Isabel Lyster explores puppets and storytelling

Isabel Lyster explores puppets and storytelling

Words Vilma Paasivaara

Photographs Emli Bendixen

Visual artist and puppetry specialist, Isabel Lyster, creates an array of magical characters out of wood, paper, and any other material she can get her hands on. She talks about living in a yurt, about the art of puppets and animation, and about her multiple inspirations…


Tell us a bit about yourself…

At the moment I’m living in a yurt in a beautiful part of the Stroud Valleys with my partner and our sweet collie dog. We’ve been here for 2 years now and have slowly built up a comfortable living situation with a wood stove, wood store and outdoor washing facilities. This suits us well at the moment because it frees us up to follow work that interests us, without having the financial pressures of living in a city. I am lucky enough to work full time as a puppet and performance maker. My work is always a mixture of things – I split my time between building puppets by commission from my studio, freelance work as a fabricator for the brilliant company Costume Construction in Cheltenham, and I have recently been developing and performing a contemporary storytelling piece The Skeleton Woman. I also really enjoy teaching work, this is such a joy and allows me to keep in touch with young people to provoke new techniques and ideas.


How did the studio get started?

My studio is at Stroud Valleys’ Artspace, it’s a very active contemporary art space in the centre of Stroud with three floors of artists’ studios. I decided I needed a permanent workspace a few years ago and I’ve never regretted it. It means I can store my materials and tools permanently and I always have a sanctuary to work, focus, and be messy in. It also puts me in contact with the public and the wider community of the South West. SVA hosts Open Studios two times a year, we have one coming up on the 5th-6th and 12th-13th of May. We welcome people into our workspaces, and I normally try to run an interactive activity or show a performance.


What do you specialise in making?

I often label myself as a “puppet maker” but more loosely I would say I’m drawn towards making objects with a playful “animated” quality to them, that also has a strong emphasis on innovative design. I’m interested in mechanisms and trying new techniques and materials. I’ve recently made a bird mobile that flaps it’s wings using a counterbalance. This is inspired by a lovely toy I used to have. I was keen to redesign it and make it as elegant as possible. I always make things with longevity in mind, especially if it is for a theatre show – puppets often get knocked around a lot. My puppets are normally a mixture of materials, I like to work with wood- I think it has a lovely texture and ages well. Although, if I’m making something big I might use plastezote foam with an armature in, or a wire/willow frame.


Is there a particular philosophy behind your work?

I’m not really sure if I have a consistent philosophy, I like to work hard and make things that interest me and engage people. Each project might have a specific philosophy relating to a theme or story, but this will change through time.


What part of your work do you most enjoy?

At the moment I am really enjoying drawing, I’m spending some time in India and this has opened up a lot of space in the day to observe and doddle, playing with the colour and texture of my illustrations. Having some time to think about projects and ideas is really valuable for me. When I get back to the UK I’ll be back on the treadmill of work, during my work hours I am most happy when I’m using my hands and building. I really enjoy testing mechanisms and the finishing stage.



What is your favourite step in the making process?

I really enjoy designing, building and finishing. So I guess that’s all of it!


Is there a particular material, person or object that has influenced your work?

I am inspired by so many companies and artists… Julie Taymor who designed the Lion King stage show is a brilliant designer and also performer. La Machine, the French company who built the giant Sultans Elephant that paraded through London. Companie Preoccupe, who do a brilliant show using clowning and innovative set. Of course- Handspring have done such great things for the puppetry industry by broadening peoples perception of what puppets can be, their design and fabrication techniques are so wonderful. I love the sculpture of Henry Moore, Louise Bourgeois, Anish Kapoor. The drawings of William Kentridge, Joan Miro. I was very inspired by a teacher when I was studying Puppetry at Central School of Speech and Drama- Nenagh Watson. She really encouraged us to broaden our vision of what puppets could be and to look around at the world as a place full of natural animation. Framing animation in this way really changed my perspective.


Isabel Lyster’s new venture Paper Jungle will be performing a storytelling show The Skeleton Woman, featuring an original score by Rob Pemberton, at the Gloucestershire Craft Guild at Rodmarton Manor on the 5th-9th September 2018.

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