I learned this from my teacher, her name is Marilyn Frasca at the Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington... Her idea was that at the center of any artwork that we dig, there's something alive. And the best way to describe that for me is, you ever have a kid or know a kid who has a blanky, or a bunny, or some object that they really really need... If you say to kid, a five year old, "Is your bunny alive?" a five year old says "No, bunny's not alive." Is bunny dead? Well, bunny's definitely not dead either. Bunny's not alive, and bunny's not dead. Bunny's something in between... and I always think of that as the first artwork.
--Lynda Barry, "Writing to Remember" lecture uploaded to YouTube by someone named "popasmurf23" on January 13th, 2010
I wake up with the My Little Pony blanket clenched in my fists, my body hanging halfway off the foot of my bed. The rainbow-bellied rabbit sits in the middle of my bed, still. As if it was just mere fleece and stuffing.
I can still feel the little paws pounding into my neck. I can see the rabbit's arms flapping, frantic like the wings of a moth trapped against a window. Even now, twenty five years later, I remember this, I feel this - dream, right? A dream where I'm sleeping in my bed, with my current favorite toy snuggled against me, everything just as it was before I fell asleep. Until the stuffed rabbit suddenly springs to life and starts karate-chopping me.
I saw a stuffed animal spring to life one time when I was awake, when I was administering the beatdown. I can't even remember which brother I was mad at, but one of my little brothers must have done something heinous and unspeakable, something so horrible that despite my not being able to remember it, I remember that it required of me an exacting revenge. Knowing that the little stuffed Winnie the Pooh doll was his cherished toy at the time, I grabbed Winnie by the collar of his red t-shirt, threw him down on the floor of my brothers' bedroom, and started stomping on the little bear's stomach. Twisting Winnie's head, my eyes met his, the little plastic beads looking back at me. In that moment, Winnie was looking back at me, the Winnie that looked back at my brother when he was holding this bear. That this toy was special, had an aliveness to it for my brother, was the very reason I'd selected it for my attack, but my awareness of its specialness was freaking me out. What if stuffed animals were alive in their own way, the way animals that don't make noises like fish or worms are alive? What if stuffed animals can feel pain, can feel hurt? I hugged Winnie, apologized to him in my head, and set him on my brother's bed, feeling like I'd just done something really awful.
Something In-Between... I remember trying to capture the something in-between, an afternoon where I decided I was going to treat my Cabbage Patch Kids like they were real kids, to take my Cabbage Patch mothering seriously. I kept my dolls in the bassinet my brothers and I had slept in when we were each infants, and I selected one to hold on my lap while I watched TV. I can't remember his name, but it was the one boy doll I had, with light brown hair that had that Cabbage Patch Kid smell—a sweet mixture of baby powder, plastic and yarn. I watched Nickelodeon trying hard to feel like a mom, to feel like my doll was my child, to feel like the Cabbage Patch had that toy-aliveness. I could make myself feel worried about how much TV my Cabbage Patch was watching, anxious about the other Cabbage Patches in the bassinet feeling neglected and jealous. But the stuffed doll in my lap remained a stuffed doll in my lap, and I got impatient and frustrated.
The aliveness wasn't happening. I must've been nine or ten at the time, at the age where self-consciousness creeps in, and the intensity of attachment to certain toys begins fading away.
One day in fifth grade, I was sitting at a table with a couple of girls who were bragging about how they'd "rediscovered" the joy of playing Barbie with their sisters. They had thought they'd outgrown Barbie, but in a fit of whimsy had found themselves playing Barbie again and recapturing the magic or their youth. (It's important to mention here that I was placed in a "gifted" class in fifth grade, where we prided ourselves on being considered more mature than "normal" kids our age. Consequently, this class was a breeding ground for a particularly insufferable strain of self-conscious precociousness.)
