Interview: Kelly Vivanco

Kelly Vivanco is an artist whose paintings invite viewers into a fairy tale-like world of mystery, wonder, and whimsy. A native of southern California, Vivanco earned her BFA with honors in 1995 from the Laguna College of Art and Design in Laguna Beach and has exhibited her work in galleries across the U.S. Vivanco’s pieces have featured in art shows with themes ranging from old school video games to Alice Through the Looking Glass to ghosts of Halloween past. She has also illustrated editions of Hans Christian Andersen’s Thumbelina and the Grimms’ Snow-White and Rose-Red. The narratives and characters of her original paintings, meanwhile, are just as compelling as those of classic fairy tales. In Vivanco’s paintings, children with enigmatic expressions navigate wondrous, secret spaces and interact with animals depicted in ways both otherworldly and familiar. A crack in a tree provides the perfect place for hiding marbles, a wombat sips from a can of soda pop, a pair of candy-striped frogs study a map in a forest, a bee feeds off plants growing out of a boy’s hat, and another tree grows cushions on its limbs for the comfort of a daydreaming girl and cat. I interviewed Vivanco to find out about the world she creates in her work and her inspirations.

Let’s begin by talking about your influences and what kind of things inspire your art. How would you describe your paintings to someone who’s never seen them?

I would say figurative–but not photo realistic. Sort of story-book–but not specific stories. Whimsical at times. Colorful. Quietly fantastical. I never feel like I have the description just right!

Do you aim to tell a story with each of paintings? Do you have a specific narrative in mind as you start on a piece? How does a painting of yours typically develop?

I don’t aim to tell a specific story. Rather than a narrative I go for the character. I keep sketchbooks of rough ideas and use my sketches to prompt me forward on a blank panel. I don’t like to overdevelop an idea or details before I get started because then the piece would feel “spooled out” already, like it had already lost its energy. The painting develops on the panel first with a rough formation with vine charcoal (easy to wipe off with a rag), then a tighter graphite drawing and then washes of colors. I tend to outline with darker colors, but not always. Areas get filled with color then washed and textured with other colors, details are added and glazes are built up. I use acrylic colors and mediums, so I don’t have to wait too long to build up layers.

“Cushion Tree”

You’ve created paintings for recent editions of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Thumbelina” and the Grimms’ “Snow-White and Rose-Red.” What drew you to those stories? How different is it to create based on set narratives, like a classic fairy tale, versus making up your own narrative (if any) as you go? Do you feel you have to stick to any specific parameters or limitations when you paint “on commission” or according to a set narrative? Continue reading Interview: Kelly Vivanco

Interview: Ram Devineni

A note for readers: this interview mentions sexual violence.

Ram Devineni is a filmmaker, publisher, and the founder of Rattapallax films and magazine. His films include the documentaries The Human Tower (2012) and The Russian Woodpecker (2015), which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Devineni is also the creator of Priya’s Shakti, an augmented-reality comic book series featuring a superhero who fights gender-based violence in India. Priya’s Shakti was inspired by the gang rape and death in New Delhi in 2012 of a young woman returning home on a bus at night after seeing a movie with a male friend. The crime sparked protests across India as well as conversations about gender-based violence, patriarchy, and victim-blaming. In Priya’s Shakti, Priya is a young woman attacked by a group of men who finds her power (shakti) to help other survivors with the aid of the Hindu god and goddess Shiva and Parvati and a tiger companion. In the comic’s sequel, Priya’s Mirror, Priya uses a mirror to free a group of acid attack survivors held prisoner by an acid-green demon-king, Ahankar, who himself has become imprisoned by toxic masculinity. In addition to rich and colorful illustrations and mythological characters, the comics feature augmented-reality technology that brings to life the stories and voices of real women who’ve survived gender-based violence. Intrigued by this extraordinary project, I contacted Devineni to find out more about the Hindu, Indian, and mythological elements of the Priya series.

Why did you decide to create this comic series? There seem to be many different people and groups involved. Can you describe their different roles and contributions?

Although I am the creator of this project, I really consider this a team effort. Everyone played a valuable part in the creation of the comic book and project. I met [artist] Dan Goldman at a StoryCode Meetup in New York City, and [we] hit it off on the spot. I think he signed on the next day. Dan is a remarkable artist and philosopher–he has brought a new perspective and look to the Hindu gods. His design is based on deep respect and affection for Hindu mythology and the power of the image. Each page is a stand-alone painting that can be mounted in a gallery. [Producer] Lina [Srivastava] has vast experience creating social impact strategies for documentary films and art projects. She has been instrumental in developing partnerships with major NGOs. She recently set up a partnership between the project and Apne Aap Women Worldwide–one of India’s leading NGOs supporting at-risk girls and women by ensuring them access to their rights, and to deter the purchase of sex through policy and social change. Vikas K. Menon co-wrote “Priya’s Shakti” and Paromita Vohra co-wrote “Priya’s Mirror.”

