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Tom Olson and the Tiger: An Animator’s Tale

Robert Frost famously wrote, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both . . . . I took the one.” The writer Frank Stockton had previously put it a different way: A youth has to choose between two doors, one of which hides a beautiful maiden he must marry and the other a tiger who will devour him. Tom Olson knows this choice all too well, but to get to that point we first have to travel a few decades back through time. While these days, Olson and I exchange texts about the ramifications of firefly incest and the suitability of the Kool-Aid Man to voice the Hindu god Brahma, our witty banter about the artistic process was not always a foregone conclusion.

In the Beginning…

This story starts in 1979, when I was being born in a North Carolina hospital and Olson was a disillusioned ex-graduate student in Ithaca, New York, having moved there to study philosophy at Cornell University. We both spent the year sleeping fitfully in student housing.

Olson’s fitful sleep, having decided that the philosophy he studied had been completely pointless, was born from living in a basement apartment with grocery trips to buy peanut butter, nonfat dry milk for homemade yogurt, and popcorn. He was surrounded by leftists distributing single-spaced typed proclamations, but was convinced there was more to propagandist literature and, ultimately life. Tom Olson’s road from former philosopher to flipbook artist started much like his left-leaning acquaintances: with the distribution of pamphlets. Instead of distributing mimeograph-machined manifestos, however, Olson handed out cartoons. (Which allegedly still exist in some long forgotten manila folder.)

Finding the still cartoon form somewhat limiting, but (wrongly) feeling he had no drawing talent of any kind, Olson luckily stumbled across a flipbook, which he responded to with amazement at how little ability it took to make something move. Like a magician, Olson soon found he could create a rabbit able to fly into the sun or instantly transform the sun into a wrecking ball. Even better, with the benefit a circle stencil, Olson didn’t have to rely on his non-existent art school training and could make oranges that turned into Swiss cheese that became grapes. Thus The Adventures of the Little Circle and The Little Circle Goes Wild came to life.

The Life of A Flipbook Artist

No longer in grad school, but instead working part-time for minimum wage as a museum guard at the Cornell Museum, Olson whiled away the hours at the galleries thinking of ideas for his flipbooks. Because his primary responsibility as guard was to stop museum visitors from writing with pens, he had to be on constant alert for visitors so that he had time to put his own pen away, thus gaining the moral authority to stop other people from using theirs. After work, Olson would take his ideas back to the basement apartment where he had installed a large piece of glass between two desks, taped it around the edges, and spraypainted it white, creating a makeshift light table to work on.

Olson was delighted that he could make the sun come out and scare someone, make a runner jump off a cliff (and the cliff save the runner), and that he could even make speech happen. With his newfound godlike powers, Olson realized that whereas most flipbooks were based around the idea of “Hey look it moves!” he could, within the narrative confines of ten seconds, actually create and resolve dramatic tension. Thus, such stories as How the Sun Becomes the Moon and Why the World is Round where born.

Explaining the impetus behind Why the World is Round, Olson says he is fascinated by world-origin stories. In Christian and Jewish theology, there is one God who says, “There is nothing, there needs to be something, and I’m going to create the earth, the sea, the darkness, and the light.” Hindu mythology, in comparison, has both a creating god and a destroying god. Brahma would say, “Hey, how about this?” and then Shiva would say “KABLOOM!” Olson thought the latter worldview would be an interesting way to develop our universe, and created an earth developed by iterative process in which a cubic earth is destroyed, a pyramidal earth is destroyed, and a spherical earth is adopted by Vishnu who hoists a little “earth” flag on the sphere.

Between his time stenciling circles of the earth and illicitly brainstorming with a pen, Olson found another source of inspiration. On the way to the nonfat dry milk, Olson noticed there were many bananas in the store that were about to be deliciously consumed, but that a much sadder fate awaited the Chiquita labels. Thus, he starting stealing Chiquita banana labels on the side for a new flipbook, as you can see here:
Ultimately deciding to turn away from the criminal life of fruit-label stealing he saw looming before him, Olson worked on perfecting his drawings and people started appearing. To be fair, people only appeared in profile because that was the limit of Olson’s representational aspirations, but it is remarkably effective for his stories’ purposes. And, as people in profile started showing up, so did romance. After all, Olson was in his twenties and what young man doesn’t like kissing?

