IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Catherine Chalmers

•August 11, 2011 • Leave a Comment

This week we return to the Artist Spotlight Series for a  fascinating discussion with artist Catherine Chalmers. Chalmers holds a B.S. in Engineering from Stanford University and an M.F.A. in Painting from the Royal College of Art in London. She has exhibited her artwork around the world, including MoMA PS1, New York; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC; Kunsthalle Basel; Kunsthalle Vienna; MOCA Taipei; among others.  Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Time Out New York, ArtNews and Artforum.  She has been featured on PBS, CNN, NPR, and the BBC.  Two books have been published on her work: FOOD CHAIN (Aperture 2000) and AMERICAN COCKROACH (Aperture 2004).  Her video “Safari” received a Jury Award (Best Experimental Short) at SXSW Film Festival in 2008.  In 2010 Chalmers received a Guggenheim Fellowship.  This summer she is the Artist-in-Residence at Pilchuck Glass School. Chalmers lives and works in New York City. 

TSI: I have this image of you as Izumi from “The Girl Who Loved Caterpillars”: a young girl, about four or five, hands playing in the dirt in San Mateo, CA.  You’re talking to the ladybugs and petting the earthworms, and when the sun goes down, they come home with you, and you keep them in pretty cages and call each one by name as you whisper ‘good night.’  Am I way off?

CC: Yes… a bit.  I do, though, remember as a young girl I liked to pick up bees by their wings.  I’d watch and listen to them buzz up close.  It’s amazing I never got stung.  I’d let them go, none the worse for their brief diversion.

TSI: Did you have many notions as a young girl or adolescent about your own relationship to animals?

CC: My father had an outside aviary and he gave me a baby parakeet to raise when I was about eight.  It followed me everywhere – ate from my cereal bowl, danced to my music.  I also was enormously attached to the family dog.  When I got in trouble or felt misunderstood, I would seek solace from them both.  My earliest notion of animals, besides being a lot of fun, was that they were an alternative source of emotional support.

TSI: You attended Stanford for undergrad and received your B.S. in engineering.  Did you have different career plans when you started attending college or did you always see yourself working in the arts?

CC: I had no intention of being an artist when I entered Stanford.  But, I did major in an engineering program that focused on creativity and innovation – they wanted us to be inventors in a broad classical sense – and in many ways it was a perfect start to becoming an artist.  I took every studio art course offered, but I thought it was just for fun.  And I was right, it still is.

TSI: What brought you to NYC?

CC: After finishing my M.F.A. in London I had to leave after my student visa expired.  Certainly going back to the Bay Area would have been a lot easier, I didn’t know a soul in New York City, but I wanted to be in the center of the art world.  I wanted to live in a culturally rich and diverse city and it was important to me to be surrounded by a community of artists.

TSI: Every artist has a NYC story.  Is there one you can share with us?

CC: It can be unsettling to move to NYC all by yourself.  Within the first week of living here, someone knocked on my door.  She said she was my neighbor and that I needed to seal up the cracks between our apartments, especially under my front door.  She said she was having an exterminator come and her roaches would simply run out of her place, squeeze under my front door and move in with me.  You can imagine the vision I had of this horde of roaches running my way.  I was horrified and wanted to go back to California right then and there.

TSI: I read somewhere that you are an artist who “explores humankind’s misconceptions about nature.”  Does that feel true for you?

CC: Hopefully our conceptions as well as our misconceptions.

TSI: What first prompted the desire for that sort of exploration?

CC: On a personal level, I think I was born with an over-active sense of what E.O. Wilson calls “biophilia.”  And on a conceptual level I’m interested in our relationship to animals because I live in a time in history when humans are making so many of them go extinct.

TSI: Please tell us about how you got started with the flies.  I think they were first, right?

CC: It was one of the few animals I would see in my apartment on a regular basis.  It occurred to me I knew nothing about them, other than the windowsill was their graveyard of choice.  So I decided to start raising them and take a closer look.

TSI: In your book, Food Chain: Encounters Between Mates, Predators, and Prey, your images portray, as one might imagine, snakes, frogs, etc., devouring their lunches.  Can you talk about how that idea came about?

CC: I remember watching my friend’s dog violently shake its squeaky toy.  The more the toy squealed the more excited the dog became.  I thought how ironic it was that humans, the ultimate predator, are so queasy about facing the deaths of the animals we kill.  We generally don’t like our food to squeal and squirm on a fork.  I realized how removed I was from the basic functions of the ecosystem.

TSI: It had to have been very difficult for you, at some point, I would think, knowing that you were raising animals for the sole purpose of being photographed while being eaten.  While you understand that this is something that happens in nature, it had to have felt a little different, with such a deliberate staging.  How did you deal with that struggle?

CC: It was hard.  Before I fed a praying mantis, my favorite insect, to my frog, I’d procrastinate for hours – clean the bathroom, scrub the floor – anything to delay putting the two together.  But dealing with these conflicting emotions and thoughts led me to the heart of many issues.  Why would I choose one side or another?  Was that appropriate or even relevant?

TSI: Where did you shoot the images?  Where were the animals raised?

CC: It all took place in my loft in downtown NYC.

TSI: This was a pretty elaborate project.  Did you make many mistakes along the way?

CC: No, fortunately.  I would have felt terrible if something died because of poor care.  The maintenance of so many creatures was complicated and terribly time consuming.  At one point my dining room table was covered with hundreds of individually housed, baby praying mantises (they’re cannibalistic).  Everyday I’d feed a fly to each one.  It took hours.  Can’t believe I did it.

TSI: Many people had strong reactions to your work in Food Chain, finding many of the images to be really disturbing.  Do you find it interesting that viewers will sit and cozy up in front of a nature documentary on life in the desert, but then to see a snapshot of a snake eating a mouse against a white background is considered, somehow, cruel?  It’s like, with the buttery voice of the narrator and the swell of the music missing, it all becomes just a bit too real.  What’s your take on that disconnect?

CC: It seems to me that nature documentaries often emphasize the divide between humans and nature. For most people, as long as nature stays over there, we accept it being red in tooth and claw and, as every TV producer knows, viewers get a thrill watching, from the comfort of the couch, animals tearing one another apart.  But, when nature unfolds in the human realm, people’s reactions are all over the map.  Just because my snake lives and eats in SoHo doesn’t mean it can or should become a vegetarian.

TSI: The placement and order of the photographs were incredibly effective.  What were you hoping to evoke in your audience?

CC: I hope to elicit an appreciation of that which is so different from us.

TSI: Did you hear much either way from animal rights activists?

CC: Nothing negative.  One organization wanted to use one of my frog photos on the cover of their journal.

TSI: Let’s talk about roaches – across the board, probably not a real favorite, in terms of the friendly family pet.  But, apart from making some folks sneeze a whole heck of a lot, they don’t really do much to us, do they?  I mean, how dangerous is the average cockroach living behind a reading room wall in Brooklyn?  Maybe it’s a power-in-numbers thing.  We’re afraid that they’ll take off with the fridge while we’re sleeping…

CC: Cockroaches are psychologically more disturbing than physically threatening.  They’re not venomous, they don’t bite or sting, and they’re not vectors of disease like flies, mice, fleas, and ticks. I think their greatest affront to our sensibilities is that they’re uninvited and we can’t control them.

TSI: We seem to make our determinations about an animal’s value in relation to us based on visual considerations. Is it soft?  Is it fuzzy? Is it purple with yellow spots?  We like color.  We like fur.  Roaches seem to get the short end of the stick for being…”ugly.”   Do you think there is any truth in that?

CC: I think aesthetics play a formative role in determining our attitudes towards nature.  And in a larger sense these attitudes influence what goes extinct and what we make an effort to conserve.  We tend to prefer animals that are soft and furry, with big eyes.  Unfortunately for the roach, it embodies many of our least-favored characteristics – it has six legs, lacks a backbone and it’s spiny and twitchy.

