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Interview with Amelia Garretson-Persans

This July, Grace Devine, SPACE summer Storytelling and Engagement Intern with Bates Purposeful Work, sat down with artist Amelia Garretson-Persans to discuss her film, A Tincture of Time, supported by a Kindling Fund Grant. Administered by SPACE, The Kindling Fund is one of thirty-two nationwide re-granting programs established by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

A quote from your writing about this film reads that A Tincture of Time is, “about acclimating to a highly ritualized world, coping with the loss of control, fear and love.” Can you share some backstory and elaborate on how this statement informs the film? 

The film is based on real life experiences, our first born son had a traumatic birth injury so he ended up at the NICU for ten days. He underwent this totally sci-fi treatment called cooling, where we couldn’t hold him as they kept his body temperature low. He was hooked up to all of these wires, it felt like it was out of an alien movie. He is five now and is doing great, but that was our freaky introduction to parenting. The NICU feels like a war zone, they have their own very regimented systems, hierarchies of who you can talk to, and who knows what. 

Paul is five now, he has this genetic condition where he is missing a piece of chromosomal DNA information. There is an element to this that’s like he is five and how much of his story should I be broadcasting to the world, and I think that is something I am still trying to figure out. 

The film project itself was a way to begin to process this experience. I have written a feature length film which really acts as a memoir. It is a psychedelic fantasy, almost every scene is a fantastical version of something that really happened. 

This film has a complex world filled with imagery, ultimately about dealing with the loss of control. A theme in a lot of my work is just making sense of your world and how stories can be useful for that, but also really ensnaring. 

The feature length film has a quest within a quest. The son is sick and so the immediate quest is to save the son. Meanwhile the mother, who is the protagonist, goes on this other tangible, but spiritual quest within the hospital as a way for her to find control in another storyline. That is how it felt to be in the hospital. I tried to exert any kind of control over this uncontrollable experience. How could I frame the experience as it was happening in a way that allowed me to sleep.

One development of this year is that I wrote the feature length film and some older and wiser filmmakers suggested that I start with a short. The short is very much a taste of the world within the film. It starts with the mother and the child playing in a playhouse in the children’s ward, creating a kind of artificial respite that they make within this scary unknown world filled with overwhelming sets of tests and diagnostics. There is a dream sequence with a cool dance number, and then it returns to this quiet togetherness. The short is about the experience of resting, fear and moving through. 

Playhouse set piece by Annika Earley. Work in progress shot.

I think the nurses jokingly, and unofficially, call Maine Medical the miracle palace. And it fucking is, people are getting born next to people that are dying. There is a magical crossover, a salvation and then it’s also a place of paperwork. It’s just this bizarre nightmare of magic, pure magic, and the worst realities of humanity.

I am really interested in the title of your project, A Tincture of Time. Can you share how you came to choose this title?

It was something one of the doctors said. My son had to have some pretty significant surgery before he was two. The surgery itself went well but the recovery was rocky and his surgeon, this willowy, tranquil person said, “I think it’s just going to be a tincture of time,” in his peaceful way. That phrase felt like a gift from the gods, it is alchemical and weird, but also grounded in reality.

I would love to hear about your experience as a multi-medium artist working in collaboration with others. Can you speak to the experience of wearing many hats, so to speak. 

I feel like I have gone through a journey with that sort of stuff. I started out as a solo lonewolf kind of artist, making big long term projects by myself. In my studio I would literally create these whole worlds by myself.

Things have changed since moving to Maine about eight years ago. I used to be a Program Manager at Bomb Diggity Arts, which was an art studio down the street in Portland for adults with disabilities. Before I was a Program Manager, I was a Direct Support Professional and was heavily involved with the media program. I jumped into that roll at Bomb Diggity and it really suited me. It was just so much fun to take these really wild ideas and figure out how to use everybody’s talents to make it happen. My first project at Bomb Diggity was a sock-puppet rendition of the Shinning and I really loved it, I was like, I am home! I learned so much there. I filled the role of a producer, a director, and managed to pull all the people and pieces together while also infusing my own creative thoughts into the projects. 

So much of that flexibility has spilled out into my personal practice. The last few projects I have done have been really collaborative which is super fun.

