"A.V. Club Chicago Interview: Lori Damiano"
Q&A with Portland animator/artist Lori Damiano in anticipation of Eyeworks Experimental Animation Festival. Published by A.V. Club Chicago. (Thumbnail image courtesy of Eyeworks Experimental Animation Festival)
Portland, Oregon artist and Jill-of-all trades Lori Damiano’s newest animated film, Lord I: The Records Keeper has been a long time coming. Damiano embraces animation after years of working as an illustrator and painter for clients like Volcom and the psychedelic children’s show, Yo Gabba Gabba. Oh, and she’s slapped her work on some pretty righteous skateboards.
The Record Keeper makes its most complete premiere (at least thus far,) on Saturday
as the second program for the Eyeworks Experimental Animation Festival at Depaul University’s CDM Theater. To mark the occasion, The A.V. Club chatted it up with Damiano about her Zen-inspired yet whimsical artwork.
AVC: How did you get involved in the Eyeworks Festival?
LD: I met Lilli [Carré] and Alexander [Stewart] a couple years ago. I think Lilli knew about my paintings and illustrations. I invited her and Alexander to come out to the summer program I’m involved with at the California State School for the Arts at the animation department. They started a film while they were out there. I think that’s when they saw my animation. They invited me to come out this year. I’m excited.
AVC: So, you’re going to be showing some of your new piece, Lord I: The Records Keeper.
LD: I’ll screen everything that’s completed on it. It’s really close to being done but the last scene in it is incomplete. I’ve been working on it forever.
AVC: How long has it been?
LD: I think it’s been about eight or nine years. But I haven’t been working on it as much in the last couple years. So this is very energizing, to get back to it and wrap it up. It’s a pretty big project.
AVC: What’s the storyline?
LD: It’s based on my experience with the Kamana Wilderness Awareness program and Vipassana Meditation. I was doing both of those things when I came up with the idea for the film. It’s a narrative centered around my experience with those two things. It’s about awareness and distraction.
AVC: How did you use those ideas to create characters and visual themes for The Records Keeper?
LD: The main character is Lord I and she’s the record keeper for the kingdom. She’s summoned on a journey to go to this Kingdom of They. Her whole mission is to constantly document everything that’s going on. The authenticity of her records gets obscured by her mental chatter, projections and fears.
Past experiences begin to infiltrate her ability to experience things as they are. At a certain point, she realizes that she’s not seeing anything that’s going on besides her own preconceptions. It’s about that discovery. I’m not sure how much of that is readable [to an audience.] It looks like a cartoon. That’s what’s going on in my mind but I don’t expect it to be so obvious. It’s much more lighthearted than that.
AVC: What was it like translating that deep experience into this piece? Did it come naturally?
LD: I guess I was just trying to visualize my own transition from being completely unaware of the noise in my mind to understanding its impact on my exchanges. It was about being more aware of how loud my brain is and how that impacts my interactions.
I wanted to translate that into imagery. The character is surrounded by all of these little vignettes of animation. She lives in this cloud of stuff that’s all around.
AVC: Is this the first time you’re showing this piece?
LD: I’ve been working on this for so long as my main animation project that I have been screening it along the way. I screened part of it a long time ago at Yerba Buena in San Francisco (http://www.ybca.org/ ) as part of this Scenes Unsound exhibition. I screened it about a year ago in Philadelphia. I’ve shown a couple incarnations. Otherwise, I haven’t screened it at all. I’ve kept it under lockdown.
AVC: Are you excited to see some reactions?
LD: It’s weird. When I screened it before it was on a monitor in a gallery setting. I’ve never screened it for an audience. I’ve rarely been present during the screenings. It’ll be fun. That’s another thing that’s interesting about this; I’ve haven’t even thought of myself as an animator until recent years.
I haven’t sent stuff out to festivals. I felt like more of a painter or an illustrator. I’m still in transition. This is a new experience for me. I’m excited just to come to Chicago and see a bunch of animation and share my own work and meet the animators in the Chicago community.
AVC: What’s the transition like going from still images and illustration to animation? Was it an intuitive shift?
LD: This film is representative of my denial about how to translate my paintings to movement. The animation is very dense which is partly why producing it has taken so long. There’s a lot going on in every frame. In that way, I’m still learning how to translate things in a more economical way, time-wise. The density of the imagery in this movie is part of what makes it interesting. It’s unusual to see so much going on around all the characters.
