Tag Archives: animation

The animated world of filmmaker, Emily Hubley.

While watching Emily Hubley’s animated short films, I feel a sense of  wonder and delight at the fluidity and mellowness of the shapes that  move and play happily like a dance, telling a story, submissively changing and spiraling, with simplicity of lines, figures and faces that flow like water trickling,  magically expanding and retracting from scene to scene, dreamily, with a quaint dashing of musical accompaniment  (often composed by her sister’s  band, Yo La Tengo) that sets the perfect tone.

In this interview Emily  engages us with her animation process and the combination of techniques she uses to make her films, her involvement as an Annenberg Film Fellow at the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters’ and Filmmakers’ Labs and the fun she had working on her 2009 film The Toe Tactic.  We are also intrigued by her story as a kid growing up in Manhattan, what advice for new animators she offers,  her experience collaborating with her  son-Max, and working with her parents-John and Faith Hubley, pioneers of animation.

by Samia

Has your hand process of animation changed at all since you’ve been doing animation?

I still animate and lay things out by hand. The only thing that’s different now is that I scan the art into a computer, and in many cases, I color digitally instead of by hand. The shift into the digital process has been happening, I guess since about 2000. The Hedwig job and Pigeon Within were the last two projects that were all analog and then shot on film. The job after Hedwig was a documentary called Blue Vinyl, and for that we animated by hand, scanned it and added color with Photoshop. We shot it pretty much straight ahead – no digital bells and whistles. After Effects can do all kinds of things! I pretty much use After Effects as a camera stand, and I use Photoshop to clean up, rescale and color.  I like to combine hand and digital coloring, so it’s not completely flat/fake-looking.  It shifts from piece to piece. But one of the things that’s good with the digital system is that you can edit. You get a chance to re-edit and tweak the timing and that can really improve your work. Certainly with the last few music videos I’ve done, I’ll make a plan, animate the plan, and then edit it. You can improve the cut by fine-tuning the edit. You can do it of course, film editing, you can edit a film, but it’s a lot easier to do that digitally.


Can you talk about the film process for someone who doesn’t know anything about animation? Analog versus digital?

With Hedwig, the sound was locked, so we were working to the dictates of the sound, and with my films I usually make that commitment. Sometimes I’ll go back and change the sound afterwards, but I generally animate to the sound. So once you have your temp track or whatever, there’s a thing called track reading, which is determining where all the sounds are. I’ll make a storyboard – a plan for the visuals, and create layouts from the board. I like to leave space when I’m animating, but I’ll make the major decisions – with room to improvise between key moments. The way you get from A to B can be anything. You end up having visual surprises because you go into sort of a subconscious state when you are just drawing and things emerge that aren’t planned or consciously dictated. That’s the fun of it, especially if you are working with very minimal or abstract shapes, lines and so forth.

Hedwig & the Angry Inch 2001

You have more freedom to do that.

Yeah, and surprise. On some movies, you’re like what are we going to put in there, and you’re like I don’t know I’ll figure it out. It can seem like a burden but as soon as you stop looking at it as a burden, it’s more like recess – it’s play. There’s room for discovery – it’s like a little bit of a window into some chaotic universe you’re visiting and you’ll see what’ll hapen there.

So it sounds like you enjoy that…

You enjoy the discovery and if something is crappy, you don’t use it. But apart from a small number of projects that didn’t work out, I’ve had very few cases of fully abandoning an idea.

What did you learn at the Sundance screenwriters and filmmakers lab and how did you get that opportunity?

Oh yeah, that was a gift. That was just lucky me. They brought in advisors, screenwriters and directors – all different kinds of people, and it was really interesting. You got different kinds of advice from everyone. Some people would be very structure-oriented and give very nuts-and-bolts kinds of advice. Other people would respond strongly to various aspects – the responses were pretty diverse. I went to the screenwriters’ lab twice and the first year, the script was a lot looser, and people couldn’t figure out what the hell I was trying to do. That first year, there were two camps of advisors  – one that wanted to get rid of the dogs and the animation (laughs), and the camp that was for the dogs. It would have been fun to watch that discussion. It was a big hard leap to imagine the film from reading words on the page. It’s a stretch for some to understand how the animation depicts a parallel reality. At the labs, I tried to keep an open, appreciative mind, to listen to everybody, take notes, and then I went home to see what stuck.

The Toe Tactic

So you have to go in there with your script.

You have to have a script, and then you have to defend it, or not defend it. Everyone is trying to help the Fellows arrive to a clearer picture of their projects.

How many Fellows are there at a time?

They had 10 or 12 – each with their own project. It certainly helped me. I didn’t know really know what I was doing – I’d basically worked on my own or with a very small crew. I learned how to trust (or when to not) my instincts.

Were there any real notable screenwriters or people you knew?

Sure, there were lots of very accomplished people and some of them were very literal, so I tested that and that tested me. Some people were quite opposed to the combination of animated and live-action stories. And that got my back up – animation is so pigeonholed and in some cases not respected. But there were nice reactions as well – I had lunch with Walter Mosley and he asked me, “Why didn’t you write this as a book? It would have been a lot easier. This is a book,” and I started to cry because I sort of set out to be a writer and I didn’t do that.


