Interview with Bernice Gordon

9 12 2010

I met Bernice last Summer in Pittsburgh’s Anthrocon and I was at once mesmerized by her aboriginal style art. We started talking and I was even more fascinated by her experiences with the Canadian aboriginals and how smart and humble she was and I knew I had to interview her even though I didn’t know her that well… and what a better way to getting to know a person than through an interview? I hope you all enjoy her interview a much as I did.

Image (c) Bernice Gordon.

1) Bernice, tell us about your academic background.

I had a lot of different kinds of schooling growing up- my first introduction to art school was in grade 4. I attended Claude Watson School for the Performing Arts for two years before moving abroad with the family. Abroad, my academic life was pretty much the standard Junior High and High School like everyone else (with exception that I constantly drew in my notebooks). It wasn’t until my return to Canada that I would have the privilege of attending another Art-oriented academic circle. I attended Sheridan College (now known as “Sheridan; Institute for Higher Learning”) for a BAAA- Bachelors of Applied Arts and Animation. I also did a Year of Technical Illustration prior to that in Sheridan as well.
Schooling in non-art related subjects were- Mythology, Ancient Cultures, and Anatomy (animal and human).

2) What influenced you to choose animation?

Oh, I could say a great many things. The classic Disney movies were probably the biggest influence. I still remember the first Disney movie I saw- it was Bambi. Compared to all the shows on TV, I was taken by how fluid and energetic the animation was. I was into cartooning as well- watching the afternoon super hero cartoons, as well as the “talking animal” cartoons the both my sister and I adored. At that time, all I knew is I wanted to do something with cartoons. The concept of “Animation” as a career came firmly into place after I saw “The Lion King”. That movie was one of two that changed pretty much everything in my life.

3) Your style is very interesting, you make use of strong geometric figures, how did you develop that style?

I cannot firmly say that it was a consciences decision to do so. Rather than I was constantly copying Disney characters, and other drawings while growing up- and a lot of design qualities, including heavy geometry, are evident in those styles.

Image (c) Bernice Gordon.

Another big influence to my art is Aboriginal Art- which is very design and geometry heavy.  I admit, I don’t think about the style when I draw something, rather I tend to just draw a style that best reflects the atmosphere or message of my image.

4) Some of your art can be classified as anthro or furry, what do you find attractive in that genre? Why do you think there is such prejudice against the fans?

I have always loved animals. Even growing up, the “talking animal” genre of cartoons appealed to me far more than any other. I like being able to relate how I see the natural world- as identical to us as possible. Sometimes, it’s hard to relate that concept without really trying to physically apply those attributes onto the animals. Another concept is the symbolism. When I was growing up, I remember seeing Disney’s “Robin Hood” and being blown away by the relation of Robin being a Fox. That kind of symbolism also permeates in Aboriginal Oral traditions, and the Classic Grim Fairytales. Cultural representations obviously differ, but the concept is still there.

As for the fans; well, I think that every fandom has to deal with prejudices of other people. I am an avid Star Wars fan as well… and let me tell you, stereotypes of the “Fanboy in mom’s basement” are killing. I think it boils down to people having the tendency to leave with the worst example in mind rather than the best. We don’t remember the multitude of people who devote their time and their hobbies for good (like fursuiters or Star Wars costumers going to entertain children in hospitals), but rather isolate the bad ones and make a spectacle. Ignorance has also proven a main motivator in “hating”. Few really know what it’s all about, and assumptions take over the playing field, where logic and experience should be prevalent.
“Haters gonna hate” as the Internet proverb goes.

5) Tell us about your film “When Raven stole the moon”, how did you come up with the concept?