AVC: You’re dealing with some high-minded themes, but all of your imagery is always really fun and colorful. The characters are really evocative. What draws you to that kind of style?
LD: It’s been a long process that’s naturally evolved. I’m not a well-trained draftsman. I don’t feel that I’m very skillful at drawing, necessarily. The awkwardness in my style helps communicate my endearment to the awkwardness of self-perception. I have a love for that “off-ness.” The way that I draw isn’t put on. It’s because I’m limited with my skill. It’s in harmony with my content. The content I love is people.
AVC: You have this one illustration of men doing this cheerleading style triad on top of a motorcycle. Your work involves these strange overlapping contexts of characters. Are these images that you come up with spontaneously?
LD: I haven’t thought about it for a long time but these characters are archetypes of my experience growing up on the West Coast. I appreciate old manuscripts and things that depict ceremony and people. I like to look at present day ritual in that culture.
The motorcycle men are a real group of men in Seattle that perform these acrobatic feats. I’m really interested in how we all spend our days. They spend their days practicing these tricks. No matter how much time passes or how sophisticated we think we get, we still love those things.
AVC: Sort of like everyday folk heroes. Everyone has their own identity in what their hobby is.
LD: Hobbies are a big one but a lot of it has something to do with self-importance. I think it’s funny. It comes back to intention. I made a painting of this guy washing this weird little RV truck thing. That could be a ritual but it also includes things like demolition derbies. It’s whatever we focus our attention and energy on. I’m interested in American versions of that because that’s what I know.
AVC: Like your illustration of those two body builder types, for example. There were eagles involved and it was all happening on a picnic blanket. Is that your image of America?
LD: Yeah. I made that thing for a Volcom t-shirt graphic. It was sort of a self-portrait of American identity. “We’re American, look at us, we’re totally ruling this picnic. We’ve got this.”
AVC: What’s it like working on commissions like that for larger companies? Is that challenging?
LD: I enjoy it. It’s really fun. I do all different types of freelance work. I usually get to do what I already do. That’s why people come to me. There aren’t too many revisions. It’s not that different from doing stuff for fun because there’s usually just a theme or a color constraint. It’s fun because it’s like a game with parameters. You can play with it.
AVC: Your work has been on t-shirts, on screens and in all kinds of forms. Is that cool to see it in different contexts, like as something someone would wear?
LD: I don’t usually see the t-shirt or skateboard graphics. I make it and send it off and I see it in a catalog. I’ve never seen someone wearing any of them. I’ve had people contact me who’ve bought the stuff. I’ve never accidentally caught someone wearing something. There’s no connection there since I haven’t seen it.
AVC: Do you like the idea of someone wearing an illustration or riding on one of your boards?
LD: I haven’t designed boards lately. I don’t know. I don’t think of things that way, that people are wearing them. I really just enjoy the process of making things and coming up with ideas.
AVC: Is there anything you’re excited to see once you get to Chicago for the festival?
LD: The whole program looks great. I think it’s going to be really fun.
AVC: The screenings for the festival all fall under the umbrella of “experimental animation.” What does that classification mean for you and your work?
LD: That’s a good question! I have a Master’s Degree in experimental animation and it’s still a tricky thing to define. I’d say when people think of animation there’s a heavy-duty idea of it being commercially based.
Experimental animation opens it up to thinking about movement as a medium of creating art. That takes it out of the television or the movie theater or the conventions of traditional narrative. It uses experimental techniques to create non-live action filmmaking. It challenges people to take the medium to new places.
AVC: How do you experiment with animation personally?
LD: I haven’t experimented as much as I hope to. I’m still anchored in this film that I started so long ago. It’s experimental in that my approach isn’t all about traditional character animation tactics. I’d like to hear what other people have to say on the subject. When I sit down to work, I don’t think of it as making experimental animation. I’m just thinking about storytelling.
AVC: It’s a way to search for a method of explaining something that falls out of the traditional approach. Those definitions can encompass a wide range of work.
LD: Using the term “experimental” opens things up so that there’s a much wider spectrum of possibilities. More things can be included.
AVC: Are you looking forward to spending some time in Chicago? Have you been here before?
LD: Yeah! I’ve only been a couple times passing through. I’ve never spent the night there. I don’t really know the city.
AVC: There can be the tendency to focus mainly on Chicago artists during festivals like this so it’s interesting to see some fresh West Coast blood.
LD: There’s some strong Chicago representation at Eyeworks but it’s also really diverse. I’m looking forward to it!