It was an honor to illustrate for the LA Phil as 2018 came to a symphonic close. Seeing my work animated (by Daniel Anderson) was a real treat, as my drawings transformed in imaginative ways along with Olivier Messiaen’s vibrant Turangalîla Symphony. I’ve gathered additional illustrations for this piece, as seen below, to give you a more complete appreciation for the evolution of the video:
December 21st, 2018: Arizona was especially cold this winter. As my family & I admired the illuminated cacti at the Phoenix Zoo, fond memories of this Christmas tradition added an extra glow to the similarly decorated mesquite trees that lined its walkways. Mountain lions, gila monsters, roadrunners, snakes and all manner of desert creature scurried to the surface in decorative form, amidst the chatter of sneakers and other slow moving families trying to keep warm. As I cradled my paper cup of hot chocolate in my hands, grateful for each sip, I saw a saguaro cactus strung with brightly colored bulbs next to a howling coyote. “I still need to glue on those needles,” I thought, picturing the half-finished art project which would become this year’s Christmas gift for my mother: a paper cactus.
Firmly believing that birthdays make the best deadlines for artists, holidays are an equally powerful motivator. Fueled by the giving spirit of the season, I began crafting this cactus (seen below) in LA, finishing it back home in Arizona after an inspirational trip to the Phoenix Zoo. Just as the resilient desert plant stores water for the dry seasons ahead, I treasure these trips back home to charge my emotional batteries for the droughts in my life, giving back to those who mean the most to me. This year, I chose to leave my mom with a cactus, a model of perseverance and stubbornness…two of her finest qualities. By making something from the heart, why not choose to leave a part of your spirit with someone you love, instead of something factory-assembled? A new tradition, perhaps?
Working as a graphic artist for the USC Thornton School of Music has given me the opportunity to help visualize some incredible stories about its students & faculty. One of my favorites from last year was “The Magnificent Seven,” about a group of seven legendary drummers brought together to honor the legacy of professor Leon "Ndugu" Chancler. Faced with the challenge of completing her friend and colleague’s remaining weeks of instruction after his untimely passing last February, Patrice Rushen, Chair of the Popular Music Program, “…called seven legendary drummers, asking each to fill in for one week. They all said yes.” Having grown up listening to Chancler’s work with artists such as Michael Jackson, Tina Turner and Lionel Richie, it was a honor to express how much his impact on the music communities, both at USC and around the world, will be cherished and missed.
Story by Julie Riggott / Illustrated and Animated by Sean David Christensen / Music by Ricky Berger
Photographed on the balcony of his apartment in France, a birthday gift for my friend David Luraschi, director of “Penny Girl” by Cola Boyy. Previously featured in my blog as an art project with a great built-in deadline to inspire you (a friend’s birthday), this collage on a cradled birch panel is a nice format I’ve been returning to, which lends itself to mixed media application and weightier craft.
Named for the highway suspended between Bakersfield and the Kern River Valley, The 178’s reimagines classics from Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson through cloaks of electronic flourishes and dreamlike arrangements. I had the pleasure to visualize this connection from one city to the next, one genre to another, by deconstructing a familiar roadside landmark with an abstract approach that speaks to the album’s quirky sensibilities. On their rendition of “Crazy,” the vocals scatter like broken radio frequencies, the type you’d expect to find in-between AM stations, chirping through the gaps. With elegant instrumentation and production, The 178’s handful of new classics illuminate the connections between the past, the present and every side road along the way.
Evan Calbi: Nylon-string guitar, electric & double bass, pedal steel, vocals
Pat Dietz: Electric guitar
John McClung: Pedal steel arrangement on “Silver Wings”
Bill Severance: Drums
Rich Wenzel: Hammond B3 organ, keyboard
Win_go: Backing vocals
Recorded at Ardent Audio Productions, October 2018
Mixed by Rich Wenzel
Produced by Evan Calbi & Rich Wenzel
Been meaning to make this miniature for awhile, my first attempt at miniaturizing cartoonish food. Served on a (tiny) paper plate, the ingredients for this short stack were: Discs of painted clay covered in syrup (Gorilla Glue) with a disc of butter on top, which ended up being a slice of a synthetic rubber eraser from a mechanical pencil!
My memories are still humming from a wonderful evening of storytelling shared with The Moth. The photograph above (by Ricky Steel), taken moments after the winner was announced (go Ron!), gathered all of us together on stage to receive a warm round of applause from the audience. Huddled shoulder to shoulder out there in the darkness were a handful of my friends and my mother, who drove in from Phoenix the day before. I was honored to share such a special night with those closest to me, as well as my growing community of fellow storytellers & writers whom I continue to be inspired by.
