Dark Creatures and Peculiar Beasts: Inside the Mind of Artist Carisa Swenson

With a background in design and illustration, Carisa Swenson discovered her passion for sculpture after studying with renowned doll artist Wendy Froud (the creator of ‘Yoda’ from the Star Wars franchise). Swenson creates intricate and disturbingly wonderful art dolls that tread a fine line between eerie and cute, asking the viewer to question preconceived notions and even to consider wider social issues at play. Influenced by a variety of sources including the stop motion works of Ray Harryhausen and the Brothers Quay, Carisa is an expert in formulating her dreams into reality, giving her audience a glimpse into an alternate world where perverted animal forms are brought grotesquely to life.

Hi Carisa, can you tell us a bit about what you do as an artist?

Hello, and thank you for this opportunity!
I create sculptures and one of kind art dolls based upon creatures both real and imagined. Most of my dolls are a combination of either Magic Sculpt or Creative Paperclay for the head and limbs, with a wire and fabric body. All are painted with acrylics.

How important is the incorporation of mythology and fairy tale in your work?

Both have been and continue to be a tremendous influence in my work, as I grew up in a household filled with books on Greek, Roman, Norse and Egyptian mythology. My father was a high school English teacher who taught classical mythology, and much of my childhood was spent pouring through his books memorizing the different gods, goddesses and most importantly the fantastical creatures that inhabited them. Not to mention the rather raunchy exploits of the deities…
While many of my pieces are not outright interpretations of these tales, the influence of mythological archetypes and magical creatures is there.

Let’s talk about your use of mixed media. Where do you find the materials that are used in your work and how much does that influence the final piece?

More often than not, the final sculpted piece and costuming tend to work together.  Most of my material is sourced from local fabric, vintage bead and art stores; and when beginning a piece, I have a general idea or feel for the personality or character. This often changes during the sculpting stage. I’ve found it’s better not to force a concept onto a piece that is taking quite a different path. Though I may have a specific textile or color palette in mind, once the sculpting phase of the piece is completed the final expression or attitude of the sculpture ultimately determines what costume and colors a doll will be sporting.

Where do you come up with the ideas for your creatures?

Where there is not a pen or piece of paper to be had! I’ve found that physical activity and leaving my studio allows my thoughts a sense of freedom. Running and taking walks through parks or forests clears my head and provides me with a source of ideas, often effortlessly. Of course, remembering them once I get home is another thing! I also find that going to museums creates an almost meditative atmosphere and allows my mind to wander, to pick up new concepts and ideas as well as break through creative blocks.

Your work often has an eerie quality that seems to pervert the traditional idea of a ‘cute’ animal or doll. To what extent do you think this impacts upon the audience and how important is it for you to play with ideas of culture and society in your work?

I’ve always appreciated the notion ocswenson_ahuizotl_lo_3.jpgf pairing traditionally “cute” animals with a disturbing truth. The book and especially the animated film “Watership Down” certainly speaks to that and not surprisingly has been a huge influence on me since a child. Because I grew up having to live with all the stereotypes our society projects onto female children, and which was in my nature to subvert, I build a sense of unease in my mice, rabbits and other “storybook sweet” creatures. A rabbit will resist and fight just as viciously as any other creature when it must.
Growing older, I’ve found that the desire to incorporate issues into my work, such as how humans treat the environment and wildlife; gender, gender expression and the suppression of, as well as bodily autonomy is becoming more insistent. There is a climate of anti-science, anti-reason, and a persistence of holding fast to tradition right now in the United States that is distressing and I expect that these issues will be explored within my sculptures and dolls in the coming months and years.

Do you have a favourite piece?

Yes. “The Mouse King”, a doll inspired by the Mouse King of The Nutcracker, and hairless mice used in lab experiments. This doll was my first serious attempt at using epoxy clay and a piece that I am truly proud of. Many of my pieces up to that point were sculpted in an air-drying paper clay and had minimal detailing. Working with this new medium allowed me to get lost in the piece and discover a new sculpting style. It is also my first creation that felt much darker than any of my former pieces and allowed for a greater expression of my somewhat morose nature.

What, in your opinion, does ‘creativity’ mean?

