Mity Mite Quilted Twin
acrylic on wood with quilted fabric
36" x 18" x 7"
Standing three feet tall in a quilted jumpsuit made of shiny, orange nylon, Mity Mite Quilted Twin is one of Karl Wirsum’s masterful wooden creations. According to the artist, the puppet—which is activated by hand via a series of wires and strings—is a Martian from outer space. The wooden head, hands, and feet are meticulously painted in the detailed, graphic style of Mesoamerican pottery; these works had become highly influential to the artist following his five-month stay in Mexico in 1961, after graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His fascination with toys is also evident in the work: in addition to the playful inclusion of a pink wooden yo-yo, the Martian’s head is a series of stacked rings reminiscent of a spinning top.
Karl Wirsum’s shift to sculptural works was largely inspired by his admiration of Pablo Picasso and by his favorite holiday: Halloween. Impressed with Picasso’s seamless incorporation of sculptural works into his artistic practice, Wirsum began activating the bold, brightly colored figures he had previously rendered in two-dimensions. He began experimenting with movement and positioning by fastening grommets between segmented cardstock limbs, like those joining the bones of skeletons that hang in windows on Halloween. A temporary move from Chicago in 1971 to teach at California State University-Sacramento afforded him a larger studio and the size of Wirsum’s figures grew accordingly. Eventually his characters transformed into marionettes like Mity Mite Quilted Twin.
Wirsum originally intended that his marionettes, like those he had seen as a child at the puppet theater in Marshall Fields (a space that captivated children while parents shopped) would be used in a live performance. Fellow artist Red Grooms excelled at producing elaborate performances, but Wirsum eventually acknowledged that he lacked the necessary organizational skills. Instead, Wirsum presented the puppets in staged, and often comical, vignettes. In a 1973 documentary about the artist, Wirsum operates Mighty Mite Quilted Twin in the backyard of his California studio.
The Bill McClain Collection of Chicago Imagism, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art