When textile artist Gabe Thirlwall moved to Ottawa from Toronto in 2006 with her partner, she noticed that the culture of her new city was a marked contrast from Canada’s biggest metropolis.

“In Toronto, you can always see celebrities walking around like someone from a band or a movie but here, it was different. But then I noticed in Ottawa you would see a politician that would be involved in some scandal and it would be: ‘Oh wasn’t that the guy who got the dead people to vote for him?'” observes Thirlwall.

That thought sparked Thirlwall’s imagination. The artist — whose background includes an undergrad degree from the University of Toronto in religious studies and theology in addition to time spent as a modern dancer and choreographer — came up with a concept she could work on in her new city.

“You can follow the politicians and their antics and people here are really into that.”

In a town where politics rules, the artist decided to try making small puppets of the politicians. She started offering her hand-made miniatures for $15 to $20 each and hasn’t looked back.

First, Thirlwall line-draws the politicians — “sometimes it’s a more of a caricature and other times it’s more on the portrait side” — and then decides from her collection of materials what figure fits with what textile.

“Sometimes I go with the colour of the parties and I  include a textile detail. Peter McKay has a tartan on the back and with Leona Aglukkaq, I put white fun fur, which represents fox fur, on her parka on the back of her. Sometimes it comes easily but other times it takes hours to figure out what exactly I have to do.”

Most of the puppets are silk-screened and Thirlwall uses acrylic paint and sews the details onto them.



She’s discovered in the past year that the most popular figure has been John Baird while the federal finance minister is a hard sell.

“I can’t seem to sell Jim Flaherty. He just won’t move [but] I particularly like the Flaherty puppet. The colours mix together really nicely and he’s got gold shoes. It’s a good puppet but I’ve only sold one whereas I’ve sold more John Bairds than I can count!”

Thirlwall says Baird is a “popular figure to poke fun at” in Ottawa. His puppet has been adorned with a pink tie and either pink lame or snakeskin on the back.

Newsmakers sell well

The artist also notes that names in the news equals more sales.

For instance, Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla’s puppet was flying off fingers, so to speak, during the so-called caregiver scandal in the spring. Two Filipina caregivers alleged that they had been mistreated by Dhalla’s family. They claimed their passports were confiscated and they were forced to do extra chores such as cleaning cars. The MP has denied the accusations and testified before a Commons committee. So far, no charges have been filed.

Also big sellers are the party leaders: Jack Layton, Michael Ignatieff and Stephen Harper.

“Olivia Chow too because if people buy a Jack Layton, they want an Olivia Chow so they’re not separated.”

Jack and Olivia

Thirlwall has also had personal requests. The daughter of Thunder Bay-Rainy River MP John Rafferty asked for a big order of her dad’s dolls to give out. As well, many customers were asking for Stephane Dion and Scott Brison puppets.

“People want to see them for some reason. I just listen to what people ask for.”

Thirlwall’s creations are not just meant for amusement, they have a meaning and purpose.

“We have a problem in this country with voter apathy. People just don’t feel connected to their politicians. My strategy is humour: why not engage people politically by gently poking at our politicians?”

She feels if people can have a giggle over their politicians they will feel more ownership over them.

“It is called The House of Commons. They’re there to represent us.”

Engaging the political mind

Thirlwall hopes people might just pull out the puppets to entertain their friends and by doing so, start the conversation.

“Maybe they’ll think: “Who is this person? And how did he or she vote on this bill? And they’ll pay attention.”

One good thing she is noticing is that people are collecting her puppets.

“I’ll say that I just made Scott Brison on my blog and he’ll be snapped up quickly,” says Thirlwall.

“I’m told when you put a wine cork in them or a little child’s block, they will stand up on shelf quite nicely.”

It’s not just federal figures that get her attention. Thirlwall has a set of big city mayors. And when she visits Toronto in September for the Queen St. West Art Crawl, she’ll have a few city councillors on show — namely, Joe Mihevc, Adam Giambrone and Janet Davis.

She’s also now moving onto a line of gay icons, starting first with Harvey Milk — the first openly-gay politician to serve in office in California. Milk and San Franscisco mayor George Moscone were assassinated by ex-city employee Dan White in 1978.

Thirlwall has made a point of sending out her dolls to politicians she likes — always NDP, Green or Liberal ones but never any Tories: “I figure they should pay full price.”

Find more of Gabe Thirlwall’s creations on her blog Fish on Fridays.

JUNE CHUA B and W picture

June Chua

June Chua is a Canadian journalist and an award-winning filmmaker who has worked as a writer, reporter and producer with the CBC in radio, television and online. Her documentary, using 2D animation,...