25 May 2010

Spotlight on... Deborah Simon

First, how did you start doing the type of work that you do....it's such an interesting combination of art and animal science.... 
I’ve always loved animals and can remember drawing them since I was about four. I stopped in college and it took until after grad school to come back to animals – I guess I thought to be a serious artist, you had to focus on humans.

I’ve also always had animals around and have worked in veterinary clinics and at the Bronx Zoo. I never had the desire to anthropomorphize animals. I find them fascinating as they are – I try to understand what they are doing and why from the animal’s perspective - and want to present them on their own terms which somehow all blends with the art to make for a rather surreal but scientific approach to my work. I often have to remind myself to sacrifice accuracy for the sake of aesthetics.

You have an incredible aptitude for the anatomy and detail in creating your creatures- are you constantly studying anatomy? 
I’ve never studied anatomy –  not a single class. I’m just bent that way.
What kinds of materials do you use and where do you find them?  
The sculptures are made out of wire armature, foam, Sculpey and faux fur. The fur is the important part and I’m always on the lookout for any faux fur that that’s realistic. It’s amazing what’s often in the bargain bin – I found fur that looks just like a spotted hyena, which probably explains why it was there to begin with.  Once I start sculpting the face, I order glass eyes from a taxidermy supplier.
Can you describe the process of creating your work, where do you begin? 
Usually I come up with the idea and let it sit in my mind for a couple of months, refining it and seeing if I’m interested enough to sustain a long term project. After that the fur dictates what I work on to some extent. Sometimes I’ll find something that’s perfect for an opossum or a hyena and then I’ll make it. Other times I have a species in mind and go hunting for the fur which can become quite difficult. Finding black and white fur that was exactly the same except for the color wound up taking several years, which I found surprising – who would think finding plain black and plain white fur would be so hard.
I also try to study the animal in person if I can at a zoo or sanctuary. I’ll sketch and photograph them and most importantly get to know how they behave. I find that all of the knowledge goes into a piece and the ones that are the most successful are the ones where I knew the animal best. 

Can you talk about your upcoming project, Coyote Pursues?  Have you made puppets before?  How is it to create puppets as opposed to still figures. 
Coyote Pursues is a multi-media performance of marionettes, video and music that will portray two coyotes living in an austere world newly bereft of people.  A friend, Matt Reeck gave me a collection of his “fairy tales” and asked me to illustrate them. They were all short – some only one sentence – and all very visual. I thought they would work as puppet shows. I love building scale models and had thought the fairy tales needed to be three dimensional, but moving, which lead me to puppets and to St. Ann’s Warehouse’s Puppet Lab which we are now in. The Lab is a nine month workshop culminating in three performances at St. Ann’s June 23 – 27.

My only prior experience with puppets was a chicken marionette I made as a child. It was a kit that I painstakingly put together, gluing all the feathers in one by one, and the day I finished it, my dog who was a puppy and teething, chewed the entire puppet up while I was grocery shopping with my mom.
The coyote marionettes were very hard for me to make. I was trying to keep them as realistic as possible and figure out how to get a realistic range of motion and make them easy to use. I would spend weeks trying to figure out how to get the movements I want and would end up feeling like a medieval engineer – after much trial and error I would find a method that worked and have no idea why. In the end they have a pretty wide range of movements and although the process was incredibly challenging, it was also very satisfying.

What is your studio routine? 
I get up in the morning and am in the studio around 9:30. I’ll take a break for lunch and then work until around 7:30 or so. I’ll put on NPR and my rabbit will come in, play around for a bit and then go to sleep under my stool. I tend to get tunnel vision and can work without stopping for hours.

On your website, you mention working at the Zoo, Do you do exhibit design there or what do you do? 
I’m no longer with the zoo, but when I was there, I designed and built exhibits for the animals. This could be anything from making a drain cover look like a rock to the aardvark exhibit with sprayed concrete termite mounds, life support systems, heated burrows and mural work.

What do you do with your work once it's finished and has been exhibited?   
Find a corner of my studio to store it in and wonder why on earth I need to sculpt.

What words or philosophy do you live by? 
I don’t really live by any philosophy – it would put constraints on an evolving world and may not be applicable to a given situation.

Check out Deborah Simon's marionettes in Coyote Pursues
June 23 - 27, 2010
See more of Deborah Simon's artwork.