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Dec 13, 2007

Interview with Amanda Visell

[Amanda Visell paints whimsical humorous scenes that recall a bygone era.  While her work may seem sweet on the surface, danger lurks -- everywhere you look there's a cute baby eating elephant or alligator.  Not limited to canvas and art board, she's brought  her characters to life as unique one-of-a-kind art sculptures, limited-edition wood and resin figures and now the Pink Elephant (w/ Drunky McSkunky) vinyl figure which drops with a release party and art show today, Thursday December 13th @ Munky King.   We sat down with Amanda and her partner Michelle Valigura to understand the elusive (very shy...) person behind the art that's found a strong following here in LA. ]

So according to your blog you didn’t train to be an artist. How did you decide to get into painting and drawing?

Initially I wanted to get into animation. So I move down here. That was 1998. My friend had a friend who worked at Disney so I met with him. He was an effects animator at Disney and he said oh my friends have this clog company and they’re hiring a bunch of people who want to work in animation. So yeah, hand-painted Swedish clogs.  So  both Michelle and I  painted, designed and shipped the clogs. It’s all animation paint – cel vinyl with brushes. Like exactly what I do now.

Had you painted before?

Yeah – I like art stuff. I just didn’t go to art school. I moved here to try to get into CalArts but I did not get in. So I stopped doing clogs and tried to get into animation. The only place that just lets you in if they don’t know you already is stop-motion. They’ll hire anybody. We both [Amanda and Michelle] started working in stop-motion and created puppets and sets for projects. We learned mold-making and sculpting as well as interns.

I hated it. It’s a really crappy job – very toxic and really long hours. It’s not the same as regular animation – you’re not protected by anything. It’s little independent companies. Nothing is safe and it’s a really weird industry to be a girl in.

Through out that period  I was trying to get a job in feature (traditional animation) or TV, like Nickelodeon, Cartoon network. The thing they don’t tell you is they don’t really hire people that they don’t know, that they didn’t go to school with. I was applying for jobs every week and not getting anything – it was years of that.

I kept putting together portfolios . The way I was doing it was making paintings of scenes that I thought people in animation would like. They were ideas that I wanted to pitch for animation.

Billy Shire’s Kitchen Sync show at La Luz came around  and Michelle said “Why don’t you put your paintings in ?” I did and that was my first show.

At what point did you decide you were going to be a painter instead of doing animation ?

I liked a lot of artists such as Tim Biskup that work in animation and also paint. You’re already looking at them and you can track them down, google them and see that they’re doing it and it seems to be working. For me, it was selling stuff. It’s like whoa it’s actually working -- as opposed to constantly working for animation without getting paid to do it.

One of 'em sold [paintings from the La Luz show].  But that was enough…I just switched. The last show I applied to was “My Life as a Teenage Robot” and  had a really bad experience and I decided not to deal with it anymore. They lead me on for weeks and weeks. What’s weird is that the show’s creator buys my art now.

So going in Kitchen Sync did you think you were going to be a painter or were you just trying it?

Trying it… but… No one ever tells you can do that as an artist – for a living. That’s always in movies – that people paint. It’s never a thought that it’s actually someone’s job – that you can just do that and try to work towards that. It was a guess and it just felt right.

How would you describe your painting style?

I wouldn’t. It’s cartoony.

Do you have specific influences in terms of your style?

People who work in animation like Mary Blair. Old Disney concept paintings. [Looking at  her collection of original storyboards by Mary Blair], You paint what you love – I think. Try to do what you love. The whole dry brush thing is about creating lighting and mood but doing it quickly because they were working in a production setting.

Many of your paintings have a humorous surface to them. Is that by design?

Yeah. I don’t want to just paint an elephant, I want to paint an elephant doing something. I want it to be interesting – to me at least.

On the subject of elephants, where did the baby eating theme come from?

I don’t know – I think it’s funny. It might have come from the fact that a lot of people look at my art to put it in their nurseries. It seems a little bit inappropriate because there are a lot of things going on that I think kids probably don’t want to look at as they’re waking up in the morning. 

It started me doing Vampires eating kids… they’re clearly going to eat kids. And then I just thought it was funny. Like paint an alligator and think about the character of the painting being the alligator and not the baby. To the alligator it’s just a snack, you know.

There are a lot of moms looking at my art and I think it’s kinda funny to tease ‘em a bit. It seems like one of those issues people don’t like to deal with – don’t mess with kids.

Do you have specific characters that show up over and over again ?

The first one I’m really going to push is Drunky McSkunky – because I think it’s totally funny.

Have you named any others?

No but I do ones that repeat.  Like I do alligators that are all basically the same one.  And elephants that are all basically the same.

How did Drunky come about?

I did the pink elephant sculpture [Switcheroo show @ Gallery 1988, April '07].

That was the first time he appeared?

Yup.  Then I thought it was funny to make a hobo drunk guy.  Like a really not PC drunk guy. 

How did you go from elephant to drunk guy riding elephant?

It’s a pink elephant.

How did the vinyl come about?

I was going to do a toy with Munky King. Patrick Lam  and I  were just trying to decide what to do.  We talked about an elephant and what we wanted to do with that to make it special.  Then I had my solo show ['Switcheroo' at Gallery 1988] and he said, “That was the one”.  He decided he loved it when he saw it and he took pictures of it. 

Drunky has a magnet in it?

Yeah, it’s magnetic [Drunky McSkuny attaches to the elephant via magnet].  I really like the Bwana Spoons packaging for [Steven] the bat.  It’s like a window box with a scene behind it.  I want to do something like that…

Had you thought about doing a toy before Patrick talked to you about it?

I’d been wanting to do a toy forever. From working in stop motion I already think in 3D.

Many painters translate their work to vinyl by featuring their signature characters in isolation.  It seems this approach loses some of the relationship between characters and their evironment.  The Pink Elephant seems to retain that with Drunky McSkunky and The Elephant.

Yeah. The story telling. Another easy way  to do it is when I do things eating things.  So you just have a character but a story is being told on it.  It’s important -- there’s gotta to be some element to make it interesting besides, “That thing looks kinda cute”.

You’ve done limited-edition wood figures, would you prefer to do wood instead of vinyl ?

I would prefer if the market went that way  -- I’m not going not do vinyl because I think that would be screwing myself.

So you’d be happy if one day people went “Vinyl… bah, bad for the environment, let’s do wood”?

Yeah and wood became more collectible.  Wood has a lot of limitations too – shapes and things like that.  I just like it a little more – it makes each one a little more unique.  Each chunk of wood is it’s own thing, it’s not popped out of a mold. Wood figures also have more weight than vinyl.

Would you do platform toys?

Yeah – it depends.  If it seems like it would work -- how much of it I could make my own.  I only want to do it if I can really make it look like my style.  Not just slap on something that is in a lot of my paintings – here’s a sticker of it basically.  I don’t want to do that.  That’s the one thing I’m really worried about with toys, that they are not going to look like my art.

[We'd like to thank Amanda for taking the time to reveal her inner secrets and for her patience in getting this posted.  If you're in SoCal, be sure to drop by Munky King Melrose  tonight (12.13.07) for the release of her Pink Elephant vinyl produced by Munky King -- both the regular pink (600 pcs) and the Prohibition edition (150 pcs) will be available. ]

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