TSI: Do you find a beauty in cockroaches?  If so, can you put that into words?

CC: I think there is real beauty in an animal that has endured for hundreds of millions of years and survived through several mass extinctions.  Under its hard outer wings, its body is a beautiful amber color, and its antennae explore the world like a blind person’s cane. I could get a glimpse of the roach’s state and anticipate its action by how it moved its antennae. It is similar to watching a dog’s tail to get a sense of what it might do.

TSI: Some of your most powerful work, for me, is that of American Cockroach, and particularly, the images and videos that focus on the mock executions: roaches in electric chairs or hanging from miniature nooses or piled, motionless, on top of one another in a gas chamber.  How did that idea come about?

CC: The majority of our relationship to cockroaches is defined by finding more effective ways of killing them.  Exploring this hatred allowed me to see into the dark side of our relationship with nature – the adversarial side we don’t often admit to.

TSI: Did you worry that people might think you were, in some way, trying to diminish human suffering?  Clearly there was a statement to be made with these images, but am I wrong in assuming that it was more about the insects’ suffering?

CC: I do not want to diminish the horror humans have experienced at the hands of other humans. These pictures are about highlighting the suffering other species have endured because of us.  And it was important to me that no roaches were harmed in the making of the work.

TSI: You have to give the cockroach some credit.  I mean, they certainly have been along for the Journey.  We come from the same place.  Try as hard as we may to kill them, they persist.  They mutate.  They adapt.  They survive.  They are the ultimate survivors.  Do you have any thoughts on that?

CC: I have confidence that Periplaneta americana will outlive the Homo sapiens.  But, crazy enough, you can scare them to death.  Keep them in a state of panic for about ten minutes and they fall over dead.

TSI: Your photograph, Birds of Paradise (2004), depicts a cockroach that has been adorned in peacock feathers.  Do you think there’s a new market for the designer pet?  The designer cockroach?

CC: Maybe one day we will create roaches whose wing casings are customized to match the color of the sofa, or have the same pattern as the bathroom wallpaper.  The loss of biodiversity seems to be inversely proportional to an increase in population of pest species.  At some point we may need to learn how to love the roach.

TSI: After all that work, 10 years of work, if you woke up in the middle of the night and wandered into the bathroom, bleary-eyed and half asleep, only to find one of those shiny creatures crawling on the toilet seat, would you kill it?  Would the instinct be to kill it?

CC: I scream and have heart palpitations.

TSI: Can you talk a bit about your short film, Safari, which was a Grand Jury Winner at SXSW in 2008?  It felt so intimate to me.  I loved it.  It actually succeeded in changing my perception about the insect world, if only for those 10 or 15 minutes.

CC: I raised the twenty different species that form the cast of the film.  I knew each animal well before I put it on the set to film. It was fantastic to be surrounded by such a complex ecosystem.

TSI: In 2010 you received a Guggenheim Fellowship for a project on leafcutter ants.  What’s the idea behind this project?

CC: First of all they’re beautiful.  A parade of leafcutter ants, carrying bits of leaves and flowers, looks like a colorful, line drawing flickering across the forest floor.  They also have eerie parallels, on many levels, to Homo sapiens, and this is another reason I am drawn to them. They are a sophisticated social species – they wage war, are agriculturalists, and are master chemists able to make their own antibiotics.  Leafcutter communication is like a Google algorithm.  The colony is a complex network without central command.  The decision to wage war, harvest particular trees, change colony locations are based on millions of individual antennae hits.

Leafcutter ants are also the principal herbivore in the regions where they live.  They do not clear cut rainforest quite like we do, but they can strip a tree in a single night, and repeat this night after night.  At a time in history when humans are causing deforestation at an alarming rate, these ants provide rich and relevant opportunities for illuminating our own impact on the environment.

TSI: You received your MFA in Painting from the Royal College of Art in London.  What did you love to paint?

CC: I would create a primordial soup of line and color, and from the abstract richness (or mess), I would pull out an ecosystem of fictitious animals, humans and hybrid creatures.  Eventually I came to realize paint was not the right medium for me to explore the world.  It took years fumbling around and playing with a number of mediums before I begin to browse the pet store for supplies instead of the art store.

TSI: What are you working on now?  Are there any upcoming exhibitions we should know about?

CC: My projects tend to go on for several years.  The leafcutter series, at this point, will have four videos, four bodies of photographs, many multi-panel drawings, a series of sculptures in glass and another series in bronze. In July I started work on the glass pieces as the Artist in Residence at Pilchuck Glass School.

TSI: You clearly have spent a number of years now contemplating our place in the ecosystem.  Have you come to any conclusions?

CC: It would be great if humans actually pictured themselves as part of the ecosystem.  That we don’t see ourselves as a part of nature contributes to the environmental problems we face.

TSI: Where can people learn more about your work?

CC: I would invite people to visit my website,

Currently there is only one photograph from the ant project, but this month I’m working with someone to revamp the site and add a new section –  ”The Leafcutters.” So stay tuned.

Your readers may also refer people to my Vimeo page at

On Vimeo are the five cockroach videos, plus what I have completed to date of the ant videos.  ”We Rule” is finished and the other three videos in the series are represented by previews:  ”Ant Works,” ”War” and ”The Chosen.”

Thank you for listening.  Feel free to contact me through my website.

TSI: Thank you, Catherine.

We hope you’ll take the time to visit

Mona Lisa Strangeness by Sara Dean

•July 20, 2011 • Leave a Comment

After a much-needed vacation, we’re back, and this time we have a special treat: our very first Guest Blogger, the talented writer and artist, Sara Dean. We’re confident you’ll enjoy her writing as much as we do!

Ms. Dean has spent her life pursuing careers that utilize her skills in writing and art.  She has studied fine art, Graphic Design, photojournalism and web design at Moorpark College, and is currently completing her thesis for her Master’s of English Literature from California State University, Northridge.  In 2001, her poetry was accepted into the International Library of Poetry’s anthology.  She enjoys illustrating in a variety of media as well as watercolor painting.  She is currently a blog contributor, and has a gallery on

May 2nd marked the anniversary of the passing of the great Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, the artist responsible for painting one of the most recognizable faces of all time: the Mona Lisa.  While reams have already been written about her, her look and her mystery remain so compelling that we cannot break from her spell.

By modern standards, if we look at her face she would likely go unnoticed on the streets of a bustling city.  Her lashless eyes and browless forehead would not grace the covers of modern magazines. In fact, I am convinced that she would likely be grabbed from the audience of the Oprah Winfrey show for a makeover.

Yet none of this takes away from her allure. One can imagine the delicate strokes as da Vinci captured the near-perfect skin. Using the sfumato technique to gradually fade between light and shadow she glows so beautifully that you wish to reach out and caress the softness of her cheek.  We are even more enchanted by that perfect, tiny, knowing smile with lips slightly parted at the corners, which 16th century writer Firenzoula described as a sign of elegance.

While we know little of the woman posed with her hands crossed over one another, we do know that her portrait has been through many an adventure, including having even been stolen in 1911 only to be randomly recovered in a Florence hotel.  She has been damaged more than once, and restored to the best of the ability of art historians.  When we look at these oils, we know however that time has aged them, robbed her of her lively colors and replacing them with patina of age.

Until the past few years, this has been the only Mona Lisa we have known or figured we would know.  However, thanks to the wonders of modern infrared scanning and digital restoration by Pascal Cotte, we get to see what the portrait would have looked like had we strolled casually into da Vinci’s studio for a showing and a glass of Sangiovese.

Suddenly the genius of da Vinci is even more evident.  The luminescence of the fabrics, the sheerness of her veil, and the softness of her curls all capture our imagination.  The depth of the blue in the background scenery places her in a moment as vibrant and voluptuous as the woman sitting for hours having her portrait painted.  The fact that we are still moderately obsessed with finding out exactly who the woman is in this portrait is a testament to the passion of da Vinci for capturing the essence of the person.

