Puppet Maker Holds the Strings on Hobby Turned Livelihood

By Mary Pokorney-Donelan | September 19, 2019


When Ken Vogel started making puppets in the 1970s, he didn’t actually believe he would still be making them to this day. “People ask me how many puppets I made in my life and I, for a long time, have said 10,000 or so,” he says.

Vogel learned to make puppets with his girlfriend while attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They made the puppets to sell at art fairs. But over time, Vogel became much more interested in the craft and it became a hobby for him. And that hobby eventually lead to helping him make a living.

Vogel can make a puppet of any character, real or imaginary, but he does have a soft spot for Wisconsin natives like Vince Lombardi, Gaylord Nelson, Bob LaFollette and Harry Houdini.

As this talent increased, so did interest. He started selling puppets to the Wisconsin Historical Society and eventually for Ella’s Deli. That’s where a special customer noticed Vogel’s work and became an instant fan. “Some of the people at Ella’s told me there was a man who was buying a lot of puppets,” Vogel remembers. “They suggested I do a puppet of him.”

That puppet was not the first for Jim Kirchstein. He has bought puppets from Vogel for over 30 years ago. He commissions them on a monthly basis to this day.

Kirchstein has a wide array of puppets to reflect his personal interests from biblical characters to writers to politicians to musicians. He estimates his collection displayed in his basement is over 400 puppets. “It is fun for me to surprise people,” Kirchstein says. “I love to bring them down here. They’re completely overwhelmed when they see all of these. And then they start pointing out, ‘Oh, I know this one. I know that. I know her.’”

Vogel still works on making puppets on a daily basis. For Vogel, it’s about the creative process and delighting his customers. “You know, I get the greatest pleasure out of all of these because I get the fun of making them,” Vogel says. “If I were just making art with no customer in mind, that would be not quite as fulfilling.”


Mary Pokorney-Donelan

Mary Pokorney-Donelan

Mary Pokorney-Donelan is a reporter for the “Wisconsin Life” project who is also the producer of the film series “Director’s Cut.” When she’s not rewatching every episode of “The Great British Bake Off” over and over again, you can find her hiking and fishing with her family across the state...
2019-09-18T19:20:19-05:00Tags: , |

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