I wanted to make a collaborative paper piece. Maybe it’s the ongoing pandemic and the fact that I’ve started isolating again because of the Omicron variant. Or the fact that it’s winter in Seattle—dark, cold, wet, snowy—which often makes me feel cut off from everybody anyway, even before COVID.

Increasingly, performance is something I think about incorporating into my work. A couple years ago, I took a "Creative Harmonies Through Intuitive Listening" workshop with West of Roan (http://www.westofroan.com/). They taught us one of their pieces, a sweet song, two parts sung a cappella called “Trim the Wick.” It felt really appropriate to these dark days and my state of mind. I’m so happy my classmates, Margo Yoon and Samantha Caruthers-Knight, were willing to trust my vision and be vulnerable: we each recorded ourselves singing alone (terrifying!) so I could edit the audio files together.

Presented “A Paper Performance for a Dark Winter’s Night” as a final project for Kelli Anderson’s Fall 2021 Paper Engineering class (https://kellianderson.com/), which was conducted over Zoom with fellow classmates all over the world. To create a mood, a shared sense of space and coziness appropriate to what I long for and wanted to share with others, I asked everybody to bring candles and matches, or videos of lit candles on their phones, to my presentation. They came through.

Watch the full video with sound here: https://vimeo.com/662138337

How do you make air visible? Imperialism? Desire? Butts?

Questions that Americans asked me after I moved to the United States for college are combined with fantasy imagery of the native to make colonial desire visible.

But desire can flow both ways, especially in a place as homophobic as The Bahamas. As a boy, every now and then, I’d see two tourists at the beach, men, wearing Speedos and laying their towels right next to each other on the sand. I didn’t know why at the time, but I couldn’t stop staring.

Tan lines became fetishes for me after moving to Miami and coming out. They figured prominently on the men I met in real life and "mainstream" gay porn, reinforcing (sub)cultural norms of desirability: white, muscular bodies, all the best parts outlined. The colonizers' desires aren't the only ones made visible here.

Made in Kelli Anderson’s Fall 2021 Paper Engineering class (https://kellianderson.com/). I have ideas on how to adapt this piece as a larger, interactive installation. Gotta keep my eye out for opportunities!

View the full 30-second video with audio here: https://vimeo.com/662437061

So much of grieving, especially during a pandemic, is experienced internally and alone. Unable to gather to remember and mourn a loved one who died recently, I thought back to the first form I was taught in a paper engineering class taught by artist Kelli Anderson (https://kellianderson.com/): the Möbius strip.

Initially conceived as a message from the departed for those of us left behind, "A Paper Spell for Grief" centers around a Möbius strip and what happens to it once you cut along a single straight line all the way around. Whatever the mathematical explanation, it feels like a sort of magic one performs with their own hands. The title of this piece suggests this magic; and like many spells, requires materials to cast: Scotch tape or glue, scissors and “ritual paper,” the included strip of paper used to create the Möbius strip.

My friend Kristen was vibrant. I chose words for the ritual paper highly specific to her and how she approached her life, and used colors from the palette she often used in her artwork. The most difficult part is forming the Möbius strip itself. Trying to use non-ableist language was helpful in focusing on the action of what needed to be done, rather then confusing people by assuming which hand was dominant (“use your right hand”) or that everybody would hold the strip horizontally to begin. I wanted the instructions to be as short and simple as possible so as not to frustrate or scare people away. The illustrations are meant to help here.

Part of the wonder in working with Möbius strips is observing their shape. The instructions encourage you to slow down and trace the name all the way around without breaking contact. This becomes a moment to reflect on the person you are mourning, to begin conceiving of that infinite space suggested by the Möbius strip.

You’re then asked to think about how each of the words on the ritual paper can say and mean different things when combined with the name in the middle:

LOVE KRISTEN, like you’re getting a letter from her, as an imperative, like a shout.

FIERCELY KRISTEN, like how she did things, undeniably her, as another message to you: be fierce.

And when cut, LOVE and FIERCELY are on one loop, all their meanings bound together, separated but still linked to Kristen.

There is an ephemerality to Möbius strips that "A Paper Spell for Grief" relies on to be effective. It begins as an unremarkable strip of paper, becomes a Möbius strip with one simple action, and becomes something else entirely with a single cut. Like mortality, you cannot go back to what you had prior to that cut. There is a finality to this action. But there is also mystery, one that you created with your own hands while thinking of the person who is now gone.

