As an avid Muppet Fan Artist, I’m always inspired and often jealous of my insanely talented peers. Where do they come up with their ideas? Their unique styles? Their secret techniques? I wanted to find out who the artist is behind the art, and ask questions as one illustrator to another. The following pieces of art may be pictures you’ve already seen and enjoyed, so now here’s some of the stories as to how they came to be and the creative influence Jim Henson and all his creations have on the creative industry.
True story: I was having lunch at a little fish & chips place across the street from the convention center on the first day of San Diego Comic Con last year when I recognized writer/director and all around super wizard Kirk Thatcher. I introduced myself and we started talking Muppets. I used up all my arsenal as fast as I could, mentioning I was quite fond of drawing the Muppets. Kirk’s face lit up instantly asking, “Like Kenny Durkin?! That guy is amazing!”
Kenny is a highly regarded member of the National Cartoonists Society having his work appear in comic books, official Duck Dynasty & Henson related merchandise, children’s books, and an avalanche of other cool designed stuff. Kenny was a caricature artist for thirteen years in Walt Disney World where he added an arsenal of tools to his already impressive artistic skill set that made him faster, funnier, and full of surprises.
ToughPigs: Creativity and the Muppets go hand in hand and it’s clear that Jim and the Muppets had a major influence on you.
Kenny Durkin: Jim Henson is my number one influence and the reason I became an artist. His sense of play, his imagination, his fierce work ethic, his innovation, his creativity, his juxtaposition of calm and chaos, his design sense, have all informed my art from the beginning.
TP: Ah, see? That’s what I was driving at. It’s one thing to draw the Muppets well, but your work is so imaginative! How do you come up with something like “Kermits I’ve Known” or “Birds, Bears, and Automobiles”? Just to name a few!
KD: I think it’s two things. One, I’ve always fostered my inner child. I haven’t allowed myself to grow up in certain ways. Children are the most creative, funny people. They’re not afraid to be wrong, or take a chance. So I’m always exercising that “muscle” that controls my imagination. That way anything is possible. The second, is the WAY I come up with ideas. My best ideas come to me when I’m quiet and still. I never have a creative block, because all I have to do is turn off the phone, the television, the music, get rid of all the distractions and let my brain be quiet. Then I start to brainstorm. I write and doodle anything I can think of. There’s no wrong answers! In the case of some of the Muppet parodies for example, I just look for connections, visual and verbal puns and go from there. I guess my point is, we’ve all had creativity and imagination from the start, you just have to develop it and nurture it constantly, until it becomes second nature.
TP: Speaking of Muppet parodies, your “Wocka Wocka-ing Dead” has to be one of your most viral pieces. What was it like to have that happen?
KD: I get a kick out of it. I certainly don’t plan for that to happen, but I’m appreciative when it does. I just want to give people a little laugh, and if it gets passed around, and I make a bunch of people happy from it, I’ve done my job. I especially appreciate when I’m CREDITED as the artist. I put it out there for free so people can see it, but I’m also trying to build an audience, so share my artwork all you want, but make sure people know who is responsible for it.
“The Wocka-Wocka-ing Dead” was just one of those mash-up ideas that came to me during a brainstorming session. I love The Walking Dead and I wondered how I could do a Muppet parody of it. I started with the words The. Walking. Dead. and tried to think of Muppety tie-ins to those words. Wocka was perfect, and so I cast Fozzie in the role of Rick Grimes. I always try to put a little easter egg in my stuff, or a way to tie it all together, so his badge says “Bear on Patrol” from the Muppet Show skit where Fozzie plays a police officer. The rubber chicken was an additional gag. I think a successful mash-up is not just putting a character from one property into the costume of a character from another property. There has to be a unifying thread between the two. There has to be a story, a reason for the joke.
TP: Did you know it was going to be so big?
KD: No, I didn’t know I had a hit. I never know I have a hit. I just hope and pray that people understand the joke every single time I post something new. I would hate to make a “head-scratcher” that no one understands.
TP: How do you think the Muppets would handle a zombie apocalypse?
KD: I think Muppets would START the apocalypse. It would probably be Crazy Harry, Animal or Muppet Labs’ fault.
TP: Your artistic work expands beyond illustration. Actually, the first piece of yours I ever saw was “One man’s trash is another man’s Muppet”. It’s so incredibly unique! Do you work in such various mediums often?