Now in full command of his artistic gifts, he sought a publisher for his flipbooks. Sure enough, a publisher quickly picked up the little books with a phonecall saying “These are fantastic and we definitely want to publish them; we just need to talk to production and will call back soon.” Olson, thinking he was now on his way to the street level and beyond, celebrated with his friends and some cheap champagne. At the same time as this Ithacan jubilation, however, the New York production department was realizing that they couldn’t make the flipbooks for less than $3 and couldn’t sell them for more than $4, so the numbers just weren’t going to work. Undeterred, Olson sought out more publishers, who all told him the same thing. Somewhat more deterred, he went to law school.

The Beautiful Maiden

Although Olson had just barely cracked open the door with the hungry tiger behind it, he concluded that a better doorway to walk through might be the one behind which lay a successful career as an attorney with a marriage to the beautiful maiden. With this realization in hand, he, over the years, attained several sought-after legal positions in Washington, D.C. and became a proud father to two lovely daughters, as well as the owner of a picturesque suburban house with several pets. I could rattle off a truly impressive list of his career and life achievements that are, of course, all well and good, but Olson could never quite scratch the itch of wondering what was behind the other door he barely cracked open all those years ago.

So it was, late one Friday evening after a friend introduced me to Tom and he had invited us all over to dinner, that he pulled out a musty, old box full of his 1979 flipbooks. Everyone is the room was immediately enchanted. A full flipbook tour ensued, as one magical adventure after another sprang out from an almost bottomless box. The audience oohed and aahed for a while before moving on to dessert. As the evening was winding down and the guests started discussing their weekend plans, I started persuading Tom to let me walk away with his treasures tucked securely under my arm.

Flipbooks by Tom Olson

A short time later (in the scheme of things), I had curated and was installing a solo show of these pieces at a Massachusetts college art gallery, one state away from the Cornell gallery where the flipbooks had been born. I made reproductions of several flipbooks for visitors to enjoy, printed out some of the flipbooks in their entirety in poster format (which you can see and acquire in the Printorium for yourself), and had two projectors playing all flipbooks all the time. The show was, in my opinion, delightful beyond belief. Children of all ages, as well as the director of a nearby museum, agreed. That director wrote me (and I am paraphrasing), “I loved the exhibition!!! You did a fabulous job making the material really come to life. GREAT work!!!” Armed with these exclamation marks, I convinced Olson to come see the show for himself.

Tom, whose wife was busy saving the world in Los Angeles, brought a pair of friends with him to see the exhibit. We spent a couple days touring the area, enjoying the museums, and acting out the flipbooks in person. We had some delicious Italian food, a more questionable breakfast, and said our goodbyes at the local ice cream parlor. This undeniably pleasant weekend did not, however, prepare me for what was to come next.

Tom Olson Opening

Tom Olson Opening

War And Peace for Busy Readers

Flipbook Reenactment

The Tiger Returns

One evening, my phone started lighting up with questions about animation software, and almost before I had the chance to answer, video clips of fireflies glowing at night, a boat sailing across the ocean, and an old man smoking his pipe appeared. Olson, clearly inspired by the vision of his younger self but content to leave behind the light table and index cards, had started animating again with the help of a variety of Apple-brand products. Not only were there suddenly brand new animations, but with them, sound! The acoustic universe was a brand new, vast and uncharted territory for Olson that he was only able to navigate thanks to the ability to sample the great wide world of YouTube. (Below is a video of a work-in-progress by Tom, Noah and the Lonely Firefly.)
As Tom and I texted more, his ideas for beautiful, short stories flowed out, such as Jack and Jill and the Bean Stalk and Little Red Riding Hoodie, where Red and the Wolf end up going to a club and splitting ear buds. He also realized that the 1979 flipbooks were well suited for a 2017 refresh, and has started the process of tweaking the animations and adding music. The older pieces, wrapped in a warm, paper-that-is-yellowing patina, still feel fresh and continue to charm, but are completely transformed through the aid of technology and hindsight. (You can see a selection of these at video.truerthantrue.com)
But even beyond this, Tom and I started having text conversations about the artistic process: the difficulties of being creatively blocked about how to visually resolve a narrative, the pain and joy of learning new tools, and the excitement of looking forward to time to create (and thus the sudden appeal of the relative solitude provided by red-eye flights to visit his now LA-based wife). It feels like Olson is just getting starting on this second round of artmaking, and I am excited to see what the next year will bring for this flipbook philosopher. Regardless, I am happy to report that the tiger behind the first door wasn’t quite so scary after all.

