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Interview with Allison Schulnik

Allison Schulnik uses painting, ceramics, and hand-made, traditional animation to choreograph her subjects in compositions that embody a spirit of the macabre, a Shakespearean comedy/tragedy of love, death, and farce. Her works were compared to “the comic-grotesque visionary James Ensor” by The New York Times. Solo exhibitions include the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT; Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, ca; Oklahoma City Museum of Art, ok; Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Overland Park, KS; ZieherSmith, New York, NY; and Galeria Javier Lopez & Fer Frances, Madrid. She has been making animated films since she was 17. Her films have been included in internationally renowned festivals and museums including the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, LACMA, Annecy International Animated Film Festival and Animafest Zagreb. She received “Best Experimental Animation” at the Ottawa International Animation Festival and Special Jury Prize at SXSW Film. Her work is in the permanent collections of over a dozen institutions including LACMA and Museum des Beaux Arts, Montreal. She lives and works in Sky Valley, CA.

Interview with Allison Schulnik

Questions by Emily Burns

Hi Allison! The way you use paint resonates so much with the way you work with clay. Have you always used paint in a dimensional and sculptural way? Has this always been inherent in your process or did that tendency develop over time? 
I think it developed over time! I started out working flat, but was also sculpting pretty young. In that sense, I was always appreciating chunky materials.

Your ceramic sculptures often portray characters with an abundance of personality. When building these figures, is there a narrative or story in your mind, regardless of whether the characters have appeared in a film at some point? If so, where do these stories originate?
I could not say where they originate. Their stories are vague to me, and I am not sure what they come from. I feel like their narrative is more of a feeling, emotion, movement, gesture, or all of the above. 

When you began making films, what drew you to Claymation specifically?
I always loved Claymation films, so that was the original draw. They seemed like a real world, but one you could create, where you could place things in a space of your own making and fabricate a world. For some reason, sculpting everything was more fun for me. Claymation also seemed to have a freedom inherent in the material. The puppet is made and then you can move it frame by frame. That appealed to me, rather than having to re-draw every frame. Of course now I am working on a 2-D film and am painting every frame by hand on paper with gouache paint. I like change!

When did you begin working with clay as a medium to make fired and glazed ceramic sculptures? What drew you to sculpture?
The same things that drew me to painting and animation drew me to sculpture, which was another way to tell these stories or emotions—another way to share and communicate. I like the close relation it has to craft and functional things you use every day. I like that you use a glaze for a mug you drink coffee from, and the same glaze goes on a character from another world.

You’re incredibly prolific and have said that you work a lot. How often are you in the studio? What is a typical day like for you?
I work less now. I am more interested in focus and quality. I feel that working all the time sometimes makes my work stale. However, I’m always working on something, always switching between mediums. I just have more mediums I work in now, including sewing, music and plants, ha. Not to mention, I have a newborn baby now which has slightly changed my typical day. Actually maybe it hasn’t changed that much, just add to my day feeding and nurturing a human, and more love. It still mostly involves creativity and exploration, just that it is shared now with another critter.

You have mentioned that you’re a loner, and your husband is also an artist. How do you balance time in the studio with the rest of life?
I’m super lucky that I get to work from home. We moved out of LA a while back to Sky Valley, AA. We were so fortunate to be able to get some acreage and build studios out here. The monetary demands of living in the city are no longer an issue, so I am able to work at my own pace. My balance is quite good out here, and I have a heavy desire to spend time with my baby, my husband and my work equally. Of course, being in the middle of nowhere, I think I realized I am not a true loner. I love people and am so happy to have visitors when they pop in, even more now than when I was in the city!

From interviews I have read, you are very attached to your current studio. How long have you been in the space, and what makes it an ideal place to work?
Well, I have a new studio! My last space in Cypress Park I was in for about ten years, and it was a magical place. Moving ten years of life was epic. I loved my old space, but now love my new space even more. On three sides there is only mountain, rock and wildlife. The focus here is intense. I work in the house as well, and I work outside. I have so many places to work and that really fits the way I live, and my need to make things every day.

What do you listen to while working? Is this an important part of being in the studio? Is it always music?
Always music, always listening. Must have music.

