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Susan Pitt: An Animator's Journey

Jackie Leger explores the visions of painter, designer and animation filmmaker, Suzan Pitt.

Susan Pitt's concern for psychological explorations of the female psyche has been a vital force behind her career for over 25 years. This can be seen in Crocus, one of her early films which is a surrealist exploration into female sexuality, as well as in Asparagus, a classic that explores subliminal imagery of the feminine dream, and in her most recent film Joy Street, her chef d'oeuvre that relates issues of depression and healing.

Suzan Pitt's Joy Street.

For many years, Pitt has been merging the female psyche to her personal creative projects in such areas as painting, performance art, and theater design, as well as animation. One might say that she is a Renaissance woman. While the deep dark depths of the psychology of being are rarely brought out in animation, Pitt can, in this respect, be associated with pioneer animator Winsor McCay. His early comic strip/film Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend probed inner world dreams as masterpieces of whimsy, imagination, wit and nightmares, depicting human fears and delusions. With films full of observations and insights, both McCay and Pitt aimed to give relevance to their characters. Pitt has often criticized the animation business as avoiding the main goal of story telling, which is having something relevant to say.

An Eerie Doll House

Susan Pitt grew up in Kansas City, Missouri and relates much of her imagery to an eerie doll house found in an attic of an old house, where she would climb dark stairs to get to this miniature, imaginary world. This doll house became her own private theater, where she created stories which later influenced her films.

Suzan Pitt's Joy Street.

Pitt's creative career began at Cranbrook Academy of Art, where in 1965 she received her BFA in Painting. Like many of her generation, she began filmmaking with a hand held 8mm camera; transferring some 200 drawings onto film. One of her early pieces in 16mm Bowl, Theater, Garden, Marble Game made use of cutout images arranged in a semiabstract form. A recipient of many grants and an avid teacher, she began her most important formative years with the completion of Crocus, a surrealistic study and an ode to the feminine dream and the natural world. Many of her films were developed in collaboration with her students, a fact which Pitt considers an important part of her artistic development. The success of such early films as A City Trip, Jefferson Circus Songs and Cels, made with students at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, brought her recognition and gave her the experience needed to produce larger projects.

Asparagus is the now classic film that secured Pitt's reputation as a major American animator. After taking four years to make, Asparagus, completed in 1979, won awards around the world, including First Prize at the Oberhausen Film Festival in Germany and awards at Ann Arbor, Baltimore and Atlanta Film Festivals in the US. Designed like a Pandora's box, the film opens up the depth of Pitt's own inner psyche, merging sensual and surrealistic imagery in the form of a Freudian dream. Focusing on erotic metaphors and intellectual references, she makes this matted-cel work a visionary masterpiece.

Expanded Cinema

By the late 1970's, Pitt was involved in the Expanded Cinema movement which led her to merge performance art with animation. Pitt's introduction to this art form was developed in a course she taught in 1976 at Harvard's Carpenter Center entitled Loops. In the class, she had her students deconstruct animation to analyze all of its parts. This exercise grew into a large animated/live show that included people as cartoons, experimental imagery from rear screen projection, and drawing on soundtracks. These early endeavors expanded her work into the world of real space and time, which grew into many more performances. In 1980, Pitt presented a performance at the Venice Biennial entitled Suone e Immagine, set to the music of Richard Teitelbaum Also in 1980, she createdWindow, a three dimensional interior and film installation commissioned and exhibited by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. And in 1985, she created ESO-S, a two screen performance with live music by John and Evan Laurie done at the Pyramid Club in New York.

Suzan Pitt's Joy Street.

Continuing her painting career, Pitt exhibited widely with a solo exhibition at the Denise Rene Gallery in Dusseldorf and the Delahuty Gallery in New York, as well as several group exhibitions. These led to an invitation to created the sets, costumes and animation forThe Magic Flute, an experimental opera created by the avant-garde director Nicholas Lehnhoff. After doing projections for this unconventional New Age production from 1983-87, she designed the sets for Richard Foreman's Symphony for Rats in New York. Lehnhoff then engaged her again for his production of Berlioz'The Damnation of Faust for the State Opera of Hamburg, a large budget production in a high-end theater, with an hour of animation and effects interspersed throughout the three hour performance.

Suzan Pitt's Joy Street.

Joy Street

During the 1990s, Pitt's work became focused on the natural environment and political activism, in particular rain forest activism. These activities and her travels to exotic places like Guatemala, Belize and Mexico had a major impact on her career and her most important personal film Joy Street. Made in 1995, it has been acclaimed at every major film festival from Hiroshima to London, and all those in between.

