"I love that I can explore and cope with all the things that I am feeling and dealing with by making something, even if that thing doesn’t speak to anybody other than me."
If you haven't seen one of John Akre's films you've been missing out. Luckily, I am here to introduce you to him. John's one of my favorite local artists. I admire how he combines community and history in his art. He has a traveling animation studio where he creates spontaneous cartoons with the public. He also makes books, comics, and draws daily (making a monthly video featuring those drawings). On top of this he also organizes MinnAnimate, a festival creating a place for animation in Minnesota.
John is an animator and videomaker who has been playing around with movies since he was nine. He is always trying to figure out different ways to combine documentary and animation, and also how to make a living while doing the things he loves (I can relate to that!). He is a teaching artist who works with all ages of people through COMPAS, Film North, and other organizations. He teaches animation at Hamline University and is married to Beth Peloff (another artist I admire), an animator and videomaker, and they work together as Green Jeans Media (how cool is that?!).
Enjoy learning more about John. There's a lot of great videos of John's to watch too. Admire on!
Jes: Hi John! I am so excited I can ask you some questions. First off, can you tell readers about your films and how you first started making animation?
John: Hi Jes, thank you so much for asking me! When I was nine I started collecting and projecting 8mm films, and on my 10th birthday the father of a friend of mine gave me his wind-up 8mm camera. I immediately set to work with paper cut-outs on my bedroom floor spending weeks making a stop motion film. This film came back from the lab completely black because I wasn’t using any light other than the one on my bedroom ceiling, which was pretty dim. But I tried again, with more light, and had more success. At the same time I also started making goofy movies with my family and friends, stopping the camera to make one person change into another and making them move without moving their legs - animating people.
When I went to film school in Bozeman, MT I fell in love with documentary and, aside from drawing and scratching directly on film, I left animation behind. In my late thirties, because of some heart issues I was born with, I had a heart attack, and that made me think about whether I was really doing what I wanted to do with my life. I ended up starting to draw again, and trying to figure out how to do animation in this age of computers.
In my movies I combine stop motion animation with computer animation and usually try to bring in some humor. The influence of Walt Disney and the Disney studio is so overwhelming in the field and art of animation, and that is okay, but I am always trying to imagine what animation would be like if that studio wasn’t so influential, so I look to the work of pre-Disney animators for guidance. I also have a portable stop motion set-up that I carry around on my bicycle to create stop motion animation with whoever might come by at public events. I am really interested in cities, what they look like, how they change, and particularly what happens when people really get out in the streets and together in buildings and share this special kind of city life.
I am interested in how you first started combining documentary and animation. When did this approach first start? Do you remember your first project where this intersection occurred? How has it grown since?
When I was in college in Montana, in 1986, I took a one-day workshop with camcorder documentarian Skip Blumberg, and after that all I wanted to do was make one-on-one video documentaries. I found a home in public access television, teaching video production and creating video documentaries, and completely stopped drawing and making any kind of animation.
When I returned to animation in my early 40’s, I tried to think about ways to combine frame by frame work with my documentary work. Some of the first animation projects that I did digitally were these “face films” in which I would ask people questions and take a series of photos of them and then I would synchronize those photos with their response to my question. I also made a long movie of a train trip I did of the U.S. and Canada by drawing animated loops about the trip on post it notes and photographing them on the train windows. I was doing this all about 15 years ago.
The animation station idea came about when I heard that one of the first Open Streets in Minneapolis was looking for artists to do interactive art activities on the street. I thought I might try to take my stop motion equipment onto the street and see what might come out of it, and then I combined the animation with interview responses, like I did in those earlier face movies. Now I’m making some documentaries about artists who I know that are mostly filmed with the camera but might have some animated elements. I’ve also started exploring some of the family things I have collected, particularly scrapbooks and photo albums, and trying to make animated collage films with them.
Can you explain how you prepare for events like this and what it looks like for someone passing by? How do you get people to participate?
I am a very introverted person, so it first takes me trying to mentally prepare to engage with other people, which is difficult for me, but also so rewarding when it happens. Although we build the movie frame by frame, I use software that allows me to repeatedly play the movie that we are working on, and it grows as we add more to it. So, people walking by can see what has already been done, and that helps them to see how it works. I think that just getting a chance to see how that slow animation process works and builds, and that it all looks a little goofy, can make it enticing for people to participate in. I give lots of people my spiel about how it works and not everyone wants to participate, but everyone pretty much leaves smiling. Plus, I just get so hyped up because as an introvert I kind of need to do that to be out in public and I think people either get scared away or as hyped as I am. I often have art supplies like paper and scissors, or chalk if I am outside on the street, and all those art supplies can be very enticing too, at least I think so.
MinnAnimate is a great festival that you started. What kind of advice do you have for individuals who are looking to start their own screening programs?
I almost think it might be necessary to make your own screening program if you make your own films. The truth I’ve found is that there are a lot of screenings and film festivals out there, but almost all of them are not going to want to show my movie. I submit my movies to dozens of film festivals and screenings every year and get in way less than 10% I started MinnAnimate partly because I wanted to show my own films, so I include one of my movies in with all the others I collect every year, which is great in itself, because it’s like making a little family or community of movies. I particularly enjoy the process of sequencing or ordering the films, so that the collection of them has a narrative arc about it. And these days, you just need to figure out a space to do some kind of screening, and a way to let other people know about it. I’m never exactly sure how it all seems to come together every year, but it does, and getting a chance to meet all those other animators and the people who come to watch makes the work and the stress way more than worth it. The only advice I have is just to think that you can do it.
