By Edwin Rostron
The animated films of Karen Aqua constitute a dynamic, personal and visually stunning body of work. These beautifully crafted films explore travel, mythology, internal and external transformations, dance, ritual, rhythm, and the human spirit itself. A vibrant energy runs throughout Karen’s work, which is driven by a unique and personal vision whilst predominantly dealing with non-narrative, non-verbal ideas. Her films chart a constantly developing language of graphic abstraction, always rooted in the real world, and fundamentally connected to movement and metamorphosis. These animations are mainly hand-drawn, and borne out of a painstaking and laborious working process, but their freshness and vigour belies their origins.
‘Taxonomy’ (2011) by Karen Aqua. Music and Sound Design by Ken Field
Karen very sadly passed away in 2011. During her lifetime Karen’s films screened around the world at many festivals, winning awards and honours along the way. Alongside her personal work she directed and animated 22 segments for the acclaimed children’s television programme Sesame Street. She was the recipient of numerous fellowships from the American Film Institute, the MacDowell Colony, and many other prestigious organisations. She taught animation at Boston College and Emerson College, and at workshops and residencies around the United States. She served as a juror for film festivals in Japan, Canada and the US, and presented many one-person screenings of her work. Three days prior to her passing Karen was notified that she had been named a Fellow in Film & Video by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Her work still screens regularly, including at an upcoming retrospective, taking place on April 9th, 2016 at the Harvard Film Archive, where Karen’s physical films are held.
Karen Aqua’s work speaks powerfully and clearly to me as a fellow animator and as a fellow human being. As an artist and animator I am in awe of her mastery of craft and her singular vision, and her films show me the potential of drawn animation as an art form. Her work connects with me on a fundamental level, expressing joy, fear, wonder and curiosity through a visual language that is at once universal and yet entirely specific to Karen Aqua.
I was honoured when Karen’s husband and frequent collaborator Ken Field gave his blessing to this feature on Karen, and my interview with him below is fascinating, moving and enlightening. Following this is an interview with artist Jeanée Redmond, a very close friend of Karen’s who shared a studio with her for 26 years, and collaborated with her on the film ‘Yours for the Taking’, completed in 1984. Then we have interviews with two valuable champions of Karen’s work, curators Branka Bogdanov and Bo Smith, offering recollections and astute observations about Karen and her films. Branka is Director of Film and Video at The Institute Of Contemporary Art, Boston and Bo Smith is RISD Visiting Lecturer and the Katharine Stone White Film Curator Emeritus at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
I am thrilled to present these interviews and extremely grateful to Ken, Jeanée, Branka and Bo for their time and words. Before the interviews, the following video is a wonderful introduction to Karen’s work, recorded from Somerville Community Access TV in 1987, featuring an extended interview, full versions of some films and excerpts of others. A superb DVD collecting her all of Karen’s animated films can (must!) be purchased by emailing here: email@example.com This compilation is essential and inspiring, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
‘Illusions: The Art of Animation with Karen Aqua’ (1987) Recorded live with the Somerville Producers Group on Dead Air Live at Somerville Community Access TV
Ken Field was Karen’s husband and frequent collaborator. He is a saxophonist, flautist, and composer, and a member of the internationally acclaimed electrified modern music ensemble Birdsongs of the Mesozoic.
EoF: Can you tell us a bit about Karen’s background, where she came from and how she started working in the arts and in animation?
KF: Karen grew up near Scranton, PA, and was attracted to art and drawing at a young age. She was encouraged by her older brother Hal Aqua (currently a graphic artist and musician living in Denver). She excelled in art studies in high school, and attended the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, RI. Her initial major was Illustration, but she switched to Animation after seeing an inspiring presentation by noted animator Frank Mouris. She completed her first film, ‘Untitled’ during her studies at RISD, but due to music licensing issues it was never publicly released. Her first released film, ‘Penetralia’, was her senior thesis project.
EoF: Your relationship was personal but also professional, and you collaborated on films a number of times. Can you tell us how this came about and describe how your working relationship evolved?
