Where do I begin on this posting…
I could start with Jim Henson was a genius! But I think that’s a bit too obvious.
I could instead opt for Jim Henson was an innovator! But I think that’s too obvious as well. While I do believe that his work was innovative, I tend to think of it more as “art begets art” – he westernized an art that was considered “old-country” and “out-dated” (puppet making and acting) and blended it with his own perspective and immeasurable amount of passion.
Which means that I’ve decided to state the following about Jim Henson: “Jim Henson was an artist for the ages.”
There. That is how I’ll describe Jim Henson, his vision, muppets and legacy.
Currently, the Museum of the Moving Image over in my old hood, Astoria, Queens has an exhibit about Jim Henson and his world of muppets titled, “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World”. It runs through January 16, 2012, which is good because I may just return for a second view.
I had no idea what to expect regarding this exhibit. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be huge on displaying muppets, film, or what, if anything else. What I found was a small, tightly woven display of Jim Henson and the way he worked. The display is heavy on his art and sketches. There are plenty of snippets from films he worked on as well as television commercials (where he got his start). There aren’t many muppets on display, but there are quite a few that made me gasp in shear joy (Miss Piggy in her wedding gown), Bert and Ernie and Rowlf! I also really enjoyed the attention they paid to the lesser known work of his: Fraggle Rock, Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal.
Of everything they showed, what I enjoyed the most, nostalgia aside, was his doodles. They had posters from his days in college that he created by hand and using silk screening techniques. I don’t need to express just how excited that made me – the designer and the typography lover in me was just as excited as I was when I saw Miss Piggy.
I love seeing how an artist creates. I’m not talking about tools and techniques here, I’m talking about the inspiration and the initial stages-the sketches that take a thought to the full end result. Jim Henson was a genius with just his pencil. He was able to create images that later shaped the world.
In the early section of the exhibit, it is noted that Jim Henson traveled to Europe and watched puppeteers make and use puppets as a median to tell stories. It is easy to see how years down the road the exposure to such a timeless art combined with his passions led him to the means of achieving his dream.
I took his history as a sign that even though I am working with an “out-of-date” art, it can be worked on, changed and made into something new that does help people and the world at large. Or in other words as my favorite quote by Jorge Luis Borges says, “Everything Touches Everything”. Art is all around us and produced by many people from many perspectives. The key is how an artist takes that inspiration and makes it his own. It was no mistake, and this exhibit shows this, that he designed the muppets that stole our hearts as witty commentators of culture on the Muppet Show just as easily as a creative means to teach children the alphabet, numbers, song, dance, acceptance and the power of an open mind with Big Bird and friends on Sesame Street.
One thing that has stayed with me since seeing the exhibit is his belief in creating something that was going to help shape minds. The Sesame Street that I grew up watching is an amazing example of this desire and belief. I know I remember episodes of Sesame Street now at the age of 30. I also know that I identify now with “Animal” more than any other muppet, but as a kid it was always “Miss Piggy” and how no matter what, I will always love kind-hearted and soft-spoken Kermit-the-frog. I also know that every Christmas season, I listen to the John Denver & The Muppets “Christmas Together” album on repeat (heck, I may even listen to it now for Christmas Card inspiration!). On the road trip I took with my youngest brother last month, we discussed our other brother’s love of the movie, “Follow That Bird“, about Big Bird being moved from Sesame Street to live with a family of dodo birds. Yes, I am talking about nostalgia in its true form, but I’m also talking about how Jim Henson’s passion, craft, kindness and art has stuck with me for 25 years! That is an amazing feat! Especially in a culture now where time moves quickly and art is generated rapidly to the point that we often don’t remember what we saw or when we saw it.
As I walked through the exhibit, which is short (it doesn’t take longer than 30-45 minutes to get through), I felt the energy and spirit of Jim Henson as if he had been alive and in the room. Yes, his spirit was in the room thanks to his sketches, interviews and muppets, but it was more than just that. Maybe the reason is that the Museum did a great job of executing the display? Again, I think it is more. I realized that as much as that room with all of Jim Henson’s items holds the essence of Jim, I, too, carry Jim Henson. His muppets, songs, ideas are still in my mind now as they were in my youth. That is his legacy and it is true of any genius/innovator. His shoes will never be filled- his memory, presence and mark linger and will continue to do so.
When people knock the idea of changing the world, I can only suggest they look at Jim Henson – his work changed the world and more importantly the way media and humans interact. I highly recommend seeing this exhibit if you live or are visiting New York. I also recommend it if you’re an artist; we all learn from each other, after all, especially if we hope to be an artist for the ages.