This is the backstory of how the comic book started:

I was in Delhi when the horrible gang rape happened on the bus in 2012, and was involved [in] the protests that soon followed. Like many people, I was horrified by what had happened and angered by the indifference exhibited by government authorities at every level. There was an enormous outcry in particular from young adults and teenagers–both women and men. At one of the protests, my colleague and I spoke to a Delhi police officer and asked him for his opinion on what had happened on the bus. Basically the officer’s response was that “no good girl walks home at night.” Implying that she probably deserved it, or at least provoked the attack. I knew then that the problem of sexual violence in India was not a legal issue; rather it was a cultural problem. A cultural shift had to happen, especially views towards the role of women in modern society. Deep-rooted patriarchal views needed to be challenged.

For about a year, I traveled around India and Southeast Asia learning from poets, philosophers, activists, and sociologists working for NGOs focused on gender-based violence. Talking with several rape survivors, I realized how difficult it was for them to seek justice and how much their lives were constantly under threat after they reported the crime. Their family, local community, and even the police discouraged them from pursuing criminal action against their attackers. The burden of shame was placed on the victim and not the perpetrators. This created a level of impunity among men to commit more rapes.

Continue reading Interview: Ram Devineni

Editor’s Note: A Border of Sky

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Borrando La Frontera

In 2011, artist Ana Teresa Fernández painted swathes of the Tijuana border wall pale blue. From a distance, these painted sections blended with the sky so well that the wall seemed to disappear: it ceased, for a moment, to be a barricade, a reminder that the Global North is fortifying itself against the Global South. Fernández’s work reminds me of the fairy tales of my childhood, where the edges of forests are boundaries between known and unknown worlds. In those stories, borders function as thresholds.

In Ambos Nogales, where I volunteer at el Comedor, an aid station and soup kitchen for recently deported migrants, the border wall starts outside of town. It’s a rust-colored snake that wriggles across the hill crests before descending into the city itself. It cleaves the broad avenues and beige-brick buildings of sleepy Arizona from the narrow streets and tumble of vendor carts and pharmacies of urban Sonora–cleaves city from suburb, Mexico from the US, “them” from “us.” On Sundays, families picnic along the fence, cousins with Mexican citizenship passing Coca-Cola and condiments to cousins with US citizenship, holding hands instead of embracing. The border here is porous enough for fingers, voices, shared meals; for lives to be lived across and between–but not permeable enough for whole bodies.

I’m a gring@ from north of the line; I live in a country where politicians and public intellectuals fuel fears that legions of people from Mexico and Central America are crossing north to take jobs away from US citizens and to, God forbid, speak Spanish while browsing the supermarket. In his poem “187 Reasons Why Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border,” Juan Felipe Herrera writes, “CAN’T CROSS because ‘xenophobia’ is a politically correct term.” Secure borders! US conservatives scream, and Xenophobia! the liberals respond–a cloaked word that doesn’t sound quite as bad or honest as racist.

I also live in a country that just elected Donald Trump to the presidency–a man who once said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with them. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime.” But he’s wrong–those are not most of the people crossing north, and they’re certainly not most of the people I’ve met and talked to: undocumented millennials who grew up in the United States, were deported, and are trying to get back to Chicago, Phoenix, or California; families fleeing gang violence and economic poverty in Honduras and El Salvador; a Oaxacan university student whose visa application was rejected by the Mexican government because he looked “too indigenous,” and came from a family without wealth or social standing.

Herrera’s poem also includes the portentous line, “CAN’T CROSS because brown is the color of the future,” which hints at the dream that someday Mexicans, Central Americans, and other migrants will be able to travel north freely. Herrera and other writers and artists are making a new mythology of the border: Prefiguring what could be and should be, they transform the militarized line into a threshold. “I see a whole generation … wandering around // a continent without a name,” Guillermo Gómez-Peña writes in “Freefalling Towards a Borderless Future,”  “Standing on the map of my political desires // I toast to a borderless future // (I raise my wine glass toward the moon).” Queer, Chicana writer Gloria Anzáldua–who grew up in the borderlands of south Texas–considers the northward migrations a “return odyssey to the historical/mythological Aztlán,” the original Southwestern homeland of the Aztecs which, according to Anzaldúa, they “left … in 1168 AD,” bound for the Valley of Mexico. “This land was Mexican once, // was Indian always // and is. // And     will be again,” she writes in her poem El otro Mexico.