KD: Not as often as I’d like to. But I have a journal of ideas and I’m always picking up stuff to use on future projects. Some would call that hoarding, but…
TP: Ooh! “The List of Muppety Art Projects To Do”. I’m familiar with that. Anything from that list ever get pulled? In other words, is there Kenny Durkin Muppet Art that you decided just wasn’t worth posting or finishing?
KD: Definitely. There are ones that I think are too obscure. Others I find have already been done in some way by other artists after researching a bit. I have a few that are in various stages of completion, but I’m not ready to let them go just yet.
TP: Speaking of “One Man’s Trash”, that was one of several pieces you did for the Puppet, Muppet and Marionette art festival in Orlando. What can you tell me about that?
KD: The art festival ran for a few years. It was in conjunction with the Orlando Puppet Festival which was put on by the lovely Heather Henson and her company IBEX Puppetry. It was the first “real” art show that I was ever involved with, and I even sold the Jim and Kermit piece. I did three pieces for that first show in 2011 and three new pieces the following year, where my artwork was hung near the creations of Robert Bennett, the future winner of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge.
TP: Muppet-wise, is that your greatest personal achievement?
KD: Well, it was certainly a pivotal moment for me, and I look back at it fondly. I got to meet Heather Henson, and I usually get to catch up with her once a year when she visits Wisconsin for the International Crane Foundation which she is a board member of. But the thing is, when I get an idea out of my head and finish creating it, I kind of forget about it. So my greatest personal achievement Muppet-wise is usually what I’m working on currently, which will be replaced by whatever I do next.
TP: You use so many different ways to express your art with sculpting, design, illustration; but as an artist, I gotta’ know: what’s your go to medium?
KD: I’m old school. I draw with paper and pencil. Then I ink over the top of it. I’ve tried to make the leap to drawing digitally, but I don’t think I ever will. I like the tactile feeling of the drawing tool on the paper, and I like to have a physical piece of art as opposed to a file stashed away on a drive. Now when it comes to coloring, I’ll scan that artwork and color it in Photoshop. It’s quick, and extremely forgiving.
TP: Louis Henry Mitchell (Associate Design Director of Special Projects for Sesame Workshop) said almost the exact same thing to me about “feeling the paper” to keep your art organic. That advice made a huge impact on me. Who are your artistic influences?
KD: The list of people who influence me artistically is vast. It would probably be easier to list the people that DON’T influence me. Much shorter list. But to answer the question, I’d say Jim Henson, Milt Kahl, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Ward Kimball, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Norman Rockwell, Charles Schultz, Gary Larson, Berke Breathed, Bill Watterson, Joe Matthieu, Maurice Sendak, Theodore Geisel, Bob Staake, Al Hirschfeld, Jack Davis, Mort Drucker, Sergio Aragones, Sam Viviano, Tom Richmond, Steve Silver, Ben Balistreri, Albert Uderzo, Sebastian Kruger, John Kascht. Oh, and that Gene Barretta fella. I know I’m leaving a bunch out, but we don’t have the time and space for the full list!
TP: You mentioned Robert Bennett earlier. You’ve been a big champion of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge on SyFy drawing caricatures of the whole cast. What types of reaction did you get from those guys?
KD: Because of those caricatures, I became Facebook and Twitter friends with all of the contestants as well as the judges (except Brian Henson, who to my knowledge is not on social media). I love that they all check in with me from time to time. It’s a generous and thoughtful group of people.
TP: I think we’ve established that everybody knows Kenny Durkin. You inspire a LOT of other artists. While prepping for this interview, I actually found this cake sculpt someone did based on your Muppets/Ghostbusters parody. What’s it like to know that people just don’t get a kick out of your work but that they strive for your benchmark also?
KD: “Everybody knows Kenny Durkin”? I wish that were true! The Muppet Cake was done by Rocket Cakes and is an example of someone asking for permission to base their design off of my artwork. I can’t tell you how many times I see my artwork blatantly copied by someone else without consulting me, so I really appreciate when I’m asked first. Ultimately, I don’t mind, as long as someone doesn’t claim it as their own or try to make money off of it.
TP: Smig and I have had adventures with stolen work, and that’s just what we’ve caught. Here’s your public voice to directly speak to those art thieves! Whaddya’ got to say to those dopes?!
