Alumni Spotlight: August 2019 – Brian Hawkins, MFA

Brian Hawkins Banner.png

Photographer and Lecturer in the Department of Visual Arts, University of Kansas

Alumnus of the Department of Visual Arts, Masters of Fine Arts

What was/is your area of study or creative work?

I have an MFA in Visual Art. I came to KU to study printmaking, but I quickly became interested in making cut-paper animations using a combination of drawings and prints. While they might seem like completely unrelated processes, there are many similarities between printmaking and animation. Both are technically demanding and highly repetitive, so you get into a certain rhythm as you’re working that, while you have to focus intensely on the physical aspects of the task at hand, allows your mind to wander and find new connections.

With any creative process, the final result always differs from what you initially envisioned, but, at least for me, this seems more pronounced in print and animation, where really crucial things are hidden from you until the very end. In most printmaking processes, you work on a mirrored image of your actual design, and you’re also working in layers. It’s always a little bit shocking to pull up the first print and finally see what you made. It’s the same when you watch the animated footage you’ve shot for the first time. You begin with a firm idea of what you want to make, but you have to remain open to whatever possibilities present themselves.  Of course, you can keep reworking things and impose your will, but accepting the unexpected can lead you to something greater. In this way, my background in printmaking continues to inform the way I work as an animator. The sort of imagery and content in which I’m interested lends itself to a medium that unfolds over a period of time.

For my thesis, I produced two animations. They both relate to different aspects of memory. One, Inquisitive Vignettes, focuses on how we cope with the fragmentary nature of the historical record as we try to make sense of the past.  I used the development of ragtime music around the turn of the 20th century as the central topic of that animation. That was a time when the Great American Songbook was beginning to be codified, and I think that the continual reinterpretation of these standards parallels the perpetuation of our historical narratives and myths. Occasionally, lyrics cross boundaries of fact and fiction. The murder ballad “Frankie and Johnny” initially recounted an actual murder that took place in St. Louis in 1899. A steady stream of performers molded the folksong into what it is today. Many of the verifiable facts have been eroded, and what remains is more elemental, no longer a portrait of two individuals, but a sharper reflection of human behavior.Inquisitive Vignettes Still 1.jpg

(Still from Inquisitive Vignettes by Brian Hawkins)

With the other animation, Traces, which is set in a facsimile of my studio at the time, I was concerned about the more internal processes of remembrance. It’s so easy to document our lives now, take photos, video, audio recordings, but those acts all end up distancing us from the experience, itself. So we’re constantly faced with decisions about whether we think a moment is worth remembering, and if we decide it is, what is the best way to go about that? That animation arose from these sorts of anxieties.

traces caption edit_01.jpg(Traces by Brian Hawkins)

What is your current career or position title?

I work at KU as a photographer and adjunct lecturer in the Department of Visual Art.  I’m currently working on two documentary films.

What is your current professional life like?

I manage the Department of Visual Art’s photography studio and assist faculty and students with documenting their work.  I also teach a variety of classes from drawing to video art.

The animations I made for my thesis and the themes they dealt with led directly to the work I’m making now, a documentary called Toujours Icitte: Folklore of the Missouri French Creoles. I discovered a collection of folktales which had been transmitted orally from one generation to the next in a tiny, francophone enclave in Eastern Missouri, since the 18th century. Over seventy of them were transcribed and published in the 1930s. I was intrigued by pretty much every aspect of these tales: the layers of meaning in their narratives, the dialect in which they were told, and the history of the people who told them.  So in 2016, I set out to discover what remains of French Creole culture in Missouri, just south of St. Louis.

This was an area I grew up visiting in the summers, since my great aunt lived in DeSoto, Missouri. French would have still been spoken there in my childhood, but I was oblivious. The use of French was largely restricted to private locations, because the last generation of Francophones carried a lot of trauma from childhood experiences of being forced to speak English in school. They grew up being punished and ridiculed for speaking their mother tongue. So I was unaware of the presence of the language, and I was unaware that I was descended from French Creoles. When I began working on this project, my father gave me an obituary his mother had saved, which I was able to use to trace our family back to Jean Alexis Greffard, who settled in Sainte Genevieve, Missouri, around 1780.

Ste. Genevieve has preserved an astonishing amount of colonial French architecture, and they still celebrate the new year with an ancient ritual called La Guillonée. However, the people with the closest ties to French Creole culture reside in the area around Old Mines, Missouri. Though the French language has died out in the region with the last native speakers passing away around the turn of the 21st century, there are many aspects of the culture that persist, and there is a substantial archive of audio recordings and photographs, etc., thanks to the efforts of community members and a variety of scholars.

Once I established that the community of Old Mines was interested in working with me to produce a documentary film featuring animations of some of their ancestors’ folktales, I dove into an intense period of research, reading as much as possible, interviewing key individuals, combing through archival audio, and improving my ability to understand the local accent and vocabulary. Over the past three years, I gradually shifted focus from research to work in the studio, but it isn’t a linear process. It’s definitely cyclical.

