Stepping into Matt Ficner’s home, an Ottawa-born-and-raised puppeteer and artist, feels like stepping into an alternate world where steampunk aesthetics and fantastical creatures shake you out of your mundane reality and plunge you into a space where imagination can give life to an infinite number of beings, each one more curious looking than the next.
His studio, which is home to hundreds—if not thousands—of figurines, characters, props and puppets, is equipped with every tool and material one can imagine in a workshop, from paint to fabric to leatherwork, sculpting and casting tools to industrial cutting machines and 3D printers. Ficner seems to have every tool and material available to manifest his ideas and create around him the world that lives inside his head.
The self-taught puppeteer, sculptor, illustrator, animator and prop and figurine maker has been creating for over 30 years, having brought to life everything from robot figurines and life-size puppets for television shows, to quirky animated characters.
As a teenager, Ficner was interested in robotic engineering, but after spending some time exploring that field, he found that it lacked the imagination and excitement that fueled his creativity, so he launched himself into puppetry instead. His robotics background complimented his creative side, and he used the biomechanics, kinetic and problem-solving aspects of robotics to help him create expressive and captivating puppets.
Ficner describes puppetry as theatre for shy people. Through puppets, he finds different voices and personalities to express himself. He particularly enjoys the storytelling aspect of puppetry and character-making. When meeting a puppet, figurine, or character, the audience should already get a sense of who that character is and its story.
Ficner started his career making props, sets and staging for TV shows and movies, and eventually landed an apprenticeship with Noreen Young, the famous Canadian producer and puppeteer, and the creator and Executive Producer behind Under the Umbrella Tree, the popular kids’ show on CBC. Puppetry has also allowed Ficner to work with several interesting individuals, including the opportunity to hang out with legendary actress Betty White during her guest appearance on a Christmas special.
After leaving television in the early 2000s, Ficner rekindled his love for illustration and incorporated it to his puppetry by diving into animation, which he describes as digital puppeteering. A recent project he worked on is House Hippo 2.0, which revived the infamous House Hippo televised public service announcement that aired in the ’90s to teach children not to believe everything they see on TV.
Ficner describes puppetry as theatre for shy people. Through puppets, he finds different voices and personalities to express himself.
A few years ago, Ficner became a father, and the birth of his son gave him a new perspective. He became determined to hold onto his sense of whimsy and imagination, while encouraging his son to pursue his dreams, follow his passions, use his imagination, and take risks.
After spending almost three decades creating for others and servicing the industry, Ficner rediscovered his own passions and decided to pursue them now before it was too late. He explains that he is both fascinated and disheartened when adults lose that sense of wonder and magic as they grow up, and through his art, he hopes to give people of all ages the opportunity to imagine and create their own story.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also encouraged Matt to pursue and create more personal and expressive work, as it forced him pause and reflect on the things he is curious about, what they are there for and where they are taking him.
Matt is now working on handmade series and custom figuring which he calls “Toyette” in style—a mix between sculpture and toy, colourful and whimsical creatures and monsters that elicit curiosity and imagination, without being frightening or evil. He describes his figurines as mischievous goblins who are tricksters and silly, but also caring and endearing. His monsters are weird and peculiar enough to have you raise an eyebrow, but they quickly grow on you and become lovable creatures with their own stories.
The Toyettes are available to the public as small collectibles produced in a limited number. Each figurine is expressive and detailed, and tells its story while still leaving something to the imagination. Each creation is one of a kind as small details are added post-casting and carefully painted by hand.
In addition to creating collectible figures and custom creatures, Ficner is looking at how he can give back to others, while keeping the art of puppetry alive and helping others hold onto their sense of wonder and imagination. He is working on offering a series of workshops once social distancing measures are lifted, but in the meantime, he is available to work one-on-one either creating a custom piece for a client or helping them with their own work and skills. Ficner wants to give the opportunity for others to express themselves as he has started to do.