Sierra Camille Kay’s painting puppet is a marriage between art and marionette

Kay pulls MiMi’s strings as she paints French Quarter landscapes, street performers, self-portraits, and anything else that she finds interesting.

by Marielle Songy
April 4, 2022

Sierra Camille Kay is an artist who has taken her talent for painting and used it to combine art and performance uniquely. Through MiMi, a marionette puppet that Kay created as a “mini” version of herself, she paints pictures of all kinds. 

Kay pulls MiMi’s strings as she paints French Quarter landscapes, street performers, self-portraits, and anything else that she finds interesting. Then, with the delicate strokes of MiMi’s brush, Kay is allowed to channel her art into an eye-catching performance that makes people stop and watch.

Combining painting and puppets

Kay got her start 25 years ago after attending Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She has always had art in her life. When she was growing up, Kay’s mother and aunt made hand-crafted tiles; creativity is in her blood.

“One of the studios my mother and aunt used was a children’s museum and the previous tenants had abandoned some marionettes,” Kay said. “I was mesmerized by them and, although we gave them back, that was the start of my involvement with puppets.”

As a painter fascinated with puppetry, Kay began brainstorming how she could combine the two passions. At first, she was hesitant about sharing her puppet and painting with it. Soon, she began to come out of her shell.

“I was shy because I wasn’t a theater person,” Kay said. “I didn’t publicly use MiMi very much when I first made her. I didn’t start performing with MiMi until about ten years ago.

Because she already knew how to paint, Kay explained, painting with a marionette was easy. The most important part of the process was building the puppet the right way so that it was weighted correctly and able to hold and angle a paintbrush.

Once MiMi was built, Kay could paint with her right away.

She said, “I was able to paint a picture with MiMi the very first time I tried and I’ve gotten better over the years. The more I do it, the more MiMi develops her own style. People would assume that painting with a puppet would take longer than usual, but I can paint with a puppet in the same amount of time that I would paint without it. And I can’t ‘cheat’ — my style and MiMi’s style are completely different.”

Where to find Kay (and MiMi)

Kay admits that her talent is unique but acknowledges that she isn’t the only person in the world who paints with a puppet.

“There are other people who do it, but many of them aren’t artists first,” she said. “A lot of the other performers’ art is more abstract.”

Kay works in Jackson Square two times a week, showing off MiMi’s talents and painting the landscape of the French Quarter around her. She also paints at parties and conventions and has given children art lessons.

In addition to MiMi, Kay has built other painting puppets. An abstract-painting bird, a 12-foot painting puppet, and The Triplets of Sierra, who are life-size tandem painters, are all a part of Kay’s collection. She has also built life-size puppets for Mardi Gras parades.

For more information about Sierra Camille Kay and her puppet MiMi, visit her website here.

Marielle was born and raised in New Orleans. She thinks it's hard to grow up there and not let the culture and history of the city become part of you. Whether it be the jazz, food, of fabulous architecture, she thinks most would agree that things are a little spicer down here. You can reach her via email at [email protected]