Allowing yourself the freedom to let go of self-conscious thought and briefly transcend the mire of rationality to produce something which taps into your passion and joy.

What is the future of your artwork? What would you like to do that you have not already done?

There is still so much to do, and I have an ever-growing list of projects to accomplish! Right now, I’d like to explore the lives and worlds my creatures inhabit and allow them to have more of an existence then just sitting on shelves…whether that is through animation, puppets, or a book, I haven’t yet decided—there is much I have to explore within my stable of characters and personalities. Outside of my dolls, I would absolutely love to put my sculpting talents towards film or education, such as museum work.

What would your advice be to anyone interested in getting involved in the art world?

Having talent is wonderful and certainly helps, but you need more than that to achieve your goals. You need to be willing to sacrifice time on a consistent basis in order to improve—at the very least commit to devoting a half hour of your day to your craft. Be open to constructive criticism. I’ve noticed this concept has been lost as of late, and the idea of “constructive criticism” is now seen as just “criticism”. If you ask for someone’s opinion, try to let go of your ego and just LISTEN instead of defending your art. Often I see young artists ask for a critique, but what they really want to hear is that their art is brilliant.
You must actively pursue artistic avenues…expecting to only do your art and have galleries, publishers, etc stumble upon your work and propel you to stardom is unlikely. Many artists I know who have reached even a modicum of success have been toiling and working for years (10+) on their art (often not even fulltime)! Always be a profwilliam.jpgessional in your communications and how you present yourself. Don’t take things personally. Get rejected? It’s going to happen. Not everyone is going to like what you do. While it’s disappointing, sometimes it can work out for the better and push you in a new direction. Most importantly? Find your own voice. To be inspired by an artist’s work is one thing…copying their style is quite another. Don’t grab that low hanging fruit — make your art truly YOURS.

MA Project Summary:





          My project looks at the relationship between play and child development. The aim of the project is to boost creativity in children by introducing a play workshop programme into the current academic curriculum.

IMPROV 2 IMPROVE is a workshop programme specifically designed to optimise the creative potential of children in the UK school system and bring more play based learning into the current curriculum. This intervention is based on educational psychology and focuses on the 7-11 age range. My project aligns with the ideas of the Too Much, Too Soon campaign launched by the Save Childhood Movement. This political advocacy group seeks to ‘re-establish the early years as a unique stage in its own right and not merely a preparation for school’ and ‘reinstate the vital role of play’[1] as an alternative to baseline testing, although my project looks at the later years of primary education.

By providing a structured weekly workshop programme (minimum three weeks) the aim of this project was to enhance and develop the child’s own creativity, building on their social skills as an access point for unleashing their creative drive. The programme was well informed and developed by adapting teambuilding activities sourced from areas such as theatrical improvisation[2], and the business environment[3].

 I talked to a number of stakeholders[4] who informed me that we have a real issue in our national school system of denigrating creativity. Children are currently measured half-termly on the three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic), with creative play experiences valued lower than a child’s academic success. However, when you start to look at brain development and the psychological implications that lack of play has on a child, research[5] shows that the vocabulary developed in creative play contributes to the overall success of the child in the academic environment.

Working with schools in Surrey[6], Kent[7] and Greater London[8], I looked at the impact of play workshops on the creativity and social skills of children aged 7-11. Using creativity tests[9], I was able to judge the impact of the workshop programme on the children and the extent to which their creativity was enhanced. Comparing results from the first and last week, my findings indicated that incorporating more play into the school curriculum helped develop a child’s creativity, fostering new skills learned through creative play and helping to enhance the social adjustment of the child in the academic environment.[10]

My project continues to evolve with help from the Save Childhood Movement who have invited me to continue my work with them and publish my research in an educational journal. My programme seeks to optimize creative potential wherever it is needed and I continue to develop my project into a tool for use as a creativity boosting package for wider application. I have learnt a lot about myself over the course of this year, learning new skills such as project management and increasing my view of the role of creativity in all our lives. It hasn’t always been easy but even when I was stressed, I now realize how much it helped my personal and social development, enhancing my listening skills and forcing me to constantly re-evaluate and define what I wanted to achieve.

[2] Discussions with director Sasha Damjanovski, actors (eg. Imogen Vinden North) and using research into play based games.

