Faculty Feature: Martin Abrahams
An Instructor's Journey from Fine Arts to Teaching Animation
March 28, 2018
by Sarah Grass
The life and career of Martin Abrahams, SVA Animation faculty member, can best be described in the image of a kaleidoscope. His path has looped and swirled in time– itself an animation of his magical reality. With familial ties to the magic of old Hollywood and a natural penchant for drawing and painting, the stage for a future animator was set early. In his words, “Animation is just acting with a pencil.” At once political and poetic, personal and commercial, Abrahams work exists in multiple frames per second. First and foremost identifying as an artist, Abrahams broadly covers his many roles: creative director, animation producer, pioneer and innovator of independent animation and video, and even stunt double. I had the pleasure of chatting with Abrahams about his journey from SVA student to multifaceted professional, from his childhood among Hollywood celebrities to the time-traveling practice of his life as an artist. In Continuing Education, Abrahams teaches Introduction to Animation, and co-teaches The Animation Studio: Putting It All Together, a course combining traditional hand-drawn and digital animation.
In this interview, Abrahams opens up about his education, career, and creativity.
SVACE: What was it like to study at SVA in the 60s?
MA: At that time the school wasn’t granting degrees, so it functioned a bit like today’s Continuing Education program. I was a Fine Arts student from 1964 to 1968. The environment was a kind of salvation from the dissent between generations flaring up in universities: the antiwar movement, the voice of youth standing up for themselves. SVA understood and encouraged the way young people thought. It was always at the forefront of freethinking, of individuality, and of political concern. It wasn’t just an academic art school, it was a place for someone like me to really develop my voice, both creatively and politically.
SVACE: How did a Fine Arts student end up in animation?
MA: Well, my family was involved in movies so I’m predisposed to moving pictures. One of my uncles was Dean Martin’s stunt double and he got me started working when I was 11! At the same time I was an artist and I don’t think there’s anything else I ever wanted to be. It was just the natural process that I would make moving images, and the combination of acting and painting led me to animation. At the time it was unheard of for Fine Arts students to take animation courses but I got all my friends to sign up for a course in the film department and it ran! Nowadays this type of thing is common at SVA.
SVACE: As a student, where did you think you would end up in the future?
MA: I liked the idea of making film, especially after working for a year with Michelangelo Antonioni on Zabriskie Point. I also always imagined that I would be a gallery artist. But one develops their talents as well as the need to support themself. I never thought I would do any commercial work, you know the idealism you have when you’re a student, but then you get out and realize, at the very least, you have to pay for your art! I vowed that I would only do what I want to do, and I did! My commercial work wasn’t separate from me in the end. I was hired for “Marty work” and I went in all directions: music videos for The Dead Boys, The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, Peter Tosh, Rita Marley, etc. and at the same time I was working on Sesame Street! I also did a lot of corporate video work, to support my fine art work. In the end I did become a gallery artist, my current focus. I’m making still images again like when I was a student, only now I return with the disciplines of filmmaking and animation. I believe artists time travel, past, present and future. Artists live in the moment, so the moment I was a student is the same as now. I’m still the fine artist I was back then, taking images that I fell in love with at three years old and rediscovering new visions with them as an adult.
SVACE: Can you speak a bit about your approach to teaching in Continuing Education?
MA: For the young artist, it’s not about whether the work is good or bad, but how to make it better. Continuing Education is an absolutely perfect place to discover one’s self and make what you do better. Also, as Henry Miller would say, “be like a crab”. Let your interests move you in multiple directions! These days you can’t just be an illustrator, you can’t just be a comic book artist. You need to know a little bit about animation and it’s become so easy to do with new technology. My courses are for students of all creative backgrounds.
Check out Martin Abrahams’ music videos for Lou Reed (Legendary Hearts and Don’t Talk to Me About Work), for Sesame Street and OK GO (Primary Colors), and punk band Lords of the New Church. And see his artwork on Blogspot and his photography, and a feature on his work at LifeMinute.tv!