Frankenstein and King Kong. “Interesting when King Kong is shot. Looking at his own blood, he realizes his own mortality. And you empathize with this creature, an animal who understands he’s going to die. I made “Bunny Kong” in a sequence of six blue ceramic figurines of him in action, dying—like a series of six frames.”

Stunning Eastern European stop-motion puppet films inspired Kim artistically and intellectually. Films by Ladislas Starevich (1912’s The Ant and the Grasshopper), Jiri Trnka (The Hand, The Emperor’s Nightingale) and Jan Svankmajer (Alice, The Flat), “provoked, questioned and conjured images of bewildering and absurd universes.” Uppermost, though, she took inspiration from the ex-pat American, London-based Quay brothers (Street of Crocodiles, The Comb). Their films, which one reviewer called “like arcane music video crossed with George Pal ‘puppetoon’ thought up by a doll house collector on acid” compelled Kim to exclaim, “I totally want to do that!”

“I started making characters that people thought looked Quay-like,” she says. “Unlike the Quays, I was having problems making sets for the characters.” She opted for localized locales. “A regular space they existed in kind of made it more creepy.”

In the tiny windowless kitchen, as constricted as a confessional, seven white soup bowls sit brim to brim on the stovetop. In them, gestural line drawings of “Frankengopher” indicate another medium for animation. Glancing swiftly in sequence from bowl to bowl, “Frankengopher” moves from middle-distance to a tight close-up. “Photographing the bowls I’m making, I’ll have a product and also an animation to work with. I’m not just interested in animation,” she says. “I think it’s because I’m a craftsperson. I don’t mind pots being pots in themselves without any of the tooth and claw stuff. Functional ceramics satisfies the functional potter in me. But,” she adds, “I have an itch in my creative brain that demands all my work to be animated. The medium of experimental animation is perfect for all my interests to be brought together by film. It’s the glue.”

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