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Joanna Priestley: A Continuing Dialogue

Rose Bond interviews Joanna Priestley and reveals the unique relationship between the filmmaker and her films.

Joanna Priestley.

"Whimsical, personal, charming, experimental, delightful" - all words that have been used to describe the work of independent animator, Joanna Priestley. Over the past seventeen years, she has produced a coven of films (that's thirteen for the uninitiated). Priestley has made animated films using rubber stamps, sand, puppets, cut outs, computer paint programs, found objects, and her signature, white index cards. Diverse in technique, Priestley's films seem bound together by a continuing dialogue of personal exploration. They dance playfully along the narrative of her life. Where Do the Ideas Come From... "My primary ideas come from what is going on in my life at the time. But that's just a starting place. It has to be something that I'm totally focused on." Turning 40 was an event she focused on. As a result, working collaboratively on a script with writer Barbara Carnegie, Priestley fashioned the images and reformed the incidents to create Grown Up. But ideas don't always come so easily affixed to road marks in her life and it often takes time for ideas to "compost." "There are times in my life when it takes six or eight or maybe ten months of just being open-hearted and seeing what comes." Priestley credits a show she saw in 1995, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art by French sculptor Annette Messager, as a current inspiration. "I'm realizing now, two years later, how that show is manifesting in my work. It takes that amount of compost time for ideas to sort and rejoin in new forms." "Occasionally, I will hear a clear voice about subject matter for my films. Once I had a dream that was an entire film from start to finish and that became After the Fall. But that is exceptionally rare." For Priestley the idea sorting process is not a straightforward one. She muses whether that's not part of the reason why she's on the planet. "I see what a learning process it is in terms of listening to my intuition, my inner voice, voices, and following my heart." She concludes, "It's hard. Sometimes it doesn't work. Sometimes it's muddled, but it's definitely what I'm trying to do."

After the Fall, a film that Priestley dreamed before she created.

Abstraction as the Medium

Living with ambiguity and unsettled thoughts appears to be no impediment to Priestley's creativity. She continues to experiment with new methods of animating and talks about her latest film, Utopia Parkway (1997) as a new direction. "It's totally different. I'm combining different techniques in the same film...much more dramatically." In the five minute filmshe introduces replacement sculptures inspired by her stylized drawings. These 3 dimensional pieces, used in sequences and animated in boxes, work in combination with drawn, pastel, and water color animation. To pull off this blending of techniques, Priestley turned to abstraction and found inspiration in the work of several pioneers of abstract animation: Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye, Norman McLaren and Jules Engel. "Abstraction has really begun to appeal to me. It's taken awhile to get to this point." Priestley elaborates, "There have been certain things I wanted to say and now I'm sort of moving beyond that."

Utopia Parkway is a definite move beyond for Priestley. She had been working on this yet untitled "abstract film" when she happened to see a documentary on the artist Joseph Cornell (1903-1972). Cornell was a reclusive artist who lived most of his life with his mother, younger brother and two sisters in a small, white frame house on Utopia Parkway in Flushing, New York. When his mother died and his sisters moved away, Cornell stayed on, taking care of and fashioning boxes for his invalid brother, Robert, until the brother's death in 1965. Today Joseph Cornell is thought by many to be America's premiere assemblage artist. His legacy is a collection of small boxes. Cornell managed to combine objects that intrigued him in childhood stamps, marbles, soap bubbles, butterflies, and seashells with his adult interests references to 19th century Europe, ballet, sky charts, cordial glasses and wooden drawers. Though his point of departure is the reality of an eclectic collection of objects, it is the metaphysical nature of Cornell's vision that sets it apart. Priestley chanced upon a showing of Cornell's boxes at the Seattle Art Museum. "I began to think about incorporating that format into the new film. I've always worked with frames within the frame, so it was a kind of evolution of the type of work I've been doing." Indeed, you could line up Priestley's films, All My Relations, After the Fall, Hand Held and Utopia Parkway, and see the rectangularization and containment of images within images. "It's something I've worked with as a painter and printmaker," Priestley comments. "I think we all carry with us certain shapes and forms and symbols that we're very close to... it's only when you get older that you realize what they are."

A 3D sculptural element from Priestley's latest film, Utopia Parkway.

Priestley's imagery in Utopia Parkway may differ from Cornell's flaking ephemera - old engravings, canceled postcards and science magazine clippings - garnered from second hand stores along New York's Fourth Avenue; but she too mines her images from what has come before and casts them in a metaphysic reality of her own creation. Experimental animators like Faith Hubley, Paul Glabicki and Jules Engel, as well as Copper Age Goddess art, spark her imagination. The images are freshened and made whimsical with a primary color palette. Priestley underlies her Utopia Parkway with a percussive soundtrack by Jamie Haggerty that evokes the tribal. It's as if Priestley is suggesting a connection between the glyph and the glimpses, and delighting in the interplay of the organic and the spirit.

Voices,Joanna Priestley's student film made at CalArts.

Art on the Web

As a full time independent film artist, Priestley is a force for promoting animation as an art form. Her films are even distributed by the Museum of Modern Art. She has recently created a web site featuring her work. What was her intention in putting up a web site? "I wanted to put some art on the web. I'm not selling anything. I just wanted to put something interesting in the ether, because from what I observe, 98% of what's on there is just advertising and dull information." What she hopes for quite simply is that "someone stumbles across this and is thrilled." Priestley worked with David White and Al Hooton of Level Seven Communications to create the site. As Priestley explains, "It was much more complicated than we thought initially and they spent many, many hours putting it together." The result is an outstanding site located at To see it in full motion, you'll need Netscape 3.0 or higher and the Macromedia Shockwave plug-in, which can be downloaded from buttons on the site.

A scene from All my Relations,using a dimensional frame around an animated drawing.

An Expression of Life

Clearly, for Joanna Priestley animation is an artistic form of expression. An incredibly prolific animator, Priestley talked about the importance of that work in her life. "In the past five years a lot of things have changed for me, yet the one constant thing through it all has been my work. No matter how chaotic or how jubilant things are, there's always this constant, wonderful place I can come to." "I sometimes wonder, and I guess everyone does, how this work relates to what I see as a worldwide environmental and social crisis going on. What I've really come to realize is that the most important thing we can do is make peace with ourselves and our lives in our own communities." For Priestley, animation is the gift she brings to the world. Without fail, at every showing there will be several people who come up and tell her how much her work has meant to them. "That's what keeps me going." Priestley lives a life full of art animation. Besides creating films, she tours with them, judges at international festivals, and is a member of the Short Film branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She remains a working spokesperson for the art of animation. "It's really important to show animation in art galleries. I've spent my entire career trying to educate people that this is an important art form." As animation writer Bill Givens penned recently, Joanna Priestley remains, "a leading light in the world of animation." Rose Bond teaches Digital Animation at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon and is editor of the ASIFA-NW newsletter. Her award winning films, created by drawing and painting directly on film, are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.