Are there any particular challenges you face as an artist?
You can feel free to cut this one if it doesn’t fit in, but it’s more a challenge I face as a human being, which I am much more than I am an artist. But when I was around 13 years old I saw a car run over a dog while I was standing on a busy street waiting for a bus. I decided at that moment that I was never going to drive, and I still respect that decision - I have never had a driver’s license. I think that if you have a city where the majority of trips are taken by car, which is almost every city in the U.S., you have a city that is all about cars. If the majority of trips in your city are not taken by cars, by walking, by transit, by biking, by skateboarding, and so on, you have a city that’s all about people, which is thankfully what the majority of the cities in the world are like. I think it’s a real challenge to live in a city that’s all about cars, just a challenge to maintain sanity. I would just like to go on a podium for a second and ask everyone before they take a trip by car if they really need to do that, or if there might be other options. And with climate change, it seems like reducing that fossil fuel burning is also a pretty good idea too.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on driving, John. I totally share some of your opinions. I do drive a lot and I would love to change that. Next question: What do you love about being an artist?
I love that I can explore and cope with all the things that I am feeling and dealing with by making something, even if that thing doesn’t speak to anybody other than me. It’s a way to get things out and release the things that might be bringing me down. That act of creation is really euphoric for me.
I think that creating beautiful things out of the stuff of our life is innate in us, and that if we don’t have creative outlets we’re lacking something profound. I’m glad I am able to access those things in myself.
Are you working on anything new?
Of course - I’m always working on ideas or making things. I do at least one silly drawing a day and am working on a few movie projects. Late last year I shot a few hours of video of an artist friend who has since passed away, so I have been grieving him by editing that video and creating animation inspired by him. I have an animated feature project (my fourth) that I hope to have finished some day, but I’m not sure in what year that day will be. I’m also starting to work on another animated short in a series I have been making called, “Hats of the New American Cinema,” which is kind of a set of silly tributes to these experimental filmmakers of post-WWII U.S. I also am getting ready to do a big participatory animation installation at Art-A-Whirl this year with support I received from the Minnesota State Arts Board.
What artists do you admire?
My parents told me that one of the first words I could say was “Louis.” I was born in late 1962, and in 1963 one of the biggest hits on the radio was Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Hello Dolly.” There was something about that voice and song that still calms me and makes me happy, and my parents said that whenever that song came on the radio I would get so excited and just say “Louis” over and over. So of course, they got me that record, and I would always play it when I was feeling sick or sad and I’d immediately feel better. Armstrong and other jazz artists, particularly John Coltrane and Sun Ra, have inspired me my whole life, giving me a sense of the spiritual and struggle and hope and improvisation.
I wasn’t much older when I saw the oddest and most amazing thing on TV and when I asked my mom what it was she said, “Charlie Chaplin.” I still remember that moment, and I still am so moved by the work of the silent comedians Chaplin and Buster Keaton, filmmakers who improvised their movies, making them without written scripts. Later I discovered the German Lotte Reiniger and the Argentinian Quirino Cristiano, pre-Disney animators who showed me how to make animated films with paper cut-outs and daring and little else. I also love to read, and among the many many writers I love is Raymond Queneau, who experimented in what text can do but also had a pretty strong sense of humor about it. Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, and Stan Brakhage were experimental filmmakers who embraced the fact that they were amateurs, that they made movies because of love, and that idea always guides me. My eyes were opened up to the community building possibilities of animation by the independent animator Helen Hill.
When they were at the Walker Art Center I got a chance to say hello both to Agnes Varda, one of my guides to the world of handheld documentary, and Joanna Priestly, who inspired me to take animation into the outdoors. And there are so many local and contemporary animators and filmmakers who I learn something from all the time that I would be hesitant to name, because there are so many and I would hate to leave someone out. And every time I work with young people, whether kindergartners or college students or any age in between, I learn new things about what we can do and how we can live, I just plain get inspired. And my favorite artist of all is my wife, Beth Peloff, who not only makes amazing movies herself but is always willing to give me useful notes to make my own work better.
Lately I’ve been trying to make about one film a year or so about an artist I know, generally people in their fifties and sixties, like me, who are just keeping on keeping on. I just like to hang out with my camcorder while they do what they do, because it is all so inspiring.
First, I am jealous that you were able to meet Agnes. Second, I really love Beth’s work. I am definitely going to ask her if I can feature her on this blog! John, where can we find you online?
My website is www.johnakre.com. There are literally hundreds of short movies there you can watch. I also post a picture once a day on instagram under johnmakre. And you can find out about the Sloppy Films Animation Station on Facebook at SFAnimationStation.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Thank you so much for doing this, Jes. I really appreciate it when people watch one of my movies and then have questions about it, or just have questions about what I do. Having to write or speak about it makes me think about it, and thinking about it gives me a chance to figure out what I really am doing. And I really appreciate you creating these illuminating and inspiring profiles!
All images courtesy of the artist.
"There are painful and funny things that I just don’t feel I can express in painting that I can with zines. I call this my “heart work.” But I also still love to paint. I don’t know how the two things work together, or whether they even need to."