For a handful of mornings in late-October, I’d rise before work and whittle away at this gift, chattering crows on the other side of my kitchenette window. After awhile, a second skin of super glue dried on my right thumb and index finger, smudged with the wax residue of colored pencil illustrations I pressed onto the panel’s surface. Before wrapping it up, I could see that I’d left a fingerprint along the panel's edge, a faint “hello” to the friend I was making it for. I wondered if he’d notice. If you’re an artist, and wanting to strengthen your skills of accountability when it comes to delivering an original piece by a specific deadline, I can’t recommend other friends’ birthdays any higher. The wreckage of my latest collage (see above) was strewn with love for one of my dearest friends, a opportunity to test out some new approaches for an audience of one. Everyone has the ability to create things with their hands & heart, and for my money, nothing beats receiving a gift in the mail that only you know could've come from someone you love. After all, it has your fingerprints all over it.
Design for USC Thornton School of Music, showcasing their tuba faculty’s October recital. Accidentally deleting its black outline was a happy accident, giving it a sense of weightlessness and breezy fun I was more than happy to keep!
“Love Forever” mural by D*Face. Fremont Street, Las Vegas.
“Do you always carry a notebook with you?” my friend Stuart asked, nodding towards what was tucked underneath my right arm. I smiled. “When I got something on my mind, yeah.” We were both checking audience members in at the door of Los Globos, a bar in Silver Lake which hosts The Moth’s open mic every other Tuesday night. He, with a trained eye checking off names on a printed out list of RSVPs, I, trading my notebook for a rubber hand stamp in the shape of the show’s namesake. “After someone complained we were using a butterfly, we had this one made up,” Stuart added, tapping his index finger atop the stamp’s pair of wings printed on its handle. While we greeted each person at the door, we traded stories with each other, broken up by the intermittent stream of faces and the exchange of money. Fitting, that, even after setting my notebook down on the red vinyl seat behind me, I couldn’t help but keep writing out loud. I had a lot on my mind, after all.
Currently, I’m preparing a story for my first GrandSLAM with The Moth. Different from their StorySLAMs, open mics where anyone from the audience can go up and tell a story, I know the stage at The Regent Theatre is waiting for me. This show, made up of winners from previous StorySLAMs, are each given an allotment of time to craft an original story: Five minutes, which can go by in an instant. I’ve discovered, in the relatively short time that I’ve been working on storytelling, that a simple phrase spoken in the moment can speak volumes as opposed to the written word. Sharp observations can cut deeper than a paragraph of prose, and eases up on the pressure you feel on stage when you have to deliver a story under time. Storytelling also has the benefit of having the embodied vessel of the experience (the storyteller on stage) imbuing the story with a built-in reference for the audience.
Trusting what truly needs to be said, is always a balancing act. I have a habit of writing too much. I’m far too generous with my adjectives and can often get carried away (as blog posts are often want to do). Storytelling, as opposed to literature, has the unique imperative of requiring one strip away all artifice to make themselves truly effective on stage. If you allow your story to become impenetrable to your audience by having moments feel overly engineered as opposed to “in the moment,” creating a sense of intimacy between you and your listener can become more difficult than it needs to be. Sometimes, habits that work for writers at their desks, need to take a backseat upon switching modes of presentation.
I experienced this sense of disconnect during a performance of mine at “Bada Bing Bada Boom: True Stories Told for Cash” last Thursday night, where I was invited up to compliment the lineup of invited storytellers. Perhaps due to short notice, I performed a story I had already written, its beats sharpened over years of telling it before. Instead of feeling comfortable on stage, I felt I had lost a step in revisiting it in front of an audience, choosing to rely on what had worked before as opposed to finding fresh perspective on what might work “now.” I was able to execute the beginning, middle and end, but felt some invisible energy was missing in the spaces between. After sitting back down, I was inspired by the others who went up, able to connect with the audience by relating their stories to their current, tactile realities. It was that missing energy, linking their pasts with the present in an effortless, unrehearsed way.
Looking back, a lesson for me would be that, you can always find new opportunities to shake up an old story by straying from what feels safe towards what feels real, what activates your mind behind the microphone. That’s where those crucial connections with the audience take place. Until then, as I wait for my impending GrandSLAM, I’ll return to my notebook (acting as my mousepad at the moment) to whittle away what needs to be said and what I can stand to lose in the process.
Humbled by the opportunity to share a new story at the upcoming The Moth GrandSLAM in Los Angeles: October 22nd at The Regent theatre. Having listened to its podcast since college, I can't wait to do my best to honor the stage that has entertained & inspired me for nearly a decade. To all those who've inspired me to tell my truth, boldly: Thank you. This one's for you.
There’s something about a deadline that stokes the fire, sharpening your work ethic to deliver something out of the blue; To pull a rabbit out of the hat, so to speak. To that, I decided to dust off some of my old tricks to contribute to my friend’s upcoming endeavor. Rick Darge, the ever inventive & industrious filmmaker behind Zen Dog, has created a midnight film festival at the Vista Theatre in Los Angeles, one of our city’s most beloved, classic movie theaters. “ABRACADABRA ALAKAZAM” (Nov. 30th) is meant to be a celebration of the weird and wonderful, just as delightful and unexpected as a great magic trick…this rabbit popping out of the aforementioned hat, above, for example.
