Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Picture Held Us Captive

Last night I attended a lecture at SVA presented by the upcoming (Fall 2012) "MA Critical Theory and the Arts" Department:  Peter Eleey:  A Picture Held Us Captive.  The description reads: MoMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey discusses the challenges posed to art by the image culture of the post-9/11 era and how he sought to navigate some of these challenges in organizing “September 11,” an exhibition at MoMA PS1 marking the tenth anniversary of the attacks.

I was not familiar with Peter Eleey before this lecture, and what struck me most about him was his contemplative way of speaking.  Every word was intentional; carefully picked as he fiddled with the mic stand, eyes drifting up towards the ceiling as if his word bank could be found there.  I mention this because there was an incredible amount of thought put into this exhibition - the pieces chosen received all the meditation and deliberation as the words he chose to explain them.

In this hour-long lecture, Peter showed photos from 9/11 as well as from the exhibition, carrying us through his inspiration for the show then his reasoning and philosophy behind his curatorial decisions.  As for reasons for the exhibition, he cited a desire to work with "temporal specificity instead of site specificity."  Over the years, Peter has noticed some divine coincidences between exhibitions and the major historical events that transpired during their runs.  One example being Saddam Hussein's execution occuring during the MOMA's show, "Manet and The Execution of Maximilian."  He wanted to create a show with that sort of historical counterpart, but without being able to see the future, his options were limited to recurrences rather an occurrences.  I'm not sure how many options he entertained before landing on 9/11;  maybe it was obvious.  I got the feeling it was...

His first challenge was finding art that he felt would be fitting for the exhibition.  With the exception of a few pieces, he hasn't felt that there has been any contemporary works that really speak to his proposed post-9/11 image culture.  In fact, one piece that he felt did was unveiled one year after the attacks, causing public outrage and was subsequently removed.  It is Eric Fischl's Tumbling Woman (2001/02):

The outcry was that is was "wrong", arguing that since it was in a public space (Rockefeller Center), it could not be avoided.  Like the photo The Falling Man, it demonstrated the seemingly unanimous feeling that representing the victims was an abuse of the image, and served as a precursor to the censor placed on future images of that nature (for example, the coffins of fallen soldiers from the upcoming Iraq War).  The intensity of their protest was, to Peter, a testament to the power of the image.  To take it a step further, the power of images that, regardless of their historical context and proximity to 9/11, would illicit strong emotions when seen through the frame of 9/11.  This was the thesis that Peter Eleey went on to explore then employ when putting together September 11.

At one point, Peter said that as long as he chose well, then 9/11 feelings would be projected onto all of the work.  Citing visitor reactions to pieces like a Modrian memorial (installation across the street on the sidewalk) and Janet Cardiff's "The 40 Part Motet", he felt as though he accomplished that.

Thomas Hirschhorn. Mondrian Altar. 1997. During installation, an onlooker asked if the person had been killed in 9/11.   
Janet Cardiff, The 40 Part Motet. 2001.  At the opening, a visitor complemented Peter on his representation of the Pennsylvania flight with this piece.  There were 40 people onboard.

One criticism of the show is that Eleey is changing the meaning of the work by placing it out of its original context and into an exhibition explicitly about September 11th.  In his own defense, Eleey pointed out that a museum can provide a caption but that doesn't dictate/change the way the viewer experiences the art.  I think the point is also that it's not his exhibition that is dictating or changing the meaning of the pieces contained in it, but rather 9/11 itself. 