UPDATE (2/10/2018): The next year has brought a beautiful new YouTube channel showcasing Tom’s work under his new label, Truer Than True Comix.

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By |2018-08-12T16:28:57+00:00December 1st, 2017|Books, Creative|

Creative Colloquies, Thanksgiving Edition: Stephanie Williams

mmmmm...beer

“mmmmm…beer.” Photograph by Stephanie Williams.

I pulled up the above picture on Instagram the other day and was struck by how some artists are so good at blending art and life into some kind of seamless, perpetual performance just by being themselves.

Five or so years ago, I found myself heading from New Mexico towards Washington, D.C., with the idea that I would roll up, invest in the local art scene, and live happily ever after. While that didn’t quite happen, I did have the pleasure to meet Stephanie Williams as a co-member of the two-year DCAC Sparkplug artist collective program, and have followed and admired her work ever since. Stephanie is an amazingly talented multimedia artist who also excels at the art of living and it was my pleasure to invite her to be a part of Mirror Mirrored, for which she has reimagined “Hans My Hedgehog.” I (virtually) sat down with her to catch up this week.

“Hans My Hedgehog” as illustrated by Karl Fahringer

Hi Stephanie. Thanks for agreeing to chat. I’d just like to talk a little bit about your piece for Mirror Mirrored, then maybe segue into a few other topics. The Grimms’ tale “Hans my Hedgehog” is a pretty crazy story: the main character is cursed on birth, hated by his father, rides a rooster, herds pigs, and disfigures one princess before marrying another, inheriting a kingdom, and making amends with his dad. What attracted you to this tale?

What’s not tempting about this story? It exists in extremes. I felt that, perhaps, it was only the designation of “fairy tale” that prevented Hans from easily translating to a contemporary context. Hans, I’ve met this person before. He is a character who feels that his power has been taken. He is presumed to be deserving. He feels justified in committing violent acts in order to take his power back, no matter the consequences.

The story’s voice even backs this justification, asking that readers accept certain systemic hierarchies as truth no matter how extreme: of course nothing should stand in his way to regain power. Of course, Hans is owed a father’s daughter for providing the father directions home? Of course, Hans doesn’t rape said daughter, but is owed intimacy when she is not attracted to him? Of course!

When I made the work for this story, I noticed there were countless current examples in news stories and anecdotes from friends in which violent acts were also justified in order to maintain ridiculous hierarchies of power. This work doesn’t claim to have answers. Making this piece felt cathartic.

Hans by Stephanie Williams, Video Still

Hans by Stephanie Williams, Video Still

I think that these old stories might, at their best, pivot between giving us hope for another life and providing us catharsis for the one we have. Were there any other Grimms’ stories you were considering reimagining for Mirror Mirrored?

I am interested in the storytelling potential of material, so I was looking for something that offered that opportunity. There was a story about a mouse, a bird, and a sausage that lived happily in harmony as long as everyone stayed committed to their assigned job. Their whole world falls into despair when one of the characters prefers and takes the job of another character. I like using remnants, fragments, and pieces leftover that perhaps in another form, could suggest usefulness at one time, but in their disassembled state aren’t considered to be intuitively functioning.

Mouse Bird Sausage by Walter Crane

“The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage” illustrated by Walter Crane

Gym Joy by Stephanie Williams

Gym Joy by Stephanie Williams

I enjoy your disassembled, questionably functioning sculptures, but especially enjoy what happens when you make them actually function by animating them. How did you get into stop motion animation?