The concept for “Raven” came as a result of one of my all time favorite philosophies: Merge your passions.
I have a variety of hobbies and interests, and well, choosing amongst them is difficult. How can I be an animator if I want to work in conservation? How can I be a conservationist if I love Dinosaurs? How can I devote my time to Dinosaurs if I love aboriginal culture and ancient civilizations?
The list goes on and on.
Well, by merging my interests in some contexts, I can easily get the best of both- or even three or four- worlds at a time. “Raven” did just this.
I have invested a lot of time in my life to all of my passions, and one of the many on-going devotions is to Aboriginal Culture- the learning and preservation of these rich and very progressive societies. My peek interest is also their Oral traditions; rich with stories, symbols, metaphors and lessons of practical and spiritual value. When it came time to make a thesis film at Sheridan, I was knee deep in developing a “Raven Trickster Story”. In fact, I had been working on the story since 6 years prior. During those 6 years, I had spent 2 in Vancouver working at a local Studio- and that gave me the perfect opportunity to invest time and contact with the local Aboriginals on the North West Pacific Coast.
The North West Pacific [NWP] cultures have always been of keen interest- from their art, to their social structures. I was introduced to it early on in my life by a classmate and friend of that descent. It was a permeating factor ever since.
Part of creating a “Raven” story is to know the cultural boundaries one has to abide by, and not cross. The NWP cultures have a copyright system known as “Cultural Appropriation” that puts our copyright to shame. It’s a rigid cultural system that I wanted to abide by- after all, I am a guest in their culture, and if I want to be part of their culture I have to abide by those same laws. As such, unless I got permission from a family who held the rights to a certain story, I could not use it. The solution was quite simple- an Oral Story Teller once told me that when all else fails, you should go to the basics of all Story Telling: Make up your own. That’s how we do it- make one up! Raven’s character is famous and infamous to most of the NWP societies. The moment you understand the complexity of his character and the intentions of his main driving force- you can create a story in the traditional light.
One of the only stories of the NWP that is perpetuated outside of its cultural circles is Raven stealing the Sun, Moon, and Stars from the Old Man’s Box. Abridged, the story is known as “Raven Steals the Sun”. One of the biggest plot points in that whatever Raven does, it sets forth a worldly order- that’s the rule of the Trickster tales. So I decided to explain why the Moon disappears every 28 days. It’s Raven up to his old tricks again, stealing the fascinating shiny ball of light- a trait all Ravens seem to have in common: The love for shiny things. And of course, the conflict being that the animals in the forest are less-than-keen on the idea. That’s when things start going wrong.
So I merged my love for animation, animals, aboriginal culture and oral traditions all in one. The rest was just developing it to a finish.

Image (c) Bernice Gordon.

6) What are the stages you go through to develop an animated film?

The stages are pretty basic and fundamental, however everyone has different ways of handling the details:
First you need an idea. You set it up- the concept, conflict, climax, and the resolution. You work on the story- either in a verbal format, or an illustrative one (storyboards). Trust me, no story that is conceptualized ever remains the same way it started. You will be tossing out a LOT of boards and changing scenes and ideas all the time.
While you are developing the board, you will also start to get the feel for the design of the film- is it Western style? Anime? Totally design oriented? All of these things seem to play out on their own. Concept drawing is a must, as it becomes the base for small turning points in the story, as well as visual development. This is probably the hardest part of the entire production- working out all the bugs, getting the story pegged down to a T, and designing everything to be relevant and not redundant. Making sure all loose ends tie up and everything comes together perfectly.
After, it’s time to start recording dialogue and animating! I had one voice actor for my film- Jeff Legacy. He did a fantastic job with portraying the perfect “Eagle” for my film; the tough wise bird who is so confident and so mature. When he was recording the dialogue, I supplied him with a Raven stuffed animal as his co-star. He totally took to it… was sitting in the booth and speaking to the plush Raven as if it were real. During that time I was cutting a “leica reel” with my boards and sound effects. After recording was done and I had a scratch track in place, I set off to animating. From there it’s pretty sequential- take a scene, do the layout, animate the scene, re-animate and time as needed, clean up, color, and composite. Soon, you have no more scene in your Inbox, and everything is in the Outbox. That’s when you know all you have left to do is splice the scenes into your reel, get the licensing for the audio music, and get that baby done!

