For almost six years, Sarah McCaleb has been following her passion.
“My background was in biotech, and then I ended up getting a Masters in Consciousness Studies at JFK University,” she said. “Through that, I realized I was way more creative than scientific.”
As a lifelong fan of The Muppets who also has decades of sewing experience, making puppets “was just sort of a natural progression,” said McCaleb. “I was always fascinated by it, and I liked making things, so I went online and taught myself how to do it.”
Today, puppeteering is “a hobby and obsession,” which led her to launch Paisley’s Puppets, a company that creates custom puppets, stages performances and holds workshops where she can pass on her skills.
One room of a Hoover-Foster apartment is entirely devoted to her vocation; during our interview, three recently completed hand puppets stood at attention, while a crowd of characters including Kurt VonneGoat, a polka-dotted elephant, and a surly-looking Christmas tree were perched on high shelves lining the room.
On a worktable near a window, bolts of fleece and chunks of foam rested next to a sturdy pair of scissors and assorted sewing supplies. “They just progessively got more complex over the years,” she said, which led her to start making “people puppets.”
A people puppet is part caricature, part portrait, McCaleb said. “It’s hard to get all the right features like in a painting, so I try to make them accurate—to a point—and then go from there. I’m trying to represent them the best I can, and add my little whimsy.”
“The first time I did it it was for a friend’s wedding. I took a lot of care to make sure they were representative and then surprised them at the wedding with it, so that was really neat.”
Creating people puppets of rock duo Ween was a creative breakthrough, said McCaleb. “I took them to the show, the fans loved them and the band noticed them on stage, so that was kind of a highlight for me,” she said. “I even got a a commission out of that!”
Today, she produces people puppets for patrons; after an initial consultation and conversation, she spends several weeks creating a foam-and-fleece double that embodies the client’s looks and personality.
“I’ll end up studying their nose, their eyes and what their hair looks like, so I need a number of photos from different angles,” she said.
Each commission starts at $400 and takes at least six weeks to complete. “It’s a good 40 hours with all the research involved, and sourcing the materials,” she said.
In addition to puppet portraiture, McCaleb also teaches workshops at libraries and festivals. “With three hours and sixty-five bucks, we can make some magic,” she said, although she noted that children under 10 generally lack the dexterity and mental focus required.
Paisley’s Puppets recently worked the FIGMENT Oakland festival, and this summer, she’s taking the Ween puppets back on the road for stops on the band’s summer tour. On successive Tuesdays, McCaleb has also released new creations inspired by Ween songs, most recently, a flan and a yellow worm with teeth.
“It’s really just an obsession that I’m moving towards making into my profession,” said McCaleb.