What was it like working with the different actors in your film, The Toe Tactic?  Kevin Corrigan, David Cross, Jane Lynch…

It was fun. The making of that movie, again, was such a big present. The actors were all different. If you get the right animator, you don’t have to tell them much about what to do. It was the same thing with the actors. With the right actors you don’t have to tell them much – maybe a little specific suggestion. I felt like my job was to meet the needs of the actors, and allow them to do what they had to do. Some actors wanted a lot of information about the characters, and to talk a lot about the situation. Others, hardly at all. With Kevin, we talked a lot about music.  Daniel London was at the labs with me and was in the movie. Everyone had a different way into his or her work and it was a matter of figuring out how to keep everyone in good working form. My first day of directing was the recording of the dogs’ voices. I wanted everyone at a table reading all the parts together. It got a little starchy at times, but it was great because the dog characters don’t all like each other so the prickliness fit. Don Byron, a jazz musician, kept saying he wasn’t an actor, but he did a great job. It was a very long day. Eli Wallach and Marian Seldes arrived about an hour before everyone else. They had fun talking about theater together, so they didn’t seem to mind waiting. Jane Lynch was great. Her part was supposed to be played by Debbie Harry, but she withdrew. Jane was a fan of Hedwig, so she took the part. She had the whole crew laughing on our longest shooting day – her and Jon Glaser. No one knew who Jon Glaser was, and he showed up for this one short scene – we were all biting our hands to keep from laughing out loud.

How many hours does it typically take you to produce one of your animation shorts?

It’s hard to measure, but the last two requests to come in were for music videos with tight budgets, so I’d try to figure out how to get them done in 100 hours or so. One worked out better than the other, but you get into a thing; you want to make it good, and sometimes that takes time.

How has your style evolved?

I don’t know. I keep thinking I need a new style! I was happy with and/or and thought I’d just try to make very simple movies. But every project seems to make its own demands. My decisions are pretty instinctive.

Another question I had was how do your ideas for films come to you?

When we were home dealing with the death of Will’s dad, I thought I should really make something. I shot all this film of Joey, the bird, and I wanted to make a rotoscope of the bird, but it just didn’t go anywhere. And now with Trump, you just want to try to do some good in the world, art-shmart. But then you need to make something in order not to hate yourself. I’m consulting on a film that is political and informative, but that’s not making something. It’s a little tough to know what idea will stand up to scrutiny, but sometimes you are an artist and just have to do it.

In your films you have this guy, Don Christiensen, doing music or sound, and then I looked him up and I found another Don Christansen who was an animator at the same time as your father, John Hubley, and also started out at Disney and worked during the same time that your father worked and left Disney…

Oh, I don’t know that other Don Christiansen, but Don Christensen that did music and sound with me early on, I just saw about three weeks ago. He’s a painter now in addition to playing drums and composing. He drummed with the Raybeats, and did a lot of work with Philip Glass. His brother was a famous painter. In fact, Donnie came to the set when we were shooting with Jane Lynch and Jon Glaser and doing those great scenes with Kevin Corrigan. And Lily Rabe really just delivered. When we were casting, I met a lot of actors who didn’t get the Mona character. But Lily is just so smart. And she complimented the writing, which meant something because I admire her father’s writing. I thought, I’m not going to have to tell her anything… Anyway that’s a little aside, (a shout out to Lily Rabe), but Don Christensen made a shift in his life and he paints now. Beautiful work. The thing with Don was that I was a fan of the bands he was in, and one of his band members sadly died very young and when that happened, I asked Don to make music for Delivery Man. I somehow wanted to bond in a way beyond being a fan. And then he did music for a number of my films. And when I shifted over to using music made by Georgia and Ira and Yo La Tengo, Don started composing for my mother’s films. Don and Faith really were kindred spirits in a lot of different ways and he ended up doing music for her films up until her death. They made amazing scores together.

Delivery Man 1982

I just noticed that your style is maybe a lot more like your mother’s than let’s say your fathers…

Yes, I would say that’s true. And individual filmmaking is different from studio filmmaking.

Where did you go grow up, and what beaches were you drawing on with your family?

We went out to Montauk a lot. My parents built a house in Montauk but we grew up in Manhattan. We lived on the Upper West Side and then we moved to the Upper East Side. And then after John died, Faith continued to live on the Upper East Side, then she moved to Riverdale, then back to Manhattan. As kids,  we lived on the Upper East Side. We went to school at Friends Seminary on the Lower East Side, 16th Street. We had bus passes and I would lose my bus pass by Wednesday latest, I’d keep losing my bus passes and some of the bus drivers knew me so they would let me on, but so much of the time I would end up walking home from school, and it was great. I know my 3rd avenue. I would go from 16th street to 72nd street – walking the streets of NY and daydreaming all the way home.

Octave 2
Octave 2006

Yeah that’s quite a stretch.

It was like three miles. But you’re a kid, you got to get home.

What would you say to your 20-year-old self, or what would you say to a new animator?

I just went to visit a class at Montclair University and the students were asking me what did I regret doing– did I make any mistakes, what did I think I should have done, what choices did I regret?? They were hard ass, but it was fun. Any advice depends, of course, on  a person’s aspirations. If I was advising my 20-year old self, I’d say, don’t stop for too long. I wish I would follow my own advice! Don’t stop, don’t get off the train. With making Toe Tactic I did sort of step off the train of making short films and exploring that personal voice. I don’t regret doing that movie at all, but there’s something really helpful to routine and regularity in artistic practice. And if you interrupt it for too long it’s too easy for doubt or let life  get in the way. So that’s one thing.  And you know, enjoy your work. If you have something you want to do just find a way to do it. It’s really possible to make things now and you can find people to team up with or you can find people to support you.

