The Enigmatic Observer
Custom Puzzle Craft
Maker of Fine Wooden Jigsaw Puzzles
Home About Cutting Styles Journal Custom Puzzles Gallery Puzzles 100 Puzzles Project Annual Auctions
Style Figurals Signature Piece

A friend said "Puzzle cutting is an art within art". This is a most insightful observation, and is how I feel about making puzzles. In this section I will discuss some topics which touch on the very inner core of my puzzle making.

The Mysterious Enigmatic Observer

I like to place figurals (for example, a puzzle piece shaped like a cat) in my puzzles. As most of my puzzles are custom puzzles, it is up to the customer to decide what figurals, if any, are to be in their puzzles. I normally get to decide where they will go, and I take care to place them in nice locations. Some figurals are designed at the customer's request and some are chosen from one or more previous puzzles I've made.

I now have a pretty good collection of figurals and the collection is growing all the time. There are quite a few I've designed myself for my "100 Puzzles Project" puzzles and early puzzles I made for which I had no orders.

I have a friend who owned a really great wiener dog named Spinoza. Eventually Wiener Dogs started to show up in my puzzles, and remind me of good times I had, with sadness. But the meaning quickly evolved, even in the first puzzle I made with a Wiener Dog, Fantasy Faire, the dog was looking at a hot dog stand! The dog symbolizes friendship and good nature, the essential spirits dogs carry within, but one must not forget that sometimes (maybe just about all the time) food is uppermost in their minds!

My favorite figural is one I call "The Observer" or usually "The Enigmatic Observer" or even "The Mysterious Enigmatic Observer". The full story of the origin has not been told, but my most reliable source indicates that the Observer's roots came from a synthesis of the East (the female side) and the West (the male side). When I started cutting puzzles, I had absolutely no idea that in two years I 'd be cutting all kinds of interesting things - a vast complex synthesis of requests from the public and my own artistic and intellectual personality have led to the spawning of so many things! The Observer first appeared in the same puzzle as the Wiener Dog. The next puzzle The Observer appeared in was Imperial Silver Dragon. The fiery dragon of the sky is one of the great symbols persisting within the human race, I'm convinced the roots spawn from observations of great comets in ancient times, an orb companied by a smoky fiery trail! More than a year after I introduced the Observer, I was talking to an artist about her paintings and she mentioned that sometimes she likes to put "an observer" in her works. Fascinated, I found that we both like to do this, and similarly only when there is sometime that resonates with the detached observer within all of us.

In particularly compelling situations where there are eggs, spirals, whirly gears, (or if by request, an unmodulated puzzle cutting style like Long Round) there may be amongst all the activity, The Observer, on the scene, serenely taking note of something of particular interest.

I like to tell very short "Observer stories" in my Puzzle Log when making a puzzle in which the Observer appears. First maybe a rumor that the Observer will show up, and later, maybe, where and why! This is a fun way to share my own interest in what I see in a puzzle. In some of my early communications with The Observer it was clear to me that The Observer was female, but later, when getting ready to start Still Life, Sant' Angelo in Colle, '99, I was startled to find out that The Observer answered a question in a male voice!

More recently, I've found that there may be a relationship with The Observer and the Wiener Dog.

Patterns and Nuggets

My monitor through a glass "color separator"
scavenged from an old NBC television camera

One of the most fascinating things about nature is the beauty of patterns that can emerge as systems grow in size or become more complex. Take for example, traffic patterns. In a small village, two walking paths may intersect without any sign posts or signals. With vehicles, come stop signs and then traffic signals. Stop. Go. New roads can encourage more cars and more cars can encourage new roads. With lots of vehicles, come highways. Two major highways can intersect in a spectacular intersection - spawning bridges and curving ramps - the traffic lights go away and traffic can flow again non-stop, and a the clover leaf enters the lexicon.

Nature produces its own beauty in complex systems, for example the eye of a well organized hurricane, a desert dune, spawning season in a coral reef. Alas, a highly interdependent system developed within a very protected environment can wobble and collapse when even tiny external variables are introduced.

Inside complex systems, nuggets or jewels with their own beauty can emerge to support the system, for example, a highly polished glass ball bearing within a complex instrument.

An obstacle to growth is like an irritant in an oyster - adaptive beauty emerges: a pearl, a suspension bridge. Interactions between systems produces more beauty: a pelican using the air pushed up by an advancing ocean wave to glide along the wave's crest as it moves. Surfboards.