I had a deep, primal loathing for the world of Barbie, maybe because I wasn't a particularly "girly" girl, and Barbie just seemed prissy to me. It could also have been because the kinds of girls who played Barbie were the kinds of girls who'd pick on me for being weird, or maybe it was simply because as the only girl in a house where monster trucks, baseball and professional wrestling ruled, I didn't have any Barbie playmates. (I know girls who had the kind of little brothers who would play Barbie with them, but I didn't have that type of gentle, accommodating little brother who was blithely unencumbered by traditional gender role stereotypes. Although once I did get one of my brothers to sit for a "family portrait" photo shoot I did of my Cabbage Patch Kids. I think that ended in some sort of fight, though.)
The one Barbie I owned had been a birthday gift from a friend of my mom's - an infuriating gift ("Doesn't she know how much I HATE Barbie?"), and was sitting in my closet at the time, perhaps still in its original packaging. One of the girls in my class had described playing dress-up, and making jewelry for her Barbies out of aluminum foil. Dressing up a Barbie still sounded dumb to me, but there was something that was happening for these girls that I was jealous of, something I wanted for myself. I wanted to be able to play like that, to have that magical thing back that used to happen naturally and spontaneously.
That night after dinner, I closed myself up in my bedroom, removed Barbie from her packaging. I decided I was going to "play", and that this would be magical and fun. I wasn't really sure what to do, so I followed the lead of my classmate and gathered up some craft supplies - scrap fabric and construction paper, pipe cleaners, and aluminum foil. I rolled tiny tiny scraps of foil into bracelets, placed them on Barbie's tiny tiny wrist, and felt excruciatingly bored. I wondered if those girls had been lying to me, because I could not imagine how doing this could possibly be any fun.
There were things I could do that could get me to that play-mind state, things that didn't rely on toys. Drawing and writing were two, although they were also becoming harder as it became more and more important to get things "right", drawings that looked recognizable, stories that followed a logical plot and had characters fleshed out and relatable. It was around fifth grade when I noticed my classmates complaining about art class, about the creative writing teacher who visited once a week - complaining! Why someone would not enjoy writing a story was as weird to me as why someone would enjoy making jewelry for a Barbie doll.
But I had one last thing that could be considered an act of "play", a special ritual I would perform that could directly and reliably transport me to the In-Between state, where I myself would be in between the world others could see and the world only I could see. And that thing was running around in circles by myself in the backyard. I would run around and around and around, treading a bare circle into the grass, making up stories. I would go into this state of intense concentration, where I had to look down on the ground to stay aware of the branches poking up in the dirt, the rocks, the uneven ground, the tree stump - to protect myself from tripping and falling over - but in my mind I could see a movie unfolding, an animated film. There are a few I remember vividly - the saga of the flying squirrel warriors, with the two opposing armies of squirrels that could fly (they were regular North American ground squirrels, except one army was grayish-brown squirrels and the other was white squirrels, and they wore crossed red and blue bands across their chests because they were warriors, and warriors always wear straps across their chests). They didn't fight so much as chase each other through pine forests, one army tracking the other, with a lot of exciting in-flight dodging of tree limbs and birds. The was also one about a white fluffy dog-like creature that flew by flapping its really long ears and gliding through the air. I swear that I imagined this without ever seeing "The Neverending Story", although it must've been out at the time.
I ran until my breath was sharp, the cold air of approaching evening cutting into my chest and lungs. I seemed to be able to run without losing my breath, or even feeling tired, and my focus would only break whenever my mom or my brothers started watching me from the windows, dad would come out to the garage, or our neighbor Ruth would pull into her driveway. I'd immediately stop running, flatten myself against the house so I'd be out of sight and wait until it was clear again. I'd have to rewind my story a bit, back up to where I was interrupted and resume, like they did in school when they showed us movies on the VCR that were too long to show in one single class.
This practice was intensely private, and I was incredibly self-conscious about it. I had a sense that what I was doing was weird, and that I should be ashamed of this weird thing I was doing by myself in the backyard that I didn't want people to watch me do. It was in my fifth grade class, sitting in a circle on the floor listening to a cassette tape of an interview with author Beverly Cleary—I listened to her explain how when she was a kid, she's stand in her driveway and bounce a ball against the house repetitively while making up stories in her head, that she drove her parents nuts in addition to making them think she was crazy. If I was still running in circles in fifth grade I was soon to stop, but for a short time after I heard this interview I felt such relief, that I wasn't the only deranged child in the universe doing something weird in the backyard for the sake of interior narrative.
