Martha Colburn is a filmmaker well-known for her animation films, which are created through puppetry, collage, and paint on glass techniques. She has made over forty films since 1994. 1 Colburn has also been fervently involved in playing music. One out of numerous groups she has been a part of is The Dramatics, a band she formed in Baltimore with Jason Willett. 2 Recently in her career, Colburn has made sculptural/video installation work and experimented with integrating her films with musical performance. Yet music and film have always shared a deep connection within Colburn’s work. 3
Biography Colburn was born in 1972 and spent her childhood near the Appalachian Mountains between Gettysburg and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She began making art at a very young age, but did not start working with film until 1994. In an interview with Blank Screen Media, Colburn discusses her past and present influences for making art: “In high school it was politics and history and then in my twenties I made tons of music films (many sexually oriented) and now I am back to the politics and history.” 4
In 1990, Colburn left the Appalachians to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Her primary focus in school was visual arts, yet she also began to become involved in the Baltimore experimental music scene. Colburn’s reflections upon four years of art school are not so pleasant. “Art school sort of devastated my vision, whatever I had,” she is quoted saying in an article published by Res Magazine about her life and work. Although disillusioned by the time she graduates in 1994, Colburn nevertheless decides to stay in Baltimore and further immerse herself in the city’s artistic community. 5
It is around the time of finishing college that Colburn first begins working with film. Her motivation to work with film arises partially due to finding 16mm reels of old educational movies. 6 Acrophobic Babies and Feature Presentation are two early examples of Colburn working within this process. By scratching, tinting, and splicing the film itself, Colburn makes her first filmic pieces through her manipulation of appropriated imagery. 7
Due to her discovery of Super-8 in 1995, Colburn quickly transitions from 16mm to 8mm. Her initial explorations in puppetry and animation are simultaneous with her shift in film formats. 8 Caffeine Jam is one of her first animations, while Killer Tunes is animation using marionettes. From hereon, Colburn continues to develop and enrich her animations to an even greater complexity of form, materials, and concepts. During an interview with Metropolis M Magazine, Colburn asserts her love for animation: “animation is magical, it’s making gold out of glitter.”
After ten years of living in Baltimore, Colburn moves to Amsterdam in 2000 after being offered a two-year residency at the Royal Academy of Visual Arts. During her residency, Colburn makes numerous films including Skelehellavision, an animated and hand-colored film mixing images of female pornography stars and skulls, and Big Bug Attack, a film whose soundtrack is a collaborative piece between Colburn and German techno artist Felix Kubin. Once finishing up her residency, Colburn spends another three years in Holland making films until returning to the United States in 2005.
Once settling in Long Island City, New York, Colburn begins work on animations that deal more closely with American history and its relationship to the country’s current foreign and domestic policies. Destiny Manifesto incorporates images of the American frontier with depictions of the conflict in the Middle East. Meet Me in Wichita is a parody of The Wizard of Oz in which Osama Bin Laden substitutes for all of Oz’s characters aside from Dorothy, the story’s heroine. “I am making films that work with ideas of the loss of faith, obsession with spectacle, self destructiveness, compulsion for violence,” Colburn says in Metropolis M Magazine about her work of most recent years. “Inhibition and fear characterize my work, as uninhibited and fearless they may appear.” As far as the effects of returning to her native country after spending time in Europe, Colburn believes her work has gotten increasingly concerned with political issues facing the world today.
Colburn has also been making animations for music videos in the past couple years. She created pieces to accompany the San Francisco-based band Deerhoof’s song “Wrong Time Capsule” in 2005 and Serj Tankien’s “Lie, Lie, Lie” in 2007. Yet these projects come as no surprise given the strong relationship Colburn has always had with music. She even created animation for the 2005 documentary about the musician Daniel Johnston entitled The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Colburn’s latest film, Myth Labs, has not just been screened, but also presented as panels of which the film is composed.
Collage work Colburn’s style of collage fuses pop culture and political imagery with an aesthetic that is simultaneously fantastical, painterly, and punk rock. Many of her appropriated images are painted over with a diverse variety of paints which integrate them with the drawings and textures that are completely her own. Colburn makes her animations by facing the camera directly downward at the collaged panels below. She has always rejected the computer program as a means to create her animations. The “hands-on,” non-technological quality that defines her process keeps it at a personal and intimate level. Color is another very important aspect of Colburn’s films. Although her 2006 film Meet Me in Wichita deals with disconcerting subject matter, Colburn still chooses bright colors to define the film’s color scheme. It is these types of contradictions in Colburn’s work which deepen her visual and conceptual complexity.
Artist's statement In my work I utilize the language and materials of filmmaking to comment on popular culture, consumerism, politics and sexuality. My work addresses contemporary topics to express my personal anxieties and passions. Through a collage of live action (paint-on-glass) animations, found footage and documentary filmmaking techniques, my films are a disturbing and at times humorous take on popular and political culture.
Complimenting my films, I create elaborately layered collages, paintings, and installations that incorporate transparencies, recordings, and live performances. As my conceptual process grows, so follows advances in my already detailed and labor-intensive animating process. Technically, I am expanding my technique into working with multi-plane glass animation which represents a physical manifestation of my conceptually layered ideas.
Currently I am working on films that combine art historical representations and current depictions of politics to challenge our notions of truth and fantasy. As a descendent of some of America’s earliest settlers (ministers, farmers and wagon train members), I have an awareness of the repository of the guilt-haunted twisted history of the American soul. My current work draws from this perspective and personal experience to address issues such as Methamphetamine use, environmental catastrophes, and man’s relationship to nature.
- 1. Blank Screen. “Cartoon Surrealism: Martha Colburn.” Blank Screen Media Online Magazine. 2007.
- 2. Stevenson, Jack. “Super-8 Conquers All: The Films and Attitude of Martha Colburn.” The Living Color Movie Magazine. 1999.
- 3. Apfelbaum, Sue. “Master of Puppets: Martha Colburn’s Handmade Revolution.” RES. Vol. 9, No. 2 March/April 2006.
- 4. Blank Screen. “Cartoon Surrealism: Martha Colburn.” Blank Screen Media Online Magazine. 2007.
- 5. Apfelbaum, Sue. “Master of Puppets: Martha Colburn’s Handmade Revolution.” RES. Vol. 9, No. 2 March/April 2006.
- 6. Stevenson, Jack. “Super-8 Conquers All: The Films and Attitude of Martha Colburn.” The Living Color Movie Magazine. 1999.
- 7. Gruijthuijsen, Krist. “Reloaded: Martha Colburn Interview.” Metropolis M Magazine. No. 3 June/July 2007.
- 8. Stevenson, Jack. “Super-8 Conquers All: The Films and Attitude of Martha Colburn.” The Living Color Movie Magazine. 1999.