Carisa Swenson’s Curious Creatures and Aberrant Animals


“Brother’s Keeper” ©Goblinfruit Studio / Photo by Steve Harrison Photography

Carisa Swenson of Goblinfruit Studio creates curious critters who seem to have wandered quietly out of a child’s fable of forest creatures, gleaming-eyed and grinning from beneath be-fanged overbites.  Yet for all their grimacing, there is no sense of malice, no reason to fear this peculiar lot;  look closer and you will find something profoundly endearing, familiar, and gentle about this oddball cast of creatures.  Though they are semi-feral fairytale beasties from a dark wood, one gets the feeling from their earnest, even kindly expressions that they, just like anyone, are yearning for a happily ever after.

From the artist’s site:

Carisa Swenson’s passion for creating curious creatures springs from many sources—a love of Greek mythology and Ray Harryhausen’s creations when she was a child, an appreciative eye for Henson Workshop in her teens, to the weird and wonderful films of Jan Svankmajer and The Brothers Quay in her twenties. But when Carisa studied with world-renowned doll artist Wendy Froud, the final die was cast: posable dolls would forever own her soul and trouble her nights, stirring her with a fervor that could only be quelled by stitching and sculpting her dreams into reality.

“Since 2006 Carisa’s work has been featured in several exhibitions and publications, including the Melbourne Fringe Festival, NYU’s acclaimed annual “Small Works Show”, Art Doll Quarterly, and Spectrum 17.

Coilhouse recently caught up with Carisa for a bit of a Q&A; see below the cut for more concerning the Curious Creatures and Aberrant Animals of Goblinfruit Studio.


“Otto” ©Goblinfruit Studio

COILHOUSE: In your bio, you mention that you’ve been creating dolls since 2006, after taking a stop motion animation class – had you always been interested in dolls and posable creatures, and this led you to taking that fateful class, or was this a fortunate fluke from which a consuming passion was born?  Further, I understand that you’ve studied with artist Wendy Froud, which sounds amazing… can you tell us about that?
Carisa Swenson: My fascination with stop-motion, automatons, and fantastical creatures took root when I first set eyes upon Ray Harryhausen’s work in Clash of the Titans, and even more importantly, the Sinbad series (the statue of Kali awakening and wielding six swords will forever stay with me). Action figures had always been a huge part of my playtime as a child, but I had little interest in dolls (with the exception of a much-loved Holly Hobbie rag doll) and a tendency to gravitate towards stuffed animals. Oddly enough, my desire to learn more about stop-motion ended up sparking a desire to create dolls. Before then, I concentrated on illustrating, mostly for fantasy card games and children’s books, but sculpted tiny creatures on the side as a hobby.

Several years ago, when I finally decided to take a stop-motion class, I had that “aha!” moment while working on a model for class. Sculpting and creating a posable model enchanted me and I found it much more engaging than my past experience with illustration. The idea of being able to hold a piece of art in your hands and essentially breathe life in it through touch and interaction appealed to me. Once of the best reactions I witnessed to one of my dolls was at a gallery show—when a young child and her mother went to leave, the girl insisted on saying goodbye to it.

Studying with Wendy Froud was truly wonderful. One of the movies she worked on, The Dark Crystal, was a substantial influence on my work so I was fortunate enough to not only meet her, but learn from her as well.  Passionate about her art, Wendy’s desire to teach others is an inspiration in itself.


“Skinbunny” ©Goblinfruit Studio / Photo by Steve Harrison Photography


©Goblinfruit Studio

Your creations not only have an uncanny whimsy to them, a grotesque charm, but when viewing these creations, one gets a sense that they each have a fantastical story, a unique tale to tell.  How do you go about imbuing these moppets with such life and character?  Is there any particular story about any one of them that you can share?
Like many children, I was fascinated by animals, and spent many hours scribbling out both creatures natural and fantastical. Our four-legged and feathered brethren inspire me in ways sculpting or drawing humans cannot, and allow me to effortlessly imbue my dolls with depth and feelings. My process of sculpting starts with a vague notion of what a doll will look like, or sometimes what their personality will be. However, the dolls often suggest to me what they want to be as I sculpt— often switching gender, species or disposition halfway through their creation. As somewhat of an introvert, my attraction to the trickster mythos seeps into many of my characters.