I had been making alter egos that reflected upon my conversation with an identity. Given my making ability, these pieces, stylistically, looked toylike instead of living. I was looking for a way to give them a larger sense of being, a way for them to really own their awkwardness and un-placeability. Animating seemed like a natural step in that direction.

Hans by Stephanie Williams, Video Still

Hans by Stephanie Williams, Video Still

I learned how to animate on film in grad school. I was the only grad student in my intro to stop motion class and my stuff was truly horrible. I was very slow as a builder and found myself using the most roundabout ways to get a desired effect. A fellow grad in my program was also interested in “learning” how to animate digitally, had a camcorder, a DSLR, some tools, and lighting, so we decided that we could toddle through it together. We worked so inefficiently since we didn’t know what we were doing, but after four or so months we came up with something fun. After we finished that project, I moved to D.C. without access to equipment, so I returned to making stationary work on a large scale. There’s something quite satisfying in the agency of being able to switch between media.

From those allegedly toddling early days, the technical skills I see in your animation work right now are amazing—from the detail to sound to the constant motion of all the figures. How do you keep track of all the moving parts as a one person operation?

Thank you, but I am not a great animator. I’m still learning. Since I work by myself, this slow process is even slower. Animation and video processes have changed so much and I’m constantly catching up. I work with a traditional x-sheet (notes linked to each frame that I take, which tracks movement when I’m compiling photos). I also have visual aides with each camera angle: a crude drawing that diagrams all the moving pieces per shot, what direction they move, how much they move, how much they stand still, etc. It’s not necessarily a lot to think about, but it is very much a lot to keep track of. Sometimes, even listening to music is too distracting because I have to be so mentally present when I’m working; there is no autopilot. It’s tiring when shooting, but it’s worth it when I’ve been shooting for hours and am able to stop and finally preview these shots in motion. Sound, on the other hand, is more intuitive. I try to collect sounds that I find interesting or at least make a note of something that I should record. I just spend a lot of time with headphones on, re-editing until it sounds and feels right.

Pinoy Ploy by Stephanie Williams, Video Still

Pinoy Ploy by Stephanie Williams, Video Still

Aside from the technical details, I love the imagery in your new piece, Pinoy Ploy—which I believe recently screened at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Could you talk a little about the inspiration for the visuals in your work?

Thanks again! Within many of my projects, I find myself looking to things that disgust. The act of disgust suggests a process of ranking, of organizing into hierarchies what is tasteful and what is not. It doesn’t really leave a lot of space for subjectivity. The work for this piece looked to the hierarchies linked to American-ness, looking to map our value systems through food, as well as the role that stereotypes play when appropriating the foods of marginalized communities.

Until recently, it was difficult to find a Filipino restaurant. I found Filipino food at friends’ houses or my own since this food hadn’t translated well into mainstream American tastes. There are so many places now that feature Filipino food and I find myself wondering if we have finally found a more accepting audience or if I need to be more skeptical. I looked to other examples of once deemed disgusting foods making their way into mainstream taste and thought most obviously of Uncle Ben’s and Aunt Jemima.

The protagonist in my animation is a Balut (a fermented fertilized, half-formed duck egg). I chose this because Balut is a literal hybrid and a food that when featured on American television is as a food dare. I also looked to many portraits of Spanish colonizers (the Philippines was under Spanish rule for hundreds of years and an American territory before claiming independence in 1946). I wanted a colonizers’ presence, but wanted to play with who is traditionally in control of an American narrative.

Pinoy Ploy by Stephanie Williams, Video Still

Pinoy Ploy by Stephanie Williams, Video Stills

Sidetracking to food for a minute, because it’s been far too long since I’ve been back to the District, and because (insert something about Michelin stars), what’s your favorite restaurant or bar there right now?