To this day historians are determined to extract the story of the woman with the mysterious smile. Thanks to Veit Probst of the Heidelburg University Library scouring the notes of city official Antonio Vespucci, we know that Mona Lisa is likely Lisa Gherardini Del Giocondo, the wife of a wealthy silk merchant.

There is no way to prove her identity, however, short of finding and exhuming her body, which is exactly what Italian art historian Silvano Vinceti intends to do.  According to historical records, Lisa Gherardini Del Giocondo is buried beneath Saint Orsolla Church in Florence, and Vinceti is using the best georadar equipment available to see if he may find remains. If so, he wishes to reconstruct her face and compare it our beloved work of art.

You cannot bring mortality to that which da Vinci has made immortal.  Reconstructing the face of a woman laid to rest long ago, even it if it appears to bear a resemblance, will solve nothing.  Giving a name, a connection, to the woman behind the delicate brush strokes will not tell us who her eyes were gazing upon, or who she was thinking about when that smile graced her lips.

I say, give up.  Let her possible mortal counterpart remain in quiet repose.  The immortal Mona Lisa will continue to look with knowing glances, and refuse to give up all of her secrets. That is why we love her so.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Nikolas Kazoura

•June 8, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Nikolas Kazoura

Nikolas Kazoura is a multimedia artist from Los Angeles, California. He studied engineering and digital art at The University of California, Irvine and has worked both as an engineer and digital artist since graduating in 2008. Nik’s creative expression takes the form of paintings, photographs, and sculptures. His most recent body of work combines these media forming intricate scenes frozen in time, pushing the boundaries of contemporary psychedelic art.  We were so pleased to be able to learn a bit more about Nikolas and his work.

TSI: Where did you grow up?

NK: I was born in Los Angeles and spent most of my life in Huntington Beach.

TSI: Were you interested in art at a young age or was that something that came later?

NK: I have been interested in art ever since I can remember. At a young age I would constantly draw my surroundings. Eventually I shifted away from observational art and turned to surrealism and abstract work.

TSI: What were some early sources of inspiration?

NK: Early colorful and imaginative influences came from video games (Sonic, Mario, Zelda), comics, TV / movies and children’s books like those of the great Dr. Seuss. If I had to pick an early influence that still shows through in my art today it would be Seuss. His style is timeless.

TSI: I know you studied engineering in school, among other things.  How has that background played into your approach to your art?

NK: Engineering is always a large part of my creative process. I find it strange when kids are taught to place art and science into separate categories. Without science art wouldn’t exist, and without art, we would have nothing to live for.

With my current resin sculpture work, once a concept is born, there is a lot of design work to be done before the piece can take physical form. From mold making, to resin casting, the design phase can take as long as the creation process. When working with such costly materials there is no room to miscalculate. Even when I do my best to get the design right, in the end anything can happen.

TSI: You are a painter, a photographer, and a sculptor.  Can you talk a bit about what you love about each of those mediums?

NK: Painting is a very relaxing and reflective process for me. Being a visual artist, much of my creative time is spent in solitude and painting is a great way for me to turn off the chatter in my mind and allow the creativity to flow freely onto the canvas.

Many consider photography to be an art form that captures reality. The ability to freeze a moment from the motion of time is as far from reality as I can imagine. I love photography because it allows us to vicariously live in a split-second moment forever.  It’s basically a low-budget time machine.

Because I haven’t taken many formal art classes, sculpture has always looked like a very daunting process. After finally having the courage to dive into it, however, sculpture has become a large part of my current creative process. I enjoy it because it is truly a hands-on experience where I can see and feel a change taking place before my eyes.

TSI: What, if anything, feels limiting in each?

NK: Other than my own mental limitations, I do not feel limited with any medium I work with.

TSI: I read that your life feels like you are constantly moving and in disarray.  Can you talk about how you experience both the motion and the chaos?

NK: Although at times I feel like I am trapped in a whirlwind, the chaos in my life is truly a choice. Because I feel the need to be in motion, I rarely subscribe to a routine. Every day is different. I welcome change and see it as an opportunity to expand.

TSI: Are you a planner when it comes to your art or are most things born out of some degree of spontaneity?

NK: I struggle with this question on a daily basis. I have natural tendencies to plan every step of the way. Because my path has gone in so many random and wonderful directions, I try to stay unattached to plans. This allows me to follow my intuition when great opportunities arise.

TSI: Your most recent body of work focuses on lenticular imagery, using certain lenses, and a combination of multiple images, to create the illusion of depth.  Can you explain a bit about the complexity of the process?

NK: After spending four months learning how to create a successful large-scale lenticular image I still didn’t fully understand how the technology worked. Half the time my explanation leaves listeners with a blank stare…so cross your fingers:

If you’ve ever seen a postcard, bookmark, print advertisement, or movie poster that appeared 3D or animated, it was most likely a lenticular image. This is not to be confused with a hologram, which also appears 3D, but uses lasers to produce the illusion of depth. To create a 3D lenticular image, the first step is to produce multiple images of the same object at slightly different angles – almost as if you were rotating an object while photographing it. These images are then digitally combined into a single composite image. The composite image is made up of tiny columns about 1/4″ wide. Each of those columns contains a one pixel wide strip of each image. The composite print is then attached to a lenticular panel. The panel is made up of vertical lenses. Each lens magnifies one strip beneath it, showing the viewer only one of the original images. Because our eyes are horizontally separated, each eye sees a slightly different angle thus tricking you into seeing depth.

If you are still confused, I wrote a helpful document with visual aids to better explain the process:

TSI: The idea/technology behind creating images that seem to move when viewed from different angles dates back to the late 1600’s.  How important/inspiring is it for you to be doing something “new” with that? How do you keep those new ideas fresh?

NK: Because of its complex production process and eye-catching presence, lenticular images have almost exclusively been produced for commercial use. Living in the digital age I feel privileged to have the resources to be able to bring such a wonderful technology to the contemporary art scene. The lenticular effect is great, but I cannot rely on the effect alone to capture an audience’s attention. I take great care in style and composition to make each piece my own.

TSI: Is there something appealing about being able to be drawn in by something that is illusory?  Or about being able to create something that allows people to experience a slight illusion?

NK: Speaking specifically about lenticular imagery, its fun to work with a medium that people don’t normally associate with fine art. I enjoy watching people stare with a puzzled look on their faces, looking behind the piece to see if there’s actually something there giving it depth. Because people can’t relate to it, some may mark it off as gimicky. As someone who assembles these pieces by hand, I must say it is a very long and tedious process.

Speaking of art in general, the greatest art is the kind that grabs us, pulls us in, plays with our emotions as if we were experiencing the real thing. These illusions are everywhere, from film, tv, video games, painting, photography…Many people live their lives through the illusion of art. It has universal appeal.

TSI: I really enjoyed your interpretation of “The Rose That Grew From Concrete” (2010).  Does it sometimes feel like that, living an artist’s life?  That one must push through something seemingly impossible to be able to bloom into one’s full potential?

NK: That piece is named after a poem by Tupac Shakur. Having a background in engineering, as well as art and design, I do not feel as though I am living the typical artist’s life. The term “full potential” assumes that there is an end goal. I do not see my artistic process as progressing to any final point. It is always changing, not for better or worse.

TSI: You were Artslant’s first 2011 Showcase Winner in the mixed-media category for your piece, “Supermassive Black Hole.”  Congratulations.  How did you come upon the idea for that piece?

NK: Thank you.  “Supermassive Black Hole” is a companion to a lenticular piece entitled “Into the Supermassive”.  The idea was to immerse the viewer in a vortex; initially it was a purely abstract piece intended to push the lenticular depth boundaries to their limits. I came to really appreciate the composition and wanted to build a physical version of it, so “Supermasive Black Hole” became an extension of that idea. It is composed of mixed media embedded in transparent resin and depicts a nomad on a journey, contemplating whether or not to enter the unknown.

