Signe Baumane is a Latvian-born illustrator and animator who is not afraid to use her art to discuss serious–and personal–subjects such as sex, depression and suicide. To date, Signe’s most famous work is the visually stunning and wholly gripping movie titled “Rocks in My Pockets.” This beautifully animated film is essentially an artistic documentary chronicling her family’s long history battling depression and suicidal tendencies. Signe herself has struggled with mental health problems for many years and she uses her creativity to bring these serious–and often taboo–subjects to light and make it socially acceptable to discuss such troubled feelings. Incredibly, despite the dark subject matter, “Rocks in My Pockets” is laced with humor, gorgeously portrayed metaphors and fascinating–albeit often tragic–characters.
Although she was born and raised in Latvia, Signe moved to Russia in her late teens and earned a BA in Philosophy from Moscow University in 1989. After graduation, she began working as an animator and garnered a position as animator at Dauka Animation Studio. Over the next several years, local television aired several animated commercials that Baumane had designed and directed. In 1991 she produced her first animated film titled “The Witch and the Cow” of which she was the scriptwriter, director, designer, and animator. In the early 1990s, Signe also worked as a children’s book illustrator in Moscow.
Signe moved to New York City in 1995 and currently still resides in the city. She is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She was also a 2005 Fellow in Film of the New York Foundation for the Arts. Moreover, Signe is a teacher who taught animation at Pratt Institute. To date, her films have been screened at several prominent film festivals including Sundance, Tribeca, Berlin, Venice and Ottawa.
Recently, Signe Baumane spoke to the Examiner about her experiences working as an animator and her hopes for the future:
Meagan Meehan (M.M.): What influenced you to become an illustrator?
Signe Baumane (S.B.): I consider myself mainly an animator, although I sometimes do illustration work. But the illustration industry has changed a lot in recent years, so I haven’t done much of that since 2005. I have been influenced by Eastern European poster art and illustrations, and most notably, Czech animator Jan Svankmayer and Polish-Lithuanian illustrator Stasys Eidrigevicius. If you Google “Polish movie posters” or “Eastern European political posters” you’ll see some samples of work that has influenced me. Those influences come from my background, where I grew up. Coming to New York City in 1995 infused me with American influences, like independent animator Bill Plympton. As to why I went into animation, it was a lucky chance that brought me to it. I was studying philosophy for 5 years, and I was supposed to go on to teach it, but I didn’t want to do that. A friend of mine told me she liked my doodles, and she wanted to see them move, so she said I should go into animation. I didn’t know what animation was, but it sounded better than teaching philosophy! So I went into animation, learned it from the ground up, and I have no regrets about that.
M.M.: In terms of subject matter, what are your cartoons about and what inspired the ideas for them?
S.B.: I have made 15 animated shorts and one animated feature film. I have also illustrated a few books. The inspiration for each one came from a different place, but in general, my main interests, the subjects for my work, are interpersonal (love) relationships (“Tiny Shoes”, “Birth”, “Teat Beat of Sex”), body matters and functions (“Dentist”, “Veterinarian”, “Birth”), and sex (“Teat Beat of Sex”, “Love Story”, “Five Fucking Fables”). I like exploring surreal imagery, visual metaphors, visual poetry.
M.M.: You are also an animator. How did you get interested in making movies?
S.B.: I like telling stories. Since I was a child, I’ve been telling stories. The moment I learned to write, I started writing my stories. My first published story was printed in a local newspaper when I was 14. But I am also very visual. So, naturally, the two things–storytelling and visual imagery–come together in my work in animated films. Animators and illustrators are often not considered as “serious artists” or “fine artists”. Animation in Latvia is considered as a form of applied arts, like tapestry or knitting, because animated, illustrated images serve other purposes than an image itself would – they have to tell a story. But I disagree with this assessment. I find illustration and animation, if used well, to be potentially the most sophisticated form of art. It’s just often been misused, misappropriated and dismissed as “applied arts or crafts for children”. A big mistake.
M.M.: Your film “Rocks in My Pockets” has been very successful with both audiences and critics. Described as “a comedy about depression”, what do you hope people will learn from this film?
S.B.: The film was released in 2014, and since then, it has received a lot of positive feedback. I have talked to audience members who said that the film helped them to finally understand their loved ones’ depression, and to be able to forgive them. Other people told me that after watching the film, they decided that it was all right to talk about their pain and that it changed their lives.
