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Inside ChiArts: Chicago Artists in the Making – Madeline Finn

Last spring, I attended the Senior Visual Arts Exhibit featuring projects by the first graduating class of The Chicago High School for the Arts. ChiArts, as the school is known, opened in 2009 and is the first public arts high school to serve the Chicago area, with the mission of diversifying the city’s landscape of professional artists. Students from all neighborhoods with a wide range of previous training are encouraged to audition for dance, theatre, musical theatre, music, and visual arts conservatories. A creative writing conservatory is set to open in the fall of 2014.

I teach in the theatre department and wanted to share one of many thought-provoking projects
from the inaugural class of 2013. Below is my interview with Madeline Finn, who exhibited claymation videos inspired by her experience with Russel-Silver Syndrome. She currently studies in the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon University.

Ginger O’Donnell: How would you explain your claymation videos to a lay person?

Madeline Finn: I was born with Russell-Silver Syndrome (RSS), a rare growth disorder often associated with poor appetite, delayed development, asymmetric growth, and distinctive facial features. My project, Interactions with Rare Growth Disorders and Jorge Works with Sculpture, addresses characteristics and symptoms of differing rare growth disorders.

Through the tangible medium of plasticine clay, I have created figures with exaggerated extremities and features inspired by my history with Russell-Silver Syndrome.  I take a satirical approach to exploiting the subjects of human growth, interaction, and behavior. Each figure embodies a disorder characteristic. These include unwanted body asymmetry, poor appetite, local-gigantism, and others. I am exploring human behavior and interaction in relationship to oneself and to others: humans with rare growth disorders interacting with their disorders. Stop-motion is essential to my clay figures as the movement of claymation brings the characters to life. I hope to create a narrative between the humans with growth disorders and the viewer.

GO: Share a little about your process and the parameters you were given. 

MF: I took an AP Mixed Media art class at ChiArts. My entire senior year was dedicated to making eight cohesive 2D/3D art works. I saw this as an opportunity to explore claymation, but video is not a category of the AP art curriculum. I decided to make eight separate stills of my plasticine figurines. I took these stills a step further and brought them to life through claymation. I did this outside of the classroom. Every Wednesday we got together as a class and spoke about our work and our progress, and we critiqued each other’s work. Because our mixed media class was not restricted to one medium, our projects ranged from all over the board. While I tediously built the characters for my claymation, others were sewing and gluing wearable sculptures or building 3D paintings. It was exciting to create work that was entirely of our own planning. We decided what the overarching concepts of our work would be and the deadlines for the semester.

GO: Why claymation? How did you become interested in this as a medium of expression?

MF: I have always been a fan of Wallace and Gromit, a children’s claymation series by Nick Park. Beyond that, my mixed media teacher, Jeremiah Spofford, continually strived to expose us to all sorts of mixed media artists. During a power point presentation, he played a clip from Allison Schulnik’s video short. I was immediately drawn to the medium of clay. I had never seen claymation be used in such a serious manner. While I am nostalgic towards Wallace and Gromit, Schulnik’s videos allowed me to see claymation as a platform for creating my own work on a more serious level.  After class, I asked Mr. Spofford if he knew of any other artists similar to her. He left me with a list of some artists he thought I might connect to.

GO: Claymation appealed to you because you wanted to use something associated with childhood in a more serious way.

MF: Yes, claymation was prevalent in my childhood and I had never seen it used in any other context. It was shocking to me that these artists (Nathalie Djurberg, Allison Schulnik) were using claymation to touch upon disturbing and profound subject matter. I wanted to produce my own work in a similar manner.

GO: I remember being struck by the complex themes in your piece. Can you elaborate on how your personal experience with RSS inspired your piece?

An image from “Interactions with Rare Growth Disorders, Theodore Poses for a Drawing Class”

MF: I wanted to utilize this project to confront my own insecurities about RSS. For much of my life, I felt defeated by my petite and asymmetric stature, and tried my best to ignore the fact that it existed at all. Every summer my parents took me to a three-day conference in Chicago where families of children with rare growth disorders could go to seminars and meet with specialists. I met children living with the exact same challenges and difficulties that I had. It was harshly apparent that these children also had RSS. If we had not known better, we could all have been siblings.

 

Our physical similarities were remarkable: large foreheads, narrow jaws, little ears, thin arms and legs, slightly downturned mouths. I suddenly felt a subtle separation from my own family. The features I thought were unique to me were now pasted on the bodies of all the children with Russell-Silver Syndrome; they looked more like me than I do with my family. I came to the realization that acknowledging this part of me was important in my ability to grow as a person.

GO: I can imagine this would be scary.

MF: For a long time, I was utterly terrified of social rejection when deciding to reveal my growth disorder. Revealing my disorder through art was one of the most important and scary things that I had ever done. For the first time in my life, I was acknowledging a part of me that I had kept hidden for so long. My claymations are an extension of myself essentially. They are the most important work that I have made. I hope that through creating artwork on growth disorders, not only can I help others to understand who I am, but I can also become confident in expressing this side of myself.

GO: Do you feel more confident, having created this project? Do you view RSS differently?

MF: Yes I do. Creating this project, I was able to better understand who I am as a person with Russell-Silver Syndrome. Each day I would spend time writing and reflecting on what I had learned about RSS, about myself and the people around me. What I came to understand was that my disorder wasn’t much of a disorder at all. RSS is much more of a strength, and the experiences that I have had because of RSS have helped to shape the person I am today.

GO: Being so personally invested in your project, what was it like to interact with people as they experienced it? I’m curious because theatre is so different, performing onstage for an audience.

MF: It was completely nerve-wracking, but also very exciting. People do not necessarily know who the artist is when they watch my videos, so their reactions are often very raw. I believe that claymation is easy for people to connect to as an art form. I love to see the expressions and reactions on people’s faces as they watch my videos. Nearly everyone I speak with about my work has something new to share from his or her experiences. I have received questions on growth disorders, my standing on religion, nature and the environment, and others. While I was not necessarily focused on religion or creationism when I was creating my video shorts, I love that people can connect to different aspects of my work and understand it in a different way than I do. There is no dialogue in my claymations, only music. This is important for the audience because now they are able to create their own narrative and not be told what interactions they are watching.

GO: Can you talk about learning the technique of claymation? What does this involve?

An image from “Interactions with Rare Growth Disorders, Jorge Works with Sculpture”

MF: I am still very new to claymation. Every shoot is a learning process. I model with plasticine, an oil based clay that doesn’t dry. The clay fits my needs as it stays pliable for figure adjustments without every drying out. Claymation is made up of a sequential series of photos. You shoot a frame, and then you adjust your entire scene (all aspects you want to be moving) by the slightest amount. You shoot another frame, adjust, and so on. I spent nearly four months on my first claymation. In order to make one second of video, you need to take 24 frames. The process is very tedious. I edited for about the same amount of time that I shot each scene. After my video was complete, I worked with a musician from my high school, Justus Richardson. She created original piano music in response to my short film.

GO: What art-related projects are you working on or studying now that you are excited about?

MF: I have just started my freshman year at Carnegie Mellon University. I am taking a Concept Studio course, Contemporary Issues Forum, and 3D Media Studio, among many other exceptional classes. College is, without a doubt, the most difficult and exciting place I have ever been.

I have never before been so thrilled to learn and take advantage of my surroundings and the people around me. Everyone here has so much to share. At this point, I just want to learn as much as I can.

 

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