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Emmy Award-winning puppeteer Kamela Portuges-Robbins remembered as ‘Renaissance woman’

Earning three regional Emmy Awards by the time she was 30, Kamela Portuges-Robbins was a woman of many artistic talents, including building puppets for films like “Being John Malkovich,” and sculpting the models used to make celebrity dolls like the Spice Girls. The longtime Boyes Hot Springs resident died unexpectedly in Eureka on Oct. 21, when a pulmonary embolism stopped her heart. She was 58.

“She was always willing to share what she knew, information, skills, materials, anything that would help anyone be successful,” said Lee Armstrong, Portuges-Robbins’ longtime friend and business partner in their Springs-based media company, Images in Motion. “She taught TV puppetry and puppet construction at national, regional and local puppetry groups. She taught firefighters how to use puppetry to teach children safety issues.”

Growing up in Burney, California, the daughter of Paul and Barbara Portuges, Portuges-Robbins always loved art and making things. Her intelligence and drive allowed her to race through school, and she entered Shasta Community College at age 16. She transferred to Humboldt State University and at 22, she graduated with a double master’s degree in theater and business marketing. By then, she had discovered her love of puppetry.

“She loved art and theater. Puppetry presented a way to do everything from designing and writing, building puppets, performing and more,” Armstrong said.

She landed a job with Chris Walas, the Oscar-winning special effects artist behind classics like “E.T. the Extraterrestrial” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Portuges-Robbins worked on “The Fly II,” shortly before she moved to Sonoma Valley in 1991.

“She was delighted to discover a cottage in Boyes Hot Springs in beautiful Sonoma,” Armstrong said. “Eventually, she acquired two homes and built a shooting studio in the Springs. Kamela loved the small town feel and the accessibility to hiking and splendor of nature here.”

In 1996, Portuges-Robbins met Armstrong, a former puppeteer for Jim Henson’s famed “Fraggle Rock” TV show who was teaching a workshop on puppeteering in Santa Rosa. The two became fast friends and in 1998 opened Images in Motion in Boyes Hot Springs, a company focused on building puppets, sculpting models and writing and producing video content and more. They designed the eerily elegant marionettes featured in Spike Jonez’s “Being John Malkovich” in 1999.

“She did love the opportunity to design, sculpt and supervise the puppets for ‘Being John Malkovich.’ This was a small budget, tight-timeline project, but she loved that the main character was a puppeteer. Within three weeks she and her Images in Motion team had two marionettes sculpted, cast, assembled, costumed, strung and ready for rehearsals in LA,” Armstrong said. “The following week, seven additional marionettes headed down to LA and at the end of the fifth week, a 6-foot Emily Dickenson with a radio-control mouth was completed.”

Portuges-Robbins also worked on “Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” “Bicentennial Man” and “MonkeyBone.” Under her leadership, the Images in Motion team also molded, cast and 3-D printed the characters that Pixar animators use when building a film. Most recently, they won their fifth Telly award, this time for a public service announcement that taught kids about proper hand-washing techniques in the pandemic.

“She was fearless in acquiring skills as varied as welding and fabrication, building radio control mechanisms, computer modeling, and 3D printer repair,” said Kieron Robbins about his wife.

Robbins met his bride-to-be in 2002 at a Santa Rosa Junior College art class. She offered to mentor him and, like her, his talent was clear. Soon he was helping to build characters and creations at Images in Motion. They wed in 2008, and continued to grow their skills in making. She wrote children’s books along with scripts, in addition to radio-controlled mechanics.

“She was accomplished in so many of the arts, which is why I call her my Renaissance woman, good at so much. It didn’t matter what the time or budget was, she always did the highest quality possible. She always brought the same intensity to everything she did,” Robbins said.

That tenacity came in handy the day Alanis Morissette’s people came calling. It was a Friday, and they needed a 5-foot-tall microscope for a music video on Monday. Usually such a request would take two weeks to fill. Robbins said they should turn it down, but his wife wouldn’t hear of it — it was for Alanis Morissette.

“She was a big fan,” Armstrong said. “Three short days later, Alanis Morissette was looking through that cleverly fabricated microscope for her video ‘Ablaze.’”

She added, “Kamela considered being able to do what she loved her greatest accomplishment. She would be disappointed to leave us so soon. She had so much she still wanted to do!”

No memorial service has been planned, but memorial donations can be made to San Francisco Bay Area Puppeteers Guild, to further the studies of puppeteers.

Kamela Portuges-Robbins is survived by her husband, Kieron Robbins; her sister, Shelly (Odd) Rustand, and niece, Aubrey; her mother-in-law, Sarah Robbins; her sister-in-law Kemplen Robbins; her business partner, Lee Armstrong; and the many friends and co-workers.

Contact editor/publisher Emily Charrier at emily.charrier@sonomanews.com.

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