I feel that because the film comes directly from my heart, it reaches other people’s hearts more
effectively. Of course, my strange sense of humor can deter access to the meaning of some images, for some people. But I do believe in the power of laughter. Laughter can be the best medicine when it comes to our inner pain and suffering.
M.M.: As far as working in the arts, what has been your most rewarding experience so far?
S.B.: Being an artist is not easy – there is always a financial struggle and economic risks, especially if you are doing something that is not really for mainstream audiences. Often, I am the one generating my new projects, based on my current inspiration and need to tell certain stories. There is no boss breathing down my neck, impatiently waiting for me to finish my work. That means that I have to be highly self-motivated, and/or find a meaning of my work outside my little self. That has sharpened my senses. It also helps me to climb out of bed when I am depressed and unable to move. If I don’t sit down at my table by 9am, the project will not move forward. Nobody will do the work for me, no one can replace me. So I get up, overcome my pain and do my work. It has been good. The reward for this effort is in the reactions of other people – they see my work, they laugh, they cringe, they cry, they are provoked to look at life differently, from a new point of view.
M.M.: How has MoCCA helped your career?
S.B.: There is not just one thing, one organization that has helped my career, there have been a few, and MoCCA has been one of them. When I first moved to New York, I was introduced to the local animation community through ASIFA-East. This community helped me to make NYC my home – I found friends, support, competition and a venue for my work. As with any community, it is all about giving and taking. I give back by organizing animation shows, and promoting the work of other animators. I was first introduced to MoCCA in 2001, shortly after 9/11. Lawrence Klein was organizing this new museum for cartoon art and was reaching out to the local community of artists, cartoonists and animators for advice and support. I loved the idea and gave it a full endorsement. Later, Lawrence exhibited my drawings dedicated to the 9/11 attacks as part of MoCCA’s themed exhibition. When MoCCA first organized its annual Arts Festival, they invited Bill Plympton and me to do a panel on NYC animation. It was a great success and we did it a few more times after that. Having a table at the MoCCA Arts Fest has helped me to promote my animation work to artists who would not usually seek out animated films. I’ve met a lot of great artists and cartoonists at the MoCCA Arts Fest. I’m so grateful and excited that the Society of Illustrators decided to take over and continue the MoCCA Arts Festival. I believe it is a very necessary festival for artists. One other organization that was crucial for my career has been the non-profit organization Women Make Movies. Because of their fiscal sponsorship, I was able to make “Rocks in My Pockets”. They also support women filmmakers with series of workshops, lectures, panels and screenings.
M.M.: What would be your “dream project” if you could work on anything?
S.B.: Every new project I start is my dream project.
M.M.: Where do you hope to be, career wise, in ten years?
S.B.: That will be in 2026? Ha! “The Marriage Project” will take me four years to make. By 2026, I hope to have finished two more animated features. I am hoping to reach a place in my career, 10 years from now, where I would be able to hire more people to speed up the animation production process. I have so many stories to tell and it is very frustrating when one story can take 4 or 5 years to make. I also hope that in 10 years, animation will be regarded by mainstream audiences as a sophisticated medium for adults. I think we have to say “goodbye” to the current misconception that animation is just for children. I am looking forward to the future of animation’s Golden Age.
M.M.: Is there anything else that you would like to mention?
S.B.: My film “Rocks in My Pockets” is now available on iTunes, Vimeo on Demand, Amazon and VHX platforms. It has a 100% Fresh score on RottenTomatoes.com, which is very difficult to achieve. People can go to the film’s website if they want more information about the film or where to see it. I’ll be screening the film at the Enzian Theater in Orlando, Florida on June 25, as part of their “Science on Screen” program, and I’ll be there to introduce the film. I usually give away a few drawings from “Rocks” (I have about 30,000 of them) and a poster from the film. And I’m working now on something for the San Francisco Arts Commission which is two 1-minute animated shorts for their “Peephole Cinema Project” that will be installed at the San Francisco airport, so if you’re flying in or out of that city, please keep an eye out for my work!
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To learn more about Signe Baumane, visit her official website. To learn more about “Rocks in My Pockets” see here. To read a storybook animated by Signe, see here.