Interview - Violet Crabtree
Updated: Aug 6, 2020
Violet Crabtree. Image courtesy of James Adam Taylor.
Welcome to the colorful world of Violet Crabtree, a cartoonist, comic book author, claymation and stop-motion animator, filmmaker and infinite other things residing in Arcata, California. I first noticed Violet when I moved to Humboldt County 7 years ago, when I was spellbound after seeing her one-of-a-kind collective The Comix Trip perform at a local DIY house venue. Violet quickly became a friend, as she was at every show and was often organizing or performing at them, and she liked having dance parties, plus she liked Guided By Voices. Violet is more than a friend, though--she is a necessary fixture of our little local community's art scene, and I'm happy to see that her creations are now being celebrated throughout the world.
The Mood 51: You’ve gone from a local artist to making music videos for bigger names and being featured in film festivals, and now working on a feature length movie. What has this transition been like for you and what sparked your desire to do larger-scale projects?
Violet Crabtree: It feels really gratifying to get paid for my art. That's why I decided to do the music videos for bands from outside my area. My whole life I've made stuff, gotten a little money here and there for crafts and comic books, but having gone through the effort to learn how to make films and animate, I decided that I deserved more than just the satisfaction of finishing a project or doing a fun collaboration with friends. After doing stop motion animation jobs for other people's music, that led me to want to make animation for myself. Something more personal, or that means something to me. Also, I have some strong ideas that I feel a sort of responsibility to get out there in the world, and at this point, I'm just starting to feel like I have the skill to make my films appeal to a broader audience than just the DIY, punk house crowd.
Excerpt from Violet's storyboard for the music video for "Crystal Ball" by Tacocat
M51: What has your work been like with the Kinetic Paranormal Society? VC: They are my friends, and fun people to be around, especially for the Kinetics race. Isaac Bluefoot and I have similar storytelling ideas, so for a while now we've been doing shows together. We're both really into science fiction, tasteful humor, and cute characters...though my stuff can be a bit darker. I'm not actually in The Kinetic Paranormal Society puppet show, but I'm definitely on the team when it comes to the Kinetic Grand Championship. This year was supposed to be more of a collaboration of ideas with me and Isaac. We were going to make a ghost train kinetic sculpture (from my comic The Crows of Arcata), and I had put a lot more energy into planning and fundraising for the race than in the past. The first fundraiser was planned for March 14th, so it got cancelled. Also, the race of course (except the virtual race, which I didn't take part in).
Flyer for the aforementioned canceled fundraiser
M51: Who are your biggest influences when it comes to claymation? VC: Gumby had been my favorite, especially the REALLY old stuff, from the 50's and 60's. When I watch it, I feel more confident about my skill level, hahaha. I also completely adore Michel Gondry's stop motion animation. Those old Bjork videos had a big impact on me creatively. Also, of course Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas is a staple for any goth girl coming of age in the 90's. Wallace and Grommit seems the most obvious influence. 2 of my favorite stop motion animated feature films are The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb by the Bollex Brothers, and Blood Tea and Red String by Christiane Cegavske. I could go on a lot longer...
Clay figure and setting by Violet Crabtree M51: How long does it take for you to make a full claymation music video? VC: I think at this point, I can do 1 minute of animation, with one set and not more than 5 or 6 puppets in 1 month. It really depends on the complexity of the set and puppets. I just finished a 1 minute sequence for Naked Giants' new music video High School, and that took almost exactly 1 month
WATCH NOW: "High School (Don't Like Them)" by Naked Giants M51: How has living in Arcata, California influenced your work? VC: Living in Arcata has had a huge influence on my work, especially the more personal films. I love being outside, and Arcata has so many pretty places to be outside, and not very far apart. Most of my best story ideas have come to me while outside, walking or biking around. Also, a lot of creative people are drawn to this place. I've met many inspiring minds while living here for the past 14 years.
Violet Crabtree. Image courtesy of Violet Crabtree.
