Dark doll paintings are the stuff of nightmares

American artist Greg Hildebrandt's series of puppet portraits are deeply rooted in nostalgia, lamenting the deterioration of youth.

bedtime story

"Bedtime Story" is probably the opposite of what children want to imagine as they shut their eyes at night...

From saccharine sexpots to macabre marionettes: Greg Hildebrandt made his name back in 1976, creating the iconic Star Wars movie posters with his late brother, Tim. Later, he turned his attention to cheesecake pin-ups in his personal series of "American Beauties", a far-cry from his current project – Dark Dolls.

This series features disturbingly sinister puppets that could be easily mistaken for photographs, but each image is in fact a meticulously crafted, detailed painting of one of Greg's dolls – taken from his extensive personal collection, and they aren't quite as frightening as they seem!

We caught up with Greg himself to discuss what it is about these creepy childhood characters that captivates him...

Where does your love of marionettes come from?


An item from Greg's personal collection - his beloved Pinocchio

The puppets go way back to my childhood in the 1940's. My love of puppets started as a boy getting a haircut at the JL Hudson department store in Detroit, MI. There was an animated puppet circus that went around the entire inside of the barbershop. It fascinated me.

In 1945 Tim and I saw the greatest animated film of all time, Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. I was obsessed with Pinocchio he was more alive for me as a puppet than as a real boy.

I was obsessed with Pinocchio he was more alive for me as a puppet than as a real boy.

Then in 1947 I saw a Disney film titled Fun and Fancy Free; it starred Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd telling stories. I became obsessed with ventriloquist puppets, I went to the library and got books on making ventriloquist puppets and made my own.

Ultimately I made puppets of Charlie McCarthy, Jerry Mahoney, Burr Tilstrom's Kuklapolitan hand puppets, Howdy Doody and the Bill Baird marionettes.

What inspires you about them?

doodie brothers

"Doody Brothers": The dark lighting is very important to Greg in these paintings, at night he sees them come alive on their shelf in his library

As a young man in my twenties I stared collecting puppets. My puppets represent my childhood. But mostly they represent childhood lost and decaying. It is a crumbling past. I have watched my puppets sit on my shelves for years and dry out and crack and decay. This is a significant issue in aging for all of us. We watch our past disappear.

As I paint my puppets I can freeze time and stop the decay. I guess I am saving a piece of my past.

As a child I grew up in Detroit, Michigan. My childhood was like a Frank Capra movie. Small cozy houses stretched down long streets lined with beautiful trees. Neighbors all knew each other and everyone hung out together.

As I paint my puppets I can freeze time and stop the decay. I guess I am saving a piece of my past

My brother, Tim, and I took the bus to go downtown to see movies with a bagged lunch and we were always safe. Today Detroit is a war zone. Everything I knew and loved from that city as a boy has gone to ruin.

My memories are all that remain. My puppets represent not just the loss of my childhood but also the loss of a city I loved.

Why paint them now?

uncle sam

“The Uncle Sam is a good painting but I realised that I was more drawn to my decaying puppets and so I started painting 'Said The Spider To The Fly'.”

I started painting my puppets at the 2013 ILLUXCON show in Allentown, PA. It is a very large show that is devoted to fantastic realism that I do usually every 2-3 years. It was right before I was turning 75 and felt that the time was right to begin a series of art that represented my childhood.

I actually started with a painting of a chalk figure of Uncle Sam and two small chalk carnival figures, which I also collect.

They are real and so I paint them as if they are real - this is what makes them scary to most people

In the 30's and 40's you could win these chalk figures at Carnivals by throwing balls or ring tosses or shooting galleries. They were knocked out figures actually made of plaster, spray-painted and covered in glitter. Truly what Gene Sheppard called slob art and I love them. The Uncle Sam is a good painting but I realized that I was more drawn to my decaying puppets and so I started painting "Said The Spider To The Fly".

said the spider to the fly

"Said the spider to the fly" really captures what Greg intended - the decay of childhood, innoncence turning into something more sinister

The dark lighting is very important to me in these paintings. At night I see my puppets sitting on their shelf in my library. They come to life at night for me. They are real and so I paint them as if they are real and this, I believe, is what makes them scary to most people. They have always been real to me I am not trying to paint them to make them scary. I’m painting their portraits.

How do you prep to create your art?

Greg's collection

Most people would be uneasy with such an extensive collection of aging puppets, but Greg feels right at home in their company

When I paint my puppets I usually start by playing a song from my favorite classic Progressive Rock band Procol Harum. My favorite lyric from one of my favorite songs, Fires Which Burnt Brightly, is:

"Standards and bugles are trod in the dust. Wounds have burst open, and corridors rust. Once proud and truthful, now humble and bent. Fires which burnt brightly, now energies spent."

What is your aim for the project?

greg's collection 1

Greg has quite the collection of vintage toys and dolls - many of which feature in his series

I suppose I will just continue to paint them for as long as I can. Hopefully they will come to life for others as they view them as they come to life for me each day.

I will always paint my Pin-ups and my puppets and only God knows what else. I enjoy change in my art. I don’t want to be known for only one or two things in my career. I love the idea that there is always something unknown and unseen around the next bend in my life. And I don't want to know what it is until I get there.

Words: Greg Hildebrandt

Greg Hildebrandt spends a majority of his time split between his 'American Beauties' pin up art and his work for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, for whom he has designed the tour program every year since 2003.

This is an extended version of an article that originally appeared in ImagineFX issue 125.

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