Every artist begins somewhere. When Nancy Andrews, faculty member in performance art and video production, was nine, she drew a pastel “of a very lonely tree” that made it all the way to the Montgomery County Fair. Today her work has been collected by the Museum of Modern Art, but her most ambitious work is still ahead. With three decades of diverse artistic production behind her, this drawing, painting, puppet- and video