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Before we delve into the intricacies of hellbender costume creation, I'd like to highlight two women who are doing a tremendous amount to contribute to academic and public understanding and appreciation of hellbenders.
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!
Building something of this scale was going to require a work surface of a size and flexibility that I didn't have. In fact, it required an entire room. There was only one option. I took over a tiny room in our house that previously had housed just bookshelves and a futon. The futon was evicted and I "borrowed" my husband's gessoing surface (a varnished hollow core door) and set up two cube style bookshelves bought at Lowes to support the door. This provided a work surface at a perfect standing height. I cut and shaped pieces on this surface and sewed standing at it as well. The metal bodied school model Nelco sewing machine I'd bought at a "last year's model sale" was up to the task.
I've built a lot of costumes over the years, but nothing that presented the challenges of the hellbender costume. I've created wearable pieces that were built on an armature, but the hellbender involved aspects that took a lot of thought and engineering. The costume had to be comfortable, breathable, safe, friendly-looking, durable, as washable as possible, and sized to accommodate various heights of wearers. Oh, and it also had to look like a hellbender.
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.
Fortunately, this "honeycomb" style helmet provided many places to attach armature as I constructed it.
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.)
On top of this came the "skin", which I cut and fitted upside down like a puzzle until I had the smoothest fit possible over the understructure. The icing on the cake of the head involved sewing on the fabric-wrapped wire settings for the eyes and setting in those eyes. Thanks to Jennifer Miller, another gifted artist friend of mine (visit her at http://www.featherdust.com/), I learned that clear acrylic half round cabochons work wonderfully for large animal eyes. I tracked some down on EBay and set circles of amber yellow handmade paper under the cabochons to mimic the distinct yellowish eye of the hellbender. I was thrilled with how the eyes turned out, but unfortunately they don't show up well in photographs because of their highly reflective surfaces.
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.)
The tail I created not only needed to be strapped to the waist of the wearer for support, but I had to figure out a way to attach it to the body suit. Vertical strips of velcro that pair with the velcro closures running down the back of the suit were the answer. This took some machinations and forehead wrinkling to figure out. And a lot of time. In the end, the tail is over five feet long. I think. I forgot to measure it, but it's huge.
My last big technical challenge was figuring out the transition from the head to the body. Hellbenders don't really have a transition zone here. They don't exactly have a definitive narrowing at the neck. The width of the head of the costume had to run down, without any significant narrowing, to meet the width of the shoulders of the wearer. It worked best in the end to have the fabric "hood" hang down and closely drape around the shoulders, creating as non-necky a look as possible. This should work well if the costume wearer doesn't try doing handstands or back flips.
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!
Well now...when the day of delivery arrived, I was more than a little nervous. This project had consumed me for a significant stretch of time. I was practically cross-eyed at this point and wasn't sure the costume even looked like a hellbender, even though I'd had a bulletin board full of hellbender glamour shots by my side for reference and inspiration throughout the building process. I had lost all objectivity, which is totally normal, but totally unnerving.
The body suit, gloves, boot covers and head fit into a large plastic tote bin, along with instructions, a written promise to fix or alter any part of the costume if ever needed, and a set of brown scrubs to wear underneath. We knew it was likely there would be a variety of people wearing this costume, and the ability to be comfortable in it, as well as launder it, were considerations. The scrubs would provide a cool, comfortable and washable under layer, and the body suit, gloves and shoe covers could be gently washed if necessary. The monstrous tail was delivered in its own garment bag. (The font bugaboo strikes again.)
As we unpacked the costume behind the scenes in the herpetology department at the Buffalo Zoo, the reactions of Robin, two interns and another staffer assuaged my fears that I'd missed the mark. They were enthusiastic and joyful. Both interns tried on the costume (one of them quite tall, one of them petite) and gave it a test run. We staged a photo session outside the nursery. The real hellbenders remained unimpressed.
Thanks for reading!
You can find my made-to-order plush hellbenders at www.theweebeasties.etsy.com
How is it possible to grow up playing in the woods and streams of northwestern PA and not learn about hellbenders until you've gone away and done grown-up things and then come back to settle where your roots are deepest? I certainly knew about mudpuppies--the hellbender's smaller, frilly-gilled relative--but if it weren't for my friend Lainard (a gifted artist--visit him at lainardbush.com) I might never have had my life enriched by these fascinating giant salamanders. I became immediately entranced by these strange and otherworldly creatures and felt compelled to learn more about them.
Here are a few astounding facts about hellbenders:
--They are the third largest salamander in the world, exceeded only in size by the Japanese Giant Salamander and the Chinese Giant Salamander, yet they are native to the Appalachians.
--They have remained unchanged for 65 million years. Obviously they've got something figured out.
--They can live as long as 50 years and grow up to 30 inches long.
--They are not poisonous, dangerous, aggressive or spawned from Hell.