In October 2015, Ana Teresa Fernández and a group of volunteers painted a 50-foot section of the border wall in Nogales, Mexico the color of the sky. In April 2016, volunteers in the Mexican border cities of Ciudad Juárez, Mexicali, and Agua Prieta did the same. With each brush stroke, they enacted the project’s name, Borrando La Frontera. They offered those on the south side of the wall a vision of what they might someday see looking north–after the steel, barbed wire, and Border Patrol trucks that divide the two countries dissolve, there will be nothing but houses, schools, mountains, mesquite trees, clouds in a hot desert sky.


This Editor’s Note was written by Tiny Donkey Editor Wren Awry.


If you’re interested in supporting direct humanitarian aid to end migrant deaths and people of color-led pro-immigrant groups in southern Arizona, please consider volunteering with or donating to the following organizations:

No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes (Arizona)
Aguilas Del Desierto Inc. (S. Cali & Arizona)
South Texas Human Rights Center (South Texas)
Derechos Humanos
Protection Network Action Fund/ Fondo de Acción de las Redes de Protección
Mariposas Sin Fronteras
Southside Worker Center

Editor’s Note: The They-Child Grows Wings

At the edge of the forest, the they-child saw the one-clawed bird, its feathers glinting cerulean in the sun. The bird stopped preening itself and stared; the they-child put their fingers to their neck and slowly shook, until the mask they wore wiggled loose. Off came the long auburn hair, the blue eyes ringed with sleeplessness, the mud-red collar buttoned to the chin. Underneath it the they-child was something else, something more splendid and strange, for the first time. They lifted the girl-mask up as a sort of offering. The bird extended its one giant talon and wrapped it around the part of the mask that had hugged the they-child’s skull. The bird started to fly, slowly at first–slow enough that the they-child could follow–and then faster, and the child found themselves lifting off the ground and gliding with new wings above the forest.

979ff707-61c5-434e-8459-22ad9a5b07b7I’m writing a fairy tale. It’s a very simple tale, with familiar archetypes and motifs: a young person, a bird, the woods, transformation. But it’s a tale that Sotheby’s–the auction house that owns Toyen’s Message from the Forest, the painting my story is based on–tells differently. In their version, there is no mask, no avian helper. “An owl-like spectre bearing in its one remaining claw the severed head of a girl,” says Sotheby’s of the painting; they also refer to Toyen as “she.”[1] The transmasculine Surrealist has been rendered into a woman; the painting, too, has been broken into its most obvious component parts: “owl-like spectre,” “one remaining claw,” “severed head of a girl.” I want more from it, I see more in it. So I read the painting queerly–through my own experiences as a non-binary genderqueer person, through what I know about Toyen–and try to riddle out a message from the forest that makes sense to me.

This is the story I choose to write: the girl-face as mask, the one-taloned bird as helper, the they-child running freely, as themselves, into the woods at last. I think of the obvious parallels between my life and the story: my tomboyish adulation of the woods as a child, and the avian name I chose at twenty in an attempt to be proud of my small stature and jumpy mannerisms, to give myself a non-binary name that fit my non-binary gender. I think, too, about which story Toyen would have preferred–mine or Sotheby’s, or neither. I struggle to imagine Toyen–an avowed anarchist, who hid his artistic partner, the poet Jindřich Heisler, of Jewish descent, from the Nazis–seeing nature, rather than humanity, as evil. Though perhaps he used the brightly colored bird as a stand-in for sinister human acts: Sotheby’s does say, “An image of anxiety and helplessness, it gave rise to the series of twelve drawings that []he embarked on over the next two years, influenced by the Nazis occupation of Prague, entitled Spectres of the Desert.” Sotheby’s has, I’m sure, proper art historians writing their descriptions, with proper training in historical context and technique–although I wonder what their biases make them overlook, or what they choose to ignore.

When I try to find something transgressive behind Message from the Forest–a bit of overlooked history, or a queer reading of the painting–perhaps I’ll only find my own reflection: the face of a strange and overgrown they-child standing, at the edge of the woods, girl-mask outstretched, hands trembling, wings pushing out through my shoulder blades. I’ll offer up the-gender-which-is-not-me-but-has-been-ascribed-to-me to my avian friend, who takes it and leads me deep into the woods, over rock and vine and river, to a place where all the birds are singing. Where I, too, will be a bird.


This editor’s note was written by Tiny Donkey editor Wren Awry.


[1] This is common across the internet and in academic articles I’ve found on Toyen (Czech, 1902-1980). It is well-known that Toyen used the masculine case for himself and lived as a man yet art history seems to insist on presenting him as a cisgendered woman.