I love the Public Option—my neighborhood pub. It’s like having a drink in your friend’s living room. Some wonderfully generous folks, Bill and Kathy, run it. It’s so rare to run into people that make caring so commonplace. My favorite restaurant is my own kitchen. My partner, Cheech is an amazing cook and is always up for trying new things, so I follow her lead.

Awesome. Ok, back to narratives. They are such powerful forces in our lives, both the ones we encounter and the ones we make ourselves. Did you have a favorite story as a kid or now?

I loved and still do love Elizabeth Taylor movies, Taming of the Shrew, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and yes, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Paul Newman, especially the scene where Big Daddy, played by Burl Ives, rants to Sister Woman (Madeline Sherwood) about the smell of mendacity: “Can you smell the mendacity, Sister Woman?” She answers, “Well Big Daddy, I don’t even know what that is!”—one of my favorite call and responses when I was six. Brick (Newman) participates in this rant, driven to tears thinking of his own homosexuality and stating that he too can “smell the mendacity” and is “tired of all lies and liars!” I, of course, had no idea as to what any of this meant then, but I loved the plot’s crescendos. Time stood still in this movie, leaving little room for you to process one monologue before another began.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Still from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Richard Brooks

A few years back, I watched as you helped students construct their own narratives as you taught intro to stop-motion animation at James Madison University. What do you think is the relationship between being a full-time professor and a practicing contemporary artist?

I feel incredibly lucky, sometimes undeserving, to have access to these luxuries: a singular job, a job that I’m invested in, and a job that’s invested in me. I’ve been a teacher for about a decade at James Madison University and what I’ve noticed in that time is that teaching allows me to pay attention to things that I wouldn’t normally pay attention to or have the time to pay attention to. I am lucky to have access to a new generation of artists reacting to their worlds for the first time. They’re so excited all the time. Also, in some cases, teaching forces me to observe my own language within culture. I’ve become more interested in research that is, from its base, more curious rather than pieces that claim to be didactic.

And, finally, as I know you have a complicated relationship with turkeys, what did you wear for Halloween this year?

I was Jane Lane from Daria.

Jane Lane from Daria, created by Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn for MTV

Jane Lane from Daria, created by Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn for MTV

Thank you Stephanie! Have a Happy Thanksgiving.

Thanks! I’ve loved working on this project with both you and Michelle and I continue to learn so much from our conversations together. We fall down rabbit holes often and can’t wait until we slip into the next one.

You can see the videos Hans and Pinoy Ploy from Stephanie Williams below, her work in Mirror Mirrored: A Contemporary Artists’ Edition of 25 Grimms’ Tales, and more information at her website at www.stephaniejwilliams.com.

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By |2018-01-16T15:39:08+00:00November 23rd, 2017|Creative|

Jennie Harbour, Where Have You Gone?

My Book of Favourite Fairy Tales.
Edric Vredenburg, ed. / Jennie Harbour, ill.
London: Raphael Tuck, 1921

One of the most beautiful and contemporary wonder tale books I’ve seen, My Favourite Book of Fairy Tales, was published near the end of the Golden Age of illustration in 1921. It is illustrated by an exceptionally talented artist, acclaimed in her own lifetime, who history has transformed into an elusive mystery: Jennie Harbour.

The fairy tale book was printed by Raphael Tuck, Publishers to Their Majesties the King and Queen of Great Britain, and Harbour’s illustrations (especially the black and white images) still feel exciting and fresh when I open the book today. Here are a few examples (you can see them all at Project Gutenberg, although the digitized images there don’t really do the book justice).

Red Riding Hood by Jennie Harbour

Red Riding Hood

Red Riding Hood

Goose Girl by Jennie Harbour

The Goose Girl

The White Cat

 

Snow White and Rose Red by Jennie Harbour

Snow White and Rose Red

Tufty Riquet by Jennie Harbour

Tufty Riquet

Upon first seeing these pictures, I was curious about this fantastic artist and tried to track down more information about her. It was easy to find accolades. For example:

“[T]he artistic and quite incomparable work of Jennie Harbour, [is from] an artist in a class by herself.” The Stationary World, June 1920, p335.

