Artist Chelsea Bayouth specializes in work that’s a bit…off. From a distance, her animal masks and sculptures have a touch of sweetness, but as you get closer, you see how disfigured they are, complete with loopy bloodshot eyes and snaggleteeth. Bayouth, who’s based in L.A., has also worked on puppets for the beloved stop-motion animated series Robot Chicken, on Adult Swim. Like most of the offerings on that channel, the show is unsettling, endearing, and super odd. Which means it’s just Bayouth’s cup of tea. We asked her to tell us what makes her tick, and she filled us in on her apocalyptic fantasies, her favorite movies, and the downmarket food she cannot stop eating.
1) Tell us how you started making puppets and masks. What drew you to that medium?
I started making puppets and masks at CalArts when I took a puppetry and mask-making course. But growing up, I loved playing dress up—I still do—and I loved dolls. Seeing the Lion King stage play was really impactful to me as a kid. That, and there were always costumes and masks floating around my home. We were just that kind of family. We had close family friends that worked in special effects, so there were always gigantic foam heads rolling around in our garage, or something being sculpted, and smelly effects kits filled with fake blood and glass eyes. We had a huge steamer trunk of costumes in the living room that I’d dig around in (and leave all over the house) after watching any movie that inspired me. My dad also knew how to do prosthetic makeup. Once, he did full ape makeup on himself just to go to the grocery store.
There’s something about becoming something else—about portraying a character’s movements and life that I was, and continue to be, endlessly fascinated by. The things we can become while performing blows my mind. Parts of our psyche we didn’t even know were there become unlocked; we can be anyone when we aren’t ourselves. Seeing puppetry and masks can be so awe-inspiring for both the performer and audience. We all become children in moments like that. What I love most is that it puts me back into a frame of mind where I can play. It’s freeing. Mostly what I like to do is scare people. There are few things that give me a rush quite like being masked and freaking people the fuck out.2) I love that your work has a sweet/homemade feeling, but also a dark and creepy vibe. How do those two elements come together for you?
That’s an interesting question. I feel like that sums up a lot of who I am. I feel like a paradox: I’m Laura Ingalls Wilder meets Catwoman from Batman Returns. I love wholesome family comedies and most rom-coms, but Antichrist is my favorite movie. I love going to Glen Ivy Spa, but I also fantasize about a meteor hitting it and all the pampered ladies running around, screaming in towels.
Looking at that closer, I love folk art and other femmy art practices, but I also want to scramble that all up. Women have been making sweet crafty things forever, so what happens when those same techniques are applied and the outcome isn’t pretty, or sweet, or prim? I think that creeps people out even more, because women still have this idea to live up to: that they’re good, and clean. Whenever I take off my mask at a party or event, especially if my body has been heavily disguised, people are always shocked that I’m a lady. I like to jostle people’s expectations. I guess I feel like all of us have a shadow side, but most people are more adept at concealing it. I embrace the duality, and in that you have the brand of art I create. I think it calls to that darkness we all carry.
3) Who are some of your fave female creep heroines?
I love this question! Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo inspire me a great deal. They’re both creepy surrealist painters who use humor, occult, sexuality, beasts, and alchemy in their work and it strikes a chord in me very, very loudly. I know the world that exists in their work—I’m certain I visit it when I sleep. I absolutely love Gillian Flynn, too. The women she portrays in her novels are dirty, unlikeable, and detrimentally flawed, and they challenge female stereotypes in a way that makes people extremely uncomfortable. Some people find her characters unsettling, but they make me giddy. She did an interview on The View about her book Gone Girl, and the ladies were so creeped out by her. It’s hilarious. And Camille Bachand is an artist who I just completely love. Her work is unlike anything I have ever seen…it’s this hilarious, uncanny, hills-have-eyes amalgam of down and out characters in a moment of their everyday lives. It highlights individuals who exist at the fringe of normalcy, but who are found all around us, should we look close enough.
4) Beyond puppets and masks, you write poetry and draw as well. (What a Renaissance woman!) Are your drawings and poetry heavily tied into your sculptural work, or do they all exist separately?
I think all of my work is absolutely tied together. It’s all being channeled from the same place, but sometimes it just needs a different skin. My daemon is a fickle one.
5) If you could travel in time, what would be your top 3 destinations/periods?
That’s a hard one. There are so many reasons not to pick any other time than now, because of the lack of medicine, inequality, and political and social unrest. BUT the 1850s in America was a time of so much growth and expansion, both physically and scientifically. I would love to have been part of that energy: the Gold Rush was happening, land was for sale everywhere, slavery was almost abolished, and germ theory had just taken the world by storm. It was the Wild West in so many ways! Another would be 1920s Paris. It would be so cool to live in a flat during the Surrealist movement, drink cognac from tiny glasses, rub elbows with Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, take lovers, and talk about seriously our dreams and nightmares over dinner. But probably first on my list would be living in a Native American tribe circa North America before British colonization. Or as a medicine woman in Europe sometime before the rise of Christianity. How amazing would it be to navigate the Earth and her cycles as well as we can navigate our phones?
6) What are your other obsessions right now? (Could be food, pop-culture, art…)
I’ve been eating instant mashed potatoes almost everyday for about two years. I just love them. I crave them all the time. I’m also in a green-tea phase and a seltzer-water phase. And Russ Meyers movies—I want to be a big busty ’60s babe in winged liner with a bad attitude. (Minus all the raping.) I’m also having a Big Daddy Roth moment in my wardrobe; I have a favorites list on my Etsy called Das Supervixen, complete with red denim pencil skirts. What else? Baby Lips lip balm from CVS, Stila eyeliner, oh, and green plums from the farmers’ market that only come into season in early September. They’re called Emerald Beauties.
7) What does it mean to you to be a grown ass lady?
To me, being a grown ass lady means rolling up your sleeves and getting to work. Making your dreams come true. Putting the hours in. Working on your self spiritually and psychologically. Admitting when you’re wrong, or in over your head, but never giving up. Remaining playful and having fun, but not at the expense of others. Being kind but headstrong. Knowing when to walk away and knowing when to stay. Allowing yourself indulgences for hard work and allowing your self to love and be loved, wholly. Why else are we here?
To check out more of Chelsea’s work head to her site!