Emily Hubley Hedwig

How has it been working with your family, your son Max, your sister, your brother.. do you think the experience is the same when you were working with your parents – or does it bring you back to days like that?

When we were working in my parents’ studio that was sort of different, cause we were working in a fairly large ink and paint department. Here, I work alone mostly. Max has helped design characters for me, and he scans and does clean up and coloring. I love that he’s doing that. And I often have summer interns. Working on Faith’s films- over all those years – I’d say the experience evolved. She really did love making her films, she loved explaining them to people, and she just loved the world she animated! And helping her in the service of that was a real pleasure. After I took over as her production supervisor, it was sometimes a challenge to get the work done. We had to finish the artwork every December, so she could do post production before the end of the year. Every single year. She was a happy machine.

That must have been great that she had you working with her…

It was. Sometimes it could be stressful, because she was always scraping by. We had a very small crew and I’m still friends with a lot of them. It was a fun way to spend the day. You would never get that job now, tracing and coloring all day.  (laughs). After the kids were born, we moved the base to my house. And I had good friends working with us, coloring in my attic. We’d get to the end of the day and have dinner, a cocktail, and I remember the kids getting antsy for us to be done or for our friends to be finished. I remember Leila going up to Linda who was coloring a green goddess that filled up much of the page, it would take like 15 minutes to color one drawing, and asking, “When are you going to be done coloring that green booby lady!!? Come downstairs. We’re waiting for you!” We’d listen to music or books on tape and make the art.

Do you have any favorites in your collection?

Of my movies? Yeah, it’s interesting. Pigeon Within was a real struggle for me. I was really scared about making it. I had great interns working with me, and that was an enjoyable summer, but the story was scary one for me to share. It took a long time for me to get used to watching it with an audience, but over time, the meaning of the movie shifted for me. It was like a personal Rorschach test and that was cool. and/or was sort of like that as well. I was happy, in the end, with both films.

What about your parents’ films. Any favorites?

I have a few favorites… Eggs, Zuckerkandl is a favorite, Adventures of an * and The Tender Game. Voyage to Next was a big favorite of Faith’s, Moonbird is great… and The Hole, of course. We rented the films to a festival in Poland about ten years ago and I had to transcribe all the films so they could be translated. It was such fun – The Hole, Moonbird, Cockaboody: they all have great scripts. When I arrived, I had to go directly to the children’s program that was being screened in this massive governmental building, and it was packed with kids. The city translator was a big deep-voiced guy, doing the voices of little Georgia and Emily and the kids were laughing their heads off. It was hilarious – and then they introduced me as Emily – and all the faces dropped – the kids were so disappointed that I wasn’t a child any more.

Of the films you’ve been producing after your parents passed away, what would they say, would they be critical, would they praise?

Oh boy, I don’t know. I think they would have liked The Toe Tactic. I spent a lot of time worrying about that. The film is dedicated to them.

John and Faith Hubley
John and Faith Hubley

 Are you working on anything right now?

I am working on something  – Faith drew a lot of self-portraits in her journals, and I’m working on a project with those.  I just finished Brainworm Billy, a short written and narrated by Max. It premiered at the Montclair Film Festival last Saturday. Such fun doing the intro with him!

Brainworm Billy – 2018
Emily Hubley
Emily Hubley

Steven Cerio’s amazing suburban kid world

Steven Cerio’s world is filled with the innocence and refreshing newness of childhood discovery.  As an artist he communicates this animated sphere of his younger years through  an extensive range of very detailed  ink drawings and colorfully vibrant paintings of a myriad of joyful worms, bees, pig-tail girls, minnows, giraffes, and whales. Discover his boundless  creativity in his free flow doodling in band posters, films, comics, books and music.  Read  about his early childhood experiences, his love for folk and outsider art, the useful self-marketing tips he learned from legendary artists and illustrators in NYC in the late 80s, his love for improvisation, abstract expressionism, and DIY thinking.  Take this trip and delve into Steven Cerio’s  magnificent  and captivating macrocosm  about all of the above and so much more in the interview!

At what moment in your life did you realize your calling as an artist? 

I think it was really early for me, cause I found boxes of drawings that my mother saved. I think I was encouraged more than most because my dad – both my parents were first generation Americans, my mother’s family is from Yugoslavia and my dad’s was from Italy – he couldn’t afford to go to art school but he had skills and wanted to go but couldn’t so I think that’s why he enjoyed the fact that I liked drawing so much. If I even mentioned offhandedly, you know, asked like, “what’s oil paint dad?” we’d be in the car driving me to buy oil paint at 7 years old. And I got interested in typography early on, signs, and my father would take me to the museums. I think he was taking me partially hoping that I would be interested but he was interested in it himself. I think that got me on track at an early age. I used to say as a kid I wanted to be either an artist or an archeologist.

Do you have any of your dad’s paintings?

He didn’t paint a lot or draw a lot around the house, sadly. I wish everybody did.  Sometimes I try to make people do it – pretty much anyone I was too close to in my family is passed away now. It would be so nice to have just a painting, a very simple painting that my grandmother did of her house or of a puppy, whatever. To me, well you know, I believe in art, it speaks to me, so to be able to answer “what is that weird bean shape on that canvas?” with “oh my grandfather did that; he was 82”. I wish I had stuff like that, but I do have this though, I have a painting that my dad did of a pot full of flowers, a still life that he did when he was showing me how to paint. He was showing me how to do shading and highlights. I have that exact painting, I kept it, I have it framed on my wall. And that thing is so strong to me it can drive me to tears on the right day. And I just wish that I had stuff that mother did, or my grandparents – not specifically for me but just a doodle or something. That would say a lot to me.

