To put it simply, 2020 was a difficult year for everyone. As young creatives having recently left university and working hard to find who we are and where we fit in, we were suddenly faced with a global pandemic. Now we enter a new age of social networking in social distancing. We wanted to hear from some young creatives who we feel are extremely talented. We wanted to know how they work and how 2020 has impacted the way they go about their creative process.
One of the first people we decided we wanted to interview was Kathryn Leviton.
When I first met Kat at university we didn’t really interact much, our social bubbles (pre-pandemic bubbles; so more metaphorical then government mandated) and class schedules were never aligned to start up much of a conversation. I mostly knew Kat from her work and, I must admit, it made me jealous. It seemed so effortless and so stylistically clear. She seemed to already know how to use her own artistic narrative style to create these absolutely captivating worlds. I very much watched from the audience as her film Fred’s Head developed and flourished. I remember I naively dismissed the early development viewings of her film and quickly had to eat my own hat as I watched the film develop into a wonderful short film experience which I often watch on repeat.
Watching it again I wished I paid closer attention in university to the things Kat was doing, because I feel I would have learnt a lot. That’s why after university, when I started to organize Studio Mobin, Kathryn was one of the first people I approached to talk to about it. To put it simply, Kathryn Levinton is an amazing artist that the world should watch out for. I have no doubt that she will make amazing work in her lifetime and I eagerly wait to see it all.
When we thought of the idea to write about young creatives impacted by 2020 we knew we had to talk to Kat. We simply needed to learn more about how she creates the artwork we love so much. Luckily we had the chance to organize the following interview which Francesco (partner in crime of Studio Mobin) led, and after a quick catch up we started with the questions. Here is what we learnt.
"I think I enjoy drawing my characters, and I like the way they come across as lucid or naïve, even not really knowing what’s going around them"
It seems to me like your work is not informed by the outside world as much as influenced by more personal matters, do you feel like that’s the case?
Yeah, it definitely has an essence of coming from a personal side – and definitely [has] a lot of things you could pick up on and interpret in different ways and sort of reflect in a different way if you’re doing it, if that makes sense [laughs] so yeah, I definitely agree with that.
And that’s true also in the short film you directed, Fred’s Head. That it was born with the idea of exploring being isolated – is that right?
Yeah, it’s really cool to hear people after seeing the film and kind of like come up with their interpretation of it and then parts of it are totally what I thought and some parts I hadn’t even thought about but it would totally be interpreted like it, so it was really cool listening to other people after watching the film.
Do you feel like how other people see the film has changed after the current situation, with self isolation, that it somehow added an extra layer of meaning?
Yes, with everything going on now, like Szymon (editor of Studio Mobin) was saying the other day talking about Prawta (director of Towels), about how the meaning can change over time with the circumstances people are in and it’s definitely changed for me as well - I watch it again and it’s actually really relevant now in a totally different way.
It’s something that’s happening to a lot of different artists as well. Self-isolation, a pandemic, it’s not something many people really imagined would happen – it’s fascinating to see how it has shifted the meaning of some work.
Your work features quite open spaces with small people that rarely seem in control, inhabiting these almost abstract worlds. Do you have a specific feeling you want to invoke or is it something that’s purely coming from you?
I think I enjoy drawing my characters, and I like the way they come across as lucid or naïve, even not really knowing what’s going around them – and then I like, in terms of open spaces and stuff, I kind of like just how insignificant the background sometimes makes the character look. Recently I’ve been doing it more because whereas a year ago I wasn’t really doing many backgrounds, I’ve been leaning into scenery a bit more, it’s really fun to play around with sizes and stuff, I’ve been drawing a lot of mountains. I don’t know why I like how insignificant my characters look, I think it’s coming from somewhere inside me where I don’t want to take the characters too seriously and I like the statement of it.
"I think it’s really subconscious, I just start drawing what comes out of my head and then I enjoy figuring out where it came from – why did I decide to draw that."
It’s something I really like about your work, these tiny characters in dreamy open spaces. Would you say that in your work meaning comes first or is it something that comes later in your creative process?
It definitely comes later a lot of the time. But then, when I think about it, I probably think about it subconsciously while I’m drawing and then discover it afterwards.