The toys that survived my childhood are stored in a Rubbermaid container in my parents' basement. I believe there are three Cabbage Patch Kids, a CareBear, and two Pound Puppies. They are the toys that I couldn't bring myself to discard, the ones I felt most connected to. (Although it's something to ponder that they were the top Must Have toys of the 1980's.)
These are the toys that survived the purge. One evening in the middle of my sixth grade year, I decided I was no longer a child. I was eleven years old and felt it was time to "grow up", and I was overtaken by the compulsion to get rid of all my toys. Sixth grade was the first year of middle school, a cruel, isolating time for most kids, and an especially hard one for me. My growing self-consciousness paralyzed me—I was shy, mute, invisible and friendless. I could not bear to be surrounded by toys—the promise of play, the promise of joy, of fantasy, of pretending, of a magic that I could no longer reach. It was too painful to keep toys in my life anymore.
A box of Wegman's storebrand black trash bags in front of me, I knelt in front of my Holly Hobby toy box and evaluated each stuffed animal to be either a Toys For Tots donation, or trash. A lot of them I simply didn't like anymore, but there were a few that, when faced with the possibility of never seeing them again, I couldn't let go. The toys I had connections to, the ones I had hugged the most—they were the ones that had felt like friends to me once, the ones I had a relationship with. I couldn't have phrased it like that at the time, but the ones I had the strongest feelings about were the ones that got to stay. I couldn't access that relationship anymore, but the memory of it was alive enough to stop me from trashing those toys.
When I look around my room now, I can pick out the objects that are more "alive" to me. Charlie has a life. Charlie was a gift on my 30th birthday, a ceramic cat, plump and potato-shaped, stumpy legs, and my favorite part of him is his face - he has chubby cheeks and a nose that protrudes slightly, and a little smile painted on - a face that looks more like a cartoon person than a cartoon cat. Charlie is white with black and yellow spots, and reflects the light and colors and shadows around him. He came with a flat, red nylon pillow to stand on, and maybe that's what makes him seem most alive—that he has something to stand on, so that he's comfortable.
If I were to start a still life painting right now, Charlie would be the main character. It's funny that it's been so many years since I've painted a still life, when that's what I did for so many years. By the time The Still Life Project started to appear in my high school art classes, with the requisite empty wine bottles and dried flowers and solitary, unlaced army combat boot, I already felt like a total pro at making a drawing that looked like the object it was supposed to look like. I'd been doing it at home, on my own, not even for extra credit, just because I wanted to. I would draw the weird objects that surrounded me in my bedroom, objects I'd chosen for just how exceptionally quirky they were, that filled the space formerly occupied by stuffed animals. There was a small terra cotta sculpture of a Peruvian man playing a guitar who appeared in my drawings a lot—I'd found him on a clearance shelf in Pier One Imports with my friend Holly, and named him Pedro. There was a while where I was collecting artificial flowers, and artificial birds. There was a seashell a friend gave me that I threw out after we weren't friends anymore. A painted egg in a glass case that I still wonder what happened to, since I'm still friends with the person who gave that to me.
In the arts education setting, still lives are the proving ground of your ability to render realistically. I knew nailing this was Step One towards becoming a Real Artist (Step Two being drawing real live nude people, which would have to wait until college). I was not scared of doing still lives in school, since I'd been practicing. And I was the only one in class who didn't complain when we were asked to bring an object from home—Try to choose an object that has meaning to you.
Of course I'd bring an object that had meaning to me. My room was full of objects that had meaning to me, each with a little story about how it came to be in my life. Souvenirs from field trips and shopping trips, adventures to downtown shops that my own parents would never have taken me to. Tokens from friendships both lasting and temporary. Intriguing objects found in the dollar stores that were just starting to crop up in my neighborhood. There was a new type of life in the objects surrounding me, the life of associations, the life of stories.