Carolyn Swiszcz is the genius behind Zebra Cat Zebra, a zine I have been subscribing to for the last year. It feels like such a treat when I receive it in the mail. I love the zine so much I gifted three subscriptions to friends of mine in California.
The first time I was exposed to Carolyn's art was when I came across her videos, specifically "West. St. Paul." I became glued to following her work after that. In 2015, I was obsessed with her MAEP exhibit "Inventory" at the Minneapolis Institute of Art when I was interning in the Contempoary Art Department. I would go visit her display regularly, reflecting over her concepts and explorations of place, nostalgia, and memory.
Born and raised in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Carolyn moved to Minnesota to attend the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where she earned a BFA in 1994. In the late 90’s she spent three winters in Miami Beach on a fellowship from the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts. Time spent among Miami Beach's faded apartment buildings inspired Swiszcz to take an interest in buildings and public spaces. Swiszcz’s work has been exhibited at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Drawing Center, Highpoint Center for Printmaking, Miyako Yoshinaga Gallery in New York, Steven Zevitas Gallery in Boston, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. She lives in West Saint Paul, MN with her husband [photographer Wilson Webb] and their daughter.
In this quick interview, I ask Carolyn about Zebra Cat Zebra (of course!). I was also curious about the first place she ever painted.
Enjoy and admire on!
Jes: The days I receive Zebra Cat Zebra I gasp with giddiness! I am assuming I am one of many who stop in their tracks to open the envelope and start reading your latest zine. Can you tell me about when your zine days started and what you hope to continue doing as a zine-maker?
Carolyn: I started making zines in 2016 for an after school book class I taught at my daughter’s elementary school. I fell in love with the 8 page format that fits one sheet of paper - it was the perfect size for my thoughts. After the angst of the 2016 election zines became a way to feel less discouraged and connect with others. I have a great crew that helps me fold the zines, and I’ve made friends with people in my community when I’ve interviewed them. For example, I was curious about my exercise teacher at the Y and asked if she would tell me more about her path in life. I ended up making a zine about her, which I gave out in her class. It’s strengthened the bond in our little Wednesday group. The whole process makes me happy. I love sending things in the mail.
My goal is to make a book. I’m not sure if it would be a collection of these shorter stories or a longer narrative combined with paintings. I have a lot of questions, and I’m still trying to find my way both visually and with the writing. There are painful and funny things that I just don’t feel I can express in painting that I can with zines. I call this my “heart work.” But I also still love to paint. I don’t know how the two things work together, or whether they even need to.
I love how you put a spotlight on buildings, businesses, and street intersections in your art. Many of these places that would seem ordinary to most tend to render uniquely in your work. I often feel like I am touring the Twin Cities through your portraits. I am reminded of the places I have driven by or I am learning about new places. When did this subject matter in your work begin for you? Do you remember the first place you ever painted?
In my mid-20’s I had a fellowship in Miami Beach. One of the architectural fixtures on Lincoln Road is a huge mid-century office tower. It’s blue, and it’s topped with massive digital clocks facing all four directions. This was one of the main things I could see out of the window in my first studio there. This building made me laugh because it was so functional. It was also a kind beacon that oriented me during neighborhood walks as well as a scolding presence reminding me of the passage of time and how I needed to get back to work. The view of this clock out my studio window was my first architectural work.
Does memory inspire your art? Or nostalgia? Or architecture?
Not so much memory, but a desire to create memory and meaning, a desire to make my surroundings more interesting. I find that when I paint a place I feel like I own it a little bit. Painting it draws it into my story. Then when I go back out in the world and see the place again it’s more exciting to me. It’s not just the pizza place anymore, it is the “pizza place in my painting.” Seeing the world inspires the painting and seeing the painting inspires how I see the world.
And yes, architecture also inspires the work. Some subjects are chosen for purely formal reasons like “I have a great idea for how I can render that stucco.
Thank you for answering my questions, Carolyn! Where can we find you online?
My web site is carolynswiszcz.com and I’m on Instagram @carolynswiszcz. I post extra comics on Instagram that aren’t in my printed zines.
Hey readers, you can subscribe to Zebra Cat Zebra too! Check it out here.
All images courtesy of the artist.
"What I’ve come to enjoy the most about making a performance is all the little things I get to learn about making lots of other little things and getting to meet really cool people in the process."
I love this interview I have for you. It's with Bethany Lacktorin who is amazing in so many ways. I met Bethany through our participation in the Hinge Artists Residency. I have been admiring her work since. Not only is Bethany funny but she is also a super talented, caring, and engaging individual. Bethany's list of projects and artistic approach is inspiring and important.
Bethany is a performance artist, organizer and media producer. She creates site-specific, immersive, interactive, multi-disciplinary installation experiences that foster new perspectives, heightened awareness, and deeper connections to the spaces, places, and communities in which we live. Expressed as music, movement, sound, story and object Bethany’s work has been presented on stages and institutions across the US and Europe.
A professional sound engineer since 2001 she has earned credit as sound designer for feature films, documentaries, short films, television and radio. Bethany studied music performance for violin at Lawrence University, received her AAS in Music Production at McNally Smith College of Music and her BAFA in Experimental Media at Prague College School of Art & Design.
Currently based in rural Minnesota, she is Board Chair/Director of New London Little Theatre, serves as Treasurer on the board of directors for the New London Food Co-op, is a board member of the Department of Public Transformation and is graphic designer at her local newspaper, Lakes Area Review.
