The creator of the seemingly alive creatures of The Dark Crystal, the mother of Yoda and the right hand of Jim Henson in the 1980s, Detroit-born Wendy Froud had a dollhouse when she was a child. It was like any other dollhouse: boring, too much like Wendy’s own house, too real. It was inhabited by a family that was anything but monstruous. The children, she recalls, were useful to her because she could pretend they were the children from The Chronicles of Narnia. At night, her mother read aloud the fantastical stories by C. S. Lewis, which feature centaurs and all kinds of strange creatures. But Wendy didn’t have any dolls that looked like fawns. So she created them.
She was five years old when she made her first doll. She fashioned it out of wire brushes and pieces of cloth. Her parents were artists — her mother a well-known writer, her father a sculptor — and so they weren’t surprised that their child wanted to create something that didn’t exist in her world. “All of my parents’ friends were artists, and I thought that what we did was why everyone did. I realized that wasn’t the case the first time I went to the house of a school friend, and I didn’t see a single book on the shelves or painting on the walls,” she says. “I feel so lucky for the life I had, that I’ve had from the beginning. I haven’t stopped making dolls since that day when I was five years old. My husband makes them too, and our son as well. We spend all day doing what we love,” she adds.
Her husband is Brian Froud, a designer for the company of Jim Henson, the puppet maker, director, writer and television producer who created The Muppets and the once-ubiquitous rubber foam figures that populated all kinds of productions in the 1980s. They couple met during the preproduction of The Dark Crystal.”I had just arrived in New York. My plan was to make a fortune, though I never imagined that things would go so fast,” Wendy says. Three months after her arrival, before she had even found the waitress job she had awaited for years, a few days before Christmas, she set up a small show in a friend’s loft. The artistic director of The Muppets, Michael Frith, showed up. He was fascinated by Wendy’s dolls. He bought one and gave it to Henson for Christmas. “He called me on New Year’s Day and told me he had a job for me.” That’s where it all began.
Jen and Kira, the protagonists of The Dark Crystal, were her first creations for Jim Henson. She was hired specifically to make them. “Jim wanted them to look like the classic hero and heroine of a fairytale, but at the same time to look like elves. He was such a perfectionist that I learned to sculpt with extraordinary speed to vary the design until I got what he wanted. And it turned out to be the only one that worked. A funny thing happens with dolls, which is that they don’t have the appearance that you want them to have, but the one that they want. It’s as if, in a way, they were alive in another world that I take them from. It happens to me all the time. They’re the ones who decide when they’re finished. I imagine the same thing happens with stories. They come from a place where they’re waiting. We just give them a hand and bring them into our world,” she says.
In July, Froud traveled to Avilés, Spain to talk about her creations at the Celsius Festival, a gathering dedicated to fantasy, terror and science fiction. She was received like a star, almost an enchantress. Her dolls seem to be alive. “I don’t draw them first. Brian is the one who draws. Maybe that’s why we’ve been together for 43 years,” she tells this newspaper during the festival.
She continues to sport her iconic wild mane, and she dresses like she did in the 1970s, like Stevie Nicks meets Manhattan. She has the gaze of someone for whom every day is a little miracle. “I read a lot, and I take notes, and I simply let them appear. There is a soul in all of them. And I supposed they’re made of pieces of what I feel in the moment, but also something I can’t control,” she explains. And what relationship does she have with them? Are there any that she hasn’t been able to let go? “Oh, yes, a lot. They’re part of the family.”
She doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that both she and her husband are only children. Her own son — whose career began early, as the baby kidnapped by David Bowie in Labyrinth — now works for Guillermo del Toro. “I supposed we have a special relationship with objects because we spent a lot of time alone, and the imagination is what saved us. There’s something about the imagination and the dolls that are inseparable. There is nothing as powerful as the imagination, and we desire it, especially when we are children, but also as adults. That’s why puppets are returning to film. All that new technology isn’t believable,” she says. The mother of Yoda refers to the fact that the teacher himself has reverted to being a puppet, because “people didn’t want to see him do things that he’d never done. They didn’t want to see him run or jump, because that wasn’t Yoda.”
But the industry doesn’t seem to pay attention. Froud believes that’s why Netflix cancelled the Dark Crystal series. “Today things have to work the first time. They told us the series was cancelled the same night we won the Emmy. They didn’t let it grow. And it would have, I’m sure. For us, it was amazing to return to the Dark Crystal universe and expand it. We had waited for 40 years,” she says. She smiles, conflicted when asked how she feels about the success of Yoda. “We never thought we would have that impact. We were afraid it wouldn’t be believable. All these men of flesh and bone were following a tiny green man. It’s incredible to me even today,” says the maker of creatures, who today teaches others to make their own. “Each one of us have a ton of those creatures within. We just have to find them.”
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