Painting by Steven Cerio blue and greenWere there artists on both sides of your family?

No, no one on either side of my family. No, they didn’t like doing it. I wish I had pieces by everyone of them though. No, there wasn’t a lot of that around me growing up. I just believe in anyone, even non artists.  I think especially non-artists do the most interesting stuff anyway, I really do. I mean honestly the things I pay the most attention to since I was a kid are folk art and outsider art. I got into outsider art in NY in like ‘89 or ‘90.

What’s outsider art?

Outsider art would include a lot of folk artists of course, but it would be people that didn’t have any training, that weren’t doing work to have it be in galleries. It would be somebody like Henry Darger, one of the more famous ones. When he passed away they found in his apartment a book that was thousands of pages long and it had a lot of illustrations and paintings. There’s other ones, like the Philadelphia wire man. Someone passed away in an apartment and they threw away everything that was in there, all these abstract strange wire sculptures. That stuff speaks to me. Like to me the people who say they can’t draw, when they sit down to draw they have these unique styles.  Dubuffet was the first one to promote it and use the term ‘art brut’ to describe it. And then you have a place called Gugging which is a mental facility in Austria and they started having people do drawings and paint every day, and they’re not painters and artists, and they created some of the most original and telling work. To me that flies in the face of all the training that people get, conceptualizing the way people do nowadays.

So, it’s like the natural trait in humans…

Right, it’s a human trait, it’s no longer a college graduate trait, or well educated trait, and to me that’s big, that’s strong human instinct.  Look at someone like Howard Finster, one of the biggest folk artists in the world, one day he just decided that he was going to do sacred art, as he called it that was it, he just woke up one day and decided to do it. It’s an American thing. You see it in Europe and elsewhere but it seems to be a very common American occurrence. Waking up one day and going, “oh, I’m going to be a film director now”, you know, that was afforded to us back when there weren’t as many troubles as there are now, it’s still going on. 5-6 years ago, I got up one day, and decided, “I am going to start doing films” and then asked myself, “I never shot a film before, why am I going to do a film?”, and that’s why I started a film, because I had never shot one before. And I don’t know, I guess I carry around that Do it Yourself attitude, where if I don’t do a film one day I will look back and admit I didn’t do a film, but if I do a film, then I did a film. It’s as simple as that, right?  And if you feel drawn to it then go ahead and do it. Going back to folk art, Grandma Moses decided, she was 72 or 73 when she started painting. You know, why not.  Like some people are like – I wish I learned an instrument, and they’re like 40. You have plenty of time to learn an instrument. Pick up a guitar and play it your own way. If you are interested in it enough, you put in a couple hundred hours just messing with a guitar, you are going to start writing songs, you’ll start figuring out where your favorite notes are, you’ll start figuring out how to structure things or what appeals to you, I think it’s like that with everything. I wish there was more people that would do that, I wish there was moDrawing of girl - steven ceriore naïve music out there instead of the worried, businessy dress up music that the labels award themselves for.

When you talk about composition and theory in art and music, it’s nonsense. It’s nonsense to educate on composition. That’s old silver haired white boy stuff that they still stick to. It’s not that I’m revolting against it. Now think about composition in music – John Coltrane- Cecil Taylor goes out, Ornette Coleman goes out, and they improvise completely.  They learned structures/patterns, how to play a song, that there’s an introduction and a chorus, it’s not really that hard to learn.  And you learn that stuff and when you go to improvise – Coltrane still created beautiful music even though it was improvised. If Coltrane just plays a theme at the beginning and just runs off that theme like Ornette Coleman did, who is to say that that’s not music or a composition. To predetermine doesn’t take skill or taste, just memorization. That is what music is, not pop music, it’s actual music. And these ideas from composition come from old classical techniques that the composers used but when you take rules away you realize most people invented their own rules anyway, Shoenberg, Cage and Varese. If you get different pieces of colored paper and you throw them on the ground a composition got created. Composition isn’t something that you need to go to school to be good at. Composition is something that just happens. I feel like a lot of these things that people believe they need to learn kept them from becoming an artist or musician, I think they could have just gone right past it. Composition and theory, theory is just that, it’s a theory. A person that just sits down and plays and starts doing music is going to have a catalog of 5000 new songs before a lot of these other musicians learned enough theory to improvise yet.

Do you use this same philosophy in the music that you write?

I sit down and play, if something works it works, if I enjoy listening to it I’ll continue working on it, and I’ll go that direction. There’s that instinct, if you are playing, even if you don’t have something written down, hopefully I know enough than to play a D sharp for 7 hours straight, you know what I mean? Some people think that if you don’t have something written down, if you don’t know where you are going you couldn’t go anywhere good. But if you get in your car and you drive you could very well wind up somewhere good if you keep driving long enough. That’s where I draw the line between what songs are and what music is. I think music, John Coltrane is music, I don’t think of John Coltrane as songs, I think of music as from higher level of thinking than that. Not that I think that there’s anything wrong with anyone listening to it or anything. I think at some point I grew out of the idea of songs. Grew out of the idea of even listening to them. If I know a verse is coming and I know a chorus is coming I get bored awfully quickly. Something might grab me for a little while but like most pop music it becomes disposable after a while. Where Coltrane, or Captain Beefheart say, even though his work was very structured, it’s hard to wear out. You could play the same song in a row for a decade and you still hear something different every time. I know it’s not for everybody.