Jes: Hi Bethany! I am excited to ask you some questions. I have loved your work since I saw My Ocean. Where did that project start? Can you describe it to folks who have never heard of it?
Bethany: My Ocean was a performance installation that happened in August 2016 at Ordway Prairie Nature Preserve in Pope County. I grew up across the highway from Ordway Prairie at the home and business my family ran for 3 generations, the Lake Johanna Store. I returned in spring 2014 to care for my mom. She had cancer and would pass away later that year. In hindsight, I can see that My Ocean was a homage to her and the legacy she was trying to pass on to me. I am now the 4th generation of Norwegian immigrants who lived on this particular plot of Dakota land. Albeit, I am the Korean adoptee of said 3rd generation Norwegian woman. Throughout the making of the piece I was at odds with how much being adopted mattered. In the end I decided that everyone who ever lived here had been displaced. And that it was the land that brought us together. That through the land I would know them.
The performance was outdoors. It was about a mile long, 90 minutes. An audience of 12 would follow me on a trail starting at the general store to a hilltop finale in Ordway Prairie. There were stops along the way. I’d tell a story, we were visited by the wind god, a prayer led by Dakota Elder, Thomas LeBlanc at the fort, a harp in the woods played by Gretchen Vork. The walk was accompanied by live music composed and performed by James Everest and a choir of shape-note singers. The prairie was rigged with tiny bluetooth speakers that emitted carefully crafted sounds to support and further immerse the audience into My Ocean. Choir and audience met at a peak where we ended by singing “Gathering.”
This all makes me think about how landscape is such a prevalent visual element to your work as well as a theme. I remember in an article you wrote with Nik Nerburn on MnArtists where you discuss your place and personal history with land. I really enjoyed that article. What is your particular approach when exploring landscape and how personal do you get with this work?
Thanks for asking, so cool that you saw that by the way. That was a fun interview process! I think landscape may have been more of an abstract for me in previous works to My Ocean. My Ocean was the first time I actually brought the literal landscape into the story. In other performances the ‘landscape’ could be referred to as what was already present in the room, on stage, or just simply within reach. My first creative endeavors were as a songwriter. I would rearrange things I found or was given. There was a guitar in the house so I made songs with it. In the early 2000s a producer friend, Dave Olson gave me a hard drive full of samples and beats that I assembled into my first self-titled EP. Collecting and engaging what’s already in the room is part of my practice in musical improvisation and theatrical performance. A similar process happened quite naturally in the making of Reminiscencia (2014). The narrative was guided by an assemblage of room tones binaurally recorded of the theater, environmental and incidental sounds of the surrounding neighborhood and our own voices recorded in the theater. The effect was that the listener would cease to hear the difference between what was happening in real-time and what was pre-recorded. It had a dizzying effect.
With regard to your question about how personal I get with this work, I have a couple reactions. Reminiscencia was performed for one person at a time on headphones and completely interactive. In that sense, the relationship between performer and audience became extremely personal. In the same way, My Ocean was allowed only 12 people per performance. In Steady Wind (2017), I cut off locks of my hair and handed them to individuals (in a jar) and demanded that they plant it. Having a small audience was, in each case, an opportunity to create much more intimate, one on one experiences. From the standpoint of content and narrative, My Ocean was deeply personal as it was a reflection of a place and myself in that place more so than any performance work I’ve made previous or since. I’m not sure I could do it again.
Currently, you are the board chair for your community theater. I would love to know more about what you are doing in this leadership role since place, community, and performance are such strong components to your work.
The first theater experience I had growing up was attending school plays at Little Theater. I truly believe it set the stage (hah!) for my lifelong dedication to the arts. When I returned home 5 years ago I wasn’t sure what the possibilities would be as an artist in rural Minnesota. I’d been away for over 15 years, most of them in Europe so really away away! But a lot of my doubts melted when I discovered how much support for artists exists here. I became oriented in the world of nonprofit MN arts organizations: Springboard, the RACs, MSAB, Jerome, McKnight, Bush -- that when I heard about the opportunity to get involved with LittleTheatre I felt a little click. The voice in my head said this fits. This is how I can contribute and engage on all levels of my ability.
Growing up in rural Minnesota as an adopted Korean, I was often the only person of color in the room let alone the entire town. As I got older, without my parents as a buffer, my hometown sometimes seemed just as much a foreign country to me as Europe. There were a lot of barriers to overcome. As a place-based artist, I saw that performance as a way to communicate and exchange ideas needed more safe places in our community.
Right now, Little Theatre’s is going through a major transition. We’re going from being the drama center for the public school for 40 years to being the arts center for the community as a whole. I hope to help evolve Little Theatre into a role of community collaborator and facilitator. With this comes the challenge of re-introducing Little T, and the arts as a whole, as an integral part of our community, of our economic development and of our civic decision-making processes.
Our first step has been to expand our programming & outreach. Our 2020 Spring Season lineup will introduce performances of Dakota elder, Tatanka, Algerian storytelling performance, Midnight at Sunrise, a bike riding bard’s documentary, Music for Free on the Great Divide MTB Route featuring Ben Weaver, Local Somali refugee's homecoming, Rural Refugee, by photojournalist Erica Dischino and a screening of My Ocean.