Music seems really important to you, both in the studio, and in your animations. You were in a band and played electric guitar—do you still play? How does playing music relate to your work?
I pretended to play guitar. Ha! I loved playing and being in a band. Barfth was doing shows for about four years. I do still play, but just at home and mostly for my baby. I’ve danced my whole life as well, so music and dance are a huge part of my life. I think animation is really a magical marriage of music and painting really, so it is all intertwined in a wonderful way. It is all the same thing to me. Emotion and communication.

How does the actual process of making the ceramic work fit into the rest of your practice? Are you firing works at home or in a shared space? As someone who likes to work alone, how does working in a shared studio affect you and the work?
When I was in LA I went to a communal studio, and I really enjoyed that. It was nice to work around people, being that I was alone a lot. Out here I have not yet worked on any new ceramics. There is a studio here I will join soon. I have been making my film this whole last year, working on some fabric projects, and hanging with this baby.

You have mentioned that you avoid the computer in your work, stating that you like everything to be handmade, and that you, “Love everything anti-computer, anti-robot…” Does this still hold true, and does an attraction to tactile, handmade objects have a broader significance for you?
I still don’t find any joy working on a computer. I do love tactile and handmade objects, just my personal taste. 

It seems like you are especially skilled at getting into a zone of intense focus and productivity, when working on animations in particular, though you have said that you have a short attention span! What helps or hinders this type of concentration? How do you maintain this ability in this hyper-connected, fast-paced world that seems so determined to derail our attention?
I turn off all screens. I don’t have a cell phone or computer in my studio. I rarely had my phone on in the studio in LA either. Actually, our internet and cell coverage out here is very spotty, so we have a landline and people can call us on that. That helps. Of course, I am just more interested in working than being connected. I prefer face-to-face interactions when it comes to friendship. I did not have a smart phone until I was twenty-something, so it wasn’t really a big part of my life ever. 

Has motherhood started to influence your work in unexpected ways?
It has made me appreciate my work more, but also just appreciate life more as well. I am far more focused, and feel a huge responsibility to be real and good at what I do. It makes it easy to discard bullshit and narrow in on passion and honesty.

What is the difference in pace when making the paintings, sculptures and animations?
Well, animation obviously takes a huge amount of time, and the paintings are more immediate. Although some of my recent sculptures and paintings have had more of a building and layering, much like the films. However, in everything I do I try to create gestures that are from the gut, which can be fast or slow.

Many of your paintings and sculptures are quite large. What draws you to working at this scale, especially when working with so much physical material?
I love working large. It allows for a lot of mining and constructing of brushstrokes and finger marks. I do also work small, and have enjoyed doing that more in recent months, finding the same opportunity for exploration.

Much of your work is mysterious, fantastical, and other-worldly. Are there any influences from your childhood that inspire this tendency?
The fantastical does have such a freedom to flourish in childhood. Yet, I think mystery, and fantasy and the other-world are a part of me now as much as ever, and should be a part of everyone beyond childhood. 

What are some of your most recent influences or sources of creative spark?
The critter that climbed out of my stomach is my biggest source of creativity and inspiration right now. Also, this new landscape that I’ve transplanted myself into, and all the critters within it. My dog. Most recently I have been stunned by Bonnard, Burchfield, Dix, and Foujita, a hanging boob mobile made for me as a baby in 1978 by a family friend, pink satin, old stickers, my husband and different shades of purple. Scotland. Ancient and antique French painted tiles. Breastfeeding. The pollinators, including the moths that look like birds that come out at night, and the bats that zip by my head at dusk. The kit fox that leaves Mesquite Tree seed poops everywhere, despite his attempts at digging up my cat, Juice. My cat, Juice, who just passed away exactly one year to the day after her siamese twin, Gin. Singing West Side Story and Sound of Music songs to my little nasher, white euphorbias, and of course, all my talented friends and family who have dedicated their lives to making things, films and songs. Alice Neel, Peter and Sally Saul, Ivan Albright, Albertus Sera, Frimkess ceramics, Jeffry Mitchell, Lynette Yiadom Boakye, Corny Cole, Jules Engle, the Raggedy Ann and Andy animated feature from 1977, Bambi, and always Ruslan and Ludmila.

What’s up next for you?
Completing this film, my first gouache-on-paper animation, and showing it at MassMoca in April!  

Thanks so much for talking with us!