[3] An example of this being the inclusion of research by strategist Giovanni Schiuma and his work on Arts Based Initiatives (Schiuma, G. 2011. The Value of Arts for Business. Cambridge University Press, UK)

[4] An example being Ofsted Inspector and Educational Consultant, Christine Newell

[6] Cleves School (

[7] Seal Primary School (

[8] Wimbledon Common Preparatory School (

[9] Tests developed using the work of Klaus K. Urban and based on the works of J.P. Guilford/Ellis Paul Torrance (

[10] Impact discussed in debrief sessions with the teachers I was working for. Results inputted into spreadsheet to form holistic view of impact.



A fellow student on my Masters course asked me to write a short story envisioning a future society in the year 2100. Here is what I came up with (thanks Kassi for the challenge!):



I feel the rush of adrenaline as the caffeinator shoots liquid energy into my limp body, and my heart starts pounding at the same rate as my head.

Another goddamn morning in Machiavelon’s world’ I think bitterly to myself as the dress screen selects the day’s outfit for me.

I unhook the sleep machine from my head and stand up. Computer bugs scamper across the floor, already going about their business in preparing me for “A YOU KINDA DAY” as the campaign slogan goes.

I miss the old days.

It’s been twenty six years now since they came down and rearranged the planet.


I was only fifteen when they put us into the training camps. No one saw it coming. The influx of information they supplied us with was overwhelming and for a few years it seemed like our troubles were over. No one cared about climate change anymore. HE fixed that. All our worries seemed to disappear as we celebrated the coming of a glorious new age.

Then, slowly, things changed.

All our advances in technology turned against us and we were powerless to stop it. They used OUR creations as a tool to control us.

Jesus, just thinking about it gives me a headache.

I reach for the glass I keep beside my assigned sleeping pod and take a long drink of tepid water, or rather what they pass off as water nowadays. This “liquid energy” they provide us with is swimming with nano-bots and electro-spores that are supposed to numb us from any negative thoughts against Machiavelon, the central control hub that keeps us in line.

Jobs were eradicated years ago after the machines took over. Why waste our precious energy when they could do the dirty work for us? Nowadays all we can do is try to survive long enough to get the “CompPoints” needed for the flight away from this place. Not that that will ever happen.

Empty promises.

After taking my food pill for the day, I wander down to THE SQUARE for the daily newsfeed, hoping that today might be the day when someone gets close enough to pull the plug, although deep down I know it could never happen.

After the Knowledge Uprising was crushed, no one thinks much about hope anymore.

At least we have that I guess; our one twisted victory.


As hard as they try, they can never change our minds.

Central St Martins MA Project – APPLIED IMAGINATION

Hey everyone!

Wow, it has been a long time since I have updated my blog but I have been super busy with my Masters, working on some amazing projects and developing some of my own interventions in society. I want to share everything I have been doing with you all and will be updating this blog with all the latest news from my final project!

My Masters degree is in ‘Applied Imagination in the Creative Industries’, which is just about as cool as it sounds 😀 For the final exhibition, which we are currently organising as a group to be held in early December, we have to complete a creative project that shows how well we can integrate our creative ideas into society, preferably in a space where we see something lacking or needing some creative juice. 

For my project, I have been on a roller-coaster ride of ideas ranging from explorations in ‘pataphysics to writing my own avant-garde play. I have honed my skills and ideas and am currently developing a series of workshops for emotionally disadvantaged children to boost self esteem and confidence using creative games based on theatrical improvisation (among other things) and using a research base founded in psychotherapy, sociology and art therapy. I am in the exciting stage of writing out my lesson plans to be carried out in a few local junior schools who have asked me in to carry out my work with children aged 7-11.

So far, my research has led me down some fascinating roads and I am really looking forward to see how all of my hard work will benefit a young generation of future creatives!


I was fortunate enough to get tickets for a limited run of the Tiger Lillies bizarre interpretation of the Shakespearean classic, a showing of only five performances in the UK. For those not familiar with the Tiger Lillies, they are a musical trio who play what is best described as ‘punk cabaret’; a blend of lead singer Martyn Jacques self taught castrati vocal style and the eccentric instruments used during a performance.

