Puppets and ME: An interview with Corina Duyn

irish times_colour photoCorina Duyn is a creator based in Ireland whose mastery of a wide range of art forms would in itself be an inspiration to anyone, yet is made all the more impressive when her challenges with Myalgic Encephalopathy, sometimes better known as Chronic fatigue Syndrome (CFS), are taken into account.

Although we were sadly too late to include her film Life Outside The Box in our BFP17 programme of films at the Watershed, this highly acclaimed work, facilitated with her fellow members of the Irish Wheelchair Association (IWA) at the Dungarvan Resource Centre is the most recent in a long line of artistic successes. We caught up with Corina to find out more about this incredible artist.

Hello Corina, and thank you for taking the time to speak to us today. May I start by asking a little bit about your background and how you came to be involved with puppets?

Yes, of course. I grew up in Holland and started making dolls from the age of 10, later going on to train with the amazingly talented and renowned doll maker Marlaine Verholst. I went on to study nursing and social care and moved to Lismore in Ireland in 1990. It was there I started to become known for making my clay ‘Fantasy Folk’ dolls. These dolls found their way into collections around the world including Holland, Japan, Australia, Canada and the USA.

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My last major commission in 1997/98 before my illness was for the Waterford Crystal company where I made fifteen 30cm dolls of the people on their factory floor. My then partner and I made all the machinery to scale and Waterford Crystal contributed by supplying glass at each stage of the manufacturing process to the same scale as the dolls. This commission was displayed in their visitor centre for several years with the dolls and one piece of the beautiful miniature glass being returned to me when the company sadly closed. It was also at this time I started to teach puppet making to students from Finland and to a group here in Ireland. It was then in 1998 that my health deteriorated significantly with the onset of ME/CFS.

You mentioned your illness, what is ME and how does it affect you as an artist?

ME/CFS is an inflammation of the brain & spinal cord. It is a complex and debilitating illness involving neurological and endocrinal dysfunction with immune system dysregulation that is not improved by bed rest and can worsen with physical or mental exertion. In the beginning I would be very tired and feel ill, like I had a bad case of the flu which some months later evolved to include muscle pain, starting in my toes and slowly travelling up into the rest of my body. As the illness progressed my brain functions started to be affected, I couldn’t read, couldn’t write, my memory became poor and I became clumsy and uncoordinated even with simple tasks like opening the door with a key. My journey through this time is told in part in a documentary made in 2003 by my friend David Begley and can be seen here and here. In 2006, Katie Lincoln produced a second documentary covering my journey though my illness called Flight Path, which accompanied my first book Hatched.

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Still from ‘Life Outside the Box’

When I first started drawing after the onset of my illness I might have 5 or 10 minutes of energy to get things down on paper which later improved to half an hour. It was somewhat frustrating to get excited about a piece, wanting to see the finished article but having to stop after half an hour when you really wanted to just keep going.

There is a common reoccurring theme of eggs and birds in flight in your paintings and drawings. Does this have some significance to your illness?

Yes, it was a drawing of an egg that made me realise I had been granted a new life. I can really relate my illness to the process of an egg hatching and my being a small little bird in a nest that still requires care even though I am fully grown and then needing flying lessons to leave the nest. I would sometimes get really ill if someone came near me with a virus or illness and I needed the protection the eggshell provided. One of the things I did to help me fly the nest so to speak was to send ‘MEme’, a stuffed Penguin, together with a diary and a disposable camera to friends and they would keep a diary of what ‘we’ have done and take photographs as they travelled the world. This has allowed me to visit friends and family in Holland, take part in a sponsored walk in Eritrea and go to America and Canada as well as lots of other places. One day I hope to retrace her journey for real.

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You have been very prolific as an artist in many mediums, painting & drawing, sculpture, writing and poetry, doll making and even weaving. How important are puppets to your work at the moment?

Very much so. Following on from the 6 months of work I did on the ‘Life Outside The Box’ project with the Irish Wheelchair Association, I was invited to speak at the ‘Broken Puppet’ Symposium on Puppets, Disability and Health at UCC in Cork. Our video has now been shown on Irish national TV and at the Disability Film Festival ‘Picture This’ in Canada.   Attending the symposium was like stepping into a completely new world and yet when I entered it, and moved about with open eyes and ears, I realised I had been part of this amazing, creative, fun, healing, and astonishing place for pretty much all my life.

The engagement of people with disabilities with puppets, not only as a form of therapy, but as creators and artists in their own right is something that can be transformative. Listening to the stories and speakers at the event has only served to reinforce to me what a powerful, evocative and meaningful role puppets have played in peoples lives throughout the years and will continue to do so long into the future.

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I have now returned to teaching puppet making, in small groups and by social media/email. Only for one and a half hours a week at the moment but what great fun it is. I am improving my ability to set my own limits to what I can do and enjoying finding ways to enable my students to work on their own puppets in my studio, or in their own homes. The healing effect of teaching puppet making is not something that might bring about a miraculous recovery from my illness, although one would be very welcome however it came about, but it is bringing a new energy into my life and who can say where that will lead.

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Thank you so much for sharing your story with us Corina. Is it puppets, puppets, puppets all the way now?

Absolutely. My return to teaching puppet making and the experience of the symposium and discussions around disability and health has created an energy and enthusiasm that will take me onto the next stage of my journey.

Interview by Stephen B. Watters


To find out more about Corina’s work, visit her website or Facebook page.  Her film ‘Life Outside the Box’ can be seen on YouTube here.

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