Bringing a world to life

GREENFIELD — To climb the creaking stairs to Chris Sickels’ studio is to step into Geppetto’s workshop.

The time and the attention to detail given to each of the Greenfield artist’s creations could rival the fabled woodcarver.

There’s a work table covered with paintbrushes and pencils, sketches pinned to the sloped ceiling. And the shelves on the far wall are filled to overflowing with figures of all kinds — a knight dressed in a dollar bill, a woman with an outfit like a hot air balloon, a boy on a bicycle, an Indian boy on an elephant, a man at the helm of a tugboat — each no more than 8 inches tall.

Sickels calls them puppets — although they have no strings — and there are more than 500 of them, 20 years’ worth of creativity fighting for every inch of space on the shelves around the room.

The puppets are only part of his art.

Although he has created illustrations for everyone from the Wall Street Journal to Weekly Reader, Chris Sickels doesn’t like to call himself an illustrator.

“I’m a maker,” Sickels said. “I make things.”

Sickels credits well-rounded instruction at the Art Academy of Cincinnati for his exposure to a variety of artistic media, all of which he uses today in his craft. One of his images, whether for a pharmaceutical ad, the cover of a magazine, an illustration for a book or for the banner that hangs in downtown Greenfield, requires sketching, painting, sculpting, sewing, collage and knowledge of photography.

Sickels’ puppets are made of thick wire, foam, tape, cloth and polymer clay. Each puppet can take between 25 to 40 hours to complete. Sickels makes the puppets and then makes everything needed to create a scene and tell a story. He photographs the scene he has created and submits it to his client as the finished product for an advertisement, a magazine cover or a book illustration.

A current project involves designing wine labels for Blasted Church Vineyards, located in British Columbia. Sickels is reviving some of the puppets he used years ago in a series of labels that tell the origin story of Blasted Church Winery.

The current set of labels will feature some of the original puppets photographed in activities that span the British Columbia experience, including bike riding, snowboarding, hiking, sailing, doing yoga and getting a tattoo.

Blasted Church Vineyards brand creator and adviser, Bernie Hadley-Beauregard, believes Sickels’ eye-catching labels are part of the reason that Blasted Church brand is doing so well.

“His quirky style fits our story,” Hadley-Beauregard said. “He’s part of the reason that our wines are so wildly successful.”

Sickels shoots all his own photos, and he’s quite the perfectionist.

He recalls an image he created for Entertainment Weekly — the time and attention to detail it required.

To get the effect he wanted, Sickels swung a light bulb above the figure and took photos until he got the motion blur he wanted.

Four hundred shots later, he captured the moment that satisfied his artist’s eye.

Throughout his career, Sickels has illustrated several books. His first book was “The Look Book,” which he both wrote and illustrated in 2007. In 2010, he illustrated Jonah Winter’s “Here Comes the Garbage Barge,” followed by “The Beginner’s Guide to Running Away From Home,” written by Jennifer Huget in 2013.

This week, his latest book, “The Secret Subway,” written by Shana Corey, is available in bookstores and online at Amazon. It’s a children’s book about a little known piece of history in New York City: A pneumatic tunnel built by Alfred Ely Beach under the street that used air pressure, generated by huge fans, to move people from one location to another. The tunnel was only a block long, but it helped to get people safely from one end of a busy and crowded section of town to another. It was shut down in 1873 and apparently forgotten until 1912, when it was discovered during the construction of the present-day subway.

Author Shana Corey did the historical research and wrote the text, while her publisher matched her with Sickels for the illustrations.

Sickels created 21 separate puppets, an 1870s New York Skyline, a parlor piano, a horse and buggy, a subway tunnel and the subway car itself out of cardboard, clay and found objects. He then photographed images to fill the 40 pages of Corey’s book.

An added feature of “The Secret Subway” is the inside of the book jacket, which is normally comprised of blank paper. The inside book jacket of “The Secret Subway” reveals the step-by-step process of how the illustrations were created. One photo shows five separate interchangeable heads with different expressions and hairstyles for the figure of Alfred Ely Beach. Another set of photos shows the three stages of the subway car from cardboard tube to the brightly-painted car.

With four children under the age of 11, Sickels tries not to spend more than 40 hours a week in his studio, but he admits it’s hard to turn it off at the end of the creative day.

He appreciates that he has a space outside the house where he can leave and shut the door behind him, but he carries a small notebook with him and often jots down ideas or makes sketches outside his studio.

His children are involved in creative pursuits of their own. His son Owen is 11 and has been a part of KidsPlay children’s theater for three years. His daughter Ava is 8 and performs with Dance East Ballet Academy. Sickels has been more than willing to share his talents with both groups, designing costumes and a set for the dance group and set pieces and props for the theater group.

Sickels’ next project might be to author an alphabet book. With a goal of incorporating more drawing into his photographs, he has 26 photos pinned to the wall of two puppets that create letter shapes with their bodies, surrounded by pen and ink drawings.

Many of Sickels’ ideas start out as jottings on a sticky note before they evolve into a finished project.

“Moving the idea for 2-D to 3-D is the challenge,” Sickels said. “It’s solving a visual problem. “

About this series

“Artists among us” is an occasional series about creative people with Hancock County connections.

Author photo
Christine Schaefer is arts editor and editorial assistant at the Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3222 or