9/11, temporally transfixed as an event and by our referral to it by its date, nonetheless marks the start of something:  a period in American history that to this day has not ended.  Many people, myself included, suppose that we are the makers of meaning.  Peter Eleey proposes that 9/11 proves that history can, and is currently, making meaning out of us.  He further cited the historical regression he has observed in America over the past 10 years.  Bush, again.  Iraq, again.  An increase in remakes and attempts to "keep" live performances.  He sees us as trying to look back into our history in order to understand, citing "the violent dejavu" of the attacks as a major cause.  When the first plane hit, we were all wondering what happened - was it an accident?  Human error?  Then the second plane hit, making it clear that it was a deliberate attack and forever changing the historical recollection of the event.  The sheer trauma of that day, coupled with the deluge of images that pervaded our media, has had an ongoing effect on the American people.  Our struggle to understand, the subsequent backslide, and the perceived meaning and also censorship surrounding images post-9/11 all add to the "captivity" placed upon us by 9/11.  This, Peter Eleey proposes, is the post 9/11 image culture.  His exhibition is a discussion of that culture that he offers without reservation, but rather, with honesty and grace.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Douglas Gordon's "Play Dead"

I had never heard of Douglas Gordon before stumbling upon his show at the MOMA in 2006. It was one of the first video installations I had ever been to, and it was the first time that video in the fine art setting felt really accessible to me. I haven't been nearly as affected by a single other video as I was when turning the corner and coming face to face with his piece, "Play Dead."

Projected onto two massive screens, it literally took my breath away. It's the first time I can remember ever feeling confronted by art. A silent film shot from a low angle, it centers on an elephant and is set in an empty gallery (the Gagosian, to be exact). The camera circles the elephant as it is prompted to lay down, then sit, then stand again. When talking about the project, Gordon said, "...one of the beautiful things with film and video is that it can imbue a sense or sensibility that doesn't actually physically exist." Looking back at it, that is exactly what gave me pause when entering the space. The elephant on the screen was seemingly to scale; impressive, majestic and powerful on screens that offered the only source of light in the giant space that contained them. The animal felt present.

As the elephant shifted, preparing to sit, or rolled on its side, trying to get up, the lack of sound gave it a feeling of weightlessness. The omission of this very important quality (sound) is to intentionally leave out one of the most important characteristics of any video that seeks to ground itself in "reality". So to omit sound is, in a way, to do away with showcasing elephant the animal, and to offer elephant the image. The sense of the elephant.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Recreating RSA Animate

I've recently been approached with a request to make a "RSA Animate"-type short. In my meeting last night, the client showed this example:

I'm fascinated by stop-motion/digital hybrids, and trying to figure out what is "faked" and what is real. This one for sure has me scratching my head. Is it a real whiteboard? How did they light it? Is it done in sections or as a whole with a camera moving as he drew? Is it all digital and they fake the drop shadow? Does any of this matter as long as my solution gets them the same end result? That seems to be the point, ultimately. Get them the result, stay on budget.
I'm going to do some tests over this weekend, with the goal to be to post my process here. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Caricature of me by Bill

I just finished representing two of Bill's films at two festivals and he asked me to share my experiences on Scribble Junkies, so I thought I'd also re-post here.

First up was "Guard Dog Global Jam" at the Ottawa International Film Festival. It was my first time at OIAF and I have to say it was everything I hoped for and more. I won't say that I loved every film that I saw, but being immersed in a community of animators for five days far outweighed any distaste I may have had for certain program selections. I will also say there is merit to exploring what you do not like as much as there is indulging in what you do like. Here are some highlights from the shorts competitions:

I wasn't one for abstract animation until this film. I also love that Steven is holding it down with ink on paper.

As for this one, I just love how smooth the animation is, the timing, and the music paired with it.

This undergrad thesis film played in the same block as GDGJ, so I was lucky to sit on a Q&A panel with Caleb the next morning. He is bright, thoughtful, and is really engaged with the process of making hand-drawn animation.

Also, a welcomed moment of levity from Danny Dresden.

This past weekend I accompanied "The Flying House" at The Hamptons International Film Festival. Centered around East Hampton, the festival boasts multiple red carpets, complimentary hor d'oeuvres and glasses of wine, and programming that couldn't have been any more different than Ottawa. Not that I expected them to be at all similar, and also not that I've been to so many festivals as to be able to draw comparisons, so instead I'd like to discuss the matter of shorts: live action vs. animation.

