Phillips Puppets...the Interview with Austin
Through the decades we in the vent community have been blessed with some talented figure makers. So blessed there are literally too many to name. In this age, we have, among others, the talented Austin Phillips. What makes Austin unique is his innate connection to the history of figure makers. So much so that one could make the argument that he is an 'old soul' in this occupation. And yet, he is 29 years old. In the following, you will see the wisdom and genius beyond his years.
I am always amazed whenever I do an interview for vent-o-gram. Time and time again I find intelligent, talented and creative folks in this business. Overwhelmingly so. Such is the case with Austin.
And now, vent-o-gram presents, Austin Phillips.
How does one make a living being a figure maker?
I think it is really important to be flexible. There used to be all these different markets. Then people became specialized. Now it is like, “what do you offer?”
Do you think the concept of the ‘renaissance’ man is valid in today’s world?
In a way, yes. It is necessary now based on the demand of what entertainment is today. It seems that everyone of course wants the biggest bang for their buck. For instance, I managed a toy store for years. But, we didn’t just sell toys, we had to offer other merchandise in order for the whole thing to work. So today, at least what I have observed, many magicians, ventriloquists, jugglers have to offer a whole smorgasbord of offerings. Like fifteen minutes vent, fifteen minutes Punch and Judy and then fifteen minutes of magic. You could add tying balloons to that as well. (Laughs) So it is like the toy shop. In some ways, it could be looked at as a positive. It’s the several tools in your tool belt sort of thing.
John Lennon once said that talent is talent. The same creative process takes effect no matter if one is a musician, painter, and for our purpose magician or ventriloquist. Do you agree with that?
I think it can be a bit of both. The one byproduct of talent is creativity. What talent allows you to do is move forward on a path that might not make any sense at all. But then there is the element of success. Talent doesn’t necessary equate with being organized, punctual, or driven. All qualities that are necessary to be successful. Then again, talent creates a genuine outcome versus skill. Genuine outcome pushes creativity. Skill pushes the organizational aspect of the product.
How do you define success then?
Success to me, is joy. I look at it this way. Am I excited and happy about what I am doing? That is success. The joy also comes from getting a little better at my craft each time I do it. Being able to create some of the past magic some of these earlier figure makers were able to achieve.
How long have you been making figures.
I’ve been full time for about six years. But, I started when I was fourteen as a hobby. I made figures to help finance my schooling.
You were young when this happened. Was there ever a ‘aha’ moment for you?
Yes. It was in 2011. I got to meet Ray Guyll for the first time. I had always known who he was, but meeting him and talking to him on a human level, was magical. He and Barbara really energized me. That evening in 2011 was inspiring. Ray and I were like minded and that is something that I crave and love about people. That is why I like the convention so much. It really recharges my batteries so to speak.
Any other mentors?
Yeah, absolutely. After Ray I really got the bug and was driven to find out about the past makers. For instance, I had been really fascinated by the English figures made by Len Insull, sold through Davenport's Magic.
Geoff Felix is another one.
He was really the person who carried on the tradition of figure making in England. He is very traditional but with a modern twist. His figures are very stylized in that classic look. They are all constructed in the same materials that Len Insull used. It was really educational working with both Ray and Geoff. I was lucky to have that mix of modern with Ray and traditional with Geoff. It was the perfect mix of mentors.
Didn’t you work on Archie Andrews?
I refurbished the original one.
Wow. And Archie Andrews was a Len Insull figure?
Yes. Edgar Bergen was getting popular and Peter Brough kind of wanted to be the Bergen of England. Curiously, Archie had a drop jaw like Charlie did. Insull’s traditionally were leather mouthed. A little bit more discreet and natural, but Peter insisted that Archie’s jaw opened big and wide like Charlie’s did. So Len did his own version of a drop jaw for Archie. Interestingly he did about six or seven heads for Peter. Mostly with different effects, like Bergen’s frowning Charlie and that sort of thing. (For more on Peter Brough and Archie see the Vent-O-Gram interview “The Wisdom of Peter Brough.)
Speaking of figure makers. What about Frank Marshall?
Well, Jerry (Mahoney) is one of my favorite figures. Marshall is not my favorite maker but I really respect him because all the pioneering he came up for the art. He really made the quintessential ventriloquist dummy look. Some of his innovations were brilliant in their simplicity.
He was a no BS kind of person based upon the work I have in front of me . Very direct, very deliberate. With his alcoholism some of his work is questionable, but I give the man credit for a prolific career and an amazing talent.