We are also partnering with local workers co-op Village Spirit Cocktail Cooperative to bring custom beverages to select events. We have weekly Sunday Matinee showings of public domain films and documentaries. And we’re developing an artist residency program with a close participatory eye on the CAIR program happening in Granite Falls.
I know in the past you were a Book Arts Fellow at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. What was that experience like for you? What was the result of that opportunity?
That was a wonderful experience! I thoroughly enjoyed delving into the mechanics of paper arts. This was a yearlong commitment so at one point I was also in the middle of a Hinge Residency. I was using my time as a Hinge resident to develop a performance piece called “A Steady & Irresistible Wind.” The timing was perfect as I was able to put what I was learning at MCBA to immediate use. MCBA’s resources allowed me to design and produce “singing” kite-shaped songbooks that accompanied the choir during “Steady Wind.” MCBA instructors and fellow book arts colleagues were incredibly generous with their time and support.
Do you have any challenges you face as an artist? What are your current needs?
In general, I’ve struggled with clocks. Reading them. The round ones. It took me years to understand the difference between left and right let alone clockwise and counter-clockwise. Someone explained to me that the ‘clockwise’ concept was based on the sundial, the shadow’s direction. Mystery solved! That’s what I needed! That’s the kind of information I continue to crave.
As a mentee of Minnesota Center for Book Arts Mentorship Series IV, Bethany learned how to use the printing press, sew books and integrate electronics into paper arts. The production process for Steady Wind singing choirbooks was made easy with help from friends, instructors and book artists at MCBA.
What do you love most about being an artist?
What I’ve come to enjoy the most about making a performance is all the little things I get to learn about making lots of other little things and getting to meet really cool people in the process. Like for My Ocean I learned how to make birdhouses. For Steady Wind I learned how to make kites and books! For Reminiscencia I learned how to program midi and Arduino to playback sounds using door locks, and last year I learned how to make instruments out of clay for a recording project. Right now, I’m learning how to program lights at Little Theatre.
What artists do you admire?
Buke and Gase
Where can we find you online?
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Thanks so much for including me on your page, Jes!
Thank you, Bethany. I appreciate your time answering my questions! I love all of the work you are doing.
All images courtesy of the artist.
Hey artist readers! Hinge Arts is currently taking applications. The deadline is March 2nd! There's a wonderful new track that's been added to the residency that supports female-indentified artists in honor of women's suffrage centennial. I participated in 2017 and I can't say enough good things about the experience and opportunities the came out of being part of the program.
Artists can apply for one of three residency tracks:
Career Development: For artists who want to work on their own self driven projects.
Homecoming: A funded, project-based residency for artists who grew up in West Central Minnesota who are interested in reconnecting with their home region.
Hannah Kempfer Residency: A funded, project-based residency for female-identifying artists that honors the women's suffrage centennial. The Hannah Kempfer Residency is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts through the Art Works – Artist Communities program.
Learn more by downloading the application guidelines here. The Hinge Arts Residency is a program of Springboard for the Arts.
"I love exploring depth and complexity, and we often hold many identities, realities, contradictions, and dreams. It is inspiring to me to really get to know someone. To know their darkness, hopes, quirkiness, weakness and strength, which helps me to check my bias and assumptions about people, and honor humanity in a more honest and sincere way."
If there's one word that I can use to describe Xiaolu Wang's films it would be reclaimation. Her work is brave, honest, and real, yet I can feel a gentleness to her style as well. She doesn't allow her films to simily gaze upon her subjects, but rather her films carry an active voice. Xiaolu shows through her work that film can help you speak, film can help you stand up, and film can help you connect with others. Being a filmmaker is more than telling stories, it's also about saying who you are. So with that, I admire Xiaolu Wang. I always looking forward to her work!
Xiaolu Wang is a self-taught filmmaker. She identifies as a Chinese transplant who grew up in the Muslim autonomous region in Northwestern China, now resides in the occupied indigenous homelands of the Dakota people, the twin cities. She believes in using lived experiences as materials for her films and for directing. Dumpling 饺子 is her first narrative short that blends traditional narrative with magical realism to reflect on the struggle to belong. It won Audience Choice Award at the Altered Esthetics Film Festival in Minneapolis, and is an Official Selection in Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival and Tacoma Film Festival. This year, she is developing a documentary with the support of the New Angles Documentary Fellowship through Saint Paul Neighborhood Network, and is a recipient of the Next Step Fund from The Metropolitan Regional Arts Council of Minnesota, and a recipient of the 2019 Minnesota Film, Video and Digital Production Grant from The Jerome Foundation.
In this interview, Xiaolu shares about joy, The Creative Independent, her recent films, among many other important things. Read and admire on!
Happy New Year to you and Happy Birthday to Xiaolu!
Jes: Tell me about your films and filmmaking approach. When did you first connect to filmmaking as an artistic medium?
Xiaolu: Filmmaking is a unique language to me, like advanced-level Chinese and things I can’t articulate in either Chinese or English, like music and hip-pop dance and poetry, like religion and cooking and surgery and sex, like time-traveling and illumination and magic tricks, but not exactly any of these things. Roland Barthes says “Two languages cancel each other out, so we need a third one.” Filmmaking to me is the third language I was desperately missing when I can’t translate my thoughts and experiences with my native tongue or a second language. I found films when I first immigrated to America and had to catch up with English. Watching films with subtitles was my best tool at learning English and getting along with my long-separated mother.