“[H]er Majesty the Queen, accompanied by Princess Mary, honoured the exhibits of Messrs. Raphael Tuck & Sons by her inspection. . . . The delightful colour facsimiles of early Victorian subjects, after Miss Jennie Harbour, which have become so popular, came in for special Royal commendation.” The Stationary World, March-April 1919, p142.

“Miss Jennie Harbour’s pictures [in My Book of Favourite Fairy Tales] are a delight to the eye, with their firm, graceful outlines and their original colour schemes. ‘The Goose Girl’ and ‘The Magic Mirror’ are our favourites. . . . The children will love this book.” The Bookman, Christmas 1921, p44.

“‘Favourite Fairy Tales,’ with illustrations by Jennie Harbour, should enjoy considerable popularity. It is so eminently attractive.” The Play Pictorial No. 226, Vol. XXXVIII (1921) p134.

“[The] famous collection of Jennie Harbour pictures [is] known all the world over.” The Stationary World, February 1920, page 89.

But it was nearly impossible to find anything more about her.1 (Adele C. Geraghty has even launched a website, with the hope of writing her biography, asking for “[a]ny information concerning this enigmatic artist [which] would be very much appreciated, especially from any persons who may have had a personal tie with her in some way.”) Unfortunately, as many have noted, and The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History states: “From antiquity forward, most tales of great artists and litanies of notable women included a small sampling of women artists . . . . often described as unusually talented women who overcame the limitations of their sex to excel in a masculine endeavor.” Indeed, Harbour’s arguably most popular picture, “Hansel and Gretel” from 1921, is quite possibly known largely because it was “borrowed” by J. R. R. Tolkien as inspiration for his drawing of trolls in The Hobbit in 1937. You can see the two pictures here side by side.

Jennie Harbour & J. R.R. Tolkien

Jennie Harbour (1921) / J. R. R. Tolkien (1937)

The children’s book historian Brian Alderson notes in The Hobbit, 50th Anniversary Edition that the basic composition of “The Trolls” was borrowed from Harbour. John Garth claims that Tolkien, however, “denied that his ‘imagination had fed on pictures, as it clearly had been by certain kinds of literature and languages,’ declaring himself ‘not well acquainted with pictorial Art.'”2 In a September 19, 1971 letter to Carole Batten-Phelps, Tolkien goes further:

“[A visitor] had been much struck by the curious way in which many old pictures seemed to him to have been designed as to illustrate The Lord of the Rings long before its time. He brought one or two reproductions. I think he wanted at first simply to discover whether my imagination had fed on pictures, as it clearly had been [fed] by certain kinds of literature and languages. When it became obvious that, unless I was a liar, I had never seen the pictures before and was not well acquainted with pictorial Art, he fell silent.”3

I leave you to your own judgment.

Regardless, I hope you enjoy Jennie Harbour’s masterful work, which reminds me, in its best moments, of a more compositionally ambitious, less detailed Harry Clarke. You can (sometimes) purchase a hard-to-find used copy of My Favourite Book of Fairy Tales here, or her Hans Andersen book here, can find Harbour’s other illustrations scattered about the world and cyberspace, and her pictures remixed into the book Mirror Mirrored, such as the images below.

Snow White

Snow White

Snow White and Rose Red

Snow White and Rose Red

1. There is a site that claims her father was an immigrant milliner from Poland to London, she went to a boarding school in Kent, never married, and died in 1959 after which her remains were interred in London’s Hoop Lane cemetery—unfortunately, the site neither provides any citations nor clues as to where it found this information. See http://collectingvintagecompacts.blogspot.com/2014/11/compacts-by-rex-prints-by-jennie.html

2. John Garth, “Artists and Illustrators’ Influence on Tolkien” in J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment, ed. Michael D.C. Drout (Routledge, November 2006).

3. Letter from J. R. R. Tolkien to Carole Batten-Phelps, September 19, 1971, viewable at http://theamericanreader.com/19-september-1971-jrr-tolkien-to-carole-batten-phelps/

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By |2021-05-29T22:30:27+00:00November 12th, 2017|Books, Creative, Design, Illustrations|
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