Download the files here to print out "A Paper Spell for Grief" and customize your own ritual paper. PLEASE NOTE: for the latter, the file is meant more as a guide so you know how to arrange the words on the paper: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/0ly7aiaw2i7eqh1/AADwoYiqbD1onf5uEJ3bmlwAa?dl=0

Three weeks or so into Washington State’s COVID-19 lockdown, while walking around my neighborhood with a face mask on, people I passed avoided eye contact with me. I noticed I was doing the same. I’d even cross to the other side of the street when I saw somebody coming towards me. I came back home feeling awful. This was not how I wanted to be in the world: fear and suspicion between me and my neighbors.

We were all cut off from each other. This piece was my way of reconnecting. But how to do so safely while maintaining physical distance?

Phase 1
The camellia tree in my front yard was heavy with big, pink flowers. This was the primary means of answering a question that I posed in my window, along with an animation of a local critter doing something silly. I gathered up camellias, wearing gardening gloves, and placed them in a pile near signs on my fence that said Yes/More and No/Less. Neighbors and passersby were invited to answer the question by placing a camellia under their answer.

Every evening, I’d count the votes on each side, and after a few days, would post the tally to a display along the fence. A new question and critter would be posted in my window and the process would repeat.

Phase 2
I added a burner number to the display, asking people to call and leave a message elaborating on any of their answers, e.g. Why aren’t you sleeping well? What new skills are you learning?

Security and privacy are important. I figured out a way to receive these voicemails without seeing the telephone number of callers. I also offered to pay a small amount to callers who lost work because of COVID-19. This would mean texting me their Square Cash, PayPal or Venmo info though, which, I explained, would reveal their information to me. Two people took me up on it!

After editing the voicemails together, I played them through a speaker mounted to the big tree behind the display. Visitors could now answer the current question posted in my window, look at the data posted for past questions, and listen to voices from the neighborhood. Altogether, a means of connecting while still maintaining physical distance.

I live near a big park; neighbors and visitors are always passing by. One of the great things about having this piece in my front yard was that I could observe people interacting with it. A good number posed and took photos in front of it. Most often they’d stop, sometimes to read out the current question to each other or some part of the posted data. Then they’d talk. Here are some of the things I observed:

  • Some weren’t sure how to vote, discussing the issue with others before making a decision.

  • A group of strangers talking about the different skills they learned.

  • A parent voting very confidently “Yes” to the question “Do You Have What You Need?” and assuming their young child would vote the same. “Actually, I don’t have what I need,” came the reply. I couldn’t hear the discussion, but the child ended up voting “No.”

  • The “Tacos or Dumplings” question was very contentious. Some voted for both, which was OK since this was never about data rigor. But a couple of neighbors told me they were very disappointed in the results (it was a tie). Quite a few people said they were going to order takeout dumplings, which was a nice bonus since a lot of restaurants in our Chinatown/International District were struggling because of COVID-related racism even before the lockdown.

  • Neighbors on bikes bringing in friends from outside the neighborhood to look at the piece.

  • Best of all: a couple, holding hands and staring soulfully into each other’s eyes as they listened to the audio. I saw another couple, arms around each other, standing and listening for a time.

  • Many people thanked me when I happened to be in the front yard, saying: they checked it every day, it was something to look forward to, if I would continue doing it.

  • Kids really got a kick out of it. Making it “kid-friendly” wasn’t the intent at all, but this is further confirmation for me that treating children like people, not talking down to them, is the way to go.

Every evening as part of my count, I’d take the speaker down, the data, the signage with instructions and the burner number. Which meant having to put it all back up again the following day, while replenishing the camellias. This was a lot of work, and many times I wouldn’t be in the mood. But this labor, much of it emotional, was satisfying: a way to make up for not looking people in the face while I walked around the neighborhood.

I liked that the piece had different aspects depending on the time of day. The data and voting mechanism were posted every morning shortly after 7am. But the audio, out of consideration to my actual neighbors, wouldn’t be turned on until 9am. In the evening, the audio would come down first, leaving the data and voting mechanism up for a while before they were taken down for the night.

Tying this piece to nature meant accelerating the pace once the camellias started dying. It was up from mid-April to mid-May, 2020.