Can you take me through the evolution of your artistic style?

When I started, the first thing when I started that I was in love with was the dictionary. It was the first thing that I saw that impressed me as a kid. I saw those tight engraved lines and I didn’t know anything about printing, I thought they were drawing all those little lines, and I thought those drawings were done that size too, I became fascinated with the idea of really tight line work when they brought out black ink in school, and then I saw the first Santana record.  A friend of the family gave me a copy of the first Santana album, the Lee Conklin cover, it’s a drawing of a lion, and I was sitting around with it and I knew there was something up with it, I didn’t know what it was and I kept looking at it on and off for a couple of months and all of a sudden I saw the girls inside the eyes making up the nose and that’s when I started drawing.  I asked my father for ink and I started drawing in ink, too much maybe –I got called into the school psychologist and I didn’t know what was going on, I thought I did something wrong. He sat me in a room and now that I look back, they were watching me through some glass or something, this was in the 70s. He watched me for a while and then he came out and the first thing I said to him when he came in was, “Is that a Boston pencil sharpener?” Because I loved Boston pencil sharpeners and you could see a lightbulb go off over his head, Ching!, cause that’s what I was there for. He asked “Why do you care if it’s a Boston pencil sharpener?”, and I reached into my pocket and I pulled out 5 pencils and he let me sharpen the pencils and then he asked, “Why are you sharpening those pencils?” and from my back pocket I pulled out a couple handmade sketch books that I had made out of folded paper. I would carry them to doodle during recess, and he asks “What are these?” and I go “Sketchbooks – I’m making sure the pencils are really sharp because I am doing detailed drawings” and he goes “Okay, you can leave.”  They thought I was just obsessively sharpening pencils for no good reason, the reason why I would get up during class was because I wanted to draw all day. 10 years later I won a couple of scholarships to go to college to art school so it all worked out I guess.

I kept with the ink work, then I started giant scale charcoals and I Steven Ceriowas painting a lot. When I was around 20, I was doing all ink drawings, I had moved away from color, just ink drawings. I switched from a technical pen to a brush in ‘90, and I worked with a brush ever since then. I started painting seriously somewhere around the mid-90s in a looser kind of style, sometimes almost completely abstract. It’s a completely different animal. I started showing the paintings now and I’m realizing how strongly people react to color. Cause to me I care more about composition more than I do about color. I had no idea, all of a sudden I’m doing work that people will hang in their living room and their wives will let them buy it. I think that the energy in my drawings is very aggressive to some people, it makes them nervous. So I am at both ends of the spectrum now, doing tight anal retentive drawings and really loose paintings. The way I see my stuff, even as a little kid I could see in my stuff, I’m always trying to build structures, they’re sketches for sculptures, and David Smith had a large part to do with that. It was one of the few sculpture books at the library in the town where I grew up, and I just adored it right off the bat. He was a big inspiration for me, still is. So a lot of my work is sketches for massive sculptures that I could never afford to make.

How did your poster making for bands come about?

Well that was one of the first gigs I got.  I moved to New York, I got out of school in 87 and I was in NYC in 88, and people laugh about this but I moved there with $700 dollars in my pocket. That was enough to get situated back then, it was so cheap to live there, and the second day I was there I landed a job at Psychedelic Solution Gallery in the East Village. Steven Cerio Frank Zappa posterSo I was working in a place where artists come in, Rick Griffon would come in, I got to know him, we’d have shows – artists would be coming through so I picked up a lot of advice from people’s work who I admired since I was a little kid. From there I started meeting people that would come in to look at art. My skin’s always been thick about art, it’s aesthetics, someone’s gonna like your work, someone’s gonna hate it, and I think I just knew that as a kid, I’m never really bothered, if someone doesn’t want to use me for a project I don’t become offended by it, I may not be good for the project or they may not like my work, I’m ok with that, it’s not really bothersome to me, I never let that get in the way. So every person that came in I was helping with a print I’d ask, “Are you in a band?” NY back then was all creative people, cause it was cheaper to live, you’d meet people that would make a living from having a little tiny record store in the back of a book store, everyone was doing something, but I’d ask enough and I met Kevin Hine who is one of the art directors for Screw magazine. He had me doing little spot illustrations for that and then I did a single cover for the Dust Devils, that was the first record cover I ever did, and from there I’d meet people, I did a poster for White Zombie before they broke really big, just a Xerox street poster, and I did some for Monster Magnet before they really broke through, so there was a lot of those bands around and people would come to me to do posters. Sometimes I would just accept a few beers for it, and the poster scene, there wasn’t really a poster scene back then, it was just Xerox street posters, it wasn’t until one day somebody came in with a Frank Kozik poster that we realized that anyone was still printing posters anymore because all the posters we were selling, nothing went past 1974, they were antiques that we were selling.

The Residents by Steven Cerio

So how did you get involved with work for the Residents?

