Arts & Culture News

Artist David Jessup Makes Creepy Toys in Tribute to a Friend Whose Death Was Never Solved

Artist and comedian David Jessup adds some stains to one of his macabre creations that he builds from discarded toy parts.
Artist and comedian David Jessup adds some stains to one of his macabre creations that he builds from discarded toy parts. Photo by Danny Gallagher
Sometime after you moved out of your childhood home, your parents probably gave away all of your toys. A few of your dolls or action figures may have ended up broken at the bottom of a donation bin. But that's where artist and comedian David Jessup comes in. He's given your childhood toys new, creepy lives by incorporating their severed limbs and pieces into his work.

Over the last six years, Jessup has built a small army of macabre sculptures from spare toy pieces he finds at yard and estate sales and on eBay. One baby doll has spider legs. Another has snakelike objects growing out of its orifices.

Jessup gives his creations names like "Bambi," "Ripley" and "Blair" and creates back stories for them.

"I prey on those who take what's not theirs," reads the description for Icarus on his website. "Place a thieve's name in my eye socket, and I will see to it that they never steal again."

The toys look like something Sid from Toy Story would create if he discovered H.R. Giger in college.

"I remember when I was watching Toy Story and the Sid character came up, and I remember thinking, 'I wish I had those toys,'" Jessup says. "I was never interested in the space guy Buzz Lightyear. I was into the weird spider toy, which I actually found, and I had to put some nails in its head."

The spookiest part: Jessup calls his creations his children, referring to them as "Children of Dave."

"I've always looked at them as toys," he says.

The inspiration for his art also comes from a deep and personal loss. Jessup started building his toy creations following the murder of his friend, artist J.D. White, whose body was found in a dry creek bed near the Trinity River in 2003. White's case was never solved.

"It made it feel like I was taking something that was broken and discarded and giving it new life, which is kind of like what he was," Jessup says. "He was kind of just thrown like garbage, and that really affected me. This guy who was such an amazing artist and such a good person."

click to enlarge Artist J.D. White - COURTESY OF DAVID JESSUP
Artist J.D. White
Courtesy of David Jessup
Jessup met White in 1997, and the two became fast friends thanks to a shared love of performing comedy and the horror movie Alien. White also exhibited his work around Dallas. Some of it, like the familiar chrome dinosaur sculpture in Fair Park, can still be seen.

"He actually had a friend of his who was kidnapped, and he went out with fliers and went searching for her every day because her car was stolen and she was kidnapped in the car," Jessup says. "Eventually, he found her — I think a week later — and it always kind of made me feel like a shitty friend because if the tables were turned and I had died mysteriously, he would have done everything he could for me. I always felt like I never did enough to figure out what happened."

Jessup made his first sculpture dedicated to White with toy parts found in his friend's home. He took an eyeless baby doll's head, glued some horns to its temples and perched it on a cluster of spider legs.

"While cleaning up his place after he passed away, I found some broken action figures, and I just had a complete meltdown," Jessup says. "I really liked the idea of taking stuff apart and putting it back together with the doll pieces. I started messing with that, and it became this. I don't know if it's cathartic therapy or just therapy, but it really calmed me down."

Jessup's creative process starts with hunting for pieces to add to his sculptures. He uses a hot glue gun to shape the sculpture's structure as he goes because he doesn't start with a sketch or even a rough idea of what he wants to build. Once his child has taken its shape, he fuses the pieces together with something more permanent and paints it to make it look older and dirtier.

"I do a lot of just ripping stuff apart," Jessup says. "I never sketch out ideas. I never plan it out. It's just a lot of trial and error."

His workshop sits in a corner of the Exposition Park apartment he shares with girlfriend Lynsey Hale. Some of his more personal creations sit on shelves. They are the first things you'll see when you enter and can be quite a startling greeting if you're not prepared for them.

Hale offers much-needed second opinions on Jessup's sculptures and helps him sell them at galleries and conventions.

"Sometimes, he leaves pieces where you can move them," Hale says. "He had a lady contact him thinking she accidentally broke it. So he drove all the way out to Fort Worth so he could fix it."

click to enlarge Jessup's first sculpture (left) was made with toy pieces he found in White's home. His apartment is decorated with some of his favorite and more twisted creations. - PHOTOS BY DANNY GALLAGHER
Jessup's first sculpture (left) was made with toy pieces he found in White's home. His apartment is decorated with some of his favorite and more twisted creations.
Photos by Danny Gallagher

The two also shoot stop-motion films of Jessup's creations for their Instagram page and are working on a script for a movie about the toys. Jessup is thinking about turning them into a line of do-it-yourself toys for kids.

"This would be like a really twisted Mr. Potato Head," he says. "You'd have a baby doll with parts and legs and spider legs, and you could make your own creepy doll."

The reactions his sculptures evoke are interesting to observe, he says.

"What's really funny is watching couples because almost every single couple that comes by, either the male or the female or the female-female or the male-male, one of them would love my work and the other one would grab them and go, 'No way, we're not getting it,' and they would pull them away," Jessup says. "It's so interesting seeing that whole opposites attract type of thing."

The happier reactions are always more satisfying because they are a fitting tribute to the friend who inspired him to make his children, Jessup says.

"I'm really happy during the fair when I see people walking by his dinosaur, and there's people taking pictures," Jessup says. "It's nice to know that 14 years later, he's still giving people joy, and I think ... the thing about J.D. is whoever he touched, he made their lives better, and he made them happier."
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.