KF: Karen and I met during a ride-share cross-country summer trip with 2 others between her 3rd & 4th years at RISD – I had just graduated from Brown University with a degree in computer science. I was quite attracted to her, but she got out of the car in Denver (to spend the summer with her brother), and I continued on to San Francisco. After we had both returned to Providence, RI in the fall, we spent some time together and eventually I convinced her to enter into a relationship. I was a budding young part-time musician, and our working relationship began when I improvised the soundtrack for ‘Penetralia’ on flute live in the projection room along with vibist Fla Lewis. Karen worked with many other much more accomplished musicians for her early soundtracks, but eventually I became competent enough for her to ask me to write music for her, and I gradually took over most of the soundtrack duties for her films, including most of her projects for Sesame Street.
‘Kakania’ (1989) by Karen Aqua. Music composed by Karlo Takki, performed by Skin
EoF: Can you say something about what the medium of animation meant to Karen? I know she painted, but did she work in other mediums too? Was animation her primary medium or just another way of expressing herself alongside painting or other art forms?
KF: Karen was drawn to animation for two reasons, I think. First, she loved being able to make her drawings “come alive” – it was like magic for her! And she also loved the fact that she could control pretty much every aspect of the creative process – there were no temperamental actors to deal with, no art directors – she did it all herself. Except for the soundtrack! Karen played guitar as a kid, and she had a very good ear for music, but she gave up music to focus on her art. She was often somewhat frustrated by the fact that she did not have total control of the soundtrack, though as our relationship, and my musicianship, developed, she came to trust my creative sensibilities.
Between films, each of which took several years to complete, Karen would relax by working on pastel drawings, sometimes rather large in scale, and often focusing on the themes of nature, symbols, dance, and later, prehistoric rock art imagery.
EoF: I am very interested in Karen’s working process. Her films are beautifully executed; she obviously had a great control and understanding of the medium. They seem to me to have been very carefully planned and worked out – is this correct? Did she enjoy the physical labour of animation or was it more a means to an end? Would you say the works were fully formed in her head before she began the animation process or was there flexibility to change or evolve as they were made?
KF: It is quite striking to me that each individual frame, generally hand drawn with colored pencils or pastels, was executed by Karen with incredible care and precision. I think this is one thing that makes Karen’s work so beautiful. It was definitely a labor of love – she worked constantly, as animators often do, and while some aspects of the animation process were dreary and tedious, she really did absolutely love what she did.
She usually story-boarded her films in advance, and then created pencil drawings for each frame, testing the animation by shooting the sketches into an animation pencil test program on her ancient Amiga computer, using an old VHS video camera as an input device. She would then trace the pencil tested frames to create the final color frames, which were then shot on film or, for her later films, digitally.
That said, her work was often improvisational, and she let the film go where it took her during the creative process. So the answer to your question is that it was a bit of both, as I think is the case with a lot of successful artists.
Her understanding of animation, movement, and especially transformation, was extraordinary and amazingly intuitive. There is a sequence near the end of her film ‘Vis-à-Vis‘ where the perspective on an animation work-table rotates – as far as I know, she did this all in her head, without detailed calculations, etc. Another sequence in the same film shows a pencil pushing a complex geometric pattern into new configurations, and again, I believe this was created intuitively directly on paper. It always amazed me. She loved to create transformations, and her final film ‘Taxonomy’ started as a way for her to focus on that abstract visual device exclusively, after the heaviness of her previous film about her illness, ‘Twist of Fate’.
EoF: Karen collaborated with a number of musicians including yourself, but also with other artists and animators such as Jeanée Redmond and Joanna Priestly. Was collaboration important to her as an artist? What do you think she got out of working this way?
KF: I think that Karen enjoyed the fact that her collaborators brought new ideas to the table that she could respond to. As we all know, collaboration is a two-edged sword. She enjoyed the benefits, but struggled with the challenges of collaboration. But it says a lot that her collaborations were mostly with dear lifelong friends and partners, who remained dear post-project. Karen and Jeanée Redmond, for example, were best friends and shared a studio space in Somerville, MA for decades, all the way up until Karen’s passing.