That happened by an old business technique where some of these older illustrators and gallery artists told me, don’t ever sit at home and wait for a gig, don’t do that, you go out and you knock on doors, that’s the way it’s done. Rick Griffin, Robert Williams, Ron Turner, Robert Crumb told me go and knock on doors, that’s the way you do it. And they didn’t mean as a beginner either, they meant as a professional artist, you knock on doors. That’s essentially what I did with the Residents, I got a mailing address for their office and I would spent $15 on Xerox copies, send them in, not hear anything back, send some more in, get a little note, and then one day they asked me to work on a film with them. Back then you used mail, the physical object, getting a physical object and holding it I still think has so much more power than getting an email. You can overlook an email but if you mail someone a 2-pound packet of Xerox copies of your drawings and they hold it in their hands and they wind up on their desk, you know they don’t get turned off, objects can’t get turned off, who knows, someone pins one up on a wall. I’ve sold art to people because someone they met had a poster of my work on their living room wall, or a postcard pinned on their cubicle at work. You can’t account for where people are going to see your works, putting actual copies out there still seems to me that it works much better than e-commerce.

Can you talk about some of the reoccurring characters in your work?

Yeah that goes in deep, all the way to my childhood, it takes a long time for a new character to be accepted into my stuff, I think carefully about that. All of the images I use started when I was a little kid, to me everything in there is suburban. The worms…I remember as a kid, I grew up in central NY, not a lot of sun, and I remember us calling each other and going “It’s a blue sky day” and looking up and having no clouds and having that beautiful blue sky, the green of the grass, certain things have a special resonance when you first start noticing them, I remember falling in love with lawn grass and finding toads and a puddle at the bottom of the driveway after it rained and there might be some worms in it. So you’d have this black pavement with this bright pink worm moving under the puddle and then you have a bright green frog hopping through bright green grass and to me there is a lot of poetry in all of that. It brings me back to those experiences and I remind myself of their beauty and because I’ve done that I’ve never forgotten. I talk to my friend Cindy, we’ve known each other since we were 3, and we talk about our neighborhood and the fields. She saw my art after we hadn’t spoken for a few years and said “I knew your art would look like that”, which I thought was great, and she remembered more stories than I did, like she remembered how obsessed I was with bees when I was a kid, which are still in my drawings, she goes “Remember the burning bees?” and I go “No..”  I guess at one point my dad had a jar with some gas in it, he was cleaning screws, and I just emptied the gas out and I caught bees in it and we left it in the sun and it blew up cause of the fumes and we were freaked out, we didn’t know what was going on, some strange other worldly physics were going on. But all of those things like the yellow of the bees, of the yard, all of that, and building dioramas as a kid was a big thing with me and if you notice in almost all of my work has a short depth of field. I never use deep space, I never try to do reality, I never try to make something realistic, I’ve never been interested in it.

a-vivified-sugar-cube-explains-the-universeI was obsessed with view masters, I remember holding one on my face so long that I actually got bruises around my eyes from bumping into things. I wanted to be able to walk around and be in that Charlie Brown world. I kept hoping that if the light was just right I could still look at Charlie while I did my homework or while I was eating dinner. I think that’s where the love of shallow space comes from. To me, my work is all very innocent .I call myself a psychedelic artist but I don’t mean that in the most way that people use that term. I’m not a habitual drug user. I’m not saying I never had psychedelic experiences though. To me the psychedelic experience is just a pleasant sense of confusion. To get lost in something, to not know where you are for a while is very pleasant. I’ve experienced certain psychedelic states looking into a swimming pool and the light moving around, I don’t think it necessarily has anything to do with drugs, to me it’s just the way your brain is reacting to things. Alan Watts said, “after you get the call you can hang the phone up”, I think it was helpful to me, it helped me focus and realize things, but I don’t base my work in anything that’s happened to me, I’m on play not record, I want to confuse myself, I want to look at something and wonder why I did it, and guess at what state of mind I was in to make it, and I think that goes right back to my love for outsider art, if I am looking at a piece of art and can’t figure out why the person drew a fish or a house the way they did, I’m probably going to enjoy it .

What about the whales in your art?

I went on a whale watch out in Maine and they were swimming right along the ship, I was able to pet a couple of them, they were babies. I met whales – I was out there in the water with them, I was out in California, I saw whales out there – didn’t draw whales, for years I didn’t draw whales. You think that that experience alone would trigger something. No, it took 8 years. Things have to feel right, there has to be a reason- not necessarily rational- why it’s there. Sometimes I’ll put something in and it doesn’t look like it belongs, like even my giraffes. My giraffes aren’t really giraffe’s, they’re toothpaste. I was doing a drawing one day and I drew some toothpaste squirting out, it was a tube with a chopped off end like a log, and then I drew an eye on it, so in my head it’s ok having toothpaste in a drawing about the suburbs and my childhood ’cause it just reminds me of the Crest tubes. There’s always bees, there’s always lawn grass, and there’s always worms, that’s been in everything for about 20 something years. But if I have water now I have I certain type of minnow I draw all the time because I had been up by a river, hiking up in the Adirondacks, and there was one dead silver minnow laying out on a rock, perfectly laid out on a dry rock. It looked like it had only been there for a half hour and it just struck me for some reason, like the shape of it, and how silver it was and how big the eye was and I took a bunch of photographs of it and then I started drawing minnows the next day. It just made an impression on me, it came into my work organically.paintings-by-steven-cerio-variousTo me it’s comfort food, art is comfort food to me, it makes me feel good. I don’t do irony or politics, to me art should be about confused comfort and pleasure, some people get it, the people that like my work get it. Everyone wants to feel better, no matter how many skulls and graveyards they tattoo on themselves.


Can you describe your studio space?  ? What environments are you most comfortable or enjoy most working in?

