Last year at Comic Con International I hosted a panel on action figure sculpting called “Under the Knife.” I had assembled a healthy roster of talent from Phil Ramirez who sculpted the 16” Toy Biz Galactus to Jason Carter who has sculpted many Heroclix for Wizkids. But the one thing I didn’t have on the panel was any women. One of the first questions asked by the audience was “where are the women?” The answer came back that there really only were a small handful of women currently working as sculptors in the action figure industry. But without a doubt the most well know and respected female action figure sculptor is Karen Palinko.
Currently working for DC Direct, Karen has finally been given the opportunity to demonstrate her range as a sculptor with DC Direct as they have allowed her to break out of just doing statues, maquettes and busts and move into doing action figures such as the Silver Age Batwoman and Batgirl 2-pack , the Parasite from the Alex Ross “Justice” line and a few of the First Appearance figures.
Talking about her early years before being in the toy industry Karen told me: “It’s really strange–I started out as a figurative sculptor. I don’t know how I got roped into sculpting Tweety Bird-type thingies. But you know how it is…you do one Tweety, someone sees it, and before you know it, thereyou go: you have a portfolio full of Tweetys.“
Many of you may not be aware that Karen sculpted the Alice Cooper piece for Art Asylum’s “N’ the Box” series.
Earlier this year Karen served as a judge for the Spectrum 12: The best in Contemporary Fantastic Art. If you’ve never picked up a copy of this yearly publication/celebration of art and sculpture you should make it a point to track down an issue of Spectrum.
1. What is your current title?
2. How would you describe your job?
Cool projects, not a lot of free time, lots of discipline.
3. Where is your current base of operations?
4. How long have you worked for this company?
I’ve been sculpting professionally for about 7 years.
5. How did you get into this field?
A very long, winding road. I majored in graphic design at Parsons School of Design, and I studied realistic sculpting, and anatomy at the Art Students League. I spent many, many hours sculpting life-sized nudes; and studied anatomy from actual human medical cadavers. After college, I worked in publishing as a designer, and then art director, for several years in NYC. One of my art director jobs required me to direct 3-D pieces as well as 2-D, and saw that the sculptors were having more fun than me. I realized that I wanted to sculpt the pieces myself, instead of hiring other people to do them. One thing led to another, and I left art directing in order to sculpt full-time.
6. How many figures/toys have you helped to create/design/produce/market?
I’ve sculpted everything from toys, to cookie jars, to Christmas ornaments. I’ve sculpted a lot of maquettes: JLA, Super Friends, Teen Titans. I’ve sculpted about 15 action figures.
7. Of those figures/toys, what was your favorite?
Alex Ross’s Parasite, which I did for DC Comics. I?m a huge fan of Alex’s art, and that was the first piece that I sculpted based on his work.
I loved working on that one. Alex is really great about articulating his vision, while at the same time working with the sculptor to interpret it into 3-D.
It’s such a cool pose. Very expressive and creepy, and at the same time, I found it somehow elegant. And both sad and terrifying. I looked at the Burghers of Calais for inspiration, and studied different types of burns and scar tissue, and how the flesh would it react when pulled taut in a certain direction. I worked surrounded by pathological specimen reference that I had seen at the Mutter Museum at the College of Physicians.
8. What would you say is the hardest part of your job?
My job is mostly enjoyable at this point. I remember, in my first year working as an artist, I felt a little freaked out, because it didn’t feel as if I had a job. It was strange getting used to a life where I didn’t get up and go into an office everyday. I?m happy to say I adjusted. Now I?d say that getting up early is the hardest part— If I’m not in the studio by 7 a.m., my body thinks it has the day off.
9. What is your least favorite part/thing to sculpt?
I don’t like sculpting things that are static, with no movement—I once had a job sculpting wine bottles. I wasn’t crazy about that.
10. What is your sculpting material of choice?
Depends on the job: wax; Castilene; Chavant clay.
11. What would you sculpt if you had unlimited time, resources and budget?
Hmmm. Hard to say. Not one thing, specifically, since I like the variety of what I’m doing now. I like doing anything figurative, or portrait related.
I enjoy projects that require some research. The First Appearance Wonder Woman that I did for DC was particularly fun. In the original comic art from 40′s, WW had a pulled-in stomach and a slightly rounded back, which puzzled me a little until I did some research. I realized that the artists were probably drawing her as if she was wearing a one piece, torso-length girdle, which women of that time would have been wearing under an outfit like that.
I loved working on the Alice Cooper Jack in the Box, which I sculpted while working at Art Asylum. I hadn’t really been familiar with him, so I watched a lot of videos and film footage. It was very cool, and I ended up liking his music quite a lot.
The Fosters Home for Imaginary Friends statue that I did of Bloo, Mac and Eduardo was fun because the characters are so graphic. It was a challenge to make the 3-d sculpture, while maintaining the look and feel of a 2-d piece.
So, that’s the long answer…I guess the short answer is anything new, interesting, surprising, challenging.
12. What is your favorite toy/figure/line from ANOTHER company?
Anything from SOTA or Sideshow. I always like to see what they are doing.
13. Who has had the most influence on your work?
Tim Bruckner, without a doubt.
Jim Fletcher, the Sr. Art Director at DC Comics also has been having a huge ongoing influence on my work. When he first started there, one of the first things he asked me was, what do I like to sculpt? I was so surprised by the question that I was momentarily speechless. In retrospect, it seems like such a logical question, but I honestly can’t recall anyone having asked me that before.
14. If you could pick any toy/figure from early in your career to re-do what would it be?
Oh lord, I can barely remember any of them since I stupidly didn’t photograph a lot of them. I think it would probably be a Victorian cameo-style bar of soap that I did for Avon. I still have that one–I put a piece of scroll work on it that wasn’t quite straight, and it still bugs me everytime I look at it.
15. What is your favorite toy from childhood?
I had a lot of creepy dolls. Vintage dolls that I had inherited from older cousins, and things I’d gotten from relatives that frequented antique shows. Dolls with pressed sawdust heads. Rubber baby dolls that were slightly warped and distorted. One really creepy thing that had 3 faces with with different expressions on the same head. You’d turn its head, and the faces would disappear into its hood. Ugh! I had a lot of fun with that in the Linda Blair era.
16. What is the worst job you ever had (pre-toy industry)?
I was an underage cocktail waitress for about 3 hours. Since I didn’t drink, I didn’t understand what anyone was ordering.
17. What is your proudest achievement to date?
I’m lucky enough to have a job where every project feels like a mini- achievement. Seriously. I have a job where, at the end of the day, I have these mini works of art. How cool is that?
18. What did you want to be when you grew up?
I never really thought about it. I always thought I was going to be an artist.
19. What one word would you use to describe yourself?
20. Would you rather hang out with a guy named "Chuck" or a guy named "Stu?"
After careful consideration, I am going to have to go with Chuck. It’s my understanding that a canine ear can more easily differentiate between hard sounds rather than soft sounds, so I think my hypothetical dog would prefer that I hang out with the hypothetical Chuck.
Thanks to Karen for her help in launching the new 20 Questions. We’ll be bac next week with an all new installment!