EoF: Can you tell us about the cultural context Karen worked within? Was there the feeling of a ‘scene’ or wider community of artists/animators which she felt part of? Did she feel there was a receptive audience for her work? How did she feel about the place of animation as an art form within the cultural landscape?
KF: When Karen first moved to the Boston area, she took a job working behind the snack counter of an alternative small theater in Cambridge called Off the Wall. This became a bit of a focal point for local independent animators, and along with organizations such as Boston Film & Video Foundation and others, she was definitely part of a strong local community of animators and artists. She attended many international animation festivals in Ottawa, Annecy, and Hiroshima, and was well-loved by the animation community.
Things gradually shifted, though, as animation became hot and commercial and computer-based. Karen felt that independent animation was a struggling form, and that many young animators were viewing the short animated film as a stepping-stone to a job in the world of commercial animation, rather than as an end in itself. So she increasingly felt isolated from what the animation world was becoming, and wasn’t sure of her place in it.
I was very moved by the incredible expressions of love and admiration for her and her work that occurred after her passing – it is wonderful to know that people held her and her films in such high regard, but it is sad that she was unable to experience that outpouring.
EoF: Can you tell us a bit about any current/future plans to preserve Karen’s artistic legacy?
KF: After Karen died I reached out to the Harvard Film Archive for help maintaining the physical integrity of her original works on film and video, and was thrilled that they immediately offered to add the collection of her films and videos to their Archive. They will host a retrospective of Karen’s films, including some lesser-known works, at their Carpenter Center theater at Harvard, on Saturday April 9th, 2016, marking approximately 5 years after her death in 2011.
I was gratified that Karen’s life and her work was celebrated with memorial screenings at many animation and film festivals including Ottawa, Hiroshima, Annecy, the Denver Film Festival, and others. I was able to collect all of her independent films and release a DVD of her work which is available from me (after the original distributor recently declared bankruptcy…) via her website, which I am continuing to maintain.
I have held several showings of her artwork, both frames from her films and her between-projects pastels. The Karen Aqua Gallery at Cambridge Community Television in Central Square, Cambridge, MA, USA has been established in her memory.
I will continue to keep an eye out for opportunities to share Karen’s wonderful work and artistic legacy with the public, and I am grateful to you, Edwin, for giving me this opportunity to do just that.
‘Perpetual Motion’ (1992) by Karen Aqua. Music by Ken Field.
The artist Jeanée Redmond was a close friend of Karen’s and collaborator on the film ‘Yours for the Taking’.
EoF: How did you and Karen first meet?
JR: Karen and I knew each other since 1972. We were on the same dorm floor our freshman year at the Rhode Island School of Design. But it was following our graduation that we really became best friends. Luckily for me, Karen’s love of travel always brought her to wherever I was teaching.
EoF: You shared a studio with Karen for many years, can you tell us a bit about her creative process, how she approached her animation projects, how her process changed or developed over the years?
JR: Karen and I shared a studio for twenty-six years, ten years at Vernon Street Studios and sixteen years at Miller Street Studios. A film artist and a clay artist sharing the same space is unusual. But, to us, to be able to share work space and spend time together making art was simply the best situation in the world. We loved our studio. We made sure to arrange our desks so we could look up from our work and see each other. And although we spent long hours together, we seldom chatted during studio time. Studio time was sacred. It was not unusual, after spending all day at the studio, to get a late night phone call from Karen, “just to catch up“. Karen was the definition of focused. Her art and her life were extremely intertwined.
EoF: You collaborated with Karen on ‘Yours for the Taking’, can you tell us a bit about how the idea came about and what it was like to work with her on a film?