I think the one thing I took from the environment living in NY was the horror vacuous approach of it all; televisions playing in windows and all the trains back then, this was the late 80s when I just got there so the trains were still really beautiful. They were big beautiful murals rolling through the city. We’d all stop and watch the # 7 trains go by, they were just painted from top to bottom. Even riding those trains was a treat. I already had those kind of horror vacuous instincts, the idea of activating every available space, but I was still drawing nature, I never really found cities, boxes and squares very beautiful, but after I moved up to the Hudson valley in the Catskills my style really started changing a lot quicker. I never thought much of inspiration, I never thought that I needed to be inspired by anything outside of me, just like Picasso said – inspiration is just fine but when it shows up it better catch you working – I’m paraphrasing but that’s the essence of it. I got up there and found giant centipedes and caught frogs on the way home, after being in NYC all day I’d stop at a pond on the way home, and be careful not to hit raccoons on my bike when I was going to get pizza in the evening. That really inspired me. Nature started becoming increasingly important in my work. Even now though I’m technically in a suburb but separated by big lots, being able to go out in the garden every day helps me get a lot of work done, my brain just opens wide up. The pollen, the bees, just the color green, I love the summer. For my studio set up I keep everything in the same room, one giant room where I have all of my books, the television is in here so I can leave movies on, the stereo, my computer, two drawing tables, a surface for cutting stuff and trimming stuff. A brain where you can go in there and there’s all this activity going on and hopefully some of it grabs you. Everything is an arm’s reach away. I’m stalked up on pencils, erasers and ink and there’s stacks of unfilled notebooks. I love the idea that there’s paper I haven’t drawn on yet. I like knowing there’s tons of work that I still need to do. That really inspires me knowing that there’s all that blank paper in the world. I love facing an empty canvas, I love facing empty paper, I love it, because there’s nothing there and when you are done there’s something there.

I’m trying to remember a long time ago I think you told me how you enjoyed working in the south west, maybe Arizona…

Yeah, I’m very attached to that area, especially the southwest corner of Arizona.  My friend Dave and I used to fly out there about every year or two years and go out there to hike and drive every road we could and mark it on the map, all through New Mexico and Arizona till we found something interesting. I fantasized about living out there, the idea to me of just having nothing to do but work sounds beautiful to me. I don’t hate people but I like the idea of being out there in the middle of the desert and no one’s going to disturb you. Of course that was pre cell phone days, but to really be in the world, I know it sounds simple and almost hippyish but the idea of being in the world and getting wet when it rains- being there in the elements. I brought my mother’s ashes out there to Arizona near Organ Pipe National Monument. When she passed away I brought her ashes out into the desert. I like thinking of her ashes being there cause it’s so incredible the view, you can see 20 miles into the desert from where I climbed and that’s what my movie was about, The Magnificent Pigtail Shadow.  The idea came from that day where I was up on the mountain and a bird followed me up and all the way back down then sat underneath the car. My half-sister Michelle said – “That was your mother!”  – and I go  – “My mother followed me down and sat in the shade of a rental car and ate potato chips from a bodega in Tucson?”  – and I found that insulting (laughs)! No, my mother didn’t inhabit a bird and eat Ripples underneath our Ford rental car! When I was up there laying out her ashes, I took some photos. Only in Arizona can you have really strange shadows casted from rock formations you can’t see from where you are, and there was this rock casting a shadow that looked like a girl with pigtails. It reminded me of a picture of her when she had pigtails when she was getting her communion as a little blond girl in Simpson, Pennsylvania. For a second I thouSteven Cerio painting pigtailsght, “wow that looks like that photograph” – but I don’t go for superstition or mysticism so I was bothered by the fact that my brain was trying to make me believe that her spirit was moving in strange fantastic ways and I rejected it and I still reject it but when I got home and showed my sister that picture, and she said that- “that was your mother!” – it didn’t make me angry at my sister but it made me realize how un-superstitious I am, how un-spiritual I am, and for a while I felt a little bit guilty about that.  One would assume that I am a cold person but I’m not – I just believe that we should do whatever we can while we are here. We should enjoy this world as much as you can while we are here. The movie is  about that sensation, it doesn’t have a sinister tone to it but it’s slightly mocking, like oh, you can think of something better than this desert or that beautiful tree, you’ve got something better, what is it, a vision of heaven that you’ve never seen that someone sold you on that they invented and you are going to wait for that instead of enjoying where you are here? I’m not trying to attack religion but superstition is fascinating to me. I’m using images of the earth and laying them on top of one another and it looks very meditative and very psychedelic so technically speaking, me doing a film isn’t me being here and enjoying the world either, it’s me doing a film to tell everyone that they should enjoy the earth (laughs). Creating art isn’t enjoying a sunset either.

Can you talk about or describe the various techniques you use?