TSI: What frustrates you about your work?

NK: Time is my main enemy when it comes to art. I have a hard time doing things the easy way. I enjoy complexity, variety, and developing a systematic approach to each piece. This results in very long turn-around times which can be frustrating.

TSI: One of your paintings features a young woman lying down with a dragon sleeping peacefully at the foot of her bed. What brings you peace in the midst of all the calamity?  Or does motion bring you peace?  Knowing you are dancing around the trap of stagnation?

NK: What brings me peace is knowing that I am a mere spec of dust on the timeline of life. I’m here to smile and be free.

TSI: Where would you like to see yourself in, say, ten years?

NK: I really can’t begin to guess where I will be in 10 years. Whatever it is I am doing, I will always be creating visual art. I also have a passion for working with children. It would be great to have a gig combining art and science with kids.

TSI: Where can people view your work and art for sale?

NK: Originals, prints, and limited edition 3D Lenticular images are available for sale through my website

TSI: Any final thoughts?

NK: If any readers are also artists with a passion for science and engineering, they may be interested in checking out my current pedal-powered flight concept hitting the skies late 2012:

To learn more about Nikolas Kazoura and his art, please visit his website at


•May 17, 2011 • 1 Comment

The Fear of Within, Chalk Pastel on Paper

Jina Wallwork studied art at Staffordshire University where she received a BA(hons) degree in Fine Art.  She has exhibited her artwork in the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. In January 2011, as part of a project by the artist John Baldessari, Jina’s name appeared in lights across the Australian Museum in Sydney. She has also exhibited with the Turner prize winner Grayson Perry, Jeff Koons and Yoko Ono.

We were honored to be able to spend some time talking with Jina for this week’s Spotlight Series interview.

TSI: Your bio says that you were born an artist.  When did you first realize that was true?

JW: Drawing and painting have been a part of my routine for a large number of years. As a child I would express behaviors that suggested I was an artist but I wasn’t choosing a label and then being defined by it. I was adopting a set of behaviors that were expressions of who I am.

TSI: Did you come from an artistic household?  What was your environment like growing up?

JW: It was a very nurturing and creative environment. I remember when I was in my teens, my brother’s friend had a car that he was going to race in a competition. My brother came round with the vehicle and asked me to decorate it. My family has always found me some really great outlets for my creativity. When I was younger I created artwork on my bedroom walls, and it made me comfortable with creating large scale work.

TSI: How did being that artist set you apart from others in your early childhood?

JW: There was this one occasion at school when everyone was asked to draw their favorite things. Therefore, most of the class asked me to draw for them. I spent all lesson drawing the same cartoon character for different people, and then break time arrived, and my work was unfinished. The teachers made me stay inside to finish it. They purposefully sat me in front of the window so I could see everyone playing. Then they pointed out how much better my own work would have been if I hadn’t spent my time drawing for others. I didn’t do it again.

TSI: Christianity played a strong role in your life in your younger years.  What influence did your understanding of God at that time have on your art?

JW: I used to go to Sunday school at church and we would create religious drawings and it was something I really enjoyed. Christianity was speaking to me through art and this made the concepts very accessible to me. There is a beautiful side to all religions and I still enjoy looking at religious images from different faiths. Often the most beautiful part of a religion is the part you teach to a child.

TSI: What sorts of things were you painting and drawing then?  What first caught your attention?

JW: My subject matter was very broad. I would draw from books, magazines, objects, and I would also draw from my imagination. Although I didn’t realize this at the time, drawing from reality increases your technical skill level; drawing from your imagination increases your ability to construct images and abstract them. It also aids in your ability to express your feelings and ideas.

TSI: As you moved into your teenage years, you realized you were gay.  How did coming out change the ways in which you experienced spirituality and the world around you?

JW: Spirituality became more dominant in my beliefs than religion. I couldn’t believe the Christian perspective on homosexuality. I also found it difficult to believe that God’s love is conditional. When I feel God’s love it is constant and unchanging. Feeling that love is a powerful personal experience and I believed that it was the centre of my religion. When Christians were telling me that the centre of religion could be something other than love; I knew that wasn’t going to be true for me.

TSI: How did it affect your art?

JW: I stopped focusing solely on technical skill and began to explore art as a way of expressing my thoughts and feelings. Art is a really powerful tool that allows you to understand yourself, and it was at this time I began to realize that.

TSI: Would you say that love serves as an inspiration for your paintings?

JW: Yes, I would. Love is a person’s inner truth. The closer you get to your inner core the more love you will find. Express that inner core and you will automatically express love, as a part of that process.

TSI: You also feel that you were born with the gift of clairvoyance.  How did that first reveal itself?

JW: I had a friend that had just received her first pair of glasses and she started to comment on things that she could see. Her mother asked, why she hadn’t mentioned that she was having trouble seeing. She replied, “I thought everybody’s eye sight was like mine.” This is how I felt about the things I was seeing. I thought everyone’s perception was the same, but it was somehow not socially acceptable to talk about it. I was more surprised when I realized that wasn’t true. I then started to develop with other mediums and it got much stronger.

TSI: Is that gift what ultimately led to your book, “Death and Rebirth?”

JW: Yes, I was delivering messages from those who had passed. Then people started to talk about what it’s like in the afterlife. I was listening to everything and I learned so much. They were all really patient with me because it was a long process of learning. When I was learning and drawing the diagrams of the universe it made me really appreciate the perfection of the design. It was a really magical experience.

TSI: How does perceiving the spiritual realm so strongly impact your art?  Both the process and the finished product?

JW: I have had many conversations with Spirit about time not existing outside of the universe. When I am painting I often feel that a piece already exists and I am bringing it into manifestation. I don’t think this is specific to my work alone. Without time, every possibility simply waits for an opportunity to exist within a time-based manifestation (The Universe). This is something that I often think about when I paint. Painting often helps me to organize my thoughts and process information on a level that I wouldn’t normally be able to achieve. It is a part of my learning process.

TSI: What was the inspiration behind, “I Can’t See You Anymore?”

I Can’t See You Anymore, Pencil on Paper, 6″x 4″

JW: The drawing raises question of how we are seen by others. The eye in the image is prominent but it is also obscured. The lines that obscure the eye also change the structure of the face. They are a part of the person. Someone can only see who you are in relation to their own vision and understanding.

TSI: Your Artists Portrait Series is quite wonderful.  When did work begin on the Series?  Is it still ongoing?  How do you determine who “makes the cut?”

Otto Dix, Ink on Paper, 2.5″ x 3.5″

JW: I began the series in 2010. They are mainly expressionist artists and the blaue reiter group is well represented. I don’t know if I will continue the series. If I do, the concept and style will alter because I feel I have already explored certain themes within the existing series and I would be drawn to other concepts.

TSI: I was really struck by “A Second.”  Can you talk a bit about that piece?

JW: “A Second” is a part of the “Death and Rebirth” book. It features in a section that explores the feeling of grief. The passage explores the value of second when it is spent with someone you love. A small passage is-

“What I would give for a second with you. I allowed them to pass so easily without a thought. If I had known how precious they were I would have fought each one to become a minute or an hour.”-taken from “Death and Rebirth”

The image is reflective of the death of a second and its connection with those who share our lives. Grief causes a very different understanding of time. People want to pull the past into the present, and they can only let go, while being thankful for what they had.

A Second, Ink On Paper, 11.5″x 8.5″

TSI: Is your art something you are comfortable talking about, or does dissecting it somehow alter or diminish its meaning?

JW: I enjoy talking about my art. A painting isn’t just an image. It is a thought process and a passion. There are layers to who I am and therefore there are layers to my art.

TSI: You’ve exhibited around the world with some very impressive names.  Can you share some insights into what those experiences were like?

