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Filmmaker Martha Colburn Shares Experimental Spirit

Animator Takes Residence in Classroom

Martha Colburn with Students

Filmmaker and animator Martha Colburn, left, guides students through making their own experimental film during her visit as Artist-in-Residence for Center for Arts & Ideas.

By David Perry

Art is not for the lazy. 

When animator, filmmaker and Center for Arts and Ideas Artist-in-Residence Martha Colburn held court at the University in March, students got an eyeful of the painstaking work that goes into each of her short but potent experimental films.

They watched iconic housewife images sprout fangs, witnessed pilgrims introduce Native Americans to methamphetamine and saw seminal Colburn footage, altered from instructional films found in thrift stores.

And then, students in two classes got to try it themselves.

Colburn was there every step of the way, helping small groups of art students create and shoot their own mini-films. Meanwhile, Colburn was working on her own piece. The result was a 40-second experimental film, which emerged from Jehanne-Marie Gavarini’s two-hour Foundations class on March 27. 

Colburn showed the piece later that afternoon, when she spoke and presented her work to students, faculty and the public at large. On March 28, she returned to the classroom to help Ellen Wetmore’s Digital Foundations students create films of their own.

Using a 35mm camera, students employed a stop-motion technique to push an image of supermodel Kate Upton up through a jar branded “Lard.” By clicking the shutter and moving the image in small increments, they animated the images in a choppy motion.“This is pretty amazing,” said Kristen Racamato, a 19-year-old sophomore graphic design major. “It’s really fun to see and work with somebody who has made it in the art world. I mean, she is showing us how to do this. Some of her work takes, like, a year to make.”

Colburn is known for her innovation and do-it-yourself approach. Her films are singular, mixing punches of color with abundant energy and using such devices as a hole-punch to deface found frames. She works in increments, and she prefers analog to digital.

She is deeply involved in the music that accompanies her work, and has toured with the band Deerhoof and works with Sean Lennon’s band, Mystical Weapons. 

While the Pennsylvania native told students she went to art school, she says she found video “cheap and empty at the time.” She ended up mostly self-taught in the techniques she would develop and use to make her films, creating them from found Super 8 stock. 

“That way I could make a boring film more interesting,” she said.

Over time, Colburn’s work has grown more provocative and political. A recent piece, created as a public service film for the New York radio station WBAI, decries fracking, the controversial means of harvesting oil and gas from beneath the Earth’s surface.  Colburn’s PSA — which explains how fracking results in poisoned water and polluted air — shows George Washington drinking from a goblet of fire.

Colburn, who splits her time between in New York City and Holland, is popular with college students and professors. The feeling is mutual.

“I love doing this because of the all-inclusiveness of it,” she said as her second class here cleaned up. “Everyone has their own skills and they work with one another on a project. Maybe they don’t even like film, but they all bring some skill to this.”