After attending a block of shorts, it seemed to me that (at least in the case of this program) the filmmakers all dealt with "real life" situations to match their "real life" mode of visual storytelling. With the exception of the one animated piece, they all dealt with the themes of parenting, morality, and youth. Each story was uniquely executed, and very much had an individual style, genre and "voice", but it left me wondering if an animated short would ever be "popular" with the same content. I'm not saying that it should or should not, but more so thinking about the inherent differences in the mediums leading to differences in the end products.

I think one attraction towards live action is that the director is not representing people going through life, the actors are people going through life (as far as the audience is concerned). This allows them to be more immediately accessible so the writer can just "dive right in". Animation offers a limitless playground, where anything from complete control or lack of control can be employed to provide a more expressive representational approach to the same themes. As animated filmmakers, we have to work to engineer the suspension of disbelief, whereas live action can easily be accepted as "real." This, to me, can be sighted as a reason (amongst many that I won't go into here) for the difference in content that I experienced between Ottawa and the Hamptons.

I had trouble hunting down videos of the shorts, but the program I'm referring to can be found here.

I would like to thank both festivals and their wonderful staff members for their generous hospitality and for offering films that, like it or not, showcase how we continue to address the world with our visual storytelling.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Shower Compositions

Having some adoration for my new shower head...

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Fire Escape

micron marker, micron pen and prismacolor marker

One of my favorite things to do in the summer is sit on my fire escape, right outside the living room window that opens up to it. When my neighbors are out and about I enjoy watching them come and go, sometimes giving a whistle and a wave if I'm feeling social. What I like more so, though, is letting my brain have it's tangential way through my day and, with enough time, life. I've reached many moments of clarity and inspiration while in that spot. What you see above is the result of one such session.

I didn't take the time to test makers and make a proper palette, and as a result I feel it's a bit haphazard. I do like, however, that I managed to stay loose and take a few hours to explore the page with different colors and size pens. Starting with marker and blocking in color, I was able to experiment with building the volume of the tree's leaves and creating depth. As a study, I really like it, and imagine I'll revisit this composition, this time with a stricter palette and taking greater care to compose the page.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


sketch I did of the main character on my way home
micron on paper, digital color

Last night I went to see the premier of "Bellflower" at the SVA theater in Chelsea. I was very curious about the film having stumbled upon the trailer last week:

Described as a fusion of John Hughes and Mad Max, the film got a lot of positive attention from its run at Sundance, and I have to say deservedly so. Not only were 2 out of the 3 cameras used to shoot the film built by the director himself, he also built the car, the flamethrower, wrote the screenplay, starred in it, and it's his feature film debut. Also, the movie was made for around $17,000. Working full-time in an indie studio myself, it is really encouraging to see a movie made on a such a small budget, but not only that, one that can hold it's own with movies with ten times that budget.

In a Q&A with the writer/director/star, Evan Glodell, he spoke about how much of the film was a community effort. People pitched in cash as they had it, as Evan built the cameras on the empty floorspace of whatever living room/extra bedroom he was staying it at the time. Scraping by over the 3+ years it took to complete the film, he has emerged as a sought-after filmmaker and getting a lot of buzz. I am so refreshed and proud to see super low budget indie making a splash.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Doldrums - Introduction

one view of my home studio
featured drawing: study of Frank, Micron brush tip marker on paper, 24"x18"


The Doldrums” is a work-in-progress painting project that explores the idea of “winter doldrums”, “cabin fever”, and comfort in one's living space.

Focusing primarily on observational painting, these scenes from inside various apartments will play with saturated darks and desaturated colors (such as the pale yellow lighting in my bathroom). The subjects are the company I kept during my most recent case of the “winter doldrums”. Close friends: one working full time and getting her masters, the other, an aspiring boxer trying to overcome his childhood as a ward of the state. I seek to have up to seven subjects.

Through these juxtaposed images, I hope to explore the idea of being inside both physically and mentally. The goal of my paintings is to balance the darkness and frigidity of a winter in Brooklyn, and the sentimental warmth that comes from being in a familiar, safe, place.