JR: From 1977-1980, Karen would visit me in SC and we would take week-long trips to Edisto Island and sleep in the back of my pick-up truck at the State Park on the beach. All trips with Karen involved, first and foremost: sketch books and prismacolors. We’d sketch and swim and scheme about how to get to Italy. Even at that point Karen had the focus and drive of the dedicated grant writer that stood her well through out her career. It was on this beach that we first drew up plans and started dreaming up grant proposals for the film that we did together, ‘Yours For The Taking’: not surprisingly, a film about how travel feeds your art and life. When we did get the grant in 1983 to make this film, it involved a month long artist residency at ArtPark near Niagara Falls during the month of August.
EoF: What effect has working alongside (and with) Karen had on your own work and process?
JR: I cannot say how much I will miss Karen in my life and in our studio. She was my confidant, my sounding board, my sister. And there is no one that I admired more for their total commitment to their art. A word I have often used in describing Karen is “scrappy”. She was as tenacious as they come when it came to making her films. And I am so in awe of all that went into realizing her last film, ‘Taxonomy’. A beautiful culmination of Karen’s lifelong love of drawing, of animation, of nature, and of life.
Branka Bogdanov was a valuable supporter of Karen’s work. She is Director of Film and Video at The Institute Of Contemporary Art, Boston
EoF: How and when did you first encounter Karen’s work?
BB: In 2002, I curated ‘An Evening with Karen Aqua and New England Animators’ at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. During the selection process I saw the majority of her films including ‘Perpetual Motion’ (1992), ‘Ground Zero/Sacred Ground’ (1997), and at the time her new film ‘Andaluz’. ‘Andaluz’ pays homage to the culture and landscape of the Andalusian region of southern Spain, while ‘Ground Zero/Sacred Ground’ explores the striking contrast between the two cultures that created them: one that accepts and reveres the power of the natural world, and one that, in striving to control the forces of nature, has created a means for its destruction.
What resonated with me was Karen’s creative and strong use of animation to express nonverbal concepts and emotional states, which also could be applied to her film Twist of Fate.
EoF: How would you describe Karen as an artist?
BB: Above all Karen was a creative, committed, determined, and passionate animator. Her films are stylistically unique, and based on exceptionally refined, delicate, elegant and the most colorful and beautiful drawings.
Still from ‘Kakania’ (1989) by Karen Aqua
EoF: Which aspects of Karen’s work have you responded to most strongly?
BB: I loved Karen’s conflation of elements such as rhythm, dance, and music.
It is not only the form of her films but a compelling subject matter that characterizes her animated films including themes of ritual, prehistoric and tribal cultures, journeys, transformation, illness (in her film ‘Twist of Fate’) which I strongly relate to. Above all I admired her profound and continuous interest in the various aspects of human condition.
Once, Karen told me that she strived to create films which were more poetry then prose, making the invisible visible. And, that’s what she accomplished.
Interview with Karen Aqua and Ken Field by Erika Funke on ArtScene, WVIA, 2011.
“During my 21 years at the MFA, Boston (’87-’08), I had the pleasure at numerous times to present screenings of Karen’s films. (Virtually all her work at one time or another. Sometimes these screenings were part of festivals, other times the focus was solely on Karen.) This includes all her distinctive animation as well as her stirring way of documenting her journey during her illness. In addition, I was instrumental in arranging for Karen and Ken to do a 10 week-long (?) workshop through my Education Department at the MFA, with the area’s Boy & Girls Clubs whereby about 25 youths worked with Karen and Ken to produce animation that connected with the Museum’s permanent collection. This latter project, not unlike what Karen and Ken did in various other locations around the country (especially the western half), was a stunning success. The youth were thrilled and so were the Museum and the Boys and Girls Clubs.
I continue to teach at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, RI. This is the school where Karen studied animation. I always let my (roughly 60 per year) students know that Karen is one of the Film/Animation/Video department’s remarkable alum and a fabulous model for any artist aspiring to be a life-long independent animator. She expressed her buoyant spirit in everything she did. Working constantly (I’m sure Ken can attest to this) to create and have a positive impact on others through her energizing, dancing images and sounds. It was always such a pleasure to work with Karen. What an extraordinary person and an extraordinary life!”
More information, news and links at karenaqua.com
© Edwin Rostron 2015