Generally, my dolls have snippets of a back-story…the rest is up to the viewer. For instance, there’s George…who is somewhat temperamental and destructive, ripping the heads off his playthings; or Edgar, whose peculiar shape was the result of his rabbit mother having a sordid one-night affair with a bonobo. Tara carries around her semi-absorbed twin brother on the back of her head, and Alphonse and Otto Snerk are part of the troupe of pernicious goblins who sought to entrance the sisters of Christina Rossetti’s poem with their tempting goblin fruit.


“Tara & Timmy” ©Goblinfruit Studio / Photo by Steve Harrison Photography


“Tara & Timmy” ©Goblinfruit Studio / Photo by Steve Harrison Photography

Much of my inspiration comes directly from nature itself. My fascination with the natural world and its beauty provides a constant source of wonder and solace. Birds and creatures of the forest all work their way into my creations, in addition to the influence of fairytales and classical mythology. Empty, decaying buildings, rooms and houses stir my imagination with their dusty pasts or potential futures.

Beyond the natural world, other influences for my art stem from the likes of independent video games, which, besides the initial desired interactivity, are a rich source of art and music. (Some of my favorites include Machinarium by Amanita Design, The Path by Tale of Tales, and more recently, Superbrothers’ Sword and Sorcery.)

Some other sources that provide continual inspiration for me are horror movies of the sixties and seventies, stop-motion masters The Brothers Quay, Kihachiro Kawamoto and contemporary doll artists such as Virginie Ropars and Anita Collins. Movies like Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, The Cell (Eiko Ishioka’s breathtaking costumes are truly awe-inspiring), Fantastic Planet (which I discovered through The Cell), and Jeunet and Caro’s The City of Lost Children and Delicatessen have also served as artistic inspiration in the past.

Of course, music plays an important role while I’m working in my studio, helping me conjure that space in which to begin creating. Movie and video game soundtracks, ambient and pagan/spook folk albums have been getting quite a bit of airtime as of late, but I have my moments when I need to listen to some Prodigy, Ministry or Metallica.


Swinebalg by Carisa Swenson ©Goblinfruit Studio


The Plague Doctor by EC Steiner

Tell us about ARS SOMNIUM, your project with King Unicorn (Eric Steiner).   I understand this is a collaboration built upon a concept dredged from the “most fertile playground for artists” – dreams and nightmares.   Sharing dreams for artistic translation sounds like an intimate endeavor in which comfort zones are bound to be breached!
When Eric approached me last year about a possible collaboration, I agreed without hesitation— our style couldn’t be more different, and it would be a compelling experiment to see where this would take our unique artistic vision. Concepts were passed back and forth until we hit upon the idea of sharing descriptions of the numerous denizens that wander, shuffle and glide through our dreamscapes. Once we pass off descriptions, we then actualize each other’s dream inhabitants in our own individual style. Given the subject matter, it could potentially be discomforting…but this
has not proven to be the case. Seeing one’s dream (or nightmare) being through another person’s eyes is fascinating and unexpected. The energy within this project is fantastic, and I’m looking forward to working with Eric on more dolls in the near future.


“Jester” ©Goblinfruit Studio / Photo by Steve Harrison Photography

What future projects are you planning?
Ars Somnium is an ongoing collaboration, so you can expect to see another creation for the project this year, with the next piece straying far from what usually emerges from my studio.

Currently I’m creating several dolls for upcoming gallery shows, but the one self-indulgent project in the works, which I’ve just begun, is a 52-card deck featuring my rabbit dolls. Eighteen new dolls will be created with the suits reflecting the various personalities within my creations. This will most likely take up a good part of my time throughout the rest of 2011 and early 2012.


“Cornelius” ©Goblinfruit Studio / Photo by by Thomas Gotsch

5 Responses to “Carisa Swenson’s Curious Creatures and Aberrant Animals”

  1. OTB Says:

    Charming and fascinating, both the interview and the inspiration behind these creepy but aesthetically pleasing creations. I am quite fond of “Cornelius”!

  2. jake Says:

    Wow, those are some funky animals…love “Cornelius”. Remind me of my grandfather

  3. edgrey Says:

    Amazing artist, thank you for an eye-opening interview! The details in many of these pieces make me feel as if these creatures actually exist somewhere outside of dreams. You just can not help but love characters that are “gleaming-eyed and grinning from beneath be-fanged overbites.”

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