JW: When I sent my work to the Usher Gallery in Lincoln, I had no idea who was exhibiting. I just saw an opportunity and went for it. Then I received the private view and press release information, which stated that artwork by Grayson Perry, was in the exhibition. It was exactly the same when I exhibited with Jeff Koons and Yoko Ono. I had no idea until closer to the time of the exhibition. It was very much treated like routine by the galleries. I really didn’t expect it.

TSI: Has there ever been a defining moment where you thought, “I’ve arrived?”

JW: I hadn’t believed that certain things were possible and then I would experience them. Moments like this have tended to cluster together or gather momentum, and from the centre it seems surreal.

TSI: Apart from your materials, what three things do you need to have around you in order to begin painting?

JW: Other than materials I don’t need anything.

TSI: At this stage in your career, does being an artist ever feel frightening?

JW: It feels exciting but within that excitement is a small amount of fear. A lot like a rollercoaster.

TSI: If those that you connect with on another dimension could understand one thing about Jina, the woman, and Jina, the artist, what would you want those things to be?

JW: Do you mean those in the afterlife? “Dimension” makes it seem so far away. I often wonder how much they understand because all knowledge is accessible there. However you can only understand what is relative to the growth of your own soul. I would rather learn what each individual is capable of understanding rather than telling what I want them to understand.

TSI: Do you feel that today, in 2011, we’ve reached the point where we need not be defined by our sexuality?  In other words, can you be just a painter, or just an author, or does it feel more like you have to serve as a voice for contemporary Lesbian artists?

JW: When I was in my teens there didn’t seem to be many adult lesbians in my social circle. Maybe they just kept that aspect of their lives to themselves and I wasn’t aware that I was surrounded by people who understood some of the things I was going through. At that time I became interested in prominent lesbians in the media talking about their story. I talk about my sexuality not because I feel that the lesbian community has ownership of me and my work; I talk about it because I admired those who were honest and made me feel that I belonged. Perhaps I am emulating some of my heroes from when I was a teenager.

TSI:What do you know now that you wish you’d known “then?”

JW: I’ve learned from the mistakes I’ve made. I wouldn’t want to change those experiences because I value them a great deal.

TSI: Tell us about your current projects and exhibitions.

JW: I have a few exhibitions coming up both in United States and Great Britain. Including a solo exhibition at Ripley Arts Centre in Bromley, London, Great Britain. That takes place from the 31st August. It’s a really great location with beautiful gardens.

TSI: What can we hope to see more of in the coming years?

JW: I feel as though I have just scratched the surface.

TSI: What’s the one thing that fans of your art will always be able to count on?

JW: I will always be passionate about creating art. It is a part of me.

For more information on Jina’s body of work, please visit her website, at

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Vladimir Ginzburg

•May 4, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Vladimir Ginzburg

This week for the Spotlight, we are so pleased to bring you our interview with artist Vladimir Ginzburg.  Mr. Ginzburg was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and is now based in New York City.

TSI: How would you rate NYC winters as compared to those of your home city of St. Petersburg (Leningrad then, no?):

VG: I would say the winters in Leningrad had more snow and lower temperatures. So, if in New York the snow stays on the ground, on average, about 2 weeks during the winter, then in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) it lingers about 3 months. The other thing that is missing in New York in the winters is the icicles on the end of the rooftops.  In St. Petersburg, in March, when the weather would become warmer, the icicles would slowly melt, and the falling drops of water from the roofs would create a kind of music when they hit the asphalt or puddles on the ground.

TSI: You were blessed to share the city with The Hermitage, one of the oldest and largest museums in the world.  What are some of your earliest memories of visiting its buildings and collections?

VG: I think the first time that I was there I was six or seven.  I remember a lot of light, a lot of space, huge columns, a lot of people. I think at that time I did not perceive it as a museum, but more like a palace, with all of these things in their glass boxes and the paintings on the walls, which were part of life there.

TSI: When did you first realize that you were an artist?

VG: If you consider an artist to be the kind of person who likes to create (painting, music, poetry, photographs), then I think I was always this kind of person.

TSI: You started taking photographs as a child.  Was this medium your “first love?”

VG: The thing is, when I was in school, we almost didn’t have art lessons.  I think the school’s administration considered art instruction something unimportant, and they would substitute those lessons with math or grammar, telling the students that that they didn’t have an art teacher to teach us.

I had done some drawing and painting at home, but when I would compare what I did with the drawings of kids my own age, those who had learned how to draw in special art schools (very realistic drawings with the right perspective, structure etc.), I got the impression that I was hopelessly lacking in any ability to draw or to paint.  But I liked to create images, so I got a camera, and started shooting everything around me.

TSI: So you bought your first camera?

VG: Yes, I bought my first camera when I was 12 years old with money I had saved.  My parents gave me the money to buy an enlarger and other stuff to develop and print the photographs. I built a makeshift darkroom in the bathroom, which I would use when it would not interfere with the wishes of other inhabitants of the apartment to use it. So you can imagine I had to print really fast, and of course the quality of my pictures was quite poor, but, anyway, it was a great time for me then.

TSI: Do you remember the first photograph you developed?

VG: I think it was a photograph of the street, with buildings, trees, and people walking.  I remember the moment when the image started to appear on the paper. It really looked like something magical.

TSI: I know you left Russia for Israel in 1979.  What prompted that move?

VG: In 1979, we were part of the Soviet Union, and were not permitted to leave the country, even to be a tourist in a communist country, without special permission from regional party bosses and KGB.  And they would never grant me such a permission, a Jew with relatives living abroad. I think they assumed that I would not come back and they would be in trouble. So I started feeling as though I was locked in and eventually it started bothering me a lot. I decided to immigrate to Israel. At that time, if you were permitted to immigrate, your Soviet citizenship would automatically be taken away from you.  You were considered a sort of traitor, and were never allowed to go back.

TSI: What was that like for you? Understanding those realities and, yet, still moving forward?

VG: It was a very difficult decision. I think I knew that I would not be able to return, but I didn’t quite believe it. It’s the same as a young person who, of course, knows that one day they will die, but who doesn’t really believe yet in their own mortality. I realized it completely only a few months after I emigrated to Israel, and it was quite hard.

I have never returned to Leningrad. I think, in a way, it is impossible to return, at least to return to the world of your childhood and youth; even the name ‘Leningrad’ does not exist anymore. The best way for me to return is to close my eyes and see the streets, the people, and to hear that music of the melting icicles in spring.

TSI: Tell us about what you loved about Israel.

VG: The first impression I got when I left the building at the airport was that of heavy, humid air, saturated with a very strong aroma, which, I later learned was the scent of blossoming orange trees.  It was night, with a black southern sky and strange, unknown sounds. Birds? Cicadas?

One aspect I loved about Israel was its Middle Eastern elements, and the contrast between the serenity and lack of strong colors on empty streets in the heat of summertime, and the energy of different colors, and the beautiful loud Arabic music in the market places.

TSI: It was in Israel that you became reacquainted with the medium of painting. What prompted the transition from photography to painting?

VG: Two things. First, when I left Leningrad, I did not take my camera and other developing/printing equipment with me, hoping to upgrade everything in Israel. However, the cameras and equipment in Israel were too expensive for me to buy, so I could not continue to make pictures in the same way that I had been making them in Russia.

Secondly, I was exposed to such different kinds of art in Israel. I saw in the galleries all kinds of art: abstract art, primitive art, and I started thinking that I wasn’t too old to start painting myself. So, I started to paint.

TSI: Had you had any formal art training to that point?

VG: No, I did not have any formal art training.

TSI: What was it like, holding your first completed painting in your hands?  Do you remember what emotions that painting evoked in you?

VG: I took my first course in painting in a local Matnas, a kind of cultural center. We painted rolls of paper towels. My first painting?  Hmm, it was not great at all.  The emotions I had were those of disappointment, and I thought that I had a long way to go to be able to create a decent painting.

TSI: What allowed you to push past that initial sense of disappointment?

