Robin Foster is the PhD student and faculty member at Buffalo State who found my hellbenders in my Etsy shop and invited me to the Buffalo Zoo for a visit. More about Robin -- http://www.erie.buffalo.edu/profiles/R_Foster.php
Penny Felski is the Buffalo Zoo’s herpetological manager and is acclaimed in her field. More about Penny -- http://buffalozooblog.blogspot.com/2014/08/keeper-recognition.html
Now to the costume. I came up with an initial design sketch and budget for the costume and submitted it to accompany the grant that was being written for the project. When funding came through, I was given a "Go!" Yes!
I decided to go with microsuede for the same reasons that I had started using it for the plush hellbenders. Fortunately I stumbled across a great sale of upholstery weight microsuede and stocked up. I knew I needed some fairly rigid but lightweight foam with which to build the tail and fill out the shape of the head and found the perfect material in large squares of seat cushion foam.
Certain aspects I knew I would only be able to figure out as I went along. These included the attachment and support for the tail, the connection between the headpiece and the body suit, and practical but effective shoe covers.
Most standard mascot style costumes have a head constructed of pieces of rigid foam that have been glued together and hollowed out to allow for head space. Often they have tiny ventilation systems built in for air circulation. I didn't go with this method because I needed a very large head with a large open mouth and a fairly slim (top to bottom) lower jaw. I was also intent on keeping the weight of the head piece as low as possible. This costume would very likely see outdoor use in the summer months. It couldn't be torturous to wear. It had to be easy to put on, not too hot and have decent sight lines out of the mouth area. So I started with a bike helmet.
I built a basic framework using plastic tubing--to outline the lower and upper jaw--and pieces of plastic mesh--to set the underlying shape of the head. These materials were all zip-tied, strapped and sewn together with arachnid intensity! The worst thing would be for any bit of this costume to fall apart while being worn.
Pieces of cushion foam were trimmed and shaped to cover the mesh framework. These were sewn to each other and to the plastic mesh. Because the head would be positioned for sight lines to be through the open mouth, I found a thin weave, stretchy pink polyester with which to line the mouth. (This is where you learn that the insides of hellbenders' mouths are a very non-threatening, pretty shade of pink.)
Even before I got this far with the head I had tackled the body suit. It was easiest to start with a generic animal costume pattern because I needed a loose, one-size-fits-all body suit that would be easy to get into and allow for the incorporation of those long side wrinkles that are so distinct to hellbenders. There was tremendous yardage involved in assembling the suit and assorted wrinkles. I created long gathered tubes of fabric that I set into the side seams of the suit and under the arms for the distinctive wrinkles. I used the shoe cover design from the existing pattern and adapted it in a way that allowed me to add the five distinct white toe beads to each foot without creating a tripping hazard. Gloves were easy enough. I made a basic glove outline and added puffy white fabric toe beads to the tips of the fingers and an elasticized wrist to slide under the body suit sleeve cuff. Hellbenders have only four toes on their front feet--an important detail that I had to get right in the gloves. Their rear feet are five-toed.
A hellbender tail is like no other tail. I took me seeing one in real life to fully understand the shape and the sinuous way in which the hellbender uses it, and how long the tail actually is in proportion to the rest of the hellbender. I knew the tail would have to be a separate piece of its own, because it had to be long enough in proportion to the rest of the costume to be "realistic". Because of the square footage of the foam that would be used, as well as the weight of the fabric, I came up with a belting system that would hold some of the weight of the tail just below of the waist and partly on the hips of the wearer (sort of like a lumbar strap on a back pack). The tail would have to touch the ground towards its tip, but I used a heavyweight pleather for the underside of the tail that blended nicely with the microsuede. Hellbenders' tails are like a rudder. They don't really have much width, but they have height, with a distinctive curve on their upper edge. (Sorry about the font change. It's a Weebly Ghost in the Machine.)
Throughout this process, my patient and helpful husband Tom (an amazing artist -- visit him at www.thomaspaquette.com) suffered repeated fittings and test runs for various pieces of the costume. He's about in the middle of the range of heights that I was designing the costume for, so that was fortuitous. Thanks, honey!
With a delivery date to the herpetology department at the Zoo to work towards, the final details of the costume came together at an intense rate. This is not unusual for me. Often things don't really gel in the creative process until I step into a zone that is reached through sheer fatigue, lack of daylight, and caffeine. It's like entering an altered state. In fact, I think that's exactly what it is. Some people call it The Zone. I won't answer the phone and any interruption is like being jabbed with a hot poker. Best not to talk to me at these times. I am definitely elsewhere.
You can find my made-to-order plush hellbenders at www.theweebeasties.etsy.com