Interview by Greg Carlson
Multi-faceted artist Allison Schulnik has earned a reputation as a phenomenon in several disciplines, from music to painting to filmmaking. Her latest short “Mound” was recently named the honorable mention in animation for the 2012 Fargo Film Festival. A stunning piece of stop-motion that uses clay, fabric, and other materials to breathe life into a group of morphing figures, “Mound” is perfectly choreographed to Scott Walker’s unforgettable “It’s Raining Today.”
GC: If I understand the history correctly, the beginning of your relationship with Grizzly Bear occurred when you first contacted the band about using “Granny Diner” for your film “Hobo Clown.” Had you known them before or did you just hold your breath and take a chance?
AS: That’s righto. I did not know them, I wanted to use the song for “Hobo Clown” and wrote their label. They said yes. Then the following year, they asked me to do a piece for the song “Ready, Able.” Thus came “Forest.”
GC: Your passion for the arts extends beyond animation to include painting, sculpture, music, and dance. I get exhausted just thinking about it. Are a workaholic? Are you in a race against time?
AS: Righto again. I am a workaholic. A lifer. Definitely in the race. Really making stuff is just a way to stay sane (relatively).
GC: The Hobo Clown, who embodies this dialectic of hope/despair and laughter/tears has evolved into one of your signature subjects. Did you spend time attending the circus as a child? Were you afraid of clowns?
AS: Most of my paintings are portraits of myself, friends and loved ones, and even people I see on the street and don’t know at all. I love the circus. I love musical theater, dance and performance. I love the performer, and I love clowns. I was never really afraid of clowns, I don’t think. Of course, many people are I hear. Coulrophobia. I can understand how a clown could be seen as sinister. It seems like people are more scared of clowns today than in the past.
Maybe the whole idea of hiding your face really scares people because there is some kind of dishonesty in it; you cannot be read. However, really I see the clown’s makeup as his truest expression. I like the escapism of it all, the fantasy of it. Not having to be yourself. People want you to stay in reality, not to present something that is unreal. Maybe that’s why some children love clowns, because they celebrate fantasy. There are so many different kinds of clowns. There is just something really appealing to me about the character of the Hobo Clown, something very honest and beautifully tragic.
GC: You have described working to loud music of varied genres from metal to show tunes, and whenever you mention Streisand, “Don’t Rain on My Parade” materializes in my head. Do you have a favorite Streisand recording? Do you ever sing along?
AS: One of my favorites from Babs for sure. Also a big fan of the heart-wrenching “Papa Can You Hear Me,” the sultry duet “Guilty” with Barry Gibb, and of course the completely perfect song that is “Send in the Clowns.” It’s really too hard to choose just one. I could go on forever. Unfortunately for my studio neighbors, I do sing along.
GC: What was the most valuable thing about attending CalArts and studying with Jules Engel? The man’s career is almost beyond comprehension.
AS: Every moment at CalArts was rewarding. I loved the Experimental Animation program I was in. What an amazing program it was with Jules heading it. Every Monday morning, he’d open your brain and feed you only the tastiest in avant-garde animated masterpieces for 3 hours, while exclaiming in his questionably thick Austrian accent, “What a Gem” and “Did you see those Lakers over the weekend?” I cannot even imagine the program without him. I also can’t imagine the Character Animation program – where I spent half my time – without the brilliant Corny Cole and Mike Mitchell, who also passed recently. They were my three greatest teachers, and definitely the best thing about CalArts.
GC: I know you like “King Kong.” Can you identify a transcendent moment or two in O’Brien’s animation? I can’t tell you how many times I have replayed Kong testing the hinge of his dead adversary’s jaw or trying to comprehend the impact of the biplane machine guns.
AS: Good parts indeed. You have to love Kong’s first reveal, and I hate to be typical but I do love the entire sequence of the Empire State Building climb. How can you not?
GC: What was the first piece of art that you sold? How did that make you feel?
AS: I can’t remember. I was hustling my work on the beach, and to neighbors and family friends when I was like 14. I think it must’ve been one of these pastels I was doing. I would go around and do pastels of alleys. Not sure why alleys, maybe because you could be alone in them and people wouldn’t bother you, or they have more trash and irregularities which make them more interesting. It made me feel good to sell them.
GC: I think I have watched “Mound” a hundred times and every time I see it I never want it to end. Have you considered making longer-form animations?
AS: Yes, definitely. Every film I make starts out as a feature, and then it ends up becoming a short. “Mound” might be the first section of a feature in many parts. Or not.