Jennifer Levonian

by Edwin Rostron

Still from Xylophone (2016) by Jennifer Levonian

Jennifer Levonian’s animated films fuse elements of documentary with fiction to create a unique and joyful vision of the world. They show us an everyday reality of suburbs, supermarkets and neighbourhoods in which the absurd, the surreal, the heartbreaking and the hilarious are continually taking place. Often constructed of cut-outs painted in vivid watercolour, they have a hand-made quality that is at once wonky and exquisite. The particularities of her characters’ speech and actions are as beautifully observed as the details of product packaging and domestic interiors. The way these details are put together through animation creates a heightened but recognisable world, often very funny, and seemingly completely imbued with the personality of the artist in every aspect. There is something about the pacing and the structure of these films and the sense of time and space they create which makes it feel like we are just seeing parts of a whole world taking place. That this is all presented using painted bits of paper, the materiality of which we are never unaware of, only enriches our enjoyment of the work. Jennifer is one of the most accomplished and original animators working today and I was thrilled to talk to her about her work via email.

The Poetry Winner (2012) by Jennifer Levonian

EoF: Can you give a bit of biographical background about yourself?

JL: I was born in West Virginia and grew up there and in country towns in Iowa and Virginia. I’ve lived in Philadelphia all of my adult life except for when I went to grad school at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) where I set out to study painting, but by the end of my time there I was making animations.

EoF: How did your painting practice evolve into animation?

JL: It almost didn’t! RISD has a mini-term called Wintersession in which all students, graduate and undergraduate, are asked to take a class outside of their discipline and I remember trying to dodge this requirement. But I ending up taking an animation course which surveyed different animation techniques. It began with cutout. When we screened our first cutout projects in the class, my animation got some laughs. It was encouraging even though I’m sure a lot of the laughter was because my animation’s movement was super herky-jerky – the other students, mostly first-year undergrads ten years younger than me, had seemingly mastered animation in one week and presented very smoothly animated works. But, whatever the reason for those laughs, I was hooked. For a year, I’d been making narrative watercolors in my studio, but they just weren’t working. After that screening, I went back to my studio and cut up my paintings to turn figures into puppets. When I was only painting to make stand-alone paintings, I couldn’t quite find my voice, but when I began to work my paintings into animations, I suddenly felt like I was tapping into a bottomless well of ideas.

 Production image from Rebellious Bird (2011) by Jennifer Levonian

EoF: What are the aspects of making animation your find most creatively satisfying or fulfilling as an artist?

JL: Probably my favorite part is choosing subject matter. I love painting a subject that works on two levels– something that’s visually interesting but also contains an implied critique or joke. To give an example, here’s a painting sketch I made of a rack of patriotic bikinis:
When I saw them in the store, I liked how their ties looked like jellyfish tentacles, but I also liked all the other thoughts the sight conjured up– like the weirdness of combining patriotism with sex appeal, and the fact that the bikinis were on sale because the product – which symbolizes the U.S – wasn’t in demand.

EoF: Do other works of animation inspire you? If so, are there particular artists / films? What art / literature / films outside animation have informed your work?

JL: Yes, others’ animations are very inspiring and many of my favorites were made by animators listed on this blog’s sidebar. One of my all-time favorite short films (not an animation) is 14e Arrondissement directed by Alexander Payne. It’s part of the Paris je t’aime anthology film. I watch it often and it always makes me cry. Also, children’s books are big in my life now since I have little kids. It’s been exciting to reread books that inspired me as a kid and discover they’re even more fabulous than I realized when I was younger, like the very witty books of James Marshall. His comic timing is unbelievable.

The Oven Sky (2011) by Jennifer Levonian 

EoF: How do you approach incorporating your surroundings and experiences into your work? How important is this as a basis for your work?

JL: My animations are inspired by real life. I never get tired of depicting a character trying to break free of social rules or just longing for something beyond his or her everyday life, and I try to evoke the specificity of a character’s life by paintings lots of details. I especially love painting things that are familiar sights but not commonly seen as subject matter for an animation, like the inside of a craft store or a supermarket conveyor belt. Just by painting something mundane pushes it into the spotlight and elevates it in a way I find comforting. Finding visual interest in everyday sights makes the slog of daily life more tolerable, and I hope someone watching my animations might feel that way too.

Rotten Pumpkins (2013) by Jennifer Levonian 

EoF: You have had your animations screened within the context of festival screenings, gallery exhibitions and online. How satisfying or interesting do these respective contexts for presenting your work feel to you? What is your preferred way of showing your films?

JL: I’m happy to show my animations anywhere but lately I’m really enjoying festival screenings. In gallery shows, the videos are often shown on a monitor on a loop, so gallery goers might approach the video in the middle, and they might not notice the headphones then watch the animation in silence– not a big issue, but not ideal. It sounds pretty basic but theater screenings begin the work at the beginning and the audio is piped in loud and clear, and it’s nice to know that the audience is experiencing the work in its entirety. Also, when my animations are projected onto a theater screen, a watercolor brushstroke or a tiny water stain becomes something larger than life and I love that scale shift.

Buffalo Milk Yogurt (2010) by Jennifer Levonian 

EoF: Are your working on any new films? 

JL: I’m working on an animation about the loss of children’s independence. It’s partially based on the memories I have of being nine and biking alone to the next town to explore the banks of the Mississippi River. It’s also about a man who mistakenly orders a massive amount of marshmallows. I hope it all comes together!

Still from Xylophone (2016) by Jennifer Levonian