I started making drawings related to the project back in 2016, but I didn’t begin animating anything until the fall of 2018. I began with a segment done entirely with watercolor on synthetic paper. The pigment is never absorbed into the surface, so I can make minor changes between photographs to make things appear to move. I wanted the animation to feel very wet, because it’s based on a memory one man shared with me about his great aunt Euphrosine Politte who had to be very vigilant while her laundry was drying on the line. She lived next to the train depot, and everything would be covered in soot if she didn’t take it inside as the trains came by. Just after he told me this story, I heard an old recording of some of the best fiddlers from Old Mines playing the traditional fiddle tune “Irish Washerwoman,” which they introduced as “La Vieille Femme Qui Lave.” While this isn’t a particularly French fiddle tune, I felt it warranted being included within the project. There are many other magnificent and distinctive tunes that originated within the community, and some of those will be featured, as well.

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(Still from La Vieille Femme Qui Lave by Brian Hawkins)

I’m currently working on a folktale, Chasse Galeritte which is a tall-tale about a coureur des bois. It shares the same protagonist as the French-Canadian version of Chasse Galerie but differs in every other respect. This tale has not been published, but at least two conteurs from Old Mines have been recorded telling it in the 1970s and 80s. I chose the one who spoke the most clearly and gave the most dramatic reading of the tale, Pete Boyer.  In addition to the fact that the tale is full of striking visual imagery, certain aspects of the storyline parallel the biographical details of Marie Rouensa’s life. She was the daughter of the Kaskaskia chief, who by marrying the Frenchman Michel Accault in the 1690s, set a precedent for intermarriage in the Illinois Country. The way that these two sections, the washerwoman and Chasse Galeritte, developed from a confluence of folklore and local non-fiction provides some insight into how I’m constructing the film, or rather, how I’m finding the shape of the film within all of the resources I’ve gathered.

In the fall of 2017, Professor Tanya Hartman and I began collaborating on another documentary film, which centers around the families of students in an English as a Second or Other Language (ESOL) classroom in Wichita, Kansas. We produced and exhibited a short entitled Murmurations last year as a part of Open Spaces in Kansas City, but the project is ongoing and constantly evolving. We have both spoken of the project elsewhere, so I will keep my discussion of it brief. Essentially, Wichita has been accepting a large influx of refugees and immigrants, and Tanya and I both believe that their experiences reflect important truths about America and humanity, in general.  While it is a political film due to its subject matter and the time and place in which we’re working, we did not set out to make a didactic film or cover the subject of immigration from one particular point of view. Tanya and I each bring different strengths to the collaboration, but we both are primarily concerned with forming close bonds with our subjects and letting conversations develop naturally over time. As most of the people we are working with are in the process of learning English, our ability to communicate about deeper emotions and more complex experiences develops at the same pace as our relationship. That blossoming is a part of our film.

In many ways, our documentary is a series of portraits. Yes, they communicate something about the current political climate in the subjects’ countries of origin and in the United States, but they also reflect aspects of issues that have always haunted us as a species and which will certainly outlive the current administration. The thematic overlap between the two documentaries I am making was not immediately apparent, but both are concerned with the tensions between preservation of one’s own culture and language and assimilation into the pervasive culture of the United States of America. The two films have been informing and strengthening one another throughout their production.

What is your favorite aspect of your current position?

I love the variety within my work, and I love that I am constantly learning.  Through these projects, I have forced myself to grow substantially as an artist and researcher, but also as an individual.  I have always been introverted and shy, so I am much more comfortable working alone in the studio. Making a decision to work in the field of documentary meant that I had to overcome a lot of my reservations. Repeatedly, people have so generously invited me into their own microcosms. They have shared so much of themselves, and I am grateful that I’ve been granted access to observe the details of such a wide variety of lives.

What advice do you have for current graduate students?

Well, there’s the usual advice, which is take advantage of all the resources at your disposal while you are at the university, and try to form meaningful relationships with your professors and fellow students. I was lucky to be a part of an incredibly supportive group of graduate students, and I continue to benefit from their advice.  Also, don’t neglect your mental or physical health.  If you are not a good writer, seek help. Your career will likely depend on it. More specifically, I have advice for people who are currently pursuing degrees in the arts. I work with graduate students in my current role as a photographer in the Department of Visual Art, and I continue to see the experience I had post-graduation playing out for each successive generation. There seems to be a period of about 18 months where people struggle to find direction and balance within their practice. I had many false-starts within this period and questioned whether it was even worth continuing to pursue a career in the arts.  Be patient with yourself and stay active, even if everything you make feels wrong.

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(Image from Toujours Icitte, an animated folktale by Brian Hawkins)

It’s important to assess how you can support yourself and your work. Everybody has different needs and priorities. I require a ridiculous amount of studio time and a flexible work schedule in order to make animations and documentaries. I have had to make sacrifices in certain areas of my life to make this work. I am lucky that I can live with my parents and take on varying course loads as an adjunct depending on how much time I need to invest in these projects any given semester. Both films ended up being significantly larger investments in terms of time and money than I anticipated, but I don’t regret the decisions which have brought me to this point.

You can view Brian’s work at BRIANHAWKINSARTIST.COM