Emma August Welter dives into the research she conducted in the Walker’s archive and Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection for the upcoming Animatedly Yours program, screening March 22 in the Bentson Mediatheque. Emerging with a handful of eclectic animated shorts and illuminating correspondence between former Walker film curator Melinda Ward and the filmmakers, Welter stitches together some of the colorful history of the Moving Image Department.
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about a particular three-second snippet of Quasi at the Quackadero, Sally Cruikshank’s LSD-laced funnel cake of an animated short from 1976. Blink and you’ll likely miss it; I certainly did the first time around. About a third of the way through the film, visitors to the titular futuristic theme park traipse through the “Hall of Time Mirrors,” with its slightly ominous entreaty to “SEE YOURSELF at EVERY AGE.” During the clip that’s been swirling in my mind—it’s at 3:27, if you want to get precise—an elderly woman gazes approvingly at a mirror reflecting a svelte younger edition of herself. Swathed in a red fox fur coat, clutching an alligator purse, a many-feathered hat perched atop her purple rinse, the woman bears only a contextual resemblance to her Quackaderified young reflection, whose steely gaze and almost martial stance are lampooned by her goofy accoutrements. In the mirror, the woman’s purse is transformed into a live, snapping alligator; the plumage of a docile tropical bird adorns her head. Her coat becomes two squirming foxes, and twin hissing snakes coil vine-like around her legs. At the Quackadero, the past—that which was once very much alive—can spring to life again and again at will.
Two years ago, while volunteering in the Walker archives, I began processing the program files of Melinda Ward, coordinator of the Walker film and video department from 1974 to 1979. I had no idea what to expect, since the files had largely gone untouched since their compilation; over time, many of their yellowed contents had been creased or stained by rusting paper clips. Yet when I began to sift through the filmmaker correspondence and promotional ephemera, the long-dormant foxes and snakes of the past began to writhe almost immediately. When reading Ward’s correspondence with visiting filmmakers—which helped terrifically in the curation of the Animatedly Yours program—it’s clear that she cultivated many warm, authentic friendships during her time at the Walker.
As head of the fledgling department just one year after its inception, Ward was eager to bring both established and up-and-coming filmmakers to Minnesota, a location that as yet wasn’t exactly considered a cultural hub (as evidenced by many tongue-in-cheek references to the cold weather in her letters). As I further came to discover while spelunking in her files, one crucial aspect of Ward’s programming was her focus on films created by women, both past and current, and the connections she forged with other female film coordinators and filmmakers, notably B. Ruby Rich, then at the School at the Art Institute of Chicago, and Freude Bartlett, film distributor and owner of Serious Business Films in Berkeley.
Bartlett’s letters are highlights among Ward’s correspondence; she’s hilarious, irreverent, and—at least to me, who admittedly wasn’t there—seems to encapsulate the spirit of 1970s Berkeley. A champion of experimental and underground work that unabashedly (and unprecedentedly) tackled themes of feminism and sexuality, Bartlett served as an invaluable conduit for films and filmmakers featured in an ongoing Walker series, The Avant Garde Cinema, which Ward began in September 1976. The inaugural program included short pieces of abstraction, minimalism, and “found film”; alongside films by men including George Griffin and Bruce Conner, it showcased the work of female animators such as Cruikshank and Mary Beams, a young artist whose “beautiful & tender line animation” had come highly recommended by Bartlett.
Beams’s gentle, playful films were new to me, and I was thrilled to discover that her impressive resume contained connections to Minnesota. A standout student of Frank Mouris, who’d helmed a summer program in animation at Harvard, Beams had gone on to teach workshops herself at Harvard and elsewhere. In February 1976, she’d been an artist in residence at MCAD, where she worked with students to create a series of “Minneapolis movies” using rotoscoping techniques. After a bit of extra-archival research, I learned that she now calls Minnesota home, having turned her attention from animation to running a pie shop in Grand Marais—both excellent career choices, in my opinion.
Frank Mouris and his wife and collaborator Caroline are probably my absolute favorite letter-writers of the Melinda Ward archive. Still riding the wave of their 1974 Oscar-winning short Frank Film, a hyperkinetic, autobiographical, wildly satisfying smorgasbord of collaged images, they visited the Walker in April 1978 for a back-to-back screening and workshop. Although their letters to Ward are largely concerned with the logistics of their stay, they’ve adorned every page with a unique letterhead of sorts: a clipping from a magazine or book, sometimes embellished with splatters of paint. Arranged sequentially by page in some letters and along some seemingly inscrutable logic in others, the Mourises’s mini-collages give the impression of a flipbook—they’re almost animations in themselves, and they’re uniformly charming, especially with Frank’s customary sign-off (and the inspiration for the program’s title), “Animatedly Yours.” (I’ve since learned that the Mourises did some animation work for Sesame Street around this period, so they’d already primed my childhood psyche to love them in the future.)
In addition to attracting innovative filmmakers to the Walker, Ward was instrumental in acquiring copies of their work for what would become the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, from which the majority of the films in Animatedly Yours have been sourced. It’s been rewarding enough to see them screened in their original 16 mm forms, but investigating how these films were brought to—and programmed at—the Walker in the first place has added countless illuminating dimensions. The Walker archives are hardly the Quackadero (thank goodness), but even in their faded state, Ward’s program files carry an undeniable vitality through the words and images of their co-constitutors, and I have a hunch they’ll prove helpful for many future programs, too. After all, why preserve if not to reanimate?