Oliver Smart has specialised in and performed puppetry (exploring movement through performance) for the last 20 years. He also teaches puppetry, design and performance to performing arts professionals. Oliver creates his artistic work under his own name and does commissioned work through his company, Folded Feather. His studio is on Bernard Road, N15, where he’s been based for the last three years.
Oliver has worked with companies including Channel 4 and Sony Playstation. His largest puppet Boreos – made entirely out of Austin Mini car parts and operated by two people, was created for Irresistible Films, London – and appeared in a Hyundai advert. Oliver was one of a number of puppeteers involved in the wedding scene in the last Muppets Movie and his puppetry appeared in an Alexis Taylor music video, where he animated a pair of eyes. He has performed at the World Puppet Theatre Festival in Charleville-Mézières, France. His butterfly, created in collaboration with the artist Dominic Harris, Flight is a Waltz: Puppet Flutter, was presented at Design Basel where it was represented by Priveekollektie Contemporary Art | Design.
Can you tell us a bit more about what you do?
I’ve become very interested in natural mechanisms, like flying insects, and how a puppeteer makes bodies move. The scale is challenging and exciting. The way they are put together and the way they move is extraordinary. I find mechanical solutions for expressing something like a dragonfly and its movement in an object. Surrounding that activity is a whole lot of other work. There’s a lot of reflection, drawing, writing, my own movement exploration, photography and prototyping which then results in a final mechanical body that ideally expresses the essence of its subject.
How did you first get into puppetry?
I went through art school in Auckland, New Zealand. I started as a print maker, but I found that too two dimensional and moved towards sculpture. A while later, the sculpture started to move. I started performing sculpture, as a sort of performance art, within a gallery rather than a black box theatre. From there I became more specialised in theatre. I’m now going full circle and working back within the visual arts and I’m very focussed towards the gallery environment.
Is it important for you to tie the performance and the mechanical sides together?
I think so. I’m able to express movement to an audience coming from a body which is something other than my own. That gives me a huge variation in terms of scale, identity, and all sorts of things through the separation that puppetry gives you. It’s exciting to express through another, which is the body of the puppet. Then you get into mechanistic movement design.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just come back from Belgium where I was performing with a giant inflatable octopus at a festival over there for my friend’s company Tim Davies Design.
I’m about two thirds through a process of conceiving, studying and designing a scale dragonfly. I’m currently at the end of the design process using computer aided design (CAD) to create 3D models. Most of the process is analogue and then it moves into digital because the lines have no thickness. Folded Feather currently has a commission with Kings College London where we’re creating various parts and aspects of an MRI scan environment to make it more suitable for preschool autistic children. It involves a collaboration with lots of other specialists including other puppeteers and designer-makers.
Can you explain more about the analogue process?
I did an exercise with watercolours after the observation of the dragonfly to find solutions for movement. I came to an epiphany with one of them in particular, which is where you start getting a figure eight with the wing movement. I’m after a mechanism which is entirely dynamic. It’s a hands on process, machined by me on the lathe and the mill. Before I end up with the final piece I have to prototype and test it out in the real world with gravity and friction.
What do you most enjoy about your job?
Exploring the potential of what I am by experimenting with other things. It gives me the opportunity to explore outside of restriction and to exist within a physical world where anything is possible.
On top of that it all centres around communication. I enjoy exploring a very unusual edge of communication with the medium of puppetry. People will willingly suspend their disbelief and that’s really cool.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
A lot from the natural world, the environment and architecture. I love poetry and short stories. Some of my greatest inspiration comes from poetry because it’s so efficient. I love reading short stories and twisting stuff around. Music as well.
How do you get from an initial idea to the final piece?
I’ll start with an idea that I explore very openly. I draw, I write, I explore everything differently. I might make prototypes out of cotton buds. I make stuff, draw stuff. Then it comes together and goes through a more refined drawing process. Maybe becoming watercolour or becoming colour. The prototypes become slightly more refined and maybe they actually start looking like a dragonfly.
Then you get into the cycle of the dragonfly where it becomes geometry and then it starts to become a process which becomes materialised. It becomes brass, bronze, wood or whatever it is.
Part of the whole process is countless drawings, often bad ones, and awful writing. I use these things as tools, so it doesn’t matter. If I don’t know how to draw with my right hand, maybe I’ll use my left. Maybe all the words should be written backwards. You can’t take a straight path, that would be like walking through a beautiful garden and making a bee-line for the exit, you have to meander. Then it starts to take shape. I have an idea at the beginning of the process but I don’t even know what it looks like. I know the concept of a dragonfly but I’ve never really spent any time thinking about it. It’s a voyage of discovery.
What else have you got coming up?
I’m spending a couple of months in my studio after doing a lot of work with teaching and performance. Now I’ve got a chance to consolidate what I’ve been working on and work towards manifesting the dragonfly physically. That’s something I’m really looking forward to. The finished piece, as well as drawings and prototypes, will be presented at Circus, Marylebone High Street, in April next year.
This article first appeared in the Craft issue of Discovering Tottenham which was released in November 2018.