M51: Your project The Comix Trip is unique and innovative in that it combines comics, projection, music, storytelling, character acting, and audience participation. How did you come up with such a unique and immersive project, and what is the full history behind it? How is The Comix Trip different now than from when you first started it? VC: The Comix Trip started because I was really involved with the local music scene, like organizing shows for my friends' bands, going to a lot of shows, drawing flyers, etc., but I wanted to be more involved, and didn't feel confident enough to play music in front of people. My friend Kelley Donahue was doing some pretty cool stuff using overhead projectors with her drawings as visuals during her live music shows, back when Hunter Plaid Gallery was a venue/art space in Sunny Brae, circa 2010-2011. So that was in the back of my mind as a cool thing I could do with my art as performance. Then, my friend Jess Gantos really wanted to play the musical saw with me at the open mic that was happening at CCAT on HSU campus in September 2011, and I drew the comic The Giantess really fast and copied it onto transparencies at Kinko's. Then I glued some fur to these old boots and told her to wear them while she played saw along with my story. It's a pretty short story about a dream/feeling I've had, and I remember being really nervous and rushing through it. I think it was less than a minute long performance! I think I got the overhead projector on Craigslist. It was really really old and heavy. With a really extra load fan. The storytelling thing actually dates back to when I was a kid, and I used to go to open mic with my dad in Sebastopol. He would do the folk singer dad thing with his acoustic guitar, and I would tell stories. Some of them I made up, and some were from books. I did this when I was 12-13 years old. Then, in High School I was on the speech and debate team, and did storytelling instead of speeches. I won a little trophy in a tournament, even! I was one of those kids that made my own clothes and wore mis-matched socks on purpose, and always had a funny hat, btw, just so you get a picture of what this was like more fully. The Comix Trip evolved a lot more in 2012, when Andrew and Paul joined up with me and Jess. It became a lot more musical and choreographed. Andrew has a background in drama, so he made the sound effects more dramatic and timed, and less improvised. Paul became the musical backbone of the group with guitar, ukulele and recorder to compliment my storytelling and visuals. I've been drawing my whole life, but specifically drawing comic books since I was 19. I've always done the zine-style thing, with a copy machine and staples. Paul and I usually collaborate on these comic books, cuz he draws comics, too! I'm the editor, though. So I pick out the best ones and try to clean them up a bit first. So we've been doing The Comix Trip in basically the same way since 2012, although the group has changed members a lot over the years. In the last year or so (or maybe longer?) I've been thinking about quitting the group entirely so I can concentrate more on making films...I guess the pandemic kinda did that for me, because we obviously can't play shows right now! So it might end up just being an extended break, but who knows?
The Comix Trip. Image courtesy of Violet Crabtree.
M51: You also express yourself through your clothing. How would you describe your style and how do you come up with these creative outfits? VC: My everyday style is important to me, because I feel like I am the canvas, and I need to make it look just so. I think about composition and colors a lot. I used to make a lot of my own clothes, and be ridiculously particular about only wearing vintage clothes or clothes I made. Nowadays I just want the colors to be right. I've gotten really into floral patterns, and I feel like I am the plant, or flower. A plant that moves, I guess. My name is both a color and a flower, and I try to embody that. The costume I wear for The Comix Trip performances is kind of the opposite of what I wear while not performing: I only wear black and white and shades of gray. I got the idea for this at the beginning, because I wanted my person to look like the comics, which are always black and white. The reason is because it's so much cheaper to print. I always wear a ton of makeup and a wig. I usually wear fake glasses with no lenses in them. I make a lot of the outfits for shows by drawing on the clothes or sewing lettering on them. I like to feel like a different person when I'm on stage. I think a lot of people need that to feel comfortable with being the center of attention. I just take it a step further, I guess.
Violet Crabtree. Image courtesy of Violet Crabtree.