The paintings I’ve been showing, I hadn’t shown them for years. Doing the tighter style that I do which is the really tight polished style with the brush, I call it the germ free style. But that stuff is a stunt, I don’t draw like that in my sketch book. I have to control my breathing when I do those, there’s a specific brush I use and there’s no mistakes on them. Since I was a kid I liked the idea of art just coming out of you-happening to you. I think of the great folk artists and outsider artists as cavemen – they did what they had to do to get the image down or to create the object, they didn’t care what they made it out of.  Look at Salvation Mountain, its’ made out of mud. He needed to get that image out in the world and he couldn’t afford cement so he was making adobe out of mixing water with the dirt that was out there in the desert. I approached art initially as a little kid, and at this point the pieces that I do have no performance anxiety in them at all, there’s no test to me in it at all, it is me getting an image down. I put a color I don’t like down I’ll either paint over it or I’ll tear it right off cause I paint on paper now, I stopped painting on canvas, it was starting to take up too much room and I just liked the absorbency of paper better and I like the texture of paper better and I didn’t enjoy spending hours preparing for every painting or drawing. On paper I can do work on 6 paintings at the same time, and there’s not much prep time involved really, and there’s no such thing as mistakes anymore and sometimes they wind up being fifteen layers of paper and weighing a couple of pounds, but in the end the image comes out the way I want the image to come out and they follow that caveman approach where I’m going to get this image down no matter what. It’s an attitude that has nothing to do with style, it’s not a statement in itself, it is only the urgency of getting something accomplished, something recorded, something done, something out there, I hesitate to ever use the word expressing because that word seems odd to me, like I don’t really feel like I’m trying to tell anyone anything and I think expression means you are trying to tell somebody something, I’m not trying to tell anybody anything. It’s about structure and it’s about beauty. I think of it as art of course, but a bit like putting in a bathroom floor in a way. I think of it as what my dad did being a carpenter. Those instincts sound ‘selfish’ in this age, but art is selfish, or at least it used to be .Now the art world wants art to be ‘socially redeeming’, but I didn’t get into art to illustrate American politics. I feel like a lot of gallery art has become very illustrative where abstraction has become a dirty word, like it’s something that self absorbed people did instead of painting the US flag dripping its red stripes like blood.  I’m not inspired by CNN to do art.

eyes Steven Cerio When you are facing a blank sheet of paper do you know what you are going to draw?

I will definitely have an intentionally loose idea of how I want something to come out. It’s usually from the most simple thumbnail sketch imaginable and I’ll keep it on the wall while I’m doing the piece. The inspiration is often a simple shape. Everything comes off that big shape. I’m always thinking sculpturally. A thumbnail that took me 3 seconds to draw might talk to me for some reason. The sketches that I really prepare for I rarely end up using ’cause I feel like I already know what they look like in my head so there’s no mystery in it for me anymore. If I plan too much the mystery is gone for me. It’s the same thing for me in music, if I know where the verse and the chorus is and how long the song is and when it’s going to end I don’t want to play it anymore. I kind got really fed up with playing pop structures and songs.  I wanted to sit down and do music and play music like you go for a walk, like you think, and what happens, happens, and when it ends, it ends. You don’t really know exactly how long it’s going to be, you just need to have that mystery, the possibilities and open-ends of it is what inspires me. But with my paintings I’ll start with nothing. I’ll start making gestures on the paper and just feeling out. There’s no performance anxiety, it’s just jump in, sink or swim, but really, there’s no sinking because I can always tear out the part that I don’t like.

Do you ever get commissions for work?

Galleries, commissions and book/print sales is how I make a living.

Do you still do posters?

People usually don’t tell me what to do when they want posters done. It was back in the 90’s, I worked for Entertainment Weekly and Nickelodeon and all that and it was very precise stuff, like we need a dog and the dog needs to be this color, or the article is about this person, do a portrait of them. It was easier doing that than, you know, cleaning dishes, for me. I could make more money doing that so I kept at it for a few years. Most of the commissions now are for paintings, I’ve been doing more paintings than usual and then some people will commission posters and graphics for bands and what not. I’ve been working on a lot of books now, the one sad thing about book publishing now is that there is no such thing as advances anymore.

sunbeam-on-the-astronaut-by-steven-cerioCan you tell me about your book, Sunbeam on the Astronaut?

It was a collection of what I wanted in narrative work. I like abstraction in writing. I used many of my automatically written shorts alongside veiled stories of my sister’s death, hallucinations and dreams.  It is far from a comic but has some influence of 60s undergrounds. I used any style needed to push the writing. I often invented styles for a specific piece. Its being re-released as a boxset with my new book Charming the Sugarbowl– a full color collection of my paintings. The box will also have a collection of my music and films.

Sunbeam on the Astronaut

Can you talk about your whole toy making experience?  

I was talking to a friend about ideas for The Residents toys that I wanted to do. I had the blessing of The Residents to do it, and he had just met Lev from Toy Tokyo, so we made plans to go down. Lev at first wasn’t too thrilled with the idea. I am sure he has to say no to like a thousand toys a day I would guess, but he kept a few images from me and then a month later he called me, and I lied and told him that I knew how to make toys. I called up some friends who knew Residents toys photohow to design toys, found out it wasn’t horribly detailed and I didn’t need to go to school for 8 years to learn how to do it so I jumped in, got it done. I ran everything past the Residents and we were good to go. I told that story to my students and they didn’t seem to think I really got the gig was their impression. They thought asking someone for a job doesn’t really mean that you got the job, that you were essentially begging for it. They seem to think you get on a TV show or win a contest and the next morning you wake up to a career. I hope that magical thinking works for ‘em, but I haven’t seen any evidence of it. There’s only so much I could do teaching seniors that had never been taught any business at that school. I think if you go into art school you should be learning business at the same time. I’m not saying that you have to be like Andy Warhol where 99% of your day is business. It’s often painful for me. I don’t really dig the business side of things but I don’t hate it either, and I know that it’s necessary, I know that promoting my art gets me more commissions, gets me more gallery shows, gets me more books, and that gets me more work to do so I can use up all that paper in the corner.

steven-cerio-holding-a-painting by Christopher Molloy

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