Traveling through Guatamala in 1993, she began painting lively images of animals and birds with color and fantasy, very much influenced by natural settings of the rain forests. These evolved into images in Joy Street. During this time, she also received several commissions for paintings, including a mural for the US Post Office in Fountain City, Wisconsin, and a series of silkscreens for Artists for Nature, an activist group in Germany exhibited at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero in 1992.

Analyzing Joy Street, one might say it is the culmination of Pitt's life as an artist and a woman. The images begin like a German Expressionist nightmare of a woman depressed by the concrete world she lives in. Set to the haunting music of The Jazz Passengers, this visual poem relates a sort of psychodrama of a plight which in fact touches the life of many. Saved from this bad dream by an animated mouse (and what a mouse!), Pitt develops the second part of the film as an ode to the great classics of animation, with all the dynamism and pacing of a 1930s Fleischer cartoon. She blends her personal aesthetic with all the pizzazz of a master animator. The energy of the mouse, whirling with joy and innocence, and the deep pain of the woman make a truly interesting movie experience. Pitt's statement throughout the film reflects the passing of nature and innocence as a road to depression and emptiness.

Today, Pitt continues to travel and present her work at festivals and universities. She often gives a lecture entitled "Cartoon Wilderness," which discusses parallel histories of film animation, and wilderness exploration and exploitation. This program was recently presented at the Virginia International Festival, with the theme of "Wild Places/Endangered Species." She also recently directed Troubles the Cat, 12 different six-minute sequences produced by The Ink Tank for the Cartoon Network educational series, Big Bag, which explore issues of ethnicity and self-awareness. Pitt is now one of the directors represented on the roster of The Ink Tank Too, a new division of The Ink Tank in New York. Pitt's activism, diversity and creativity will keep her work relevant well into the next millennium.

Suzan Pitt Animation Filmography

Troubles the Cat, directed by Pitt for The Ink Tank, which she has recently signed a long-term agreement with as part of its Ink Tank Too operation.

Animated Films

The following films, except when noted, were produced and directed by Pitt. All were in color, except where noted.

Big Time (Warner Records, 1986) (Storyboard & Animation), Music video; music by Peter Gabriel.

Surf or Die (Profile Records), 3 min., 35mm. Music video; music by The Surf M.C.'s.

The Damnation of Faust (Hamburg State Opera, 1988), one hour, 35mm.

Bam Video (Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1990), 3 min., 35mm.

Colors/Colores (Public Broadcasting System, 1995, 1 min. 15 sec., video.

Joy Street (Channel Four & PBS), 24 min., 35mm.

Troubles the Cat (The Ink Tank, 1996) (Director), 12 six-minute sequences for the Cartoon Network.

Bowl, Theatre, Garden, Marble Game (1970), 7 min., 16mm.

*Crocus (1971) 7 min., 16mm.

A City Trip (1972), 3 min., 16mm.

Cels (1972), 6 min., 16mm.

Whitney Commercial (Whitney Museum of Art, 1973), 3 min., 16mm.

*Jefferson Circus Songs (1973), 20 min., 16mm.

*Asparagus (1979), 20 min., 16mm.

Night Fire Dance (Columbia Masterworks Records, 1986) (Co-Director), 1 min., 35mm., black & white. Music video, with music by Andreas Vollenweider.

Big Time (Warner Records, 1986) (Storyboard & Animation), Music video; music by Peter Gabriel.

Surf or Die (Profile Records), 3 min., 35mm. Music video; music by The Surf M.C.'s.

The Damnation of Faust (Hamburg State Opera, 1988), one hour, 35mm.

Bam Video (Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1990), 3 min., 35mm.

Colors/Colores (Public Broadcasting System, 1995, 1 min. 15 sec., video.

Joy Street (Channel Four & PBS), 24 min., 35mm.

Troubles the Cat (The Ink Tank, 1996) (Director), 12 six-minute sequences for the Cartoon Network.

*Distributed by the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the British Film Institute, London.

Expanded Film Performances

Suzan Pitt's Asparagus.

Loops (Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University,. 1976), a multidimensional, live film theater performance combining film on several scenes, actors and music by the Harvard Composers Ensemble .

Asparagus (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1979), film installation and exhibition of drawings.

Suone E. Immagine (Venice Biennale), film performance with composer Richard Teitelbaum.

ESO-S (The Pyramid Club, New York, 1985), a two-screen film performance with live music by John and Evan Lurie.

Stage & Costume Design

The Magic Flute (State Opera Theater, Weisbaden, Germany, 1983-87). Sets, costumes, and animated films for production that was in repertoire for several years..

Richard Foreman's Symphony for Rats (1988), animated sequences. (New York City.)

The Damnation of Faust by Hector Berlioz(State Opera Theater, Hamburg). Sets, costumes and animated films.

Jackie Leger is a Santa Monica-based documentary filmmaker interested in the roots of American experimental film.