Your films have a portraiture quality - capturing often a single person. What inspires you most about exploring “the person” in your work?
I love exploring depth and complexity, and we often hold many identities, realities, contradictions, and dreams. It is inspiring to me to really get to know someone. To know their darkness, hopes, quirkiness, weakness and strength, which helps me to check my bias and assumptions about people, and honor humanity in a more honest and sincere way.
You are a recent Documentary Fellow at SPNN. What has that experience been like for you and what you been working on for them?
Being a freelance filmmaker and making my own paths in filmmaking means it’s ever more important for me to find community and stay connected. SPNN offers production support and mentoring resources and they are always providing opportunities and programs to help emerging filmmakers to have higher achievement in their filmmaking career. To me, I can’t thank SPNN enough for making space for filmmakers like me, who needs accountability in achieving my vision and practice sustainability for my projects and career. They push me to apply for fellowships and grants to develop my project further, they connect us to different documentary filmmakers who have vastly different styles and knowledge and approaches and work on different topics. They help me see a different possibility in myself and my project.
I met peers who are exploring the most pressing issues in our families and communities. We see on screen, footage of each storyteller revealing themselves in the most vulnerable light to serve the story. I was chosen to be a part of the cohort along with my partner-in-crime, a visionary cinematographer Tahiel Jimenez. We produced 16min of a feature-to-be documentary The Subversive Sirens, and I am just awarded by the Jerome Foundation a 30K production grant to develop it further.
Congrats on the grant, Xiaolu. That’s so exciting! I watched the trailer for The Subversive Sirens and it looks amazing. I'm cuious, do you practice in other mediums beyond filmmaking?
A recent love is taiko drumming and dancing on the street. I love the intention and dedication and repetition it requires to play taiko. My teacher once said, “you have to show up to taiko for at least twenty years and then you can say you are playing taiko.” I want to be able to say that about filmmaking. Dancing has always been a practice to me about vulnerability and accessing my joy. I found in my notes recently what I wrote about joy.
Joy is reliable,
Dumpling is your latest film? What is it about? Where can folks see it?
Dumpling is a short film based on my lived experience of moving from China to a predominantly white, rural American town when I was 14. The story takes place on Xiao Xing’s first day of high school after the move, where she begins to feel othered and isolated in her public school cafeteria. She preserves her identity by eating dumpling she brought from home. Dumpling blends traditional narrative with magic realism to reflect on the struggle to belong. It is currently in the film festival circuit, and I hope to release it online in 2020. There are two upcoming screening opportunities in 2020, one in January with the Twin Cities Film Festival, and one in February at the Indigenous Roots, which is a bigger celebration with other artists and friends and family. Please follow https://www.facebook.com/dumplingshortfilm/ for announcements.
What are the challenges you face as an artist?
I can isolate myself easily and not share what I actually go through. I get distracted by giving my energy and my power to things that take me for granted. I struggle big time with perfectionism, which cause me to procrastinate and miss opportunities that could’ve helped me grow further. I struggle with balancing ambition and capacity. I let uncertainty and my comfort zones prevent me from taking bold steps. I am highly self-conscious, so that means I am in my head, in my head, in my head all the time.
What do you think you need most as an artist?
Discipline. I have to be rigorous with setting up structures in my life, being specific with my goals, and taking actions to align with my vision.
What do you love about being an artist?
I love the ability to make something out of nothing. Being an artist is being subversive, magical, vulnerable, and honest all of the time. What artists do is transformation work, liberation work, humanity work, dissent work, and social work. I love that all I am learning to do as an artist is using my voice.
Accessing resources like grants, calls for art, and friends are a big part of being an artist. What kind of resources have you used?
I’ve been loving this online platform called The Creative Independent. It’s a growing resource of emotional and practical guidance for creative people. They publish free zines on being healthy as a creative, dealing with anxiety as a creative, making a living as a creative, and finding your voice as a creative.
I love the Artist Way books, there are always a good reference to have if I need inspiration or momentum.
Friends and networks is where I get gigs and opportunities, I love deep personal connections and also many intersectional organizations like SPNN, FilmNorth, Springboard for the Arts.
I have never heard of The Creative Independent! Thanks for sharing about it. What a great resource! Speaking of online stuff, where can we find you online?
Instagram: personal account @x140lu
film blog @erotic.lens
Are you working on something new?
I am on a journey of studying cinematography for the next three months. I want to learn how cinematographers think, plan, and communicate. I want to get more familiar with different aspects of filmmaking in order to elevate my abilities, skills, and effectiveness as a filmmaker.
I am really excited about all of the projects you are working on, Xiaolu. Thank you so much for answering my questions!
All images courtesy of the artist.
"I find that women and femme folx tend to have the strongest reactions to the images in a positive way. They hopefully can see themselves in the paintings I have made; the body shared is not their own, but they can identify with it personally. I often hear ‘thank you’ and just gratitude for feeling like large bodies are being shared with love and affection."
My first experience with Erin's Sandmark's artwork was when I installed one of her giant self-portraits at The Southern Theater in Minneapolis. I was volunteering with Altered Esthetics at the time. Erin's piece was part of a group show that we were curating in the lobbies of the theater. We placed Erin's painting in the upstairs lobby. We purposely hung it in a way that as people walked up the staircase and they made their way to the theater entrance they would be exposed to her self-portrait. I watched so many people engage with that painting, from children to older adults. People gravitated towards her image and presence.