My freshman year of college was all about the still life. Intro to Drawing, Painting, Design were a battery of assignments dedicated to observing and rendering objects to demonstrate the understanding of specific principles—color, composition, light and shadow. I could dive into my cavalcade of weird objects I'd been collecting since deciding to Become An Artist, but I didn't feel like the paintings I made for these assignments expressed anything other than Yes, I Understand How to Mix Color, or Yes, I Understand How to Make a Form Appear Three-Dimensional with an Appropriate Use of Shadow.
In the Intro the Art History class, we were studying the Renaissance, Western Classical art—grand paintings about grand themes, like Herosim or Piety. We were studying the evolution of realism and representation, how Western civilization learned how to paint, how they figured out getting things to look "right". The Dutch still lives fascinated me, though we didn't go into much detail on them in class (ironically enough)—how each object was chosen for what it symbolized, and the Dutch had this secret code where oysters meant this and a dead hare meant that. Like they had the still life equivalent of a Dream Dictionary, a secret language that other Dutch artists could decode and agree on, "Oh yes, your painting of a fish and teapot is definitely about fidelity and chastity, no question about it…"
It must've been the middle of my second semester when I was talking to my Painting teacher about my latest completed assignment, a still life that included a recent thrift store find—a ceramic sculpture of a hillbilly character, overalls and long gray beard and floppy hat hiding his eyes, holding up a jug labeled "X X X". In the painting the hillbilly is in the corner of the canvas and seen from behind, the raised arm cropped so that the hooch jug isn't visible. I told my teacher how I wanted to "put content into" my paintings, I wanted to make paintings that meant something, that expressed something. My teacher pointed out that I was making paintings that had "content"—that the objects I chose, how I placed them in the composition, created a feeling, a narrative. The mysterious figure with the raised arm in the foreground created a mood, a tension. I told my teacher the story about the weird thrift store where I found the hillbilly sculpture, about how the jug the sculpture is holding has the three X's on it that mark it as containing "hooch", but it seemed like that story wasn't as important, at least not to the painting I'd just completed. A new story emerged from the object as depicted in the painting, the hillbilly sculpture became a figure, a character. Within the frame of the canvas, it took on a life of its own.
Oh my god, I was so excited. I was already making Real Art! Art with Meanings!
I was a more or less devout realist for most of undergrad, choosing from my increasing collection of Meaningful Objects to depict in my paintings. The biggest thrill came from the choosing, arranging, setting up objects, deciding—these moments felt most like "play", were play. Every new project required the adventure of going out and finding the right object, the right photo, the right materials, there was the mission to the hardware store for the right shop towels, the mission to the art supply store for the right paint, the mission home to get the old photo albums. Then after all the running around, there was the stillness, standing in front of the canvas, the first sketches, the first brushstrokes, setting the ideas down, making the things I was thinking about visible.
But then there was the frustration, the doubt, the Not Getting it Right Enough, the anticipation of How it Would Be Received - Am I Getting My Meaningful Message Across in a Meaningful Way? What would happen in critique—would people understand? What exactly is it that I want to say? Am I being too cryptic? Too obvious? These were the thoughts - the doubts - the worries - the demons that took playtime away, not only sucking the life out of the piece but sucking the life out of me.
By the end of undergrad, I'd fallen out of love with painting. There was an element of it not being "fun" anymore, but it wasn't as if it was always fun when I still enjoyed doing it - it was challenging, stimulating to wrestle with imagery, to try and figure out how to get it to sit right on the paper or canvas. The same way physical exercise isn't necessarily "fun" but invigorating, it feels good, purposeful. I got to a point where painting was physically exhausting, draining - it wasn't adding "life", but diminishing it. Lynda Barry refers to this in "What It Is" as the "times nothing played back" ("What writers call writers block") - the images I was creating, the world I was trying to create, wasn't cooperating with me, it wasn't playing back.