I think it’s really subconscious, I just start drawing what comes out of my head and then I enjoy figuring out where it came from – why did I decide to draw that. I definitely don’t sit and plan too much, but recently I try to start off with a sentence or something or a phrase or I’ve been reading a lot of books which I will pull out a line or two from and I kind of digest it and I start to draw something and be like “okay, that’s what I was trying to say”
So you would say that your work is really spontaneous.
How has your creative process changed during 2020, has your state of mind or your perception of the world changed, and has it made you more involved in your art or less – how did you live that shift?
Yeah definitely a lot! Maybe I didn’t realise at the time but looking back now it has changed. I took a more traditional approach as the lockdown began, and it was something very enjoyable to do to get the paints out and start focusing a little more in illustration and a one image kind of thing, earlier I was focusing a lot on animation because that’s my main thing, but the way you approach animation is really different to illustration even though I combine the two a lot.
I did a couple of GIFs where I was using pencils and stuff and that was just to keep sane.
I did too, it’s interesting seeing this shift happen on a global scale – it was kind of like escapism for everyone.
I think it’s funny because that big landscape thing I did started a lot when I was in lockdown, that was definitely the way my mind was trying to escape the confines - being in a house, in a room, so I definitely took a lot of inspiration from feeling contained. And that works for me because I was running with that already a lot before, and that fed right into it.
Do you think that was also influenced by the sudden huge amount of time most people just got in their hands?
[laughs] yeah, I mean I was pretty lucky that for the first chunk of quarantine I was animating at a computer and that really pushed me to a point where I felt so trapped.
I mean I felt like that anyway because I was freelancing in London from the start of this year so I was literally stuck in a room in my flat all day on my own anyway, I think a lot of freelancers will understand that feeling that animators feel a lot anyway. But when you’re doing it 24/7 and then you go into lockdown you feel it WAY more, and I tried to escape it a lot.
It’s like work-wise not much has changed for freelancers, but before lockdown I was free to go wherever I wanted but now, despite the fact that work hasn’t changed, you feel trapped.
[laughs] yeah, it’s like you took the last thing we had
You know, being able to go out on the daily and exercise and stuff was a big help.
Like I did any of that!
"I don’t want to have a plan anymore. You can have aspirations and goals and I definitely have that, but you can’t expect them to come true, and that was a massive thing to grasp this year."
Going back to Fred’s Head, do you think working on it has changed the way you go about your artworks?
It was definitely a breakthrough moment where I was like “yeah, this is how I work!” – I had no idea before I started making it of what the hell I was doing with it. When you’re directing you literally take it from writing it and storyboards and try to figure out how to put together these sequences and that was a massive challenge for me. I think it was definitely key for me, but I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t done that. If I didn’t do it, I might not have felt like I could make a film or direct something.
If you were to go back knowing what you know now is there anything you would change about the film?
Definitely, when I look back and watch it I always pick up on little things, but then again that’s how my brain was working at that time. That was my level of understanding of animation but I think now if I started another film I’d be a lot more organized, maybe less stubborn.
How do you feel about people talking about it, posting, commenting your film now that it’s been posted online after a few years it’s been made? Is it overwhelming?
I think it wasn’t as overwhelming as it was right after finishing it and sending it to festivals, at this point I’m so used to it and I’ve seen it so much it wasn’t that dramatic for me. But it was cool to see people talking about it online and other animators and illustrators on Instagram seeing it for the first time. Wow, people actually think it’s still a good film, they actually like it so I think that was surprising – maybe because I thought it was totally irrelevant now [laughs]
Szymon: the promo was fantastic as well!
As a director, how do you keep it fresh and stay critical after you’ve seen it a million times? Y’know you might hate it but how do you figure out what’s actual hatred for something that doesn’t work and what is just getting used to it?
I think because I took this fresh approach with the promo, I brought new elements of how I am painting now to how I was drawing Fred’s Head and I think I brought this fresh approach but then it still had the essence of the film. I think that helped me keep a bit of a spark. I didn’t think it was terrible now just because I’d seen it so much, but I think that was just fun to go back and redraw the same things with a different approach and how I work now.
"...I learned to be less hard on myself, we’re all going through this crazy time, it’s okay to not want to make art for a bit."
Would you lead a team again or do you think you’re more of a solo player?
