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Martha Colburn in Conversation

Martha Colburn

Born in Pennsylvania, Martha Colburn is an artist and filmmaker based between Pennsylvania and Amsterdam. She recently worked with composer Richard Ayres' to animate No. 50 (The Garden), a London Sinfonietta co-commission which follows a man's journey of discovery as he digs from his garden to hell, heaven and back again. Colburn's art is the visual backdrop, creating beautiful, kaleidoscopic imagery drawing extensive inspiration from Heironymous Bosch to Scooby Doo. We spoke to her about her artistic process and inspirations.

What was your inspiration for the artwork for the piece? 

I was inspired by Heironymous Bosch paintings, 1970's Educational books, Louis Bourgeois, my Father's insect collection, Scooby Doo cartoons, Medieval manuscripts, Edward Gorey, Terry Gilliam, Chinese Ink painting, and the list goes on. I was re-reading the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft and looking at the children's books of Maurice Sendak. Richard would tell me "The Garden is not really about a garden". I think that at the beginning of the piece - the garden is our last glimpse at a place that might exist (and may also not exist)...so I wanted to create films that have a sense of surreality. 


Did you work with Richard in order to capture his ideas and thoughts? How did this relationship work in order to create the whole performance?

The free-form approach with which Richard and I worked together on The Garden was so exciting. Richard showed me the score and the texts. Our conversations would start like "What color is the worm?" or "what battle did the Dead Soldier die in?" We excitedly wrote notes of what images came to mind for Richard and what I came up with. I made a large format script that was a collage from old educational books and paint, with the texts cut out and glued on. This slowly became animated film clips and text projections. We exchanged ideas about the imagery and also the duration and placement of the films within the score. Much of my material literally 'came off the page' for instance when I did a drawing that gave rise to an idea to film a friend that resembles a Dead Soldier. I think that these layered transformations that take place throughout The Garden both visually and musically open up a new dimension (which are perhaps the thoughts of a madman).

The garden is our last glimpse at a place that might exist (and may also not exist)...so I wanted to create films that have a sense of surreality. 

What was the most interesting or exciting thing about creating the artwork?

Normally I work ‘on the road' or at home, but for the occasion of this large project (I was so excited to work on it) I sub-rented a friends studio for two months in Amsterdam  and it had a garden!! I would go out to collect dead insects, dirt, sand and dead flowers and bring them inside to film them frame-by-frame (stop motion animation). I would push the dried dead insects around on a piece of glass and photograph them, or place a bag of dirt on a table and swirl it in circles while animating it. These would be layered with the hand drawn and collage animations to give the piece some ‘gravitas’, because textures are very informative as well. A lot of what may appear as ‘dead space’ in the animation is in fact filled with layers of dirt and scratches and textures from 16mm film that we would rub on the floor, hand scratch, and even sand paper.

Making The Garden, I did a lot of hand drawn animation which I had never done before, I was always using paintings of collage or dolls in the past, so I found this very exciting. A line can tell a lot the gesture of the drawing (ink drawing in this instance) is super important. There are so many details in the text and musical score – I needed to leave space for the audience’s imagination to ‘fill-in the details’ where ever was possible. I had to do some research on the fossil (living and dead) and learn how to not only animate the ‘Fossil’ character but also study the motion of seaweed, bubbles, water and all things ‘ocean’.

Basically I loved making The Garden, I really enjoyed piecing together all these film clips, textures, paintings, drawings and styles together with the text and musical score.

I loved making The Garden, I really enjoyed piecing together all these film clips, textures, paintings, drawings and styles together with the text and musical score.

How do you think the music evokes the art or vice versa? 

The Garden combines the vision of the composer and myself, and is then re-interpreted and performed by the conductor and the musicians so that the final result is dependent on these variables and others being inspired too. Also there are over 100 lines of projected text ( for the audience to read) and this weaves what is basically Richards script, with the music, art and films. The piece is very layered. The synthesis of all of the elements in the live performance is really what evokes feeling, tells a story, sings a song, takes us on a visual and musical journey together, etc... The interesting part for me  as artist and filmmaker – was the freedom to make films that were simply making an impression of an image or idea while still supporting the music and story. I needed to be sensitive to the timing and mood of the score, the amount of ‘descriptiveness’ necessary, the overall feeling so many things while also breaking new ground in my own art which definitely happened through creating art and films for the work.

Published: 12 Apr 2019