VG: I liked the process. I liked the smell of oil paint and turpentine and, also, I hadn’t expected to paint a masterpiece the first time.

Midtown, Oil on Canvas, 28″ x 22″

TSI: When did you make the move to NYC?

VG: I moved to NY in 1989.

TSI: Did you have trouble adjusting to an artist’s life in New York?  What were some of the everyday things, if any, that you had to “get used to?”

VG: After 10 years in Israel, New York looked very familiar, almost like Leningrad: big buildings, grey and green colors, a lot of people on the streets, relatively cold winter … but it was a first and a very deceiving impression. I learned very quickly that I was not back in Leningrad and that this was New York.

I think the most important adjustment was learning the ways in which people were interacting here. It was different from Leningrad in 1979 and from Israel in 1989.  I think it felt more formal in terms of personal interaction (at least it felt that way to an outsider like me at the time).  I understand now it has a positive side, but back then it was strange to me.

TSI: Tell us about what you love to paint.  It seems there is a pull toward cityscapes.

VG: You are right, I like painting cityscapes, probably because I like to look at the street. I remember in Leningrad that I would sometimes skip school, buy a ticket to the tram, and sit looking out the widows onto unknown streets, buildings, people, dogs, and everything else. It was like traveling to a fantasy place. Sometimes the adventure would take 2-3 hours, as trams were very slow, and Leningrad is a big city.

TSI: Dolls are often featured in your work.  What first drew you to them?

VG: I first starting using dolls as models, instead of people. If you compare humans and dolls, they are quite alike – head, face, hair, body, arms, legs – everything is a bit different, of course, but aren’t all people different? Of course dolls are not alive like people, but if it is not the goal of the artist to make the painting look alive, it makes no difference what he paints.

I started to collect dolls, buying them at flea markets. One, in particular, featured in my painting “Katerina,” I found on the ocean shore.  Others, I bought at garage sales. I like older dolls more. They seem to have experience, wisdom. It is the same with drawing older people; they have much more interesting faces than those that are younger.

TSI: Your art has been featured in books and in film.  Do you ever allow yourself to feel proud at all you’ve accomplished?

VG: When I am in a really bad mood, I tell myself that I have to be proud of what I have accomplished. Fortunately, that does not happen often.

TSI: What is something that constantly challenges you as an artist?

VG: I think it is the understanding of my inability to make a painting where I would say to myself, “That’s it! This is the way you should do all of your paintings. This is the end of the search.”

On the other hand, I think it is good thing that I cannot say this, in that, it allows me to feel that I can do something differently, and maybe better. This ambivalence is very annoying sometimes.

TSI: You’re very busy these days. Your most recent group exhibition, a show at TNC Gallery in New York, “Painter x 10,” just came to an end yesterday, May 2.  The tag line I saw read, “a shared experience of having pushed paint around.”  Can you speak to that experience, and to being able to share that experience with other artists at this stage in your career?

VG: To be an artist is quite a solitary profession, with a lot of rejections along the way.  I have come to the conclusion that I must look at what I am doing as a lifelong learning process, a kind of meditation with paint and canvas.

TSI: Your solo show, “Novosibirsk to New Jersey: Old and New World Synagogue Images,” is presently up at the Jewish Museum of New Jersey, and is running until May 8th.   How do you perceive those changes, in the old and the new?

Syagogue in Czestochova, Poland, Oil and Oil Pastel on Canvas, 24″ x 36″

VG: Some of the synagogues in Eastern Europe that I painted are quite old, about 600 years old, whereas the synagogues in New Jersey are relatively new.  Most were built in the twentieth century. I look at them as though they were trees, where the trunks and the main branches are older than the new branches, but in spite of the difference, they are the same tree.

TSI: Which do you prefer?

VG: I prefer the older ones.   It is the same as painting an old face.  It is more interesting than a young one.

TSI: What comes after these two shows?

VG: I have started to work on two series of paintings. One will feature street scenes from NYC.  You can find an example of the style in my painting, ‘Midtown.’ The other series will be paintings about life in general. You can see an example in my painting, ‘Looking Out.’

Looking Out, Oil on Canvas, 48″ x 48″

TSI: Do you still take photographs?

VG: Yes, I do take photographs, but mostly as images to use for the painting.  I usually use part of the image, changing it in a way that is influenced by the mood of the painting. Painting, first and foremost, is about emotion, and then it gets dressed in a kind of reality fabrics, but they are not supposed to hide the emotion, rather they are meant to emphasize it. It is possible to do this with photography alone, but for me, it is easier to do with paint. Or to put it a different way, you have to take maybe 20-100 photographs to get one that shows the mood I am speaking about, while with a painting it is almost immediate.

TSI: What tends to catch your eye these days?

VG: Paradoxes and inconsistencies in the world. For example, why people keep killing each other in spite of all this progress.

TSI: What, above all else, would you say you are trying to capture in your paintings?

VG: The wonder of what I see. That which is behind the forms, shapes, lines, colors, that something hidden. It is like when you read a good detective story and you cannot stop reading, you’re missing your stop on the train, or not hearing the questions somebody is asking you because you are so engrossed in what is happening in your book. So I sometimes look at something and cannot stop looking, almost forgetting about everything else. This feeling is the one I would like to be able to capture in my paintings, the feeling that even though a painting is made of dead materials, it is, in fact, a living creature.

For more information on Vladimir Ginzburg, his work, and his upcoming shows, please visit his official website at


•April 19, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Atsushi Ogata, Director

This week we shine the Spotlight on Japanese filmmaker, and Harvard and MIT graduate, Atsushi Ogata. Ogata’s first feature film, “Cast Me If You Can,” premiered in June 2010, as part of the Shanghai International Film Festival’s “Asian New Talent Competition.” We were so happy to sit down with Atsushi to discuss the film and all that this process has meant to him.

TSI: “Cast Me If You Can” is your first feature film.  How does it feel to have accomplished such an impressive goal?

AO: For many years, it was my dream to make a feature film. I had been working initially as a video artist, then I had a number of script-writing grants in Germany and Holland and wrote scripts, but my films never went into production.  I began acting and performing improv and became a regular on a Dutch TV quiz show for 3 years before finally I started directing short films, which I also wrote and sometimes acted in. My first feature, “Cast Me If You Can,” is a culmination of all those years of working and learning. I felt that the time was ripe, and it was something I HAD TO DO NOW, or it was never going to happen.  I felt stressed out that it might never ever happen, so it was such a big relief when it finally did!

TSI: How was the craft of filmmaking first introduced to you?

AO: In high school, I learned to shoot and print my own still photos, and also shot and edited 8mm films.  At the time, it was more of a hobby, but when I went to graduate school at M.I.T., I had a chance to work much more intensively in color photography and video shooting/editing.  Our school taught mainly documentary filmmaking and video art, so that was my starting point.

TSI: Was there much support for the arts in your neighborhood, growing up in Japan?  What were some of your first memories of film?

AO: As a child, I never thought I would become an artist.  I was rather clumsy in my shop classes and art classes.  When I had an assignment to make a cubic box from wood, I couldn’t make the six sides exactly the same, so it became clunky. And I had a hard time carving out sculptures, and I was terrible in my calligraphy classes too.  But after I moved to America and began to work with cameras in high school, it came naturally to me – I could use the camera almost unconsciously like a painter’s brush – It was an amazing discovery.

When I was small, I used to watch films/TV shows about wildlife in Africa, and animation about cool thieves and Samurais.  I think I really began to have a much stronger impression of fiction film when I moved to New York and began going to the cinemas, watching Clint Eastwood films, among others.

TSI: Who are some of your influences when it comes to filmmaking/directing?

AO: I don’t know if I can say they are my “influences,” but I’m inspired by films by Woody Allen, Neil Jordan, Charlie Kauffman, among others.  I also watched a lot of Antonioni and Tarkovsky when I was in graduate school.

TSI: You are in Boston this week, screening your film as part of the Boston International Film Festival.  This is your second time at the BIFF.  What first brought you to the Festival?