The majority of work I’ve had I’ve been working on my own. After university I was doing this internship and I was in a team environment but the projects I was working on were independent and I was working on my own which was super cool because I was figuring out what was my style and kind of where did I fit in with other artists and teams of artists. But I really enjoy working in a team and I think nowadays because I’ve done a lot of independent work and freelancing, whenever I am working in a team I love it, especially after lockdown you just want to be working with other people, learning other styles, bringing yourself out of your own heads. You have to step back and take inspiration from other people, other parts of animation, I’ve been researching and reading and watching old films a lot during lockdown, you definitely tend to undervalue getting inspiration when you’re looking for your own style.
Do you think the ‘social media experience’ has impacted your work in any way? Either positively or negatively?
Definitely has. From uni I started my art account and that’s where I got a lot of inspiration and knowledge of other artists and animators in the industry.
I’m on it a lot, and I see negative and positive things all the time, lots of times I just take a step back and ask myself what I’m actually doing, and those times are when I’m second guessing myself on posting something just because it might not fit with my feed or what I’m doing might be a bit random and I get a little bit of pressure thinking that people won’t like it, but then I take a step back and think “what are you doing?!”.
I think part of that is ego, and I hate that; it makes me want to just stop doing it, which I think it’s bad because Instagram is great for a lot of things like exposure and getting inspiration. But I think, with that knowledge, a lot of times you have to stop yourself and take a break and figure out if it’s impacting you negatively or positively.
You just have to ask yourself questions and double check yourself on them.
Do you experience creative blocks and how do you tackle that?
I had a bit of one during lockdown when I didn’t want to get out my laptop or my tablet and I didn’t want to make anything and it was a downward spiral literally for a month or so, there was definitely a chunk of time I couldn’t get out of it. And I think that with me I’m always one extreme to the next – I’m either in a massive creative block or I’m not.
I hear a lot of people had creative blocks during lockdown, and I think it was difficult because there was so much pressure from all these people seemingly doing so much art and I was thinking “why can’t I bring myself to do all this art?!”. But I learned to be less hard on myself, we’re all going through this crazy time, it’s okay to not want to make art for a bit.
That’s also the hard part of social media, seeing people doing stuff all the time and feeling like you’re falling behind.
When people post multiple art pieces a day, I feel that’s crazy and I don’t know how they do it but it’s fine, you should just go at your own pace. It’s about accepting the way you work; sometimes you have to just stop looking at it.
Did the subject matter of your art change during 2020?
I guess the feeling of being lost is a big message. I was playing around with that before but never as much as I felt it this year. I think when I started off everything was a victory, everything was kind of a success because I was doing it for the first time; and I think this year has just been a massive ‘what’s going on’ and what came with that is the feeling of being lost, and kind of accepting to not know what I’m supposed to be doing and what’s next for me. And that comes with freelancing because this is the first year I started doing that, and with that you always have to figure out what to do next. It’s not really out of choice, but certainly the circumstances didn’t help with it and you just have to roll with it, it was just a whirlwind of emotions.
Do you think this has changed what you wanted to do with your future, or your future plans?
Oh, that changes all the time.
That’s fair [laughs]
I don’t want to have a plan anymore. You can have aspirations and goals and I definitely have that, but you can’t expect them to come true, and that was a massive thing to grasp this year. I had these projects and so many of them were dropping like flies because of the circumstances and stuff and it was my first wave of the feeling of rejection within the industry, it was definitely a hard pill to swallow. But I think it’s really great to go through it early instead of getting everything you want and all the successes only to deal with rejection later on.
I think dealing with rejection in the industry was hard but now I just try to come with that mentality that it just wasn’t meant for me and I was just looking in the wrong place. And when I think like that everything gets so much easier. The other week I had an interview for this in-house animator job, and on the outside I thought it was great, I’m going to have security and I’m going to be in a team and stuff – but the work itself was completely not me, motion graphics explainer stuff and I was just so ready to accept that to get out of having to do the freelance stuff. After I didn’t get that I was actually so glad, because I would have just given up.
Kind of a way of tackling the feeling of being stuck in a rut.
Yeah. It’s just the yearning for a massive change, you’d be up for anything because you want to change dramatically but it’s not always the best thing to do.
I also think that in your work, as an external observer, you don’t seem stuck in a rut at all because I see you do different stuff all the time – like gifs and paintings and comics – and experimenting with all these styles and mediums that always feel like ‘you’ because you have such a distinct style.