Questions to consider:

Why portraits? What is it about portraiture (both in photography and drawn/painted mediums) that attracts both maker and audience alike? Specifically, what is it about having photos of loved ones in an apartment that adds to its warmth? What is it that the picture-maker is seeking to keep forever? To freeze in time? How will the hanging of these paintings recreate a space much like that of a living space adorned with photos of family and friends? How will these portraits confront the viewer not in the posed, “say cheese” sort of way, but in an open, “this is me, this is my human soul, much like yours” way?


Here are a couple of portraits that I've done in a series of preliminary drawings focusing on the individual. I imagine that when the summer ends I'll move onto mood/color studies...

"Candice", blue Prismacolor pencil on paper, 18"x24"

"Erika", charcoal on brown paper, 18"x24"

Monday, June 27, 2011


I recently participated in a project called "What is the Use of a Book Without Pictures?" I think it's best to explain it using the words of its creator, Mike Schneider:
"We are collectively translating Alice's Adventures in Wonderland into visual artwork. Open to artists of any style, media, or motif." The picture below is the introduction to the Facebook album for the project (still in progress):

I was assigned paragraph 205:
‘Why should it?’ muttered the Hatter, ‘Does your watch tell you what year
it is?’
‘Of course not,’ Alice replied very readily, ‘but that’s because it stays the same
year for such a long time together.’
‘Which is just the case with mine,’ said the Hatter.

Armed with that citation, context written by Mike and submission guidelines, I sat down to do some character designs. It was then I realized that it was hard for me to draw my version of the Hatter. With all of the imagery of the Hatter that I'd been raised on and the very recent feature starring Johnny Depp, I was vacillating between Walt Disney and Tim Burton, and struggling to stay true to how I would draw a character using my sensibilities. I took me three sessions to finish my design of the Hatter, then sitting down with some thumbnails for two sessions to work on the composition. Here's the art from those stages:

That last one is my sketch for the finished piece. That took me another three sit-downs - rough first, then two sessions of adding detail/tightening. Then I scanned it and "inked" it in Photoshop:

That was a few hours at the Cintiq. At this point, I referred back to the submission guidelines, which brings me to challenge number 2: I misread the dimensions. I thought the panels were 9" wide by 6" tall, when in fact they are 9" TALL by 6" WIDE. Whoops. The good thing is that I don't "ink" the pieces of my illustrations on the same layer, so re-arranging wasn't the end of the world.

A few experiments with composition later, and about 4 hours of coloring, the finished piece can be found below. The submissions call for black and white images, but I was so excited to play with mood and drama that I did mine in color then converted it to grayscale:

I loved this project - it's been about 10 months since I've done a complete illustration, and I'm proud of the results!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


"Me" - Charcoal on paper, 18" x 24"

It's been awhile since I've posted, but not to worry: I'm still on my portrait kick. I've made some space in the home studio to get down and dirty, and am having a lot of fun playing with different media. My inspiration struck when I was home alone, so I dug through some photos of myself and settled on a self-portrait. I'm looking a bit strung out, and my nose is too long, but I'm kinda digging how weird and grungy it is.

Next, I sat my roommate down for one. It's not easy sitting for a portrait, especially when I'm working in color. The thing is, when I'm going to commit to marker, I need to establish a palette first.

The palette took about 45 minutes, and the portrait another hour plus. I think the whole process was 2 - 2.5 hours. John's nose is too long also, but at least I'm consistent, right?

"John" - Prismacolor marker on paper, 18" x 24"

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Colored Doors

I've been considering starting a painting project involving different doors. My idea was to do a painting of my bathroom door from the point of view of sitting on the toilet. Now, as promising as that sounds, my brain came to a screaming halt. Well, more of a turn.