Phase 3
I made short video pieces out of the audio and critter animations and posted them online as a record of this moment, in this neighborhood, along this street. Head to Vimeo to see/listen to these pieces: https://vimeo.com/showcase/7182057

Phase 4
A little over a month after taking the piece down, I’m giving away zines from the piece. Featuring excerpts from the voicemails neighbors left behind, there are four issues named after different parts of the larger title: Bus Stop, Coffee Shop / Bar Stool, Class at School / Concert, Flying / Protest, Hugging. All places you might have these conversations with people during a normal time.

Materials used: bamboo, twine, clothespins, brick, index cards, marker, plastic bags, tape, push pins, paper, picture frames, camellias, iPads, extension cords, painters tape, Bluetooth speaker, wood, wire, screws, nail, cardboard box.

I sat down to make a looping story, with a flat design and limited palette. It’s meant to add visual interest on Ken Thompson Consulting’s website as he gets his business off the ground. I thought he should have something fun to lighten his austere homepage.

Ken’s Twitter handle is @kensbrain. The lightbulb came easily enough: “Ken’s brain is cooking up lots of ideas, don’t be put off by the bare website.” But how to make it a story within a 3-5 second loop?

Stuffing ideas back into his head to think up variations, move past obstacles, or coming up with even more ideas, all seemed like good messages for a budding consultant to have. And it added something unexpected.

Character design was a challenge because Ken’s bald—hair, facial or on the head, is a natural place to have overlapping animation to make it more appealing. I tried adding a chin and even a hat. But the former looked like a soul patch with this flat design, and the hat didn’t look flat enough. Then I realized dimples would be perfect since they’re very distinctive on Ken, and more importantly, they read more clearly.

Initially, I gave him a perfectly round body to emphasize a sense of playfulness and approachability. But decided to echo the shape of his head to reinforce the character’s design.

Let’s talk about the slight variations in character animation in the 3 examples above. Everything is the same up until he looks up at the lightbulb:

  • Left: Ken’s eyes move much higher as he looks at the bulb. While exaggeration is an animation principle, his line of sight didn’t align with the bulb so it felt off. His eyes move back into place a little too quickly, and the offset animation on his mouth and dimples as he tilts his head made his jaw feel loose. All of these added to that sense of wrongness. REJECTED.

  • Center: Because the light bulb is directly overhead, I couldn’t line his eyes up perfectly. But I increased his head tilt and repositioned his eyes to be less extreme. As he’s pushing the bulb in his ear, I offset the animation on the eyes and mouth to indicate slight discomfort. Acting out this movement, my eyes did indeed move before my mouth, but it didn’t look right when animated. REJECTED.

  • Right: I made him scrunch up his nose in addition to squinting and pursing his lips. After matching the timing on his eyes and mouth and drawing the moment out slightly, this facial expression really sold the effort of cramming that idea into his head. FINAL

It’s always amazing to me how such little things can make a difference in character animation.

Work in progress, 3 of 3 (FINAL) – I needed to remember joy; that part of what makes OneAmerica’s work so effective, even under such challenging conditions, is that there’s dancing, laughter and singing in it too. This is part of the organization’s brand, and a large portion of why donors and supporters attend their annual fundraiser.

I simplified their script to be less about data points and tried to nudge it more towards what they said they wanted people to feel when watching: awe, respect, inspired. Rather than explaining everything—impossible to do in 15-seconds—I took visceral details from the experience of being a rider and put them into the visuals:

  • Multiple languages to show the diversity of nationalities, but also the challenge of communicating with each other.

  • Distances traveled, arranged in reverse chronological order—state, West Coast, cross-country—to create a sense of progression and higher stakes (longer time spent away from family).

  • A range in issues: workers’ rights, family unity, comprehensive immigration reform.

  • The inclusion of a Muslim woman to show religious diversity, recall how the organization started and highlight how it embraces Muslims in an increasingly intolerant climate.

  • Most importantly, singing! A recognizable song in Spanish that those within the movement would recognize. (They’re singing it in the gif above.)

  • Color, the teal from OneAmerica’s brand, slowly seeps in as a highlight.

I wanted each animation to have a distinct look, choosing charcoal on paper for this second piece to convey a sense of grittiness from being on the road. The shaky, boiling technique, especially in the bus interior scene, takes on a tactile feel: those bus rides were bumpy!

