A haunted, handmade world

Artist Ali Aschman makes emotionally layered animations using handmade puppets and paper cut-outs.
Frame from Ali Aschman's "Elsewhere, The Survivors".

Handcrafted elements and stop-motion come together in the animated art of Ali Aschman, a Californian-born artist who grew up in Cape Town and is now based in Chicago. Trained in print media at both the Univeristy of Cape Town's Michaelis School of Fine Art and more recently at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), she has gravitated towards animation. Her attraction to the medium was born from a desire for “a more thorough way to tell stories”.

Aschman's work is emotionally raw. "I create handmade worlds exploring emotional states and moral grey areas," she says. "Hybridity, transformation, alienation and guilt are recurring themes. I’m interested in the brutality we inflict on one another, physically and emotionally, and the impulses we suppress."

Lately her work has become increasingly personal and introspective. “If my work can affect someone the way certain artworks, films or pieces of music affect me, then I’m doing something right,” she says.

The work she produced for her MFA degree at SAIC, called “The Thief”, is a mixed-media installation that features a seven-minute animated film. The soundtrack was composed by fellow South African Adam Donen, a noted composer and musician who now resides in Berlin.

She describes the story thus: “In an isolated house, a girl suffers a painful lack. She journeys into the forest in search of fulfillment, in this allegorical fable about guilt, desire and retribution.”

At SAIC, she took classes in stop-motion and experimental animation methods, and began blending her passion for woodcuts and etchings with stop motion puppetry.

It was at SAIC that she met with mentor Chris Sullivan, who was an advisor. She also got to meet some of the artists who were already influential to her work, including Clare Rojas and Karen Yasinsky, whose commentary has led Aschman to many insights, including a refinement of her feminist perspective.

Independent animation is not as disproportionately male-dominated as other artistic disciplines. I like the idea that my work can join a tradition of strong female artists that challenges the patriarchal canon.

Of the contemporary women animators whose work she likes, she particularly admires how Allison Schulnik and Nathalie Djurberg incorporate animation into their multidisciplinary artistic practice.

Aschman has been drawing since her childhood, when her parents encouraged her to take art classes and took her to museums, galleries and the theatre. She traces her specific interest in creating immersive environments to Disneyland’s classic “It’s a Small World” ride that she experienced at age six. The jerky movements of the ride’s jointed automatons have stuck with her throughout the years.

The work of Albrecht Durer sparked a love for printmaking. “I love the detail-oriented nature of the process, particularly etching and lithography – though in my last year at Michaelis I transferred to the painting department because I wanted to work with Virginia Mackenny, even though I didn’t make any paintings," she says. "At that point I was moving away from static images and into installation, though I was still thinking like a printmaker in layers of two-dimensional forms. I still approach art-making that way.”

While she was at SAIC, she began experimenting with techniques such as paper cutouts, creating a style of her own. “For me, the processes of animation and etching have a similar sensibility – they both require a lot of patience, working through many steps until I reach the final manifestation of the idea.

It’s such a great reward to see my print pulled from the plate, or my puppets come to life on the screen.

Her recent piece, “Elsewhere, the Survivors” (watch an excerpt below), has been shown at a number of festivals, won best animation at Milwaukee Underground Film Festival and has been selected for the CutOut Fest in Mexico.

Since graduating in 2013, she’s spent time in Chicago as an artist-in-residence at Spudnik Press, a printmaking cooperative. Her solo exhibition there, called The Wrong Story, consisted of the prints made while in residence as well as an animation made out of those prints. She recently completed a residency at The Art Students League of New York and is now artist-in-residence at the Elsewhere Museum in North Carolina. After that, she plans to return to Chicago.

What motivates her to make art? "The fact that spending my time getting the pictures in my head to exist in the real world is actually considered a legitimate role in society! That’s pretty great and continues to astonish me."