I once asked Ken Spencer what he thought about Frank Marshall. He said, and I quote, “He’s a drunk.” (laughter) Of course he was more than that.
The thing about Marshall is this. If I were to line ten of his figures up along a wall, I think I might want just one of them. They are all wonderful in the sense that they’re all Frank Marshall figures, but I think there were more figure makers that hit way more home runs than Frank Marshall ever did.
What do you think about the Mack’s work?
I love them. These were two furniture makers. Very highly skilled craft's people trained at making very precise work now making ventriloquist figures. And it shows, they operate really well and they look good. Psychologically you can see a lot about these makers just by looking at their work. The Mack’s being such good craft people, had a way of carving a head that was pretty much the same every time. You can see it. You can feel it. I think a lot of that rubbed off on Ken Spencer. His heads, like the fresh kid, are very uniform and consistent I think he learned that from the Mack’s. They are artisan, but also craft minded. Very intentional.
You have in your possession a couple of my Spencer’s now. One, my fresh kid Simon, was made in 1964. You refurbished him. What is that process like?
First off, I try my best to understand the figure. In your case, I wanted to refurbish the head in a way that was going to make sense for the physical carving of the character. There are many paint jobs that wouldn’t work on that face. But also understanding you as the owner. Simon is your ‘daily driver’ so to speak, your work horse of your career. Therefore, it is really important that you get a refurbished figure for modern day use. But, not tossing out what was there from 1964. In other words going back to Ray and Geoff and combining those two worlds. So nuts and bolts? I strip the whole head, sand the head down, remove the old leather, open the head, do new strings, put the head back together, apply new leather, prime the head, fill the gaps and divots, put on three coats of flesh color in oil and then the highlights and details following up with a clear coat finish. That’s it in a long nutshell.
Three stage process. Sanding, primer, flesh tones
Before and after Simon Spencer
Sounds like a good nutshell. Did you find that particular Spencer head on the level with other Spencer’s you have worked on?
I found it to be more unique than others I have looked at. But what really stuck out to me was how well the figure operated. Yours seemed to be crafted during a period when Ken was doing some really good work. That harkens back to the figure speaking of its maker. The head was a good size and the jaw was precise and works really well.
Tom Ladshaw called this particular Spencer a masterpiece.
Yes, I would agree.
You did a second figure for me. Lars Gunderson. He was originally an exact duplicate of Simon. An amazing duplicate and I think this speaks to your comment about the Mack’s consistency. Ken was able to duplicate the original to an uncanny agree. Anyway, over the years, through different owners he was altered. In fact he had been carved upon to change is personality. The outcome was not to my satisfaction. So, I sent him to you. What did you do?
What was important to me was this: I knew he was going to be used alongside Simon. So that was the challenge, he had to be different but still look like he was from the same family so to speak. I wanted to preserve the feeling of consistency. I had to rebuild the face, put some more meat on him but not so much that he would look like Simon. Make him warmer in appearance so that he would kind of match his ‘brother’ in a way. I thought about your act and wanted the figures to seem like they belonged together. I think they do.
Primer, fill work, flesh tones
Before and after, Lars Gunderson
In spite of the work that you did in terms of filling in and rounding out his face, when I received the two heads back, I weighed them.
They were just a few grams apart from one another. Which was amazing considering how much you had to fill in.
Of course weight is important as the vent moves from figure to figure in terms of manipulation consistency.
That kind of stuff goes through my mind all the time. I know you guys obsess over these kinds of things. (laugh) Here’s a great story about Jimmy Nelson. He had Ray make a back up of Danny O’Day. Ray did a fiber glass Danny. It was an exact beautiful copy. But Jimmy hated the figure because it was a completely different weight than the original. Jimmy used to refer to Danny as a Stradivarius violin. That it was what he learned to play on and it was all he ever would play on…So, yes, it is really important.
So here you are. 29 years old, an old soul in the truest definition of the term. You must have had another life somewhere as a Punch and Judy maker. (laughter) Why are you doing all this?
I think I have a bad case of golden age thinking. (laughter) I’m always looking to the past. Probably with rose colored glasses.
How far back are you looking through these glasses?