There’s always been (benign) tension within the movement that it’s not just Latinx people affected by these issues. Selecting languages for the interior scene took several passes. Keeping in mind who was on the bus, but also, who would be watching the animation at the event, I did Somali, Japanese and Spanish; all saying different things: "Are we there yet?”, “I’m hungry,” and in an early version “Who farted?” 😂

These phrases, spoken in different languages, signaled that even though the riders couldn’t all understand each other, they had similar thoughts: banal, human, absurd. But the time limit, once more, forced me to simplify. I decided it was more important that viewers understand what was being said.

“Are we there yet?” invokes road trips, but also comments subtly that while the theme of the event was “15 Years of Justice for All,” we haven’t arrived yet. So donate more money to support this work! All 3 languages were adjusted to say the same thing and be onscreen simultaneously. And my fart joke dissipated into the air.

The 15-second time limit was a real challenge. “Comprehensive immigration reform,” alone is a mouthful, and takes up precious time for the viewer just to register. I tweaked the timing all over the piece but it still feels rushed to me. The fact that it’s a loop, and a short one, ameliorates this since viewers can catch what they missed the next time around.

Work in progress, 2 of 3 – It made sense for this to be a data point piece–just focus on high-level information and let everything else fall away. At its heart, these campaigns involved genuine risk for each bus rider. Leaving their jobs, loved ones and the safety of anonymity behind took a tremendous amount of courage for these workers, many undocumented, LGBT, youth or asylee.

It was important for me to reflect this diversity to show: 1) How many different kinds of people were affected by these issues, 2) The strength of this cross-issue organizing and movement-building. Both of these points would also push all the right buttons for donors at the fundraising event where this animation would play.

But giving this plurality proper voice multiplied the amount of data points, rather than decrease it. No matter how affirming the data, there was no way to make it feel alive in 15-seconds. You can see in my sketches above how I tried to assign amounts of time to each data point/visual. But once more, it became a recitation of statistics. It felt bland.

And blandness is death when mobilizing your base or fundraising.

Work in progress, 1 of 3 – The second, and in a way, toughest, of 3 animations for OneAmerica’s annual fundraiser. (See my 3 previous posts for an overview on the first animation).

For this piece, they wanted the animation to cover 3 bus rides—all for immigrant rights—that took place over the course of the organization’s history. Each bus ride was distinct in its destination, rider make up and focus on policy change.

This meant an overabundance of statistics. Just distinguishing each bus ride alone resulted in a litany of numbers and data. For example:

  • Riders from 22 countries traveled 3,000 miles in 2003…

  • Over 100 immigrants and allies from the northwest—Washington, Idaho and Oregon—rode from Seattle to San Jose in 2009…

  • In 2013, riders stopped in 6 Washington State cites, rallying over 500 people…

What to do with all this information and the constraints of budget and time? Everything had to fit inside a 15-second hand drawn piece. A very tight deadline, that included me working on 2 other animations for OneAmerica, loomed large.

As we figured things out, I began noodling around, knowing that movement and motion were going to be involved.

Work in progress, 3 of 3 (FINAL) – I stepped back to think about what hope feels like, how it was central to OneAmerica’s origins and the way it’s coded into the organization’s DNA.

Hope is the space inside your chest that expands, that causes you to look up, forward. Hope is the sun. Hope is light, buoyancy, bated breath. Hope is a breeze that keeps the fire burning. Hope is life, a legacy passed on. It catches and spreads.

There’s fire, passion, inside the seeds. As they rain down, I avoided using distinctive people: the arms of the stem are organic. Their natural shape is open to catching hope.

Remember, this is a 10-second animation that loops after the founder, Pramila, is introduced and as she makes her way to the podium. In my tests where the story starts with tragedy, the results didn’t feel right. It created a dissonance with Pramila’s presence on stage: a heavy, dark feeling that took over the moment, even if it resolved into hope.

Brightness, color, room for all, the embrace of the seed/ember by the stems at the end felt more in line with who Pramila is and what the founding of OneAmerica represents.

The loop still retains that sense of this work being cyclical: hope and passion for justice reborn, an embrace that welcomes everybody.

And, this was for a fundraiser after all. Donors want to feel happy and positive about giving. Removing the presence of tragedy and hate isn’t dishonest. It’s just a matter of focus: emphasizing the positive truths of OneAmerica’s work. Maintaining this focus—raising money and creating good will—is essential to a successful event.

