“Success is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill. A young puppeteer from East Nashville, who has remained faithful to what many would consider a lost cause, lives out the adage in WPLN’s latest installment of Upon First Meeting.
For thirteen months, John Kellerondrick has been attempting to sculpt a silicone puppet. So far his efforts have failed.
Kellerondrick works as a professional puppeteer. He brings puppets to life on stage every week, but he’s never constructed one. And now he finds himself, once again, standing on the floor of his makeshift workshop, reading a list of instructions.
“Step one: Clay wall, place around sculpture. Two step: Spray release. Let it dry,” he says to himself.
Kellerondrick’s first go at the puppet faltered when he realized his molding clay contained sulfur, and that, as a result, the liquid silicone he was pouring into the molding wasn’t going to cure correctly. He promptly destroyed the mold and started over.
For different reasons, the second mold met the same fate, as did the third. Failure seemed to begat failure.
“I don’t remember how many times I destroyed this one,” he says.
But as Kellerondrick says, he was learning. He persisted. A productive method of self-deception was born.
“You do something wrong and then you look something up online, or you talk to your friend, and you’re like, ‘Okay, now I know how to do. I was wrong before but now it’s going to be easy. All I have to do is fix this one thing, and it’s going to work,’” he says. “Maybe that ignorance is good, you know, otherwise you’d be just too easily daunted from the beginning.”
Using a large hand saw, Kelleronick cuts into the rigid clay mold. As he pushes the blade back and forth, speaks of clay shoot into the air, falling to the floor near a black and white sketch of the puppet.
Its name is Mr. Glass, and in the drawing he resembles an emaciated Abraham Lincoln dressed in a dark diner jacket and a miniature top hat. In notable contrast, the molding itself resembles the scorched head of a mummy. It’s a ghastly work in progress, far from completion, as Kellerondrick well knows. He now pauses to consider his next move.
“I’m thinking about just cutting off this edge,” he says. “And then, putting some more of this mother mold, basically, just cutting this off and redoing it so that’s it’s air tight. But I don’t know if I can do that. I can try.”
The puppet won’t be perfect.
“It’s going to have some blemishes on it,” Kellerondrick says. “But that’s okay, you know, skin isn’t perfect.”
Short of Perfection
If his every attempt resulted in perfection, Kellerondrick would have little need for the feats of imagination necessary to see beyond his failures. And as a puppeteer for children shows he values this type of make believe, which is – if anything – an act of seeing what isn’t there. His job, he says, continually teaches him this power of envisioning.
The job has also taught him the subtle difference between adult imagination and childhood belief.
“Children are the perfect audience for puppet shows,” he says. “I feel like when an adult watches a puppet show they have to use imaginations to see the puppet as alive. But with kids it’s almost kind of the opposite. They have to really think about it to realize that the puppet isn’t alive.”
Kids often ask Kellerondrick how he makes the puppets’ mouths move and how he makes them blink.
“But these puppets don’t blink,” he says. “Their eyes don’t move. The kids, their imaginations just go crazy with his stuff. It’s really cool.”
Just as the young members of his audience believe innately in the imaginary, it seems Kellerondrick believes his successive failures will one day, lead to success itself.
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