Well, I think back to the turn of the century. All these things were happening, the industrial revolution, electricity and what have you. This was a time of great change and I really admire the people who were innovators and specifically for me, the puppet makers. All of these changes were taking pace and there was still a need for the transcendent nature of puppets. Fast forward, and we are in a similar time of change. Things are happening so drastically and rapidly and yet there is still the transcendent need of the puppet. I find myself in the same shoes as these early makers. Trying to navigate these complicated times with something traditional. Historically, those makers found a way to make their work fit into those changing times. I am trying to do the same thing.
Are you a collector?
Yes I have examples from the turn of the century. Punch and Judy and vent figures. I try to have examples of figures that strike a chord with me. Most of what I have are real treasures to me. They inspire me every day.
What is the most treasured find right now?
I’m glad you said right now, because that changes! Recently I was able to acquire an old magic prop. I’m a huge fan of Halloween and the spiritualism period during vaudeville. There were many props that came out of that period. Len Insull Jr produced figures for a company called Vampire Magic.
He created the talking skulls out of paper mache. They were novelties and not many were produced. I think I have seen only one in person until this year. Well then, I found a floating skull which is even more rare. It came to me complete with the leaflet from the catalog and the original pine chest. It is an amazing piece. The Insull floating skull.
Let’s talk about other figure makers. Do I dare bring up Finis Robinson? (laughter)
I have a Finis parrot. It is all made out of plastic wood and is heavy as hell. The animations work terribly. Interestingly, it is beautiful in its own way. I originally thought Insull had made it because he had made a talking parrot. This one is clearly copied after that. With Finis everyone always goes back to his catalog where his daughter is featured with lines drawn on her face to mimic a figure. (laughter)
His catalog is amazing but I understand that even though you would order a certain figure you got whatever he shipped you. (laughter) He was bizarre and fascinating. And you could never get away with that kind of stuff today. What is funny to me is that there was a time on this planet, when you wrote a letter with a check included and in three weeks you got a dummy in the mail and there was no questions asked. That is incredible to me. (laughter)
For my generation we all had the Finis experience. He was actually pretty good at advertising. A lot of us would write him, buy his routines and figures.
Those were times when just seeing an advertisement of a figure was amazing. You would be over the moon. So Finis, in a way, created a sensation in the form of a memory today. That is what is important about these old ads and catalogs. We may laugh about Finis but he hooked a lot of people into the craft with his wares and advertising.
Are you still over the moon over certain figures?
Oh yeah definitely . I never take these figures for granted. There are a few out there that I hope are still in existence and will one day pop up.
Who are some of your favorite figure makers?
Len Insull Sr, Len Insull Jr, Charlie Mack, Pinxy, Geoff Felix, Jack Coats and of course Ray Guyll.
What medium do you work with in your figures?
Primarily fiber glass type materials. But, I started out with wood. So I can do both depending what the client wants .
If I am a client, and want you to make a figure, what is that process like?
For custom? It starts with a phone call, then some preliminary sketches, and then I sculpt it out of clay. Once the clay head is where I want it, I mold it and cast it. From that point I do a lot of hand carving work on the cast. Send photos to the client, then upon approval, mechanics are added, send more photos, then I paint it, put a body on it and ship.
So I’m in constant contact with the client. But, I love working with people and really want to make it right. To do the right thing for the right performer.
What’s the turn around?
It varies. I’m kind of all over the place. I’m not great at making deadlines but not to the point of being negligent. Usually about 4-5 months. But I have standard figures too. Turn around on those is about a month. And, I also produce a line of figures for people that are just getting started.
You had those starter figures at the convention in 2022, how did they sell?
They sold out. Fourteen of them. I want to keep the tradition of the hard figures alive. Soft figures are great, but so are the hard ones. I want to keep people interested.
In terms of restorations, you are taking figures from all over the world aren’t you?
Absolutely. I have some from Australia now, from Germany, from England, Canada, kind of all over the map . It is amazing to find where some of these figures live.
Well Austin, you’re amazing. You know that I am a guitarist as well as a ventriloquist. Well, I enjoy working with quality instruments. And I have the two heads sitting in front of me that you refurbished. I can say, the quality is superb and as I said, I like working with quality.
Absolutely, instruments inspire.
It’s the kind of inspiration that makes you get up in the middle of the night, open the suitcase and just stare at the figure thinking, "I can't believe how lucky I am."
When I look at your creations they are amazing. As you know, there is something organic and intriguing about a ventriloquist figure. You have brought all of that out all over again. The magic lives sir. And we are the lucky ones.
To find our more, visit Austin's website: https://www.phillipspuppets.com/
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