7) There is a lot of Native American influence in your illustrations. Could you please, tell us about your experiences with the Native American people, what did you learn? What are the rules?

My experiences with Aboriginals- both the local and international- are pretty much the same: Very enlightening, and very eye-opening, very amazing.
I work with aboriginals communities nationally and internationally and they have taught me a great many things- not only about them as a culture and people, but about myself as someone who sees no difference in the people or the boundaries created by our own prejudices.
Fundamentally, they are a people who truly understand the basic and evolved concepts of being: living in harmony with nature, with each other, the importance of every single person and being on this planet, and the responsibility we have toward it. They are a people that have had a great many struggles to face that are ongoing- and yet they prevail. Not with violence, not with a call to arms and war- but with the persistence and understanding in the need to educate those who have no concept of who they are, and what their culture means. No culture can be learned overnight- and certainly not from books and websites; a culture you have to experience on your own to truly understand its way of functioning. If anything, a lot of my conscious efforts and subconscious behavior is influenced by the levels of their understanding and teachings. Even in my art. It has a way of permeating your life and the way you view reality until you realize that what you are seeing was there all along- simply no one had ever shown you, and now you are conscious to it. I realize that seems very philosophical and almost other-worldly… it’s a very hard thing to explain. Simply put, your eyes open for the first time in your life, and you begin to see.
As far as “rules” are concerned- well, every culture has those. Be them simple table manners, or how one buries their dead. Aboriginal cultures are not different- and it does take some time to figure those out. Yet, there are always people willing to quickly and quietly correct you courteously so that you know what you can and cannot do. There isn’t any backlash or fear of a harsh discipline. They understand that people make mistakes. It’s part of their cultural understanding- there isn’t a “right” and “wrong” the way we have in Western culture. Everything is contextual. And if it so happens that someone errs- like we all do- then that’s ok. To quote Thomas King “Making Magic, Making Faces, Making Mistakes.”
As for what they are? Well, that’s a bit of a broad question. There are lots of them! And I advise people to go out and learn from them if you want to know about specific ones.

8) With your deeper understanding of Native American culture, what is not right when someone approaches you in a convention and tells you something like “My totemic animal is the wolf”?