Erin's art is usually large-scale and nude. The portraits are bold, memorable, and powerful. The work is an experience, inviting you to explore the agency of embracing one's body.
Erin Sandsmark is a Minneapolis based artist. Sandsmark received her Bachelors of Fine Art degree from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. In the spring of 2017, she received her Masters of Fine Art at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Sandsmark has been the recipient of the Brown-Makenzie Arts Scholarship and the Sally-Spencer Scholarship. She has been exhibited at the Regis Center for Arts Quarter Gallery, West Gallery, the Katherine E. Nash Gallery, the MFA Whittier Gallery, MCAD MFA Gallery, Co Exhibitions Gallery, New Bohemian Gallery, Gallery 148, Red Garage Studio, Altered Esthetics, Artspace Jackson Flats, Studio 427, Griffin and Archer, and the Freeborn County Arts Initiative with her latest solo exhibition “Ourselves”.
Sandsmark is also the board of the Freeborn County Arts Initiative in Albert Lea, MN, has participated in Art-A-Whirl and the annual MCAD Art Sale. She is an art instructor with ArtiCulture, a non-profit providing art to the community through classes and public art projects, and she is a Continuing Education instructor with the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
In this interview, Erin discusses audience responses to her art, goals she has for 2020, and her recent solo show in Albert Lea, Minnesota. She also talks a little bit about teaching at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Enjoy getting to know Erin, an artist I admire for her strength, talent, and commitment to body positivity!
Jes: I first saw your work when I was volunteering with Altered Esthetics. We were exhibiting your paintings. I was blown away by the power and boldness I saw in your self-portraits. When and why did you start painting yourself?
Erin: I started to paint myself when I was 21 years old, in my senior year at the University of Minnesota in the BFA program. I had been in love with painting portraits for a long time, and had experimented with creating abstracted nude figures. But it took me realizing how much I needed to make a true nude self-portrait after I just felt like I was keeping things too safe and easy. I had to confront myself and my body. My sexuality, and all that comes with it. I was scared to expose myself in that way, but it changed my life to move in that direction. The classes I took at the same time in gender politics and the discussions we on feminine power really laid the groundwork for me to be able to create the paintings I do to this day.
I have heard you describe your art as unapologetic and confrontational. What about your art makes it so?
I think what makes my work confrontational is the scale I use. The viewer has to see a figure that’s larger than life, and it might cause discomfort. I want to envelop the viewer and make them feel a part of the flesh and the painting. If you step close enough, you really can’t see beyond the image. I want each painting to have a strong presence and power. My body is large, fat, and full of rolls. The large scale allows me to carve out a space for myself in a room. Instead of shrinking back, I share myself and the bodies of the other models I’ve been working with boldly. I aim to give them the space and power they deserve.
Who do you find most relates to your art and feels empowered by your images. What have those folks said about your art?
I find that women and femme folx tend to have the strongest reactions to the images in a positive way. They hopefully can see themselves in the paintings I have made; the body shared is not their own, but they can identify with it personally. I often hear ‘thank you’ and just gratitude for feeling like large bodies are being shared with love and affection.
I really wanted to see your show Ourselves. Can you tell me more about that show: how you landed that opportunity and the art you had on display? It expanded beyond self-portraits, right?
It was a really exciting show, and the beginning of a long-term project of really exploring bodies outside of my own experience. For a long time, I wanted to paint other subjects, but this show gave me the opportunity to really start that journey. The Freeborn County Arts Initiative is a small arts nonprofit and gallery out of Albert Lea, MN and the president Marla Klein reached out to me about showing my work there. Marla knows me through personal connections, but I was excited that the board agreed to show my paintings. Through planning the exhibition, I actually got involved in the organization itself and joined the board in January 2019. “Ourselves” was a way for me to finally make major changes in what I had been creating, and finding a new way to work using models. All of the women in the show are colleagues, friends, family, and people I admire. Their abilities and jobs were all over the spectrum, but that’s what made it so amazing to have them all in a space together. Each model had the choice to share their faces or not, so that varied in each of the paintings. My goal for each individual was to make their experience positive, and capture their genuine power and presence.
I also saw earlier this year you taught a summer course at MCAD called Gender, Sex, and Society through Drawing and Painting. Please tell me about how it went! Will you be teaching it again?
I am hoping to teach this course again in the summer! But we will see, Continuing Education at MCAD varies. However, the course was a complete success and it’s the kind of class I have always wanted to teach. I love discussing critical theory on gender, bodies, and how those things can relate to artistic practices, so it was amazing really being able to dig deep into these issues. We are hoping to offer it again, and I have so many ideas and readings I want to incorporate into a new session. The paintings and drawings created in response to the theories were amazing, and had so much depth. It felt like a community, not just a standard studio class.
The new year is upon us! Can you share some 2019 reflections you have on your art and practice? What are your goals for 2020?
This year has been extremely busy, but I have realized I have not spent enough time on my personal artistic practice. That is the major thing I am hoping to improve for 2020.
What are some challenges or barriers you face as an artist? What do you need?
I think all artists are facing difficulty in finding a work life balance that benefits them in their creative process. I am so fortunate to have a community that strongly supports what I’m doing, but it’s hard to balance all of what I want to accomplish and create. Being financially set and creatively fulfilled is a hard balance to find.
What do you love most about being an artist?