While my love for painting faded, I found myself quite taken by a new suitor - animation. I found renewed joy in a medium where the goal is to bring life to the static and inanimate, whether drawings or objects. The first few drawings transformed into a moving, seemingly alive entity on screen, is the most magical moment of a new animator's life. It's like watching a baby being born (assuming you've never actually seen a baby being born). I found working in animation was most like what happened in my mind when I was a child, running around in circles in the backyard, that I was now doing that same thing but with the ability to make it exist for others to see. I have yet to make a film about flying squirrels, but I could—I know how it would be done. I have the power to bring into being the films that used to play in my mind, to make visible to others what used to be something only I could see in my imagination.
I thought that perhaps it was the change of medium, that maybe I had just finished with painting, had gotten everything out of it that I could, and that the switch to film is what I needed to win back my creative passion. And that seemed to be the case, for a while. Soon the struggle to Get it Right, the doubts of Is It Good Enough began to manifest in seemingly self-destructive work habits and a general feeling of unhappiness and anxiety. The emotional exhaustion, the sense of feeling drained. The demands of animation far exceed that of painting, and in the midst of the filmmaking grind I felt like I wasn't At Play, I was At Work. Even though my "work" was drawing and making art, I felt as grouchy and irritable and sad as I would've (and have been) if I'd been sitting at a computer doing data entry in a pair of too-tight business casual slacks 40 hours a week.
At one point I was told by a teacher, "You don't seem like you're having any fun with this." A phrase that crept into my psyche and curled up there, growing fat like a tick off my self-doubt and worry. Having "fun" isn't the point of creative work, although it's certainly a by product; "fun" isn't the end goal of play. Play is about concentration, the sustained immersion in the In Between state, between inner world and outer world. But—as an animator, was I "playing"? That was the question, one I didn't want to answer. Because if the answer turned out to be No, I didn't know what to do next.
I am at an In Between stage of my life again. In Between the security of being able to focus on my artwork in school and having created a secure working environment for myself now that I'm done with school. In between the last film finished and the next one I start. In Between an ending and a beginning.
I am in the process of winning back the part of my mind—and heart—that can believe Charlie is smiling at me, that at any moment he may make a slight adjustment to get more comfortable on his pillow. I am clearing room for the part of me that's willing to believe that maybe the rainbow-bellied rabbit hitting me in my sleep wasn't a nightmare, or an anxiety dream (or the result of eating salsa before bedtime). Maybe it was that "alive" part of the stuffed rabbit, trying to wake me up, to remind me. To make sure when I got older I didn't forget about him, about his life, his ability to become alive.
Last summer I attended a lecture by Alan Scott Pate, leading Japanese doll expert in the United States, on the origins and meaning of Hina-matsuri dolls and displays traditionally used in the Japanese Girls Day celebration. He talked about the concept of yorishiro, which in his book Japanese Dolls: The Fascinating World of Ningyo is defined as "temporary lodging places for spirits to come down and bless the homes." This totally knocked me out, the idea of dolls becoming vessels, not alive themselves but containing a living spirit for a short time.
It was like taking that aliveness that a toy has to a child, and bringing it into the shared adult reality. The adults getting together and agreeing that this inanimate object will have spirit, will have life to it, maybe only for a limited time but the agreement is not only is it possible, but that it happens. It's Real. For me, growing up had been a process of diluting that sort of consideration of "aliveness", and seeing it only allowed for creative people making Art, not in the everyday sphere of adult life. Here was a context where that aliveness of an object was made part of a ritual, accessible to both children and adults, regardless of whether they had special skills or talents. And I felt how much I want to live in that world, how much I miss that world I could access so much easier as a child—the world where objects are allowed to be alive and the veil between what we see and what we don't is parted slightly, two realities coexisting.
We need to make room, to allow that aliveness to exist in our lives in the first place. We need to believe in its possibility, because we can't force it into existence through whatever medium we work in. We can't declare our work "meaningful" and hope that's enough to fool other people into believing us. We need breathing room, we need to room to play. We need to be able to feel our way back to how it felt before self-consciousness and disillusionment kicked in. We need to allow the space for things to come to life for ourselves before we can create work that will come to life for someone else.