About Austin Phillips
My odd hobby started more than a decade ago, when I was a 14-year-old ventriloquist performer who needed puppets and couldn’t afford them. Money was an obstacle I couldn’t change, and I realized if I wanted professional grade puppets, I’d have to make them myself.
For a teenager, my standards were almost unreasonably high. I was relentless in my pursuit of knowledge and of getting the figures to look as close to the industry standard as possible. Due to obsession, by the age of 16, I was carving professional-grade dummies using only the tools I could scrounge up in my father’s garage.
Between the ages of 18 and 20, I found myself waist-deep in the history of past makers, and of my own volition sought out figure building masters Ray and Barbara Guill, who were in Washington state at the time—about as far away from me as they could be and still be on the same continent. But they were big names in a niche industry, and I was determined to round out my education. They welcomed me with open arms. My apprenticeship under them was life-changing.
After my short time apprenticing, I zeroed in on a particular figure style, associated with the 1940’s-1970’s, credited to Len Insull, believed to be the greatest figure maker Britain has ever seen. I was fascinated by his integration of fine-leather into the facial movements of his figures that allowed them to take on human-like rather than doll-like characteristics.
I experimented with his style on my own before tracking down Geoff Felix, figure maker and leading restorer of Insull figures in the UK. I was still broke, but as my father had worked for airlines when I was growing up, I was able to secure a cheap flight overseas to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of Len Insull restorations, and secure a path doing them for hire.
Today I’ve reached historian status with certain figures in the ventriloquist tradition, which has deeply impacted my restoration process. I choose my materials and even paint pigments in order to stay as true as possible to the original piece, which helps to maintain the antiquity value. I’m always learning and ever-perfecting my craft, but I’m also proud to say that I’m among the leading experts in this industry, and the youngest recognized professional figure maker and restorer in the world.
Among my top accomplishments in my field, I’ve had the privilege of refurbishing an original Archie Andrews figure for collector David Wilde; I’ve organized and directed an Insull-specific ventriloquist day in London with over 70 original figures on display, and over 60 attendees including members of the original Insull family. I’ve crafted a duplicate of the famous figure Shorty Harris for Carl Durbin, who is currently using the piece performing the original act of Terri Rogers; and I’ve placed products into the hands of Darcy Lynn Farmer and Paul Zerdin.