Studio Visit: Nina Paley

Studio Visit: Nina Paley


Studio Visit appears first in print, in Sunday editions of The News-Gazette. Here, Melissa Merli visits with artist Nina Paley. In the Oct. 21 newspaper, we'll have a visit with Peyton Stewart, winner of the ACE Student Award from 40 North.   

Q: I heard your latest animation project, "This Land is Mine," is causing controversy in some quarters. What's it about?

A: It satirizes divine claims to Palestine. It's a parody of the song "This Land is Mine," which is a Zionist anthem. It's been hard to identify the groups speaking out over this. There are just no words for them. You can say Jews, but there are a lot of Jews who aren't Zionist. There are a lot of Jews who are atheists, like me, who want peace. There are Israeli Jews who want peace. There are also Zionists who aren't Jews.

Q: So it's going to be a feature film? When will you finish it?

A: I need to give myself three years. I should say the feature is about the story of Exodus. A lot of people now think the feature is about the Middle East or the conflict. It's about Jewish mythology and me being Jewish and my dad being Jewish and an atheist.

Q: I am delighted that you moved back to Urbana.

A: My stuff just arrived six days ago from New York, and I just registered to vote here.

Q: Why did you come back?

A: Well, there's my mom (Jean Paley). There's room in the house because Dad (Hiram Paley) died. When I was visiting Dad last year in the hospital, I was just thinking how nice it was here and wouldn't it be weird if I ended up coming back here and then I started dating Theo Gray (co-founder of Wolfram Research, a Popular Science columnist and a self-described element collector). Another reason is that Mom occasionally threatens to sell the house, so I'm part of the Occupy Mom's House movement.

Q: You also mentioned that you can do your work from anywhere. What are you working on?

A: Well, I'm working on this film, "Seder-Masochism," and I'm artist in-residence for You might have noticed at the end of "This Land is Mine" (meant to be the last scene in "Seder-Masochism") the line, "Copying is an act of love. Please copy and share." The best activism I can do is to make my art and encourage people to copy it. That's where I'm most effective — as a copyleft activist. Copyright is all rights reserved, and copyleft is all wrongs reversed. I'm also doing what's called free-motion quilting. You draw with the sewing machine. I got into it two years ago when I was in New York and not working on anything else. There's not much quilting in New York, so it's fun to come here where there's all this quilting going on.

Q: Did you get an "Ebert bump" when you brought "Sita Sings the Blues" (her award-winning animated film) to the 2009 Ebertfest?

A: That was in the middle of the two years I was at a lot of film festivals. "Sita" was receiving a lot of attention at that time. I couldn't single out Ebertfest, because the same week I was there, "Sita" won the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles award for best narrative feature. I couldn't go to the Indian Film Festival because I was at Ebertfest. I'm still really glad I went to Ebertfest. I can unequivocally say it was the best film festival I went to — and I've been to a lot of film festivals — for a single reason: All the people see the same films at the same time in the same theater.

Q: Is "Sita Sings the Blues" still engendering controversy?

A: Yes. It's not superhot right now. It's funny. All the rhetoric from the Hindu fundamentalist nationalists is indistinguishable from the most hysterical criticism for "This Land is Mine."

Q: Your visual style in "Sita" seems similar to that of "This Land is Mine."

A: This is an economical technique, given the software I like to use. "This Land is Mine" is a little more inspired by Assyrian art.

Q: Did you take a lot of art courses?

A: No, I'm a proud dropout of the University of Illinois Art Department. It was just painting when I was there in the mid-1980s. I AP'ed out of the first year of art, but the UI was one of the few schools that didn't accept (Advanced Placement credits). I had to take all the fundamentals first. There was a disdain for illustration and a tremendous disdain for cartooning.

Q: Do you consider yourself a cartoonist, first and foremost?

A: I would say an artist. Not a painter, though. When I was at the UI, I was actually skipping art class to do illustrations for The Daily Illini. After I dropped out, I did freelance illustration and worked on my cartooning. I ended up teaching animation, visual storytelling and Flash for film and video to graduate students at Parsons in New York.

Editor's note: To view "This Land is Mine," visit