With a Tincture of Time, I feel the same way. I definitely have input and directorial ways of being like this isn’t quite it, but there has been a lot of freedom found through collaborating with other artists. Working with these other artists on a project of this magnitude has been incredible, right now I am in the process of getting some materials back. My friend Annika Earley just finished the playhouse for the opening scene. My friend Alexa Clavette who is a fantastic painter and photographer is designing a set of runes for the world of the hospital. I have this vision of these green and black computer screens scrolling with runes in the lab room, she sent these sketches and they are so fucking cool. 

Rune sketches by Alexa Clavette

 Is there one creative role that you are most comfortable in and one that pushes you in discomfort?

Writing has been pretty basic to my practice forever, since I was a kid. Writing and illustrating are my most constants. I think that the mediums work in tandem. I feel like I am pretty good at a lot of stuff, but I am not really a master in any one medium. I have considered this an asset, I love being an amateur and seeing what other people’s strengths bring. I am at this point where I am wondering if I should work on becoming masterful at one thing, maybe it is a defense mechanism that I just dabble in everything. 

I would love to hear about your choice to represent the son in A Tincture of Time as an orb of light. I found that choice to be really interesting and would love to hear more about the inspiration behind it. 

The original simple answer is that a newborn is very mysterious. You don’t really know this person yet, but you feel such tenderness and desire to keep them safe. Especially with our son, his life was so tenuous for a few days, he just looked so helpless and it felt like the right creative choice. I guess the tenuousness of light parallels the tenuousness of life. 

Storyboard frame by Alexa Clavette. Eda (mother) and Olix (son) in the children’s playhouse.

From a character perspective, the story is definitely the mother’s story. I am mindful about broadcasting our son’s story, so he’s definitely a secondary main character, an energy being. His character, the light orb, does respond to the environment. He gets scared, uncomfortable, more comfortable, and peaceful. He has presence in the film for sure, but I think not imbuing him with a lot of character facial expression helps make the film focus on the mother’s story. Also using light is visually interesting and a creative challenge. 

I was really drawn to the ultrasound dance and scene from the trailer, can you speak to the inspiration behind this imagery?

Ultrasounds are often associated with pregnancy, but for me they make me think of the many ultrasounds we’ve had to prepare for our son’s surgeries. There are these people operating this glowing trackball, navigating your son’s body and you have no idea what any of it means. You are projecting all of this fear, anxiety, hope and feelings into the watching. I think that the experience of watching something so personally significant to you when you do not have the ability to understand its meaning is such a raw feeling. I wanted to capture that experience in the ultrasound dance, mirroring something so beautiful and weird, like a flashlight into the body. The ultrasound dance footage was actually shot at SPACE pre-pandemic with a grant a few years ago. I worked with Dana Dotson who choreographed the ultrasound dances. Ian Hundt did the light and the haze, we got some really cool footage. 

Photo credit Hannah Rafkin

What is your process for working on a project the magnitude of A Tincture of Time in collaboration with other artists? 

For this project, I really focused on writing first, while keeping in mind that it would be really cool to collaborate with specific artists in Maine. We did the proof of concept trailer with some Maine Arts Commission funding driven by some ideas and imagery I knew I wanted to use. It was great because I got to pay some collaborators and get other artists invested in the project. I got the Kindling Fund Grant this year and a Maine Arts Commission Grant to pay artists I am collaborating with. These grants made it possible to delegate a lot of elements of the film so we can hopefully film the short this winter and spring. 

Costume sketch for Telepathic Transmission Tech by Dana Dotson

Something consistent about your work is how much you invest in Maine artist communities, specifically focusing on the proper payment of so many who are often underpaid in the arts. 

Yeah that’s definitely important to me. I have a lot of friends in the disability community from working at Bomb Diggity. It’s not going to be in the short, but I was able to hire three artists from Bomb Diggity to do some sketches for another scene of some spirit houses. There is this general attitude- that is not specific to disability in the arts- that ‘if you love art, you’ll do it for free’. So especially when it comes to disability in the arts I want to encourage that, yes you love art and here is proper compensation for your work. 

Design for a spirit house by Jackie Ziniel

Also thanks to the grants, I was also able to work with three seamstresses from the Democratic Republic of Congo from the immigrant advocacy organization In Her Presence to create costumes. I just picked them up last week and they are incredible!

Seamstress and Designer Marie Immaculée Kabazo posing with finished Telepathic Transmission Tech costume. 
Seraphine Lesambo posing with Med Student costume

Your past work often is tied to public installation, do those experiences inform your hopes of how this film is eventually screened and shared with the community?