AO: Since I went to college and grad school in Boston, I’m happy to have a chance to return to Boston to show my films to my friends, former teachers and colleagues.  The Boston International Film Festival has been supportive of my films, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity.  Last time I was here in 2008, they showed my comedy short “Eternally Yours,” a battle of wits between an elderly lady and a conman. The Festival coincided with my college reunion at Harvard, so I was able to attend both events at the same time, which was a lot of fun.

TSI: So you come off the win in Boston that year for Best Storyline and head back to Japan. At what point did you first think about making “Cast Me If You Can?”  How did that process begin for you?

AO: I began working on the script for “Cast Me If You Can” in November 2007, so I was probably on my fifth draft or so, when I participated in BIFF in 2008.  After winning the Prize for the Best Storyline for my short, I returned to Japan and continued to develop my script further.  The original inspiration was (1) an image I had in my mind of the lead actor (who also acted in my previous film) running around Tokyo wearing a police uniform, and (2) “Frasier,” the American TV sit-com, whose humorous father-son relationship reflects also the relationship I have with my own father.

TSI: I really enjoyed the movie. I saw the film as being, in part, a story of longing, and of the search for love and a true purpose in life.  Can you tell us a bit more about the film, as you see it?

AO: The story is about Hiroshi, a perpetual supporting actor, living in the shadow of his famous playwright father, who is marginalized both at work and at home and is always mistaken for someone else, such as a store clerk or even a kidnapper. One day, luck changes: Hiroshi has a chance to play the lead in a Woody Allen remake, and he also meets his muse Aya, an aspiring actress, who is the only person who doesn’t mistake Hiroshi for someone else. Hiroshi falls for Aya head-over-heels. Through a series of misadventures, Hiroshi tries to court Aya, struggles to play the lead in his own life, and grows as a human being.

TSI: As the writer, how much of yourself was injected into the main character?

AO: “Cast Me If You Can” is a semi-autobiographical comedy.  Like Hiroshi in “Cast Me If You Can” and Zelig in Woody Allen’s film “Zelig,” I often get mistaken for someone else.  Even after landing in Boston this trip, I was at Fedex/Kinko’s on a Saturday morning, sending emails, and a customer came up to me asking me about lamination, totally convinced that I worked there!  It happens to me all over the world.  A lot of the lines by Kenta, the father character in the film, are taken directly from what my own father says to me, and I’ve also worked as a very minor supporting actor in Holland.

TSI: Can you relay a funny story from being on set?

AO: Even during the film shoot, a number of times, passersby mistook me for an actor or a production assistant and kept asking me whose film it was.  When we were getting ready for a shoot in an actual store, at one point I happened to stand behind the cash register; at that point, a real customer wandered into the store and tried to buy a bunch of sake cans from me!  The list goes on and on…

TSI: What was something you encountered working on this project that was new for you?

AO: Having to set up our own company, so that we wouldn’t be held personally liable. Securing and working with a number producers and associate producers who helped raise funding. Holding screening events of my previous work to raise funding. Preparing legal investment contracts. Having a talented composer score original scores for the whole film and having professional top performers play the music for the music recording.  Securing a distributor who theatrically released our film in more than 16 cities in Japan. Publicizing our film through newspaper, TV, and radio interviews with experienced publicists in countless media. Personally selling 500 advanced tickets for the theatrical screenings and organizing 20 others to sell more than 1500 tickets, in addition to the normal sales at the box-office. Getting a “novelized” version of my film published and sold nation-wide. Getting praise and criticism from thousands of people.  Making an audio commentary for the DVD release.  Contracting with various sales agents for the anscillary markets. Feeling like Jack Bauer in “24”, sleepless and running an obstacle-race continuously for more than 2-years straight.

TSI: How has the experience of working on your first feature changed you as a director?

AO: Having shot so many kinds of scenes in so many types of locations with experienced cast and crew, I feel much more confident that I can direct more different scenes and stories moving forward.

TSI: The film has been very well received on the film festival circuit.  Tell us about that success.

AO: “Cast Me If You Can” had its world premiere at the Shanghai International Film Festival’s Asian New Talent Competition section and has been screened and awarded in festivals in California, New York, Indiana and India, in addition to being theatrically released in more than 16 cities in Japan and in San Francisco.  It was  inspiring to see the audience truly laughing and crying during the film screening and getting feedback from hundreds of people and being complimented by the jury.

TSI: Where did you shoot the film?

AO: The film was shot in Tokyo and all over the neighboring prefectures.

TSI: I know you are screening the film at Harvard University on Wednesday, April 20, as a way to help raise awareness/funds for the relief efforts taking part in your homeland of Japan.  What is your goal with the screening?

AO: To show uplifting, heart-warming, humorous images from Japan to counter the overdose of disaster TV images from the past month, and also as a way to humanize the country.

TSI: Your work is often comedic in nature.  Can you speak to the importance of humor, laughter, and levity in life and in art, particularly in times of tragedy?

AO: Humor is what allows us to overcome difficulties in life and to appreciate it further.  No matter what a bad day I had, when I describe it, people start laughing.  No matter what script I write, it’s never devoid of humor.  I think it’s critical that everyone nurtures and develops his/her sense of humor.  Humor also provides insights into our daily lives and we learn to think “out of the box.” Even before this recent natural disaster, in Japan for the past 10 years or longer, on average 100 people were committing suicides daily, which seems unthinkable in a materialistically rich nation.  With humor, hopefully, people won’t get so stuck in their own misery and can learn to overcome difficulties by laughing them off.

TSI: It has been a long journey for you, getting to this high point in your career. A lot of hard work, a lot of challenges along the way.  What advice would you give to a young filmmaker who shares your dream?  One who is at the beginning of his long and winding journey?

AO: Watch as many films as you can, and see which ones appeal to you and why.  Try to work on as many different aspects of filmmaking writing, acting, directing, both on personal projects and on industry/commercial projects to gain knowledge and experience and to build your network.  Try out different things and learn from your mistakes.  Find the right people to work with, while avoiding the wrong people – easier said than done, but you have to try.  And make a film you feel passionately  about.  It’s so much work and you end up sacrificing so much, so you have to LOVE doing it.

TSI: Where does the film screen next?

AO: The Newport Beach Film Festival in California.

TSI: Any new projects in the works?

AO: Yes, a caper and an action film, both in development.

TSI: Where can people see the film?  How can they acquire a copy?

AO: If they are in the New England area, then they can come out to see it at the Boston International Film Festival this Tuesday, April 19th. “Cast Me If You Can” will be screening at 3:00 p.m. at the AMC/Loews Theater at Boston Common, located at 175 Tremont Street in Boston. For more information on that screening people can visit

They are also invited to attend the free screening at Harvard University at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 20, at Harvard Hall 104 (located next to Johnson Gate).

The DVD (region 2, NTSC) with English subtitles and my audio commentary in English, with a bi-lingual menu, can be ordered on Amazon inside Japan.  For outside of Japan, availability is yet to be determined.

TSI: What happens to the main characters in your film?  Do they live happily ever after?

AO: What happens to the main characters after the ending of the film is up to your imagination.

Since its debut, “Cast Me If You Can” has been screened at festivals in California, New York, Indiana and India, winning prizes for Best Actress, Best Original Score and Best Title Sequence. The film has been released nation-wide in 16 cities in Japan, as well as in San Francisco, and was recently adapted into a novel.

Born in Japan and raised partly in the U.S., Harvard and MIT graduate, Atsushi Ogata has worked in Holland, Germany, Japan, and the U.S. as a film director, script-writer, video artist and actor.

Ogata’s short film, “Eternally Yours,” was selected for the prestigious New Directors/New Films Festival 2007 in New York at the MoMA & the Lincoln Center and won awards at the Bangkok, Moondance, and Boston International Film Festivals.

