Juliann Wilding wears many hats. She regularly works as an art director, a designer, an artist, and a model, in addition to her day job at a gallery. But she’s become increasingly renowned for her large-scale kinetic sculptures—essentially, puppets—that can be found displayed on their own and as set and wardrobe pieces in performance productions.
“People who know my work and who want me to work with them know that I do a lot of large pieces,” she says.
Wilding’s background is in fashion, though it’s been an ongoing evolution. “I don’t have any formal training. I started making my own clothes when I was like 12, because I come from a big family and we didn’t have any cool clothes, ever. Then people started noticing and asking me to do costumes for plays and stuff. But it was never something that I set out to do.”
She started doing costume design at a young age, in addition to styling and directing fashion shoots. The puppet-like set pieces came later. About five years ago, Wilding found herself underemployed, and explains that she used the extra time to experiment with puppetmaking.
“My friend and I were living in this really dodgy neighbourhood. I was going to leave the neighbourhood, but before I left I wanted to make these puppets that represented the sort of characters we would encounter together.” She quickly learned that making an object that is fully three-dimensional and that someone has to operate presents unique design challenges.
“It was actually really stressful,” she admits. “It’s really hard to make puppets that work properly.” But people would see the puppets and ask her to make more of them, and so it continued.
Each piece takes a lot of time: the wren she made for her latest major project took an estimated 60 hours to complete, and comprises over 2,000 hand-cut and attached feathers. The show, Henri Fabergé’s Heligoland Follies (for which Wilding served as art director and costume designer), was a combination theatre and film piece presented in episodes, and its constant narrative revisions made for a number of excruciatingly tight deadlines. The wren, for instance, was put together over the course of a week.
“Sometimes I’d have this huge piece to make, but I’d have one week or six days to work on it. The bird, for example, I was still putting feathers on like three hours before the show. The same with the turtle [also featured in the show]. I made the shell the night before the show. The rest of the turtle took so long—putting the scales on, and all this stuff—so I only had a night to cut the shell and make it work. I just went for it.” She recalls, laughing, how the turtle’s shell was still drying when she brought it to the venue.
Though Wilding’s pieces are frequently meant to be worn and operated in the context of a larger performance piece, she approaches each object as an individual entity that could be displayed on its own.
“After I started making puppets, then I started to cross this line where costume piece and art object become sort of a gray area. Like, ‘Is this for wearing, or is this for display?’ And I guess the answer is that it’s for both.”
Wilding cites the example of a set of hermaphrodite genitals made for the show, which are worn by one of the characters during a traumatizing scene, as an object made with special consideration for both performance and display. “It just depends on the context,” she says of the piece’s potential presentations.
For her next project, Wilding plans to bridge fashion and artwork. “The pieces will be wearable art, I guess is how you could explain it,” she says. “I’m not interested in the industry of fashion. I’m more interested in the idea of fashion as a conceptual idea that can make you think about other things or have an experience of some kind.”