People have said that to me before and I haven’t registered it a lot of the time, I know I have this style and people tell me that they see me [in my artwork] and I’m like “where?!”. [laughs]
I think artists always struggle with finding their own style, or their own voice. And they feel like their style is all over the place – but I don’t think that’s the case with you. About that comic I mentioned, tell me more about it.
I always known about comics from a more illustrative background because I had a lot of friends in illustration and they would do comics for their projects – in lockdown I was living with this illustrator called Bart and he primarily makes comics and he’s so amazing and he would give me illustration books with comics in them and I explored that and I figured it was an entirely different way of having a narrative.
He suggested to me to do this brief by Kush called “The End” and they basically said to make a comic based on that theme and I thought to make my first attempt and I had so much fun with it! It was like making an animation but without all the effort of making an animation [laughs]. I definitely want to do more of that, it’s a whole other world I haven’t really been involved with before.
Like you said it’s a whole different creative shore. I’m looking forward to the next one!
I feel like I have to now, everybody’s been telling me to [laughs].
Do your family and friends understand your work and support what you do? Does it impact your work in any way?
They are so supportive! They love everything I do, I made this horrific painting the other day and my mom took a look at it and was like “yeah that’s going on the wall” [laughs] so my mom has got all my unapproved paintings and drawings on the wall. She loves it!
They were so into Fred’s Head when it came out, and they all got it as well in their own different ways. And of course it touched on family topics but I didn’t even have to explain myself because I think they just totally got it, we’re on the same wavelength. I come from quite an artistic family; they all just love my work, I’m very lucky.
I think this is the end of our interview so tell us, what’s next for you?
Well, I’m back home now. I moved home after going around a bit and I kind of built a little studio for myself in the garden and it’s such a little sanctuary, it has definitely given me motivation and all these ideas for different projects, and now I’ve got the space and the time to actually do them so I think it’s the first time I’ve felt sort of comfortable enough to start [these projects]. I’ve been painting, drawing, I’ve got this massive long stretch of canvas material and I’m going to basically embroidery and also draw on it and make this whole long scroll-like thing. Oh, and also the comics! I definitely want to try and do another comic.
I’m also working with my friend Grace, who’s an amazing poet and we want to work on some projects, maybe even animation spoken word poetry.
It’s been great talking to you, we all love your work and are looking forward to what you’ve got coming up next.
It’s been so nice, I feel motivated a bit more now [laughs].
We thank Kat for her time and for letting us peek behind the curtain of her creative life. Her work is often dreamlike in quality and can make you feel a range of different emotions. Whether feeling melancholic and feeling dwarfed by the large and strange environments or feeling joyful at the bright playful shapes and colours inhabited by the cheerful characters.
It was interesting to hear how 2020 has pushed her back to more traditional mediums and introduced a stronger feeling of confusion and the sensation of feeling lost in her vast backgrounds with small characters trying to almost make sense of the place they were flung into. What we love is that even though 2020 has been difficult, Kat’s work still uses joyful warm tones and colours and can still bring warmth to the audience and viewers - which is something we need now more than ever.
Her developing the free flow process and allowing herself to let the art be created without trying to limit it has been inspiring to say the least. This to us explains why the worlds she creates feel so freeing and almost appearing effortless. We know, of course, that her craft is in fact not effortless, as she works very hard to gather inspiration and is constantly critiquing it and looking for new ways to push it into new areas. It is evident that Kat is not afraid to approach something out of the box to keep a project fresh, as proven by her wonderful Fred’s Head promo that we strongly advise you to watch on her Instagram profile.
This is just one of many things that proves to us that Kathryn Leviton is an artist to look out for, as we all know she could have just cut a regular trailer for Fred’s Head and people would find that totally acceptable. However, she took the time to create something that stands as its own piece of art, not only promoting the film she created but heightening it and changing its context. Kat is seemingly always looking and pushing for new ways to evolve her work and even though to an outsider's audience perspective it almost seems like she has finalized her style, she has not stopped finding new ways to push it in every form. We watch with eyes peeled extremely excited for whatever Kathryn Leviton creates next. We are rooting for you… no pressure!
Be sure to watch her debut short film Fred’s Head and follow her on social media.