I animated a separate title that used OneAmerica’s campaign tagline, “15 Years of Justice for All,” but didn’t add it to the animation, as they requested. 10 seconds isn’t long enough to register the text and tell their origin story. Also, it breaks the rhythm of the loop.

The title could be used as an interstitial instead; played during transitions or to add flavor for short periods during down time: while guests ate, etc. As gifs, both pieces can also be used in email, social media and webpages for their year-long campaign.

I liked having a chance to add some playfulness with the logo.🐝

Work in progress, 2 of 3 – The theme OneAmerica gave me to work with: “Tragedy turning into hope; people coming together to get organized and fight hate, create hope and opportunity in its place.”

I noodled around more, incorporating elements from OneAmerica’s logo—the yellow circle that envelops the chaotic scribble, and the brand for the event (the colorful “flower”)—into this animatic.

One of OneAmerica’s greatest strengths is it’s multi-ethnic base. A burst of color spreads and scatters, resolving back into the circular shape from the logo so the animation can loop back round. Clouds and darkness return and the cycle begins again.

I liked that there was no false optimism in this: “We beat back hate and everything’s sunny and bright!” This felt true to the realities of OneAmerica’s work: as economic fortunes rise and fall, global patterns of migration shift and attitudes towards immigrants and refugees along with it. The nature of this work is cyclical, needing constant base building and leadership development that brings in new people to keep up the fight.

Still, this didn’t feel quite right to me…

Work in progress, 1 of 3 – OneAmerica was founded in response to anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment after 9/11. They asked me to animate a piece about their origin which would play at their big 15th anniversary fundraising event.

This story’s been told many times by many people; they wanted something that evoked a feeling rather than going over the same details that everybody already knew. Given the size of their budget and how they wanted to use this during the event—playing in the background as the founder is introduced and takes the stage—I suggested a 10-second loop.

I asked what they wanted people to feel when they watched it: hope.

Taking one of their ideas for visuals—flowers growing—I began noodling around (see gifs above). But flowers, trees, nature growing are all very common themes at these kinds of nonprofit fundraising events. I’d just recently passed on a job (no time) to create a motion piece for another nonprofit fundraiser that incorporated a whole forest springing up from a single tree.

How to create something that people would feel they hadn’t seen already, something that wasn’t a cliché?

Work in progress: part of a frame from another rotoscope animation. This one has 3x as many frames as the last one I did, so it’s slow going.

See the final piece over in Hand Drawn Animation.

As designers doing social change work, we have to build in our values & question the assumptions that inform our visual language.

A design dilemma presented itself in an infographic project: what iconography to use for undocumented immigrants in Washington State? The stat was to be paired with the number of green card holders in the state. Both fell under the rubric of "Potential Citizens".

Initially, I made a capitol dome as the icon for undocumented immigrants—the implication being they're potential (voting) citizens if immigration reform passed. But I needed to use the dome for a different stat.

  • First image: Re-using the green card iconography for the undocumented stat but with a 🚫 over it. The feel of this for me is negative, heavy. The 🚫 sign is usually used in forbidding people from doing things: littering, eating, talking. Focusing on lack also reinforces a negative frame around immigration. REJECTED.

  • Second image: A (literal) green card holder. Flattening the image meant losing too many details. Disembodied body parts are also freaky. REJECTED.

  • Third image: Reduced opacity green card. Undocumented folks are already here in the country, they do have documentation, many are in the shadows. FINAL.

Each year, I had to come up with the theme for the annual fundraiser at OneAmerica. It had to remain consistent with the brand, express the organization’s accomplishments, inspire people to attend, and above all, donate. The theme informed everything: invitations and print materials, web and social promotion, program activities—the feel of the event.

This particular year, the founder was leaving the organization. I began to play with the idea of movement and sketched out ideas exploring this concept.

Arrivals and departures are at the heart of migration—they seemed a natural fit for an immigration organization. I mapped this idea on to other concepts: social movements, music. These concepts helped us identify the best people from the organization’s history who could speak to its impact.

The biggest hurdle was often Executive Director approval in coming up with the design. Given this was to be her final event with the organization, the stakes were particularly high. I knew this approach would appeal to her as a writer: defining all the ways that MOVEMENT embodied the work. Including her in an iconic image was also strategic: she’s not alone, anointed, but part of a group. The presence of one of our closest partners in that image (UFCW), also one of our biggest sponsors, was a bonus.