KD: I had someone rip off my artwork for a Muppet t-shirt design challenge. Thing is, a lot of these people who rip stuff off CAN actually draw. So draw your own artwork. You have talent, now learn some ethics.
TP: Back to the original himself, do you have a favorite personal Muppet piece?
KD: I really like Muppets World of Friendship. (the one with Kermit holding up the big ball of Muppets) It’s not my best artwork, but it represents Kermit’s relationship to the rest of the gang the way I see it. I also was able to cram 39 characters in there, including Walter (before the movie came out) Jim Henson and some of my personal favorites. Ambitious piece, but fun to do.
TP: Yes! I love that one! You make an interesting point that I’m going to condense for the purpose of my next question. Good Muppet fan art isn’t necessarily about capturing the likeness so much as the attitude. It’s Muppety! That being said, I love how you always go for a wide range of expression between all your pieces featuring Kermit. Happy, confused, that scrunched face… do you ever struggle properly interpreting a certain character?
KD: Most of the characters can be distilled down to basic shapes, so those are pretty easy. Piggy has changed so much throughout the years, making her more difficult (I prefer Piggy’s look around season 2 of The Muppet Show). Sam the Eagle’s beak gives me a lot of trouble. Difficult to draw it and have it make sense in perspective. I use the Palisades Muppet figures a lot for reference when I draw. That way I can turn them around and see them in different angles, or see how light and shadows affect their surfaces. Muppets are extremely expressive, even though many don’t have moving features or pliable faces. I like to be faithful to the actual puppet and it’s limitations. I don’t like moving the pupils of the character if they don’t move on the puppet. If the puppet doesn’t have teeth, I never draw teeth. I love that challenge to be able to emote with such restrictions.
TP: As a caricature artist where your goal is to exaggerate features, how do those skills factor in to drawing characters as wild and insane as the Muppets?
KD: When I draw the Muppet characters, I’m doing my version of them, or how I see them, so I guess in a way, they’re caricatures. One thing doing live caricature for so long has taught me is how to draw quickly and how to improvise on the spot. So maybe I incorporate that a bit into the conceptualization of the pieces. Great question!
TP: How long does a piece like Muppets world of friendship take?
KD: I have no idea. I should, but I never keep track. It took me at least three or four days. I usually work all day and night keeping strange hours. There are long bursts of drawing and coloring interrupted by goofing around, staring off into space, etc. It’s a great question, and I have no real answer!
TP: You’re currently working on a “pet project” featuring Muppet performers. One of those performers is the legendary Caroll Spinney whom you recently got to meet and show your piece to! Tell us what that was like!
KD: The Muppet/Sesame performer series was something I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time. I had a basic plan for it, to portray the “original” performers first and then the new group. There are a few overlaps of puppeteers who are in both groups, like Caroll, Frank Oz, Steve Whitmire, etc. I knew I was going to be meeting Caroll Spinney so I chose him first, so he could see it.
Caroll was appearing at Wizard World Indianapolis. He and his wife Debra are so sweet. Caroll had some of his original art for sale on his table as well as prints and photos of him with Oscar and Big Bird for signing. He was one of the only celebrities there that wasn’t charging for photos. I showed him the caricature and gave him a copy and he signed a copy for me. He said it was the best caricature of him he’d ever seen. He kept his copy on the table so he could show it off to everyone else. I showed him the original line art for the piece and he talked about his artwork and how he had applied at Disney in the 1950’s (he said they were working on Sleeping Beauty at the time). Walt Disney was there and although Caroll didn’t get to meet him personally, he did get to watch Walt work on a storyboard pitch for a Donald Duck short. Caroll didn’t get the Disney job, the pay was too low, so he did animation for another company and made enough money to buy the car of his dreams. He’s going to be doing as many conventions as possible, so keep an eye out and be sure to go see him. He’s a wonderful man!
TP: Caroll did a lot of illustrating when he was in the Air Force too. In a way, you two have a lot in common with his artistic background. What was it like to get such high praise from him like that?
KD: I was jumping out of my skin! Every now and then, I get to meet my idol or someone I admire and respect. Outwardly I try to act cool and calm but inwardly I’m losing my mind. I could have listened to him talk all day. I’m sure he’s got some incredible stories.
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by Dave Hulteen, Jr.