Puppet maker breathes life, art into edgy, whimsical handmade characters

‘Circus menagerie' coming to Clifton in November
Puppet maker breathes life, art into edgy, whimsical handmade characters
Posted at 7:00 AM, Oct 01, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-01 10:07:02-04

CINCINNATI -- Jesse Mooney-Bullock leads an enviable life in Northside. He's a creative force, an inventor, a craftsman, a writer, a performer, a musician and a father who leaves his three young children with his wife/business partner in the morning and heads off to work in his former shoe factory studio space four blocks away.

Once there, he dives into a job few in the world have. Mooney-Bullock makes hand-held, wooden puppets, not only for professional theater groups but for a little one-man show he writes and performs on the road in places such as Detroit and Flint, Michigan, every summer.

He has put on shows locally, too -- twice this year at Smale Riverfront Park, Downtown -- and will be the featured performer on Nov. 13 when he brings his Luigi Bullooney's Circus Menagerie to the Clifton Cultural Arts Center's2nd Sunday Family Showtime series.

Under a miniature big top and following his original story line, the award-winning puppeteer will arm his alter ego, Luigi Bullooney, with the likes of Butterfly Lady, Bear Boy, the Strong Man and the Misfit Clown to put on a show he promises will be filled with "pizazz."

Gallery: Take a look inside Mooney-Bullock's workshop


Luigi is Mooney-Bullock's middle name, chosen for him by his poet-writer father and painter-furniture restorer mother with whom he lived in a tree house in the woods of North Carolina as a toddler. The family moved to Cincinnati for his high school years, and he graduated from Walnut Hills. Then he went back to the woods to live in a tiny tree house he built.

Mooney-Bullock climbed down from that tree for good after a year, but he did not leave his close connection to wood behind, taking it instead to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he studied performance art, sculpture, painting, music and sound -- essentially acquiring all the skills he has used in his puppetry since graduating in 2001 with a degree in fine arts.

Mooney-Bullock's puppets are old-fashioned, yet modern. They're a little edgy, perhaps, but whimsical at the same time. And what makes them so intriguing to viewers is how alive, how expressive and real they seem to be.

Sure, their maker's visual artistry is the main force behind their effectiveness, but there's a lot of home-spun engineering behind them too, little seemingly jury-rigged touches -- Mooney-Bullock's favorite hinge material is a coat hanger -- that he developed by trial and error.

Mooney-Bullock's goal is that his unique puppets and the morality stories they tell draw in and captivate audiences, some large, but oftentimes small. His smallest audience may be himself, and when he talks, one senses part of himself is outside of his body looking back.

Mooney-Bullock said he drew early inspiration from his mentor -- Blair Thomas, School of the Art Institute of Chicago assistant professor and Chicago puppet theater and international puppet festival founder. It was Thomas who gave his young student his first professional commission in 2002 at Blair Thomas & Co. Mooney-Bullock designed a life-sized version of the lead character in Thomas’ adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s "Old Man and the Sea."

“I don't think Jesse was making puppets before he met me,” Thomas said. “He interned with me and was working as my assistant. He became my principal puppet maker, and now he clearly has surpassed me.”

Thomas said Mooney-Bullock’s sense of performance, aesthetics, materials and engineering, in particular, sets him apart from most puppet makers and is why he has landed contracts with Thomas and other Chicago-area theaters such as House Feeder and the recently defunct Redmoon.

“When a puppet starts to move, it’s a whole other story, and that’s when Jesse’s work begins to step outside all the others. That’s key to a puppet having a sense of life to it,” Thomas said.

Besides Thomas, Mooney-Bullock drew inspiration from the Bread and Puppet Theater of Glover, Vermont (, a 53-year-old troupe of political activists and populists who dress in Medieval-like costumes made of natural materials -- burlap, sticks, bamboo -- and often perform outdoors with and among old farm equipment.

Mooney-Bullock started making puppets in college out of cardboard and papier mache -- and he still does. In the corner of his studio towers a 15-foot-tall totem pole puppet, which he made and wore in a benefit parade for the Kennedy Heights Art Center. It features traditional Northwest Indian figures that represent the creative process, from bottom to top, idea, labor and final product.

"This," he said of the totem, "is really my roots in puppetry." Yet wood carving has become his specialty.

"Not a lot of people are doing it for puppetry,” he said. “It takes a long time to learn how to do that well.”

These days, his focus is on carving figures out of bass wood, which is a product of the linden tree, using old and new tools of the trade, some of which were his grandfather's: chisel, screwdriver, wrench, drill and bits, hand plane, T-square, mallet and Japanese rasp among them. He said he likes the facial expressions he can draw out of the textured wood as well as how light it is.

"It's a hardwood but very soft and easier to carve,” he said. “It has a density that allows it to hold its shape when you carve it, and it doesn't split or tear apart."

"Every head I carve, I split it, hollow it out and put it back together," said Mooney-Bullock, who estimated each puppet takes 35 or more hours for him and his assistants, Hallie Grant and Seana Higgins, to complete. Occasionally, he carves with black walnut -- such as for the peg-legged Capt. Ahab in Thomas' "Moby Dick" production -- but his go-to material is bass wood.

Much of his bass wood comes from Wilhelm Lumber Co. in St. Leon, Indiana, but occasionally he gets a piece from a friend, such as a limb that became part of Capt. Ahab.

Over the years, Mooney-Bullock has taught himself to cast resin and silicon parts, both of which play big roles in the making of Sebastian the Crab, Flotsam and Jetsam, dolphins, sea turtles, angel fish and other characters in an upcoming production of "The Little Mermaid" at the Paramount Theater in Aurora, Illinois.

Big productions -- as many as 1,000 attend shows at Thomas' Chicago theater -- require Mooney-Bullock to work directly on productions, consult with directors, coach actors in using the puppets and attend rehearsals to make important tweaks that bring his puppets alive.

But, he said, small performances best capture what he has tried to do over his career as a puppeteer and puppet maker.

"I got into puppets to make theater, to make performing arts that's alive and interactive," he said. "I did a show this summer of 80-90 capacity. They were right up close with your work. With the smaller theaters, you can get into the details a little more, and people can see how things are made. I really like to reveal the materials and highlight the object of the puppet so people will say, 'Ah, that's made of burlap' or, 'Wow, that’s torn up plastic that was used to make that puppet.' "

Next on his schedule after the Clifton show in November is the Chicago International Puppet Festival in January, which was founded and is directed by Thomas. Mooney-Bullock said that someday he would like to stage his own production of “The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets” at the festival. The musical fable was a collaboration of beat generation writer William S. Burroughs and singer-songwriter Tom Waits and features a peg-legged devil.

“He would be a great puppet,” Mooney-Bullock said.