Oh, you made me laugh with that one. Not only did you peg one of my biggest pet peeves, but you even chose an animal that is quite commonly misrepresented in that context!
The biggest misinterpretations of Aboriginal cultures are the concepts that were badly or wrongly interpreted by the colonials, and then perpetuated and eventually adapted into a “New Age” concept of reality.
“Totem” (properly pronounced “Dodem” with a hard “d”) is the Anishinabe (Ojibway) word that means “clan”. Every Clan was actually a family, whose symbols was an animal. The animal symbols were either adapted due to creation/origin stories, or symbolic for the contribution of said family to the society. Simply put, the Dodem was equivalent to a “last name” from which others could derive the lineage of the person, their responsibilities, and their heritage. This, equivalent to the Europeans in the middle ages who’s last names were also attributed to their jobs and social status, and lineage; “Smith” given to a fellow whose occupation was blacksmithing. Another equivalent is the common used “son of” that can be found in biblical names, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean names.  “Ben-Yakov” which translates to “Son of Jacob”.
Now, because some of the origin stories seemed “fantastic” in the eyes of the colonials, and the aboriginals who gave thanks to their ancestors (but used the term “Dodem” and the appropriate animal symbol while doing so) and the religious leaders of said colonists deeming the practices of the aboriginals as “pagan” (weather a deliberate misunderstanding or not), it began to permeate the idea that “Totems” dealt with these supernatural spirit guardian animals that would protect specific people. Already, there is a large gap between the concepts; Clan symbols and familial heritage- to other concepts of aboriginal culture- Guardian Spirits, Helpers, or Ancestry that would guide and help you in your life.
For starters, it is rude to use the term “totem” when in truth, someone of non-aboriginal decent (specifically Ojibway decent) with no ties to the community doesn’t actually HAVE a “Dodem”. Because you have to be born into, or marry into one of the Dodems [Clans]. Secondly, many non-aboriginal people do not understand that concept of having a Helper or Guardian, and think it’s about choosing an animal based on European symbolism, and not even knowing the responsibilities that come along with it. To further the issue, not every aboriginal culture believes in such a thing, and those that do vary in their belief system- as to how one comes about their Helper or Guardian, and what one does with it. After all, saying “Native American” is as broad as saying “European”. You don’t go around saying “Europeans believe so-and-so” because you know quite well that Europeans include a multitude of different ethnicities and cultures (sometimes conflicting). The same go for Native American/Aboriginals.
Lastly, in the context of these cultures, one does not go around and splash about their Helper/Guardian as a sort of “Trophy”. It’s a personal thing, and most of the time it really isn’t said or talked about out of the context of you and close relations. Never the less that most people choose their own symbol based on other cultural representations, and not even Aboriginal ones!
So you can see how generally, its one giant “Red Flag” to someone who works within the aboriginal community, or someone who is aboriginal – it’s obvious to see who is not aware of the actual cultural representations, and who is following a personal belief system. Not to come to say that these people are wrong in their beliefs- simply that they are using terms that were appropriated and are being used out of context. It might be a personal belief, but it certainly isn’t an aboriginal one!

9) What are kind of jobs give you the most satisfaction? What would be your dream job?

Image (c) Bernice Gordon.

Dream Job? Jedi Knight.
Realistically?
I would love to have an animation studio of my own. I am a Story Teller amongst my other artistic endeavors, and the concept of doing animated features in the classic 2D format is just thrilling. Really bringing the medium of 2D cartoons into a mature venue- darker story lines and the like. I also want to open an animation Studio that will have Aboriginal stories at it’s roots as well- there is a plethora of talent and rich oral tradition and people waiting to be discovered and developed, and I would LOVE to give the opportunity to the communities- both aboriginal and non aboriginal- a chance to showcase them, learn, and grow side by side.
For the current, the kind of jobs that give me the most satisfaction would be the ones that capitalize on my passions, as well as great co-workers. I work for some Aboriginal organizations, I work as a freelance illustrator and animator, I work as a teacher, and I also dedicate my time to animal and wetland conservation venues. They all teach me different things, and they all help me to grow in different ways.

10) What is a “devil bear”?

It’s a wolverine. One of many nicknames given to it by the local aboriginal bands. Why it appear on my signature at time? Well, I was “dubbed” the “Devil Bear” as a humorous counter to my name “Bernice” Which means “Nice Bear” (amongst other various meanings). In grade 4 I broke a chair over another student’s back because they used a racial slander against both a friend and I. I had a very uncontrollable temper growing up. Now a days I’m much better… I am still very temperamental when it comes to issues that are important to me- like racism, conservation, etc. But I promise I don’t break any chairs on anyone anymore.

11) Where can our readers find you and your art? Will you be doing conventions?

I try and do as many conventions as possible- sadly, I cannot afford to tour around like some of my other friends. Especially since I am Canadian and flying to the States is quite a financial issue… hopefully by next year I’ll be able to do more than 2-3 per the summer. You can find me at Anime North, Anthro Con, and hopefully as Rainfurrest or Anime Evolution in the near future. I really want to do the BIG shows like Fan Expo- but I feel so small compared to all the established names in the business! Hopefully, I’ll be able to get that rectified soon. Have a few projects in the works…
Everyone can ALWAYS find me via my website: www.bernicegordon.com
My Deviantart, Live Journal, and Blog are all hooked up to my site.


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