I have shown in a gallery here or there but I have really always operated in between worlds, like in a blog or a space you can just walk into. I like that about film, that you don’t have to go to a gallery to see it. I don’t know, I haven’t thought too carefully about how I would share it, I am open to many things as long as it is accessible and cheap.  

I have been meeting with this cool film director who has successfully made these outsider shorts. Their guidance is making me want to share it properly, like apply to film festivals in addition to showing it in Maine at one of Maine’s weirdo alternative art venues and parks.

I am not there with the planning, but I do want to do some sort of celebration when the short is finished. I imagine music to be an important element of the short film. Some sort of 70’s singer-songwriter country melancholy could be a nice dissonance with the sci-fi world. Maybe a concert with that sort of music, maybe a dance number. More on that later, no concrete plans at all. 

I know that the 60’s/70’s psychedelic and sci-fi aesthetic is really important to this work, do you have any specific artists or works of art that have influenced and inspired this work? 

I saw The Holy Mountain just before I got the idea to do this, the Jodorowsky freak out 70’s film. I don’t like Jodorowsky, I think he’s an asshole. So much of it is pompous, but I do appreciate the sort of zaniness of it all, the kind of why not attitude of it. I originally visioned a Tincture of Time as a feminist antidote to The Holy Mountain. I have moved away from that idea but I have kept the focus of the feminine journey. I love Tarkovsky, I feel like I am so late to the party on that one, but I do feel like he is so good, Solaris is great, just emotionally it is so good. I love Suspiria from the 70’s. It takes place in a ballet school that’s secretly a coven, it’s fantastic. Everything is painted candy pink and blue, and then these gorey deaths happen and the lighting is just out of this world. It is like nothing else I have seen. 

Have these themes of magic and sci-fi been a constant interest in your life or did it emerge after these events with your son?

It’s funny I feel like I have always been searching and hoping for meaning. With our son’s story I felt like I was always looking for signs. Especially when things were so uncertain, but the meaning didn’t feel sincere and honestly that’s kind of the atmosphere I wrote this film in. The quest the mother is going on in the story is a little sarcastic, it’s kind of meaningless, it has a lot of pomp to it, a lot of ritual. These transformations happen, her hair turns blue, she gets a crown, but they don’t actually mean anything in the grander scheme of the story. In my current stage in my life, I am beginning to feel like things do have a mystical vibration and that magic is available at all times. It doesn’t feel like a pulsing drum or anything like that, it feels ripples of possibility. When you are a little more tuned into it you get these pings of, ‘well that is strange’, these coincidences. Things turning up at the right time, lighting up the path. I think it has been an ongoing question in my work, the search for meaning. The tension between trying to make things feel meaningful and relinquishing control. I feel like I’m growing up, I may be accepting that there could be meaning in the world. I feel like I have had a long term relationship to magic, charlatanism, and the search for meaning.

Based on your writing and art you make and the art that interests you, do you have any book recommendations?

I am reading 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami at the moment, which is the first novel I have read in a while. I am getting back into fiction, which I have been out of for a while. I am listening to A Wizard of Earthsea By Ursula K. Le Guin which feels like it’s talking to my soul. It’s about this young wizard who is very promising who releases a dark shadow into the world and it haunts him his whole life. The writing is so good, I am not a huge fantasy person typically, but it’s so succinct. There is just enough detail to move the story forward, but not indulgent or boring. She writes about the many secret languages of the world and nature, that magic really has to do with being able to name the currents of the water and how the wind moves, knowing those secret names is beautiful. Hardcore recommend. It feels super on point with the type of work I am making right now. 

Anything else about a Tincture of Time that you would like to share?
I would love to give some shoutouts. Camille Howard is an amazing filmmaker and podcaster who has been helping me produce. Dana Dotson designed the costumes and Annika Earley created a wooden playhouse. Alexa Clavette is storyboarding and creating the runes. Silvina Leso, Seraphine Lesambo and Marie Immaculée Kabazo from In Her Presence. A later addition is Elana Adler who is an incredible multi-medium artist who is going to make a semi-sentient ultrasound machine. Jackie Ziniel, Kristin Chase and Kendra Sanborn are all making mini spirit houses. I feel very grateful to the Kindling Fund for making it possible to work with so many artists I really admire.

Cover Photo Credit : Hannah Rafkin

Proof of Concept Trailer

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