Ideas for making stuff, writing or cooking often sit and percolate in my head for a long time. Making sock monkeys for the artists I work with at Seattle Opera is just one of those cases. Several sock monkey “contacts” happened about the same time to get the idea buzzing in my brain, and the first of those was my introduction to the amazing Mermonkey – here’s her story.
The onstage actors in an opera that do not sing are called supernumaries, or “supers” for short. The most super of our “supers” at the opera is Miss Rosetta Greek. Rosetta is one of those people that everyone likes immediately – she’s beautiful, smart, is a phenomenal actress, an artist and has a great sense of humor and tells it like it is – always one of my favorite qualities in a person. She has turned her exceptional sewing talents into a thriving business – Heavens2Betsie – creating super hip cosmetic and toiletry bags, potholders, aprons and other useable art from vintage, retro and whimsical fabrics that she sells at the Pike Place Market in Seattle, cool kitchen and gift shops around the country and online. A few years ago during one of the shows, she was inspired to create her own mermaid sock monkey from a couple of funky ’80s sweaters she’d found at a thrift store. Over the technical rehearsal week and opening of the show, she would bring “Mermonkey” in to the dressing suite I worked in to update me on her progress, and I was totally hooked by the project. She eventually sold the beautiful Mermonkey, who Rosetta named “Atlantis”, to one of the principal makeup artists.
Atlantis left behind this seed of sock monkey-ness that would not leave my head. I remembered my grandmother giving me a sock monkey she’d made me for Christmas when I was a kid, and I knew I was going to make one. About the same time, I was working as a home and gifts buyer at a local nursery in addition to my opera job. I was ordering calendars for the store and found a sock monkey calendar with pictures of vintage monkeys dressed in costumes, so I ordered one for myself. Shortly thereafter, I found an old pair of red heel socks at a thrift store and knew this was my sign to start making sock monkeys! A search on the internet for a pattern and, ta-da! I was on my way!
So my thanks to Rosetta and Atlantis for their inspiration of what’s become a fun thing to be working on in my life. I’ve since made Rosetta her own monkey based on the ghost bride character she portrayed in the awesome opera Lucia di Lamermoor. Rosetta named her “Verboten” for reasons that will become obvious when you read her story – she’s one of my favorites and I’ll share her pictures soon.
Where will my next inspiration come from? Well, this one has been on the back burner of my brain for about 20 years – seriously – so keep checking back because I’ve got all the pieces now and am putting her together –
I was pleasantly surprised a couple weeks ago to get a phone call from my 16 year old niece, Amanda – “Hey Uncle Scott, could you teach me to make a sock monkey?” You bet! The following week the kids were on an early release from school, and along with a request to join us from niece Emily, I hauled sewing machine and supplies down to their house and the three of us sat down for an afternoon of sock monkey making.
What a great time we had – the kids just dove right into the project and got to work. I tend to overthink and complicate things and often get a little obsessed with minute details of “perfection.” This tends to slow me down, so it was great to watch the kids zip through it and see that I could take a cue from them on speed and efficiency. Emily is a bit like me in that she was trying to do things “perfectly”, while Amanda just watched what I did, then did it herself and said “Do you mean like this?”. Uh, yeah, that’s actually exactly what I wanted you to do – and this from the girl who said she wasn’t sure she could really make one. I realized by watching the girls work that I like the way they put the mouths lower on their monkeys than I’ve been doing – when I got home I moved the mouths lower on two monkeys in progress and think they look a lot better.
So here are the results of our afternoon’s effort – I love the crooked smile that Emily’s monkey has and the cute ears Amanda made fore hers. Unfortunately, I forgot to include my box of vintage buttons in the supply bag, so we just stuck a couple of straight pins in for eyes so we could get a picture, and we all liked the result – maybe I’ll do a monkey in the future with round beads for eyes?
By the end of the afternoon we had discussed the possibility that more sock monkeys might get made as Christmas presents for the girls’ school friends – and who doesn’t love a hand-crafted Christmas gift?
Earlier this summer a number of my sock monkeys were featured as the “New Visions” Exhibit at McCaw Hall, during Seattle Opera’s production of Porgy and Bess. The show included sock monkeys, photos of the performers with their monkeys, and the monkeys in dioramas based on their operas or theme. I don’t have photos of all the monkeys, but this gives you a bit of an idea of how it looked. More info about individual monkeys are in future posts, or send me your questions/comments (all photos by Rolland Lawrenz):
I make sock monkeys. Some people tell me I’m making art, but I think I’m just having fun and learning how to sew better.
For the last several years, I’ve worked as a dresser in theatre venues around Seattle, but my main gig has been at Seattle Opera in the wardrobe department where I’m the dresser for the principal male artist. In the summer or 2009, we were doing another production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, or to non-opera goers, the dreaded “Ring Cycle”. The cycle is made up of four separate operas that tell the “Ring” story, and each one of them is riduclously long – I mean really long – the whole cycle is spread over four nights and is 18+ hours long, so it’s not exactly what you call an “intro to loving opera” thing. You’ve gotta be hard core to want to sit through this. One of the operas in the cycle, Siegfired, is so long, that other operas we produced are over and done with in less time than it takes to sit through just Act I of it. This means there is lots of time where my artist is on stage singing and I am waiting for hours before he comes back for a change. How does one fill that time? Sock monkeys.
So I’m getting long-winded about this, but during this particular production I was dressing an amazing singer named Greer Grimsley (check him out here). I’m not an opera lover, but really appreciate the gifted artists I work with who are at the top of their field, and Greer is an opera superstar. I’d been his dresser on several other operas, and wanted to give him something to commemorate the shows we’d done together. About the same time, I came across pair of vintage red heel socks in a thrift store, so I thought of doing a sock monkey dressed in a smaller version of the role Greer was singing – Wotan, King of the Norse gods.
The costume shop usually has scraps left over from making the costumes, and we keep them in wardrobe for costume repairs, so I rummaged around and found what I needed to replicate Wotan’s costume. A very cool thing about this production, is the costumes were designed by Martin Paklidenaz, who has won a bunch of TONY awards and designs a lot for opera and Broadway, and these costumes were gorgeous. At this point in time, I wasn’t much of a sewer, so my really talented boss Ron helped me make a pattern and assemble it for the sock monkey. Some more help from hair and makeup department for the hairstyle, and props department for a “spear” and Wotan was complete and ready to give to Greer. He loved it, and that’s my long story of how I started making sock monkeys.
The green coat Wotan wears is what we referred to as his “God coat” (sometimes in the cycle he is “the Wanderer” and doesn’t wear the coat) – it is quilted and has hand-applied metal tags and applique. I pieced the coat together from several scraps, so had to reattach the metal tags and applique after it was done. you can’t see it in the picture, but I did give him one of those cartoon “X” eyes under his eye patch. I love the photo Barry did of this with Wotan’s home, Valhalla, up in the clouds.