I love being able to connect with people through my work. There is nothing like creating something, and seeing someone respond to it. It's really empowering and a truly incredible feeling.
Where can we find you online?
My website erinsandsmark.com
my instagram @erinsandsmark
Or email me for any inquiries! (firstname.lastname@example.org)
What artists do you admire?
Here are some artists I continually look up to:
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Thank you for answering my questions, Erin! Readers, please go Google these artists to learn more!
All images/art courtesy of the artist Erin Sandsmark.
"There is something important about allowing myself to slow down and notice the relationships between the forms that I see every day. "
I am excited to introduce you to one of my favorite Twin Cities-based artists, Liz Lang. I religiously follow her Instagram page to catch her sketchbook posts. There’s something about how she uses line and shape that draws me in! Pun intended!
Liz grew up amongst the wheat fields in Western Nebraska. Being from a generational farming family, she was raised to love the land and developed a deep fascination with the way it is divided for the various crops. Her mother was an educator with a minor in art history. This allowed art to be a major foundation in Lang’s childhood. She went on to develop her visual language by minoring in set design and receiving a Bachelor’s of Science in interior design from Colorado State University. Although she enjoyed the scale and projects of these subjects, Lang couldn’t shake her own creative point of view. This eventually led her to complete the post-baccalaureate in studio arts program at Minneapolis College of Art and Design where she was able to participate and eventually be a teacher’s assistant for the Women’s Art Institute.
Currently, Lang is a gallery assistant for a local commercial art gallery. She maintains her studio practice in an artist loft in St Paul, MN.
Please read the interview and admire on! You’re going to love Liz, too!
Jes: Hi Liz! Thanks for being part of this interview series. The first thing I want to ask you about is your sketchbook project. I love your sketchbook posts on Instagram! I even looked back at your #lizlangsketchbookproject hashtag to see what your first post was! Why make your sketchbook into a project? Does your sketchbook follow you everywhere? Do you sketch every day?
Liz: I made my sketchbook into a project as a reaction to the language of Instagram. I am fascinated with the ability of creating a digital album that is inherently visual through the use of language.
Yes, I carry a sketchbook with me everywhere and sketch every day. I currently have two; one that is dedicated to the hashtag (topical) and one that is more fluid. This habit was formed during my undergraduate studies (1999-2003), and I find it is the purest form of seeing. There is something important about allowing myself to slow down and notice the relationships between the forms that I see every day.
One thing I also love on your Instagram are the abstracted photos from your daily life. Like things on the sidewalk or industrial building windows. The way that you see and frame them, I notice in the photos similarities found in your original art...I can see that line and shape inspires you. So, what is it about the line and the shape that draws you in? Or stops you in your tracks?
Good question! I suppose the best way for me to answer it would be to talk about two deeper truths that provide anchors for my art. Firstly, I have discovered that Instagram fits best into my life as an extension of my studio practice. For me this means I use it mostly as a way to showcase how I move through my corner of the universe by providing access to the things I see. My belief is that it is the artist’s job to show people how to see, what to see and what to notice. I am most interested in developing these access points to patterns and relationships. Secondly, it is within the nuance of living that we build a life. The same route or the same path can be traveled by two different people and there will always be two perspectives/experiences. Even though we are all contained in an identifiable form, we will never be filled with the same energy.
I know you also keep an art studio. What is your studio practice like?
My studio practice is integrated into my daily life through my sketchbook. Because I live in St. Paul and work in Minneapolis, I take the light rail and will sketch on the train during my commutes. Additionally, I have a part-time job which allows me to have one full day dedicated to my physical studio during the work week. Since my studio is a home studio, I find myself wandering in and out of my space everyday depending upon my other obligations.
I understand that you moved to St. Paul from Denver a couple of years ago. As an artist, what has been the transition like for you? Why Minnesota? Also, what was the art community like in Denver?
I’ve lived in Minnesota before, so this move was a “coming back” of sorts. Truth be told, I was anxious about calling MN home again because Denver folks are expansive and energized in a way that is tough to compete with. I think this stems from the fact that everyone there seems to be from somewhere else. The Denver community is built on a vision, where I find community here is rooted in past connections and can take longer to find. However, this time around I have found that Instagram has played an integral part in forming lovely connections. Additionally, I live at one of the artists’ lofts where there is a strong community mindset built in.
Another reason to be in an artist in Minnesota is because of the strong funding and support we have here. It is such a valuable resource and something I do not take for granted.
How have you developed your career over the years? What kind of resources have you used?
My career is in a constant state of development. This year was about forming a consistent studio practice while developing my voice. I have utilized Springboard for the Arts, MPLSart.com and other publications / writings / books to create habits. My plans for the next year/decade are to show more of my work publicly by mounting shows.
What artists do you admire?
Mark Bradford, Robert Rauschenberg, Rachel Whiteread and Carolyn Swiszcz
I love Carolyn Swiszcz too! I subscribe to Zebra Cat Zebra. Her most recent zine about her exercise teacher at the YMCA is amazing! Liz, do you have anything else you would like to share?
I suppose my last parting thought is to give yourself permission to show up. Show up for yourself in your studio, pay attention to what excites you, ignite your curiosities, and chase out your thoughts onto paper.
Excellent words! I can get behind all of that. Thanks, Liz!
Images courtesy of the artist.
Artists I Admire is a series of interviews with artists I think highly of.