I haven’t traditionally animated anything in awhile, sticking mostly to documentaries and 2D visual art (illustrations), but the fires of my late-October deadline to deliver this short, 15-second animated bumper has inspired me to get moving again. Time to dust off some old skills and test out some new techniques in the process. Stay tuned for the complete “magic act,” coming soon later next month!
Serving as both a fun project and a locomotion behind building stronger habits for practicing faces, I’ve decided to create multiple series of trading cards (4 inches x 3 inches) based on the Instagram selfies/photos of my friends. I find that, whenever confined to a smaller space than usual, my senses of what feels right when portraying the character of a face, sharpen. On a card, for example. Here’s to hoping I can finish enough of these to line the molding that runs along my apartment’s walls, just beneath the ceiling. How’s that for a benchmark?
A year ago to the day, I found myself outside Hanoi, steadying my camera upwards to cradle the silver of the moon in the center of its lens. A guest of Thắng Nghiêm Pagoda, I was documenting the Hungry Ghost Festival, traditionally celebrated by Buddhists throughout Southeast Asia during the seventh lunar month as a time to honor the deceased. Offerings such as cigarettes and oranges gathered alongside family photographs beneath sticks of incense, their glowing tails forming columns of smoke, calling their spirits back once more to enjoy what they might've missed since leaving the physical world behind.
Had there been an IHOP nearby, I would've placed one of their Strawberry Belgian Waffles (to go) beside a framed picture of my grandmother, Marie. Towards the end of her life, only visits from her grandson rivaled the excitement of indulging in this particular breakfast treat. Luckily for her, these often came together.
As I stared up at the night sky, I prayed that whatever footage I had travelled to Vietnam to gather for my master's thesis was worth it. This shot of the moon, for example. Whenever it was at its most luminous, my mother called them "Granny Moons." After her passing, these omens kept watch over the years that followed, not all of them good. Nevertheless, whenever these moons would hang in the sky, I would outstretch my hand and clutch it like a pearl. I would then slowly bring my closed fist back into the small of my chest and breathe, when times were bad and deep breaths were hard to come by.
I can't remember if there was a full moon the night I told this story at The Moth LA StorySLAM, but I could feel my grandmother was somewhere in the crowd. That same week, I was in desperate need of a break from editing the Vietnam footage I had shot last September. I ended up going on a whim, listening to the voice inside my head that said: "Go."
I'm glad I did. She always did give good advice.
Special thanks to Gary Buchler & Suzette Burton at The Moth, and all of the volunteers who make their Los Angeles StorySLAMs so special.
This Friday, at the world premiere screening of my USC MVA (Masters of Arts in Visual Anthropology) cohorts' thesis films, Ghost Tape #10 will be shared with its first audience. Its screening will mark the one year anniversary of my first midnight in Vietnam, its cloak of night shrouding the miles I had left before me, miles before I could fully grasp what story I was trying to tell. The humidity was so intense that summer, the combined heat and moisture had eroded the black fabric coating my headphone's earmuffs, leaving its flakes clinging to my neck like pieces of dead skin. Each time I fished them out of my backpack to record an interview, there was less of it left, and each time, I felt like a fool.
It seemed, for a time while I was there, that everything was slowly falling apart. Deaf and dumb to the language that surrounded me, my exhaustion found new ways to undermine my assuredness, always keeping me off-balance. Thankfully, I was blessed with a remarkable group of guides, artists and craftspeople who helped me find my way, some of whom will be joining me in my school's darkened theatre on Friday. Under the mentorship of my professors who challenged me to take the right road instead of the easy one, I look back on a year and a filmmaking journey that still feels impossible. But then again, most dreams are.
ABOUT THE FILM:
Created by the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, "Ghost Tape #10" was one of many tapes engineered as part of "Operation: Wandering Soul," a psychological operations campaign designed to intimidate and demoralize the North Vietnamese Army. These audio tapes would echo throughout war zones, their soundtracks consisting of actors portraying grieving family members, or voices from the dead, longing to be reunited with their loved ones. Exploiting the traditional Buddhist belief that, if denied a proper burial in their homeland, the dead wander the world aimlessly, these recordings were originally conceived of as attempts to weaponize an opposing culture's religious beliefs against them. Ghost Tape #10, the film, focuses on unearthing and re-examining this weaponization of belief through the context of modern day Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American religious practice. Through dreamlike visualizations and interviews in Vietnam and Los Angeles, reactions to this obscure piece of American propaganda lead to larger discussions about how modern day relationships between the living and the dead are carried out, and what truths, if any, still echo within this recording.
Sean David Christensen
Sean David Christensen
Translation & Transcription
Ca Dao "Cookie" Duong
Music & Sound Design
Supervising Sound Editor
Miniatures & Animation
Sean David Christensen
Jedadiah (Joseph) Cracco
Field Guides & Interview Translators (Vietnam)
Thành Hoa Nguyễn
Pham Thu Hang
Margaret B. Bodemer
The Nguyễn Family
Thich Dao Tuong
USC MVA Production Faculty
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Produced at the Center for Visual Anthropology, University of Southern California
Copyright 2018, Sean David Christensen & the University of Southern California