Drawn to art and fashion design at an early age, Karen Aqua (1954 – 2011) was a student of illustration in the 70s at the Rhode Island School of Design when she was bewitched during a presentation by visiting animator Frank Mouris. Upon witnessing drawings coming to life, Aqua immediately immersed herself in the peculiarly magical, labor-intensive world of film animation. Her thesis film, Penetralia, features a figure whose eye-opening, transformative journey through cosmic innerspace and back beautifully encapsulates what would become a lifelong, creative journey through the individual and universal consciousness.
Swept along with her into film, life and love, Ken Field—a student at the time at neighboring Brown University—would become her husband as well as a constant collaborator. An accomplished and acclaimed musician, Field created or produced most of the soundtracks for Aqua’s films and collaborated extensively with her on the abstract, visual music piece Sensorium. At twenty-four frames a second, they exuberantly explored the sounds and visions discovered within curious, creative lives.
Through animation she was able to craft her lively mythologies with total control over the creative process, yet—as in nature—she remained open to discovery and serendipity along the way. In her films, she acknowledges the funny duality of a life in art and of hers in particular. The part that entailed many solitary hours absorbed in tedious, detailed work was fed by her other adventurous, nature-loving, traveling self—a concept she covered lightheartedly in films like Vis-á-Vis. She selects from what grew into an abundant palette—colored pencil, paint, pastels, collage, objects animated by stop-motion and even pixelated live action—to consciously illuminate all kinds of multi-dimensional realities.
Shown at venues and festivals internationally, Aqua’s films celebrate a universal legibility. Nonverbal, elemental and animalistic, her work delves into a mystical realm of symbol, ritual and ceremony that is both earthly and otherworldly. The flowing, androgynous everyhuman figures of her early films evolve into dancing tribal characters who often become one with their patterned, moving landscapes. Drawing inspiration from many different cultures and places—including favorite sites like New Orleans and the petroglyphs of the American Southwest—Aqua allows her influences to meet, unite and continually transform into new hybrid beings or realities. Aqua could have been talking about her own works when she explained the power of ancient petroglyphs to “touch upon something timeless and enduring which lies deep within the human spirit, linking us all.”
Whether it is confronting her own mortality or humanity’s ancient origins, Aqua’s concerns seem always focused on the kaleidoscopic dance of life. In the rhythmic pulse of Kakania, it is as if she is attempting to entrance the rest of the working world into a life filled with color, dance and unfettered joy. The patterns and beats inherent in the vibrations of the universe take over so that submission and oppression become impossible states of being. In Heavenly Bodies, flowing drawings express cosmic love, while mixed media of many dimensions illustrate the complexity of time in Perpetual Motion, where time as depicted by Aqua is yet another rhythm in which all of humanity participates one way or another. And rather than categorize or objectify as the title might suggest, Aqua’s last film Taxonomy lushly visualizes the relationship of art and architecture to their counterparts in the natural world—all creations linked by an ingenious DNA. Toward the darker ends of life’s spectrum, Aqua braves facing her own serious illness in her films and confronts the nuclear desecration of sacred land in Ground Zero / Sacred Ground with the same open-minded eloquence.
Dedicated to a life of artistic freedom, she was a tireless and successful grant-writer while spending time at artist residencies all over the world. In Boston, Aqua was part of a community of animators and other filmmakers who congregated at former arts organizations like Off the Wall, an alternative theater in Cambridge, and the Boston Film and Video Foundation. While promoting and encouraging emerging animators, Aqua occasionally taught—including classes at Emerson and Boston College—and both she and Field held numerous community workshops with children around the country, during which they would produce finished animations. Most famously, Aqua created over twenty short animations for the ever-popular children’s program on public television Sesame Street—a relationship that provided income without compromising her art or independence.
With a colorful catalogue of festivals and awards, from New York to Iran to Hiroshima and everyplace in between, Aqua completed her last film Taxonomy just weeks before she died of ovarian cancer in 2011. Thanks to the tremendous efforts of Ken Field, the Harvard Film Archive is now home to over 300 film and video elements from Karen Aqua’s concentrated output. We are thrilled to welcome Field and Janeann Dill, filmmaker, film professor, experimental animation scholar and historian, to the HFA to present a lively selection of films from Karen Aqua’s incantatory cosmos. – Brittany Gravely
About the Collection
Upon her death from ovarian cancer in 2011, she left a large legacy of award-winning animated films. This collection, consisting of over 300 film and video items, arrived at the Harvard Film Archive in 2011. It includes projection prints, 16mm animation tests, workprints, video masters and access copies, and original audio elements.
A finding aid for the Karen Aqua Collection can be found here.
For more information on Aqua, visit her website.