Q&A: A Conversation with Visual Artist Nina Paley
by Tresca Weinstein
Nina Paley finds inspiration for her animated films, graphic novels, and comic strips in everything from political issues to her own life to the epic Indian poem known as the Ramayana. Her work includes the syndicated strips Fluff, The Hots, and the semi-autobiographical Nina’s Adventures, as well as the controversial and popular environmental short The Stork. She animated and produced her first feature, Sita Sings the Blues, single-handedly on a home computer over the course of five years. Kripalu editorial consultant Tresca Weinstein spoke with Nina recently.
Tresca Weinstein You tell your stories through images. Why do you think visual storytelling, as you call it, is so powerful for viewers?
Nina Paley Probably before people even used spoken words or written words, they used picture and gestures. A lot of our story wiring is through images. Pictures can be a lot more powerful and say more and different things than words can. Often my best comics were the ones that had the fewest words, the ones that were doing the telling with pictures.
Tresca Your newest project is the feature—length animated film Sita Sings the Blues, which is inspired in part by the Ramayana. It tells the story of two women, one in the present in America, and the other in a mythical Indian past, both dealing with rejection by the men they love.
Nina I went to Trivandrum, India, in 2002, and that was when I first read the Ramayana. I was initially highly perplexed by it. I did not understand the character of Sita at all. And then my husband dumped me by e-mail when I was on a trip to New York, and I found myself relating to Sita’s story. That was also when I was first listening to the songs of [the 1920s American jazz singer] Annette Hanshaw. She has lots of songs about how my man done me wrong, and how much I miss my man. I was in a really grief-addled state and the Ramayana story and Annette Hanshaw just came together in my mind. I was actually surprised no one had put them together before, that there was no existing Ramayana musical with Annette’s songs! I felt the need to share this pairing with my fellow humans.
Tresca You are literally sharing it—instead of copyrighting the film, you’ve licensed it with a copyleft or share-alike license, which means anyone can do anything they want with it without paying you or asking your permission.
Nina I believe in authorship, not ownership. I don’t think culture can be owned. Intellectual property is a figment of lawyers’ imaginations. Culture has always been shared—like language, culture has no power or utility unless it’s shared, and the more it’s shared, the more powerful it becomes. With a copyleft license, everyone is free to share it and remix it and build on it, just like with the Ramayana, which came to me through the storytelling of billions of people over thousands of years.
Giving the art to the audience has brought back so much for me. I didn’t even do it to be nice, I did it because it was just the right thing to do, and I’ve benefited so much. Most people were certain this was professional suicide, but it’s actually been the best thing for my career, the best thing for my art, the best thing for me financially, and it’s been great for the film.
I’m currently working on a graphic novel about free culture, because this is on my mind the way the Ramayana was on my mind five years ago. Once again I feel this need to share my reality with other people, because this view is not widely shared yet.
Tresca What is your process like as you work on this new project?
Nina Right now I’m in the reception phase, so I spend a lot of time resting and making notes and drawing. I have this mess of ideas that are difficult to articulate in conversation, and I’m finding ways to express them with pictures. As the messages come in, the work kind of builds itself and I just have to be available to do what it needs. Once I’m deep in drawing, I don’t work on a rigid schedule. I take lots of breaks and lots of naps. If you saw me making Sita, you would have thought I was really lazy because of how much time I spent on the sofa with the cat, or napping. But when I’m really deep in a project, that’s what I do, and then I get up and get a whole lot done. When I hit on a visual problem or word problem, I just rest and the problem solves itself.
Tresca Who are your greatest influences?
Nina Absolutely everything I’ve been exposed to has influenced me in some way. It’s as if I’ve been affected by every microorganism in the air I breathe and in the water I drink. That’s another reason I’m such a free-culture advocate. I think of ideas as living things that mate with each other. Any idea can enter my mental environment and who knows what it’s going to be mating with! Mickey Mouse is mating with stuff in there, Donald Duck and Barbie are in there, and it’s not like I can lock them up in my head. Once they’re in there and I’m exposed to them, I can’t help their fertility, you know? I’m reminded of [the agricultural corporation] Monsanto, when their genetically modified seeds got out and showed up in other farmer’s cornfields, and Monsanto thought these farmers should pay them royalties. What copyright aims to do with culture is what Monsanto aims to do with seeds.
Tresca What parallels do you see between yoga and creativity?
Nina Yoga is all about breathing in and breathing out, and that’s what art is all about, too. Inspiration is like breathing in and expression is like breathing out. We take in lots of culture but, for me, it really needs to come out as well. Just the act of drawing things, even if I never share them or save them, just the act of moving my hand and getting the pictures out keeps the culture flowing through me. If I didn’t draw, it would back up.
Nina Paley teaches at Parsons School of Design in Manhattan, New York and is a 2006 Guggenheim Fellow.
Tresca Weinstein is a freelance writer and editor for national and regional publications and Managing Editor of Kripalu Online and the Kripalu Yoga Teachers Association newsletter.