Large social institutions generate their own systemic beauty, be it the layout of a national library, a grid pattern in a city, the flying buttresses of a cathedral, a state courthouse. Within the large structures, there may be nuggets: an interesting spiral staircase, or the arrangement of pipes in a great cathedral's organ. Places of evil can generate their own dark beauty and nuggets, but not a subject for this space.

Ideas can spread like viruses, something I will be exploring at Thought Virus Dot Com.

A complex computer program may have an inner super important routine which has a beautiful symmetry of indentation within its source code. Only wizards know what I'm talking about. I suspect the same thing is true, visually, for a complex integrated circuit.

And there is temporal symmetry. For example, I once saw a cartoon, probably in the New Yorker, that showed a number of vehicles approaching a traffic circle from different directions. Then for an instant all of the cars were evenly spaced going around the circle with no other cars around the area, and then in the next moment, all driving away in different directions along the spokes, the traffic circle empty again.

Sometimes when cutting a puzzle a particularly beautiful instance of cutting will occur. Will the customer see it? I don't know :-)


While puzzle cutting, I enjoy watching the ever changing cutting trail that follows the blade. A number of Cutting Styles have developed. When cutting a puzzle, I stick to a particular cutting style, rather than cutting randomly.

Cutting styles consist of elements I call "Notes" (as in musical notes). The notes are combined to form the melody of the cutting style. The melody of a cutting style is unique for each puzzle, as there is no set programmed sequence for the notes that emerge in a given cutting run. At the most, I can see a few notes ahead, and like the stock market, the path is virtually impossible to predict, and like the stock market, a distinct trail is left.

The set of notes for a particular cutting style is limited, and as the "player", I like to access them all during a performance, and not play the notes of another style, although now and then I do discover a new note (almost always by a serendipitous sequence of events) and becomes added to the style's repertoire. Over time other notes may become less played. Sometimes a new note will be so profound that it will spawn a new cutting style, departing the style from which it was formed.

When making puzzles with a larger number of pieces, I have more room to roam and there is more time for improvisation and exploration during a cutting run. I get looser, and sometimes during these periods nuggets come forth that are so cool that I end up taking photos of them and remember them for the future.

Egg Piece

The first interior piece nugget to come forth was the Egg. My Swirl Curl style had already spawned a second style I named Open Curl. Open Curl then stabilized into a style I named Flow Curl. Later, Flow Curl became unstable and merged into a style I call Creative (my current lineup is Swirl Curl, Creative and Long Round - and Eggs can show up within the Creative style). Flow Curl had some exuberant long swooping curls and one day when cutting a long ovalish curl I realized that there wasn't a hard fast "law" that I had to break out of the curl to start a new note, rather I could keep on going, coming back to where I started, forming an Egg! The first Egg was "laid" on November 7th, 2000 when cutting puzzle #55, Sophia. This puzzle was cut over a two day period and ended up with 19 Eggs. I don't know which Egg was the absolute first one, but it doesn't really matter. The idea of Flow Curl is that curl lines "flow through" other pieces, as the line flows through the Egg (on the left-hand side) in the picture, above. I've never seen a puzzle cut by another puzzle cutter this way. The Egg itself flows through the piece that connects into the Egg, so the Egg is logically consistent with the style. When I invented the style, or perhaps more accurately, discovered that I was cutting a new style, I did not foresee Eggs, but when I "played" the style, Eggs came. This is what I love about puzzle cutting.

About a year later after writing the above section, an instance of an Egg in Swirl Curl occurred, and since this initial event, this remains a rare event for Swirl Curl.


Spirals represent a form of energy for me. When I am cutting a puzzle, if I see something in the scenery which gives me energy I may place a spiral there. Maybe in a puzzle with two lovers, I'll place a deep spiral at their joined hands. Spirals usually appear for their own sake, so meaning cannot be read into every spiral!


After I have worked my way into the center of the spiral, that is, as far as I can go without crossing my track, I have to reverse direction and spiral my way out, to continue on the puzzle. Early on, sometimes I'd put a few little bumps on the "way out" spiral. This practice has evolved into fantastic pieces I call "Whirlies" or "Whirly Gears". I cut these fancy pieces in my Creative Style along with regular spirals.

Cutting pieces like these, completely free form, requires total concentration almost to the point of putting myself into a trance.

© John S. Stokes III - Puzzle Crafter & Webmaster

Home About Cutting Styles Journal Custom Puzzles Gallery Puzzles 100 Puzzles Project Annual Auctions
Style Figurals Signature Piece