No matter what your age, or even where you live in the world, if I told you to think of a puppet, you would probably think of one of Jim Henson’s characters. Even if you don’t recognize the name, you probably associate Jim Henson’s style of hand and rod puppets, trademarked as the Muppets, with the art of puppetry in general. In his 53 years of life, Henson created more both in quantity and in variety, then seems humanly possible. How did he do it? And what can we learn from his example?
Although Jim Henson was a smart businessman, most of his team remember him more as a tremendously generous and empowering artist. He wasn’t selfish about taking preferred roles for himself, bequeathing the limelight to other, younger puppeteers when the role suited their talents. Perhaps most important, Jim kept on creating, innovating, and keeping a positive focus despite the many challenges he faced. A man with personal faults and struggles, it was the pursuit of creative work that proved to be Jim’s catharsis.
When you walk into the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia, one of the first things to strike you is the exhibit hall. On one side, is an exhibit dedicated to the works of Jim Henson. The other half is dedicated to the rest of the world of puppetry in entirety.
This discrepancy in floor space speaks volumes to the impact Henson had on popular culture. Documentary films continue to be made, and a new biopic was recently announced. Jim Henson died over thirty years ago, but the world still deeply feels his absence.
Hero worship was not part of Henson’s goals. Part of what made him unique was his ability to inspire those around him. Many of the Muppets team went on to produce and create their own projects independently or take on leadership roles within the company. He turned the spotlight on other artists and created to inspire creative works in others, rather than just pursuing pure entertainment value. His work provided an entry point into the art world for countless young people.
Jim asked for his funeral to be full of happy songs and bright colors. This doesn’t seem like the activity of a man who wanted people to be obsessed with his old work. If Henson had survived his brief illness, I imagine that he’d be more interested in new projects and new ideas then in guarding the old legacy. He would use the past as fuel for the stories of the future.
Jim Henson is dead but the art of puppetry doesn’t have to be. You can carry on the torch and create puppets of your own. They can be for a show, for a TikTok, or just for your own enjoyment. You will be surprised by the power of even the simplest act of creation and the potential for positive impact. Afraid to fail? Henson failed many times. Pilots didn’t get picked up, puppets and designs were junked, and relationships didn’t work out. And that was OK. He picked himself up, and kept at it.
So, in that spirit, go make something. If you’re nervous about where to start, we have lots of videos to teach you the skills you need. But even if you don’t have any skills yet, the important thing is just to start. Sing a song. Play the music. Light the lights. Play pretend. Dream new dreams, spin new tales, paint new pictures, write new books, play with toys new and old. And make some art. If it’s not perfect, don’t worry. Just keep making things. And if you keep at it, soon enough, you’ll change the world.
I believe the absolute best gift one artist can give to another is the inspiration to keep going, against all resistance, to create something new that can give joy or bring hope in a dark place. And that’s the gift Jim gave to me. Thank you, Jim.