Since she was a little girl growing up in Tucson, Julie Orrico has been drawn to art. After creating cartoons and participating in theater in school, she entered the world of puppetry. Six years ago, Orrico began creating one-of-a-kind puppets and dolls, including kangaroo puppets, gothic dolls and punk-style Chihuahuas.
Today, Orrico owns Julie’s Puppets, which she started after deciding she wanted to sell her creations.
She makes the puppets and dolls by hand in her home studio on the east side, and takes custom orders.
“The main purpose was puppets for kids so that they could bring out self-expression, creativity, work with their hands,” said Orrico, 35. Her puppets have found their way to arts and crafts shows, festivals, 2nd Saturdays Downtown and a few shops, including a kiosk at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and The Source Within, a metaphysical store in Bisbee.
Sandy Mellor, director of community relations for 2nd Saturdays Downtown, says Julie’s Puppets is one of the event’s most popular vendors. It takes place the second Saturday of every month, and includes food, artists and craftspeople and music.
Mellor said the puppets are entertaining, eye-catching and something that any child would love.
“Even if you don’t buy them, they’re unique to see,” Mellor said.
But the puppets’ purpose has grown. Orrico began fashioning them for adults after their popularity grew from more exposure at shows.
“I have sold to speech thera–pists, teachers and storytellers,” she said.
Speech therapists told her the puppets can help bring a shy child out of their shell, and she even created special puppets with tongues to help with the speech therapy process.
Orrico received a request recently to make a bird for a woman who was raising baby macaws. The woman needed a puppet that looked like a mother bird to hold the bottle for feeding.
“There’s so many different uses,” she said of the puppets.
Orrico’s puppets are made of many different mediums and materials. She uses paint for eyeliners, eye shadows and eyebrows, and embroiders on eyelashes, lips and fangs.
“I’ve used new fabrics, secondhand fabrics, all kinds of different material, everywhere,” she said. Looking for vintage buttons, fabrics and textures in stores can inspire her.
Orrico researches the items she creates. She will look at reference books if she’s creating something like a London Steampunk doll, and she received photos via email for the macaw puppet.
She makes puppets for Day of the Dead, Halloween and Christmas. Orrico has done a Muppet-style puppet for a “Nutcracker” play and a custom Lamb Chop wearing camouflage.
Customers have asked for specific items, including characters for a project, or a certain dress or hair color on a dog doll. Typically, puppets or dolls take her two to four hours to make, depending on the project. Costs range from $12 to $30.
“Odd little requests, but they’re great,” Orrico said.
Her puppets and dolls have traveled beyond Tucson. Families buy puppets from the kiosk at Davis-Monthan to send overseas.
“Puppets have gone to England, Germany. They buy them and send them off,” Orrico said.
She has also reached other states, including California, at the Highland Games in Costa Mesa. A Scottish piping band bought her monster dolls and wore them while performing onstage.
Orrico’s artistic experiences inspired her to begin making puppets.
“Art was always a part of my life,” said Orrico, who began drawing at the age of 8.
“She really amazed me,” said her mom, Susan Orrico. “From very small, being able to do that — sit down, start, to take and make her own character.”
In high school, Orrico became involved in theater. She acted and worked backstage, where she was exposed to fashion, costume design and props.
“I’d always done art and theater, and it was almost like the puppets felt like it was the next step, in a way,” she said. “It all blended together. All these influences just sort of came together.”
Business was slow at first for Orrico, but as her line expanded past puppets into dolls and stuffed animals, things picked up.
“It took off where I’ve had times where they’ve been selling faster than I can make them, and that’s always been a challenge,” she said. Still, she hopes to continue expanding her business so as many people as possible can enjoy her creations.
The best part of the job, she said, is her clients.
“Now that I’m in the business of making puppets, what inspires me currently is the joy that I bring to the kids and the customers,” she said.
Orrico likes to see people playing with the puppets when she is selling them.
“Oh, I’m on cloud nine when I see that,” said Orrico, who doesn’t perform with the puppets but focuses instead on making them.
Orrico appreciates the ability to be expressive with her art every day she goes to work.
“I can’t think of myself ever not being a creative artist.”