M51: What is your creative process like? Do ideas just come to you automatically or do you have a more gradual process? Are you alone when you are creating or do you like to be around others? Do you do it in your home or elsewhere? VC: Ideas come to me out of nowhere. Going out by myself and riding my bike or walking up a hill seems to help get the creative juices flowing, but not always! It's kind of a mysterious process. If I think about it too much, I worry I might never get another good idea again. A few times I've written comic stories with other people, and that was fun. Sometimes someone will say something, and it will spark more ideas. I usually just tuck these away in my brain without writing them down. Sometimes it takes a couple years for me to unearth them and use them. Other times I just have an idea and start drawing the whole thing right away. A lot of times I have no idea what the story will be like, so I just start drawing something, and hope it will turn into something bigger. When I'm feeling a lack of story ideas, I often just draw repeating patterns. I did that a bunch in 2017-18, and ended up using them in Finnea Wildfur, the comic book/children's story that I've started making a feature length film about.
Art by Violet Crabtree M51: How can we support your art monetarily during Covid, what are some of your creations that we can buy online? VC: Since I finished my last claymation gig, I've been sewing these little pillows with cartoon-y and cute or pretty designs appliquéd on them. Each one is one of a kind. I haven't taken any pics of them, but so far I have 7 pillows. They'll be on The Sanctuary's website in August. I am a studio artist at The Sanctuary, even though they have been closed since March and I've been doing all my arts and crafts at home. Here's the website! Or hire me to do a claymation sequence!
Art by Violet Crabtree
M51: What has your experience with the Jim Henson Company been like?
VC: The Henson Fund gives a grant to The Arcata Playhouse/The Sanctuary every year for The Puppet Slam. The Puppet Slam is where a bunch of puppeteers do short performances, or in my case, show a film with puppets in it. Last December I made a claymation film that was premiered at The Puppet Slam called House Cleaning. All the participants got paid, so that was awesome! That's the extent of my personal experience with the Hensons, except for being raised on Sesame Street, and Labyrinth is one of my favorite movies of all time.
WATCH NOW: "House Cleaning" by Violet Crabtree M51: What is your favorite medium or format to work with if you HAD to pick ONE?—comics, music, 2D art, 3D art/claymation, making jewelry/clothes, filmmaking? VC: I can't pick one! But if I HAD to, stop motion animation, because I use all of my art and crafts skills. First, I draw a storyboard, or "treatment." This I do exactly the same way as I draw a comic story, except it's often in color, with notes written all around it. Then I make the set and puppets, which I do by sewing, glueing, painting, covering in clay, taping....pretty much every method I can think of to BUILD A WORLD. World building is rad because it can be any way you want. I wish I could do that with the real world sometimes. It would be much cuter, and everyone would ride a bike or skateboard, and there would be no cars. Only trains. And people would fly around like birds if they wanted to. Anyways, my work is far from done after all the glue has dried and the puppets look ok. Animation is very tricky, and actually quite stressful, because it's so easy to mess up by moving the puppet too much in one frame, or in an unnatural looking way. This can wreck the flow. Lighting is also a big deal. Editing is kind of the best part, but also can be quite tedious. Honestly, computers hurt my brain. Looking at a screen for too long feels so unhealthy. So that's the main drawback. But in the end, it's worth the pain and suffering and carpal tunnel or whatever.
"World building is rad because it can be any way you want. I wish I could do that with the real world sometimes. It would be much cuter, and everyone would ride a bike or skateboard, and there would be no cars."
M51: Out of all the projects you have ever worked on, what is your personal favorite piece of your own work? VC: Right now, my favorite project is the claymation movie House Cleaning, which I officially finished and put on YouTube in early March. It's usually the last thing I did, if I like it. Then I move on and make something else, and then that's my favorite. This movie is kinda crudely made, but very cute. It's about accepting your flaws and going with them. It has a bunch of surreal things going on, like a lady who lives inside a house that is a big version of herself. The front door is in her shoe. Also, the weather is made of breakfast/lunch/tea. I got my friends Zigtebra to make a little song for the end, and my partner Paul made the score.
Still from "House Cleaning" by Violet Crabtree
M51: How do you come up with detailed characters such as Bill Ding and The Giantess? VC: The Giantess is based on me, so that's easy! Bill Ding is based on our evil president. He's one of my house people: people that are also houses. They are something I started drawing 5 or 6 years ago. There's a lot of symbolism there. In Bill Ding's case, he's the CEO of an evil development company. All about $, not caring about the earth or people. So he has a house head to represent his business. Everyone needs a house, so he can control everyone.