--They have been heavily persecuted by fishermen. However, they do not compete with anglers for prize catches. They prefer crayfish.
--They are a fresh water indicator species, and they're not doing so well these days. Surprise, surprise.
--They are very shy and prefer to spend daylight hours hiding under large flat rocks in swiftly moving streams and rivers.
For visual reference, here are the Chinese and Japanese Giant Salamanders. Enormous.
Because I make soft sculpture creatures and am especially drawn to the mythological and cryptozoological, there was no question that I needed to figure out how to make a fabric hellbender. A hellbender that could be hugged. A hellbender devoid of the clear slimy substance they exude when stressed (for instance, when being handled by humans).
I make my own patterns for my fabric creations, and this involves a throw-caution-to-the-wind combination of guesswork, trial and error, mental calculation and visualization. I break down the parts that are needed to create a three dimensional piece and sketch templates on scrap paper. I've been doing this for a long time, both with theatrical costuming and soft sculpture, so generally prototypes are not total disasters. Little did I know how much you can NOT know about a hellbender and how it really looks until you hold one in your surgical-gloved hands. (More on that experience later.)
I created my first pattern based on photos like this:
Which part is hellbender and which part is rock? How "tall" is this creature? Is its body flat or round? Is that a ridge or a divot along it's back? I really couldn't figure out the tail at all, so I made some wild guesses. Naturally, I didn't end up with a creature that looked very much like a hellbender. Sorry about that, Lainard. (He received Hellbender 1.0 as a gift.)
Then I started playing around with patterned fleeces that had an underwatery look to them. Quite a few hellbenders came out of my workshop with a funky tail and pointy heads. Sorry to whoever bought them. At some point I saw some more images that helped me grasp details about the tail, so I made a few more adjustments to my pattern.
Fortuitously, a hellbender researcher discovered my hellbenders through my Etsy shop--The Wee Beasties--and ordered some. Thus my world (my hellbender cottage industry world, that is) was blown open, and some great opportunities came along. This particular researcher is working on her doctorate at Buffalo State and had some kind words to say about my plush hellbenders; namely, that they actually looked like hellbenders. I learned that the Buffalo Zoo has a hellbender nursery and for several years has been raising hellbenders from eggs to release them into both the Allegheny and Susquehanna Rivers. The populations are being monitored for health and reproduction success, with summer field work teams measuring and microchipping hellbenders in key areas. I was invited to visit the Buffalo Zoo and have a behind the scenes tour of the hellbender nursery, and this was a fantastic experience on a variety of levels. Huge aquariums house small groups of young hellbenders. The aquariums are furnished with large flat river rocks and upside down halves of PVC pipe, providing cozy hidey-holes for the hellbenders. I got to hold a hellbender and look at hellbenders from every possible angle. Robin Foster, my Buffalo State contact, and the zoo's herpetology staff were incredibly welcoming and patient with my questions. I think we are all more than a little in love with hellbenders, so it was like meeting fellow members of a very unique club.
For a quick excursion to learn more about hellbender research at the Buffalo Zoo...
I learned a tremendous amount during that visit, including the fact that I had the head and eyes of my plush hellbenders all wrong, as well as the distinct silhouette of the tail and the fact that each toe is tipped by what looks like a little white ball. The head is squarish and the eyes are tiny and yellowish. Uh-oh. It was time for another redesign and I also had to add a chunk of hand-sewing time to the creation of each plush hellbender. I also revisited the fabric I was using. I could no longer find the fleece patterns I had originally used, and after seeing hellbenders up close and in the flesh, I thought that a faux microsuede would be best for capturing the distinct chocolate brown color and shininess of a hellbender's skin. Hellbenders are distinctly wrinkly, with wavy "lasagna folds" along their sides. Though they do have vestigial lungs, they breathe primarily through their skin and this extra surface area gives them more "breathing room". Hellbender 3.0 isn't as wrinkly as I'd like, but I do have a suggestion of skin flaps along the sides.
Just previous to my terribly exciting and enlightening visit to the Buffalo Zoo (truly, it was a wonderful day), I learned from Robin that the researchers, the Zoo, and regional watershed conservation groups were interested in having a hellbender costume to use at educational events. When I mentioned persecution earlier on in this post, I wasn't exaggerating. Hellbenders, thanks to old wives' tales, have been indiscriminately killed for years due to false perceptions. Anglers have seen them as competition. They are not. Everyone and their mother thought they were poisonous or would bite your fingers off. They are not and would not, although what little ridges they have for dentition could probably bruise you if they had the chance to clamp down on your digits. On top of this, hellbender populations seem to have difficulty maturing these days. They thrive in fresh water. Polluted waterways remain a problem. There are obviously a few different issues that could be pinpointed by a "Hug a Hellbender" PR campaign.
Time for a friendly, huggable, larger than life mascot!
Coming next: Part II -- The Costume