By Willa Brock, Intern, Education Department, National Portrait Gallery
“I just became entranced with the medium.”
It’s Saturday afternoon, and a small group has gathered in the NPG education room for a Studio Time class with artist Jennifer Levonian, whose short animated film, Buffalo Milk Yogurt, took second place in the 2013 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition.
Levonian begins the class by explaining her own, rather backward, entry into animation: originally a painter who worked in oil and acrylic, she signed up for an obligatory class outside of her concentration during her graduate studies at the Rhode Island School of Design and was introduced to the medium. “I didn’t expect it to change my studio practice like that,” she explains, “but I fell in love with it and stuck with this technique for the past six or seven years.”
Levonian’s short movies are, in her own words, “pretty low tech,” featuring watercolor-painted-paper cutouts animated in a jerky fashion and quirky story lines that explore issues of gentrification and gender in contemporary life.
Each of her films is usually around seven minutes long and takes about six months to create—most of the time is spent painting the backgrounds and figures, with the actual animation and editing taking place quickly at the end.
Today, she compresses the process into what she calls a “fast and furious” workshop, guiding the class in making paper figures of marching band members with hinged joints and parading them across a watercolor background to produce a brief animation. Levonian also pulls out cutouts she has saved from previous movie projects, demonstrating how she would depict a rotating rotisserie chicken in the traditional cel animation style or make a car recede into space. “When you starting making these, you really start observing the world differently,” she explains, noting that she now often closely observes how people around her move their mouths while talking.
This attention to detail is obvious in Buffalo Milk Yogurt, Levonian’s winning entry to the Portrait Competition. The film depicts a man having a nervous breakdown in a grocery store and was inspired by one of the artist’s friends, who participated in a sociology experiment for which he had to stand completely still in the middle of a grocery store for five minutes. The exercise was meant to explore how others would react and “to get him to be aware that there really is a social code that dominates the public sphere,” Levonian says.
The animation’s main character, in fact, is loosely based on a real person, an artist named Corey Fogal, whom Levonian met at a residency. Fogal also collaborated with her on the music for the piece. Buffalo Milk Yogurt’s focus on a specific person is what sparked Levonian to enter it into the contest, feeling that it functions more as a portrait than some of her other work.
At the end of the workshop, Levonian loads the images from her camera on to the computer, and the class watches as their mini animation comes to life on the screen in front of them. “Whoops, looks like we got some hands in there by accident,” Levonian laughs.
“With whimsy, humor, and extraordinary skill, Levonian has mastered the challenging medium of watercolor in a portrait that took three months of continuous work to create,” reflects Dorothy Moss, assistant curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery and one of the jurors for the contest. “What a privilege it was for our visitors to learn her process during her Studio Time workshop.”