Wednesday, October 20, 2010

OIAF: SMALL DESTRUCTIONS—Adam Hartzell's Evening Class Interview With Lark Pien

Lark Pien is an award-winning cartoonist and illustrator. And she is also my friend. She is my sole connection to the world of comics, graphic novels, and animation. (I did have a comic book phase my first year of high school, but I noticed I wasn't hanging out with my friends nearly as much so I packed up the Power Packs, canceled my Alpha Flights and ceased the Secret Wars in favor of external rather than internal conversations.) Whenever Lark and I meet up, our conversations are rapid and breathless, having so many epiphanies and thoughts to catch up on. I have learned a great deal from Lark and she always fuels me to further explore my own ideas and interests.

Our meet-ups have become fewer because Lark's cartoonist career has been booming lately. She received the Harvey award for her coloring work on Gene Luen Yang's Printz winner American Born Chinese (the first graphic novel ever nominated for a National Book Award). And last year saw the release of her first book Long Tail Kitty (Blue Apple Books, 2009) and last weekend of her second book Mr. Elephanter (Candlewick Press, 2010). Both are characters she's been developing for years and—although classified as children's books—many an adult will find much to appreciate in Lark's quirky sense of humor and wonder along with the playful joy of her illustration style. And don't just take my word for it. Kirkus Review has this to say about Mr. Elephanter: "There isn't a page here that doesn't melt with charm." And Publisher's Weekly is sure readers will be converts begging for more after getting to the 70 frames of imaginative (and hilarious) games in Long Tail Kitty.

Along with this, Lark has found herself included in this year's Ottawa International Animation Festival (OIAF) as part of a series entitled "Californimation" on October 22, 2010 at 5:00PM at the Arts Court at Club SAW. Lark is on the docket with her video project Small Destructions which was a piece commissioned by San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum (CAM) where Lark came into the museum and painted a daily frame on four large canvases, video-taping the entire process. This video was then sped-up in time-lapse fashion and synced-up with the music of Cherryweed with lyrics by Stian.

My thanks to Lark for taking a break from her busy schedule to indulge a brief email interview in hopes that the lucky folks attending OIAF might gain a broader context of her talented work.

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Adam Hartzell: Can you tell us how the Small Destructions video project came to be?

Lark Pien: In 2007, the CAM in San Francisco received funding [from the Feishacker Foundation and the Zellerbach Foundation] to house a new series in their facility—the Bay Area Spotlight. It took up an entire wing (a large room), and cycled biannually, featuring a comprehensive body of work from a local cartoonist.

I was invited to be the first in this series, and so I met with the curator to discuss details of the show. He expressed interest in having me paint a mural, and this idea grew and evolved into an installation piece for the museum, the Small Destructions installation.

I came in after hours and painted in 1.5 hour increments (employees were not getting paid to stay later, and I did not want to put them out). I am usually a very fastidious painter, but to set up shop, get the camera positioned and rolling, paint and then clean up all in an hour and a half was no easy task. The painting/filming portion of the project took one month. The film editing (which I am obviously novice to) and music coordination took another few weeks.

Hartzell: I assume the story you ended up painting was created for the commission (correct me if I'm wrong). Do you have a name for the characters and how long have you been developing these particular characters utilized in the story you paint in Small Destructions?

Pien: The Small Destructions story is a stand alone mini-comic, and was originally part of a limited edition handmade two-comic box set—pfew! that's a mouthful!—that my husband [fellow cartoonist Thien Pham] and I made in 2004. Each of us wrote our own comic stories, then combined them together in this Monster Box set. The only rule was that the stories had to have monsters.

When deciding on a subject for the installation, the first Monster Box story came to mind. I hadn't played with it for awhile, but it was a good length, fairly straight forward in concept, and had a lot of visual texture. The monsters, like many of my characters, do not have names; but you get the idea that they're neighbors or friends and that they share readily.

Hartzell: What I've always loved about your work is the playfulness with just the right subtext of wickedness and Small Destructions conveys that perfectly. However, what themes do you see emerging in your work? I see a consistent theme, but is that intentional? Is it laid out in a detailed way or is it something you more so let emerge as you go about creating?

Pien: One thing that I have been told repeatedly about my work is that my stories are lyrical but do not have a lot of plot. Some people find the lack of plot dissatisfying, but I think these kinds of stories are fine to tell. I don't think I'm telling a story to make a point but to illustrate a kind of "way"; is that Taoist? Ha! I'm interested in illustrating the unpredictability of the world we live in. I think our reactions to chance, to luck, and to fate are often painful and funny.

The realization that my work is thematic is a recent one. In my twenties I never focused on a project longer than when I was making it. Once a painting or comic was sold/adopted and in someone else's home, I'd carry on to my next adventure. But I'm nearing my forties now, and I've been thinking a lot about doing some projects that will take a long time to do; so stepping back and thinking about themes has become relevant.

Hartzell: How did this video project end up being included in OIAF and are you familiar with the work of the other folks who will be featured in the "Californimation" series?

Pien: The OIAF contacted curator Andrew Farago at the CAM and invited him to the festival. Mr. Farago was asked to assemble a group of animation pieces for the "Californimation" segment, and the OIAF asked specifically for my little film to be included, what luck!

I have met Dalton Grant on several occasions, but have not seen his animation pieces. I've seen a little of Nina Paley's work and love her designs for
Sita Sings the Blues. I don't know how my rudimentary project will fit with the refined collection of their professional work, but I really appreciate the film being a part of OIAF this year. The festival will make for an incredible week.

Hartzell: I know you just released your second book Mr. Elephanter this weekend and Long Tail Kitty last year, could you tell us a little about those characters (and if the books will be available in Canada) and if there has been any discussion about taking those into an animated form?

Pien: Yes, the books are available in Canada. My comic audience consists of mostly adults, but now the stories are in children's book formats as well. Obviously, I'm happy to have both. Long Tail Kitty emerged in the early 2000's, and was featured in a story for my pet rabbit, who died while I was traveling. It was a sad story and made some people cry. Over the years I've written ten or so Long Tail Kitty stories, but they are all pretty happy.

Brave Mr. Elephanter (the comic) was written for my brother, who loved all kinds of pachyderms when we were growing up. He has been considering adoption, so I decided to write a story about that. The adoption theme is much more prominent in the comic than it is in the children's book.

Mr. Elephanter and Long Tail Kitty are some of my kinder characters. They live in worlds where there is a strong sense of well-being. If there is ever any drama, it usually doesn't get any crazier than fighting with a friend, or accidentally getting roped into a babysitting session. I've been asked to option Long Tail Kitty for cartoons, but I think companies are asking for the character and not the stories. I'm interested in Long Tail Kitty's world and his stories, and less interested in branding his character.

I like interactive formats (games, choose-your-own-adventure type stories), so if it was an interactive animation project or video game, I'd be interested in looking into it. Recently someone showed me how to do some rudimentary animation using Photoshop. That was neat. And I have a brand new Final Cut application that I'd like to install and learn, so I think some in-house cartoons may be in my future.

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Lark Pien's full bio can be found on her website and further samplings of her art are galleried here. All images copyright of the artist.

Cross-published on

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