Violet Crabtree as DJ Giantess M51: How do you decide who to cast for which parts in music videos and films? VC: Usually it's just whoever's around at the time. People who's company I like enough to want to work with, that is. I don't know any professional actors, so I'd rather just have fun with my friends! WATCH NOW: "No Way" by Sue and the Namies (video by Violet Crabtree) M51: You are now currently working on a feature length movie called Wildfur. You call this the biggest project of your life. Tell me about that. VC: Wildfur is an eco-feminist story about dismantling the patriarchy. There is for sure a villain (Bill Ding), but instead of a single hero, there's a team of characters working together to take apart the system, and restore the natural balance. It's got ideals that are the most important to me at my core, which makes it feel necessary and BIG. So I decided to really go big, and do a feature-length film. It's a story for kids or adults, but I'm really hoping the 13 or 14 year olds will get to see it and be affected by it. I've been learning new puppet building techniques, like replacement mouths for talking, and I'm making more sophisticated armatures than I have in the past. The puppets have fabric clothes instead of clay, which smears and gets wrecked easily. Because of the length, and because I'm a fan of multi-media, parts of the film will be live action. I'm going to make the live action sets in the same way, except full size instead of miniature. I expect it to take at least 5 years, but maybe not. I'm still expanding on the plot and adding drawings to the storyboard, so I have a ways to go. When I'm done with it, or when the movie's finished, I'd like to get the book published somehow. It's not really a comic book, because it's so wordy. More like a picture book for kids.
'Finnea Wildfur' stop motion puppet by Violet Crabtree M51: I asked you before to pick one favorite medium, but at the end of the day, multimedia is your thing. What are some advantages and disadvantages of constantly juggling multiple mediums at once?
VC: Sometimes it's hard to pick one thing to do, and I feel like my head is swimming. It's a big advantage to have done lots of arts and crafts for so long, because I don't get intimidated by new projects, I just do them. But there are LOTS of art things I've just barely dabbled in, and there's lots of room for improvement, that's for sure! I'm my biggest critic, and I see the flaws. I'm hoping to actually be GOOD at photography someday, since essentially, that's what stop motion IS. I barely picked up a camera until 2016, when I started doing stopmo.
"Sometimes it's hard to pick one thing to do, and I feel like my head is swimming. It's a big advantage to have done lots of arts and crafts for so long, because I don't get intimidated by new projects, I just do them."
M51: Clearly you are very inspired by the natural world as well as by myth. What are some of the other things that inspire you the most? VC: Color, cuteness, my friends, surrealism, strong and vibrant women, original thinking, science, science fiction, repurposing trash, fashion, music
Art by Violet Crabtree M51: Aside from your role as a local artist, you are also consistently involved in the local community, helping to put together festivals, support local venues, throwing dance parties, attending others’ shows, and more. Explain what the local community means to you. VC: It's really easy to be totally introverted when you're a creative person, and being alone is totally necessary, but there's something missing when you do that. I should know, cuz that's been my life for the last few months. Without community, there's no culture, and without culture, there's just isolated ppl being weirdos, not realizing there's other weirdos out there to inspire them and be inspired by them. The way I see it, if there's something missing in your community, it's worth the effort to make it happen. Especially in a small college town like Arcata. There's a lot of young people with energy who want to be involved in cool projects, and will actually go see your weird performance art, or go to your fundraiser. Since we don't have any sizable cities nearby, we pretty much have to make stuff happen. Otherwise nothing will happen, except just existing and living your normal life. And lots of redneck shit and trim scenes out in the hills.
Flyer for a local show by Violet Crabtree
M51: What is your favorite animal? VC: I don't really have a favorite animal, but I do love goats a lot. Also, we have really cute flying stick insect pets, and they're my favorite pets. I really appreciate cats, but I'm glad i don't have one, cuz then I'd have a worm in my brain that makes me the cat's slave.
Art by Violet Crabtree