For more information on “Cast Me If You Can,” please visit the film’s bilingual website at

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Catzilla Productions – Part II

•March 22, 2011 • Leave a Comment

We continue our Spotlight Series with Part II from our friends at Catzilla Productions, a Boston-based film and video production company.  Director and part-owner, Dennis Stevens, spoke with us regarding the progress Catzilla has made on the Company’s latest undertaking, the tongue-in-cheek web series, “Last Day In Paradise.”

TSI: So, we haven’t spoken to you in a while. You’ve clearly been busy. Tell us about that.

Catzilla: My new project is a web comedy, ‘Last Day In Paradise.’ The plot is about a financially challenged guy named Scott Mason who inherits a cult. His estranged father dies and leaves him some property. When he gets to the area, he discovers his father had started a New Agey cult, and his devoted followers are still on the property. Quirky comedy ensues.

TSI: How did the idea come about?

Catzilla: I admit, with slight embarrassment, to having been a ‘New Age Seeker’ type of person. I tried many types of meditation, went to meetings of many fringey groups. The content of the beliefs of these were completely opposite to one another, but I often met the same people at the meetings. I became very interested in people like me, who were looking for a spiritual meaning to their lives, but weren’t finding it in religion, mainstream or otherwise.

The other thing I noticed was how many people couldn’t care less about spirituality. Maybe they went through the motions in whatever faith they were raised in. Maybe they never gave it a second thought. I often wondered what would happen if people from each group had to talk to each other. Usually people just sidestep the question of religion, but what if they really had to exchange views? What if they had to understand the other person?

TSI: Do you see the Series as being solely comical in nature, or is there room for some heavier themes?

Catzilla: You know, I started to write it as a dramatic feature film. Scott’s self image is based on his job and social status. The cult members have dedicated themselves to their guru, who dies. Basically, it’s about people whose lives have fallen apart.

Of course, I knew it would have comedic moments. When I told people about the idea, they immediately laughed and said it sounded like nothing they had heard of. I also found I had so many characters and themes I wanted to explore, I could only do it as a web series. I think on the web, comedy works much better, so I’ve been keeping the tone light. It will remain a comedy, but the story involves people having to question the very core of their identity. There will inevitably be dramatic moments. I actually welcome that, as some of my favorite shows and movies combine comedy and tragedy. I think of Joss Whedon, who always manages to turn from funny to serious and back to funny deftly.

TSI: What is available online for people to view at this point and where can they find it?

Catzilla: We have a total of 25 minutes up at, cut into 3 episodes. These introduce the characters and situations and set the tone. It being the web, people can go back and watch at their leisure. I’ve also seen it embedded on other sites like and

TSI: Tell us about your cast and how they are finding their groove together?

Catzilla: When you cast 5 people in an ensemble comedy, it’s like you married all of them. You’re committed to these people. Fortunately this cast is awesome, and they have 5 very distinct personalities that correspond well with their characters. That’s partially because I’m somewhat flexible in the casting process.

For example, Sister Mary was originally conceived as a 50ish Earth Mother type. I think the character didn’t sound too interesting, but Ramona Taj seemed to really cotton to the character, perhaps because she is a Mom herself. However, Ramona doesn’t look like the stereotypical Earth Mother – she’s a fashion model as well as an actor. But she really understood the character very well.

It’s similar with Ciaran, who plays Scott. I first thought of Scott as a slick salesman, but after writing a few drafts, I felt it would be hard for audience to identify with a guy like that. I knew Ciaran already, and he’s a really easy-going, laid back guy, who you would totally want to have a beer with. I re-wrote the character a bit, and I think it’s much more interesting this way.

The cast is finding the groove I think in fits and starts. The small world of New England film actually sort of works to our advantage, as a lot of people know each other already, or know people I’ve worked with. Not always, but that sometimes gives an extra bit of comfort level.

TSI: What’s the hardest challenge of directing?

Catzilla: The real challenge is we have very few resources, and very little time to rehearse, or even shoot. We often only have a location for 7 or 8 hours, and can only do 1 scene a day. As a director, I have to be completely ready with the game plan on the day of shooting. Shots are planned out well in advance. Basically, rehearsal happens the day of shooting. Fortunately, these actors are real professional, working actors. They have always come completely prepared the day of shooting, and are ready to go.

I’ve also written all the episodes so far, and the thing that takes the most of my time is the writing. Of course, that pays off when we shoot, as I’ve spent a lot of time polishing it. I can honestly say when shooting I’ve never had an actor go way outside what I intended. I’m very open to letting the actors find what feels natural, but I guess there’s enough of what I intended in the script that they find it on their own.

TSI: Tell us about this Tea business.

Catzilla: Casey McDougal, who plays Sister Aimee, got me in touch with George Constance, owner of Indonique Tea. George and I have been talking about launching a ‘Last Day In Paradise’ brand tea. Tea is a theme in the cult, and it’ll become a bigger part of the story. The idea is we will have a website which be like the official site of the group in the series. People can order various flavors, which have the LDIP logo and different characters for each flavor.

TSI: How are you funding this project?

Catzilla: I’ve just started a project with Kickstarter, ( which is a website where people can contribute money toward creative projects of all types. We have until April 22nd to raise $1,500 in pledges. That’s enough for 2-3 more episodes. We have to raise the entire amount, or we get nothing. People can contribute any amount. You only actually have to pay if we raise the $1,500.

TSI: Why should people donate to your Series?

Catzilla: I really believe this series is an example of why there needs to be independent art. It’s a quirky, original story that frankly wouldn’t get funded by a mainstream source. Too many hot button issues. The indie world has always been the place to see really offbeat stories. Plus, we’re heading into the era where film is video, and video streams on your cell phone, your laptop, your tv, the tv in your car, etc. Our production model works very well with this new era. I think right now our little band of artists has a very intimate production style that gives us a unique voice.

The issue is always money. It’s tough to get sponsors, it’s tough to ‘monetize’ them, to use the buzzword of the day. Well, we don’t always have to turn art into something to make money for someone else. People pay admission to museums, they donate to PBS, why can’t small, low budget productions be funded by the people who enjoy them. Plus, the money goes directly into the pockets of the artists on both sides of the camera. For really independent media to flourish, the artists have to get paid at some point – so why not by the people who enjoy the art?

TSI: What sort of rewards are being offered through Kickstarter?

Catzilla: Well, on Kickstarter you can’t have a project without giving rewards to your backers! First, pledge anything and be thanked in the credits. For amounts in the $20-$50 range you get a t-shirt, a sample of Indonique’s DiviniTEA (seriously, that’s what we’re calling it) and exclusive online previews.

TSI: What is the ultimate goal with this Series?

Catzilla: Well, I do think of it as a series, like a tv series. It has to build an audience, and find it’s market, which I believe it will do. Ultimately, it would be great to be picked up by a network, or some content provider. I read recently that Netflix is starting a series which they will stream exclusively. That makes me think people will be looking for quality content to buy, to sponsor, etc.

A lot of web series are going for, and receiving, corporate sponsors. Our partnership with Indonique is somewhat like that, although not identical. I think there are a lot of possibilities, and we are still in the early days of online entertainment. There are various models out there, and eventually some will become dominant. But which one? Hard to tell.

TSI: What has been the best part of filming LDIP so far?

Catzilla: I love to direct because the ideas which existed only in my noggin, then on paper, come to life with the actors. I’m an admirer of John Cassavetes, who gave his actors a lot of leeway to perform a role as they wished, as long as it was heart felt and authentic. So when I see good actors bring the character to life, that’s my great reward. That’s why I’m content to just carry on with our little band. It’s a crazy, unpredictable business, all you can do is the best work you can, let the rest happen.

TSI: After all this, what would be your advice to a guy inheriting a cult?

Catzilla: Get a good lawyer! Don’t turn down the idea right away, either. The tax benefits alone are considerable…

For more information on Last Day In Paradise and Catzilla Productions, please visit their websites at and