Before I know it, I'm considering portraiture - a life-size portrait of a boxer friend of mine, larger-than-life busts. Considering people I know, and doing it large scale. I drew this last night to feel out the idea:

My buddy "Champ Spear". This boy will give you the workout of your LIFE - which feels like he loves you and is trying to kill you all at once. One of my favorite people.

So then there's tonight. Two painting projects that have me inspired, an animated short that I love, and then my day job which I treasure. Not enough hours in the day.

So then there I am, back on the toilet, thinking about my day and what kind of creative energy I can muster for which project, and then boom! idea. Right there: I like the door because it is yellow and, come to think of it, the only other door I can imagine painting right now is the one at the Double Down Saloon, and THAT DOOR is almost all red. That's it - I'll do a color story! Wish me luck.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


I've been considering starting a painting project (because I don't have enough projects started, obviously). I really like the look of my bathroom door from the inside and was wondering what it would look like painted in oil, nearly to scale, so I decided to do a study today. I printed out a photo I look of it two weeks ago and used it as reference for the digital painting below. I really like where it's going - I'm going to put more layers in, but I already think that I may stick to digital.

Chewing Gum

Thinking about adding a young, nerdy-type girl to the subway car. I think she'll be a freckled red-head in her Catholic School uniform happily bouncing along, chewing gum. I drew her earlier in the week, and the more I look at her the more I want to see her animated, so today was my first pencil test. Thinking I'll need a *pop* at the end for sure.

Bubblegum Pencil Test from Desiree Stavracos on Vimeo.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Subway Shuffle

I've been thinking about a new idea for a short film, tentatively titled, "The Subway Shuffle". The weather has been crap so I'm on the subway more than usual, and I'm inspired to pay a little homage.
So here are my first concept drawings - sketches for the setting - simple one angle cross-section of a subway car. Thinking about what details to put in, what to leave out. Also some sketches of candidates for the cast of NYC "characters".

Definitely want to get a bad-ass metal head in there. I'll probably give him pupils, since I want him to be lovable like all of my favorite metal friends - but undeniably he looks waaayyy cooler (but meaner) without them.
As for this guy - have to have some grimy dude coming through looking for change. All politics aside - just need a cup-shaking-kind-of-guy.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Some Guy

Sketch, Micron on Paper

Sketched this guy while on the train home from seeing "Repunzel" on Friday night. Meditated a bit whether I wanted to color him, and of course did, so I started on this first treatment.

Color, Photoshop

Color, Photoshop

I liked the purple, but I wasn't jumping for joy over it. Was thinking of going ragged-Christian-Bale circa this year's "The Fighter", but had to sleep on it.

Color, Photoshop

Came back today after leafing through my "How to Train Your Dragon" book and colored it again. Things kind of got Nightcrawler, but I'm OK with that.

FINAL Color, Photoshop

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


brown micron on paper, from photo reference

These go back to the Fall, but I really wanted to include them. The story is, I had a nasty leg abscess that left me with three puncture-wound/bullet hole looking scars on my right leg. Once I was healed and, you know, we could all laugh about it, I was getting all sorts of suggestions for story "embellishments" to explain how I got the scars. My favorite is from my friend Michelle who said that I should say I was attacked by a rabid koala. "Brilliant!" I thought. That set off a series of koala drawings, none of which really became the ferocious one she had in mind. In fact, the closest I got was a zombie koala, and... well... the unamused one you find below. Enjoy.

pencil on paper; initial sketch

Photoshop; my first color attempt
Before I knew it, the color was going in the wrong direction. The application was too tight on the tree for my taste, and the blue was no longer "doing it for me."

Photoshop; final color
I may add some more shadows to the koala and tree to give it the look up being under a "canopy", but we'll see...

Sunday, January 2, 2011

How to Train Your Dragon

My brother gave me the "Art of: How to Train Your Dragon" for Christmas and first off, the book is absolutely beautiful. It offers a lot of insight to the over-all design of the film from different department heads to give a well-rounded creative process type overview of the film. After reading through the book and reveling over the artwork, it was time to draw my own dragon (of course).

micron and marker