A profound vaudevillian, Jacques leads the audience through a darkly comical reimagining of the Shakespearean tragedy, holding together the key elements of the play with the combination of musical interpositions and a troupe of performers who fully engage with their characters, as well as imaginative stage design that often provides visual indications of the story.

The play begins with Jacques (complete in his customary fairground makeup) entering the stage in front of a large curtain, from which the actors heads protrude through various holes in the material. The characters are introduced to us with the recitation of key lines as Jacques barks a tale of sin and avarice accompanied by his accordion, which draws upon the audiences’ previous knowledge of the play, creating a sense of foreboding for the characters inevitable fates. After a soliloquy from Hamlet, the stage curtain is lifted to reveal one of the play’s most visually powerful stage sets, a large table set at a horizontal angle toward the audience. A dizzying sense of vertigo is achieved as Hamlet takes his place at the wedding party table with his mother and uncle as Jacques enters the stage to sing the song King is Dead. The actors move in slow motion as the song progresses, a stylistic motif that is carried through the play at certain stages to enhance or delay action sequences.

Moving on to the appearance of the ghost, Hamlet’s late father is presented to the audience as a projection on to the bare chests of the cast who form a group onto which the face speaks. As the dead king speaks, the group itself sways back and forth in a ghost like manner, adding to the surreal quality of the scene but also enhancing the feeling of anonymity one gets from the players themselves. They are in some ways interchangeable, often playing background characters or even set pieces as well as their primary role. This is seen most clearly with the introduction of ‘Rosencrantz’ and ‘Guildenstern’, two characters who remain mere whispers of themselves, performed through the character of Hamlet himself. He uses the actors around him to perform a sort of puppet show that reflects his most memorable conversation with his two old friends, a comic interposition and one that provides a light reflection of a later scene where the main actors apart from Hamlet are strung up like marionettes to perform the play-within-a-play.

One of the most visually decadent moments in the play is demonstrated through the character of Polonius, a masked player who is both comical and surreally twisted in form. The scene where Polonius talks with his daughter about the dangers of getting too close to the prince makes wonderful use of the recurring stage set; a large wall with areas cut out to create windows and doors. Polonius’ head pops up at the top of this wall as Ophelia runs about on stage. Suddenly, she is captured by two enormous arms that spill out from the same window as Polonius. Gertrude and Claudius take control of the arms and Ophelia is swept up with the use of wire rigging to be thrown about by Polonius’ all consuming hold. Wire rigging is used throughout the play to create several effects. During Ophelia’s ‘dream’ sequence, Hamlet and Ophelia perform a delicate and intricate aerial dance, a unique look at the intimacy between the two characters that is only hinted at in the original play. Similarly, Ophelia’s drowning is symbolised by the actor walking horizontally up the wall (via a wire) onto which an image of water is projected, a slow and powerful scene that is heartbreakingly emotional.

The final scene is one of the most interesting in terms of stage direction. Instead of facing each other during the final swordfight, Hamlet and Laertes stand toward the audience either side of Claudius and behind Gertrude who takes her place at the centre front of the stage. The action progresses in a series of slow motion sword attacks and parries toward the audience as the actors stare dead ahead, a Brechtian take on the memorable tragic end of the play. As the characters find their target, the action is suddenly played out in real time so that the silence of the previous action is dramatically disrupted with the cries of the actors. As the scene closes, after the death of the queen and the three final leads, the Tiger Lillies emerge for a final time to sing the breathtaking Desolation Song, a stunning finale with lyrics that sum up the play wonderfully.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance, counting it among one of the top five most sublime and powerful plays I have ever witnessed. The direction was well thought out and invoked the Brechtian practice of ‘epic theatre’ to distort the audience’s perception of the theatre space, as well as beautifully designed stage sets that were simple impressions of a castle wall or the chambers of Ophelia for example. At times, the actors would engage with the audience, particularly poignant when Hamlet appointed the audience to almost sing along with the song 1,2,3,4. The actors themselves seemed to be occasionally aware of the Tiger Lillies but never directly interacted with them. This created an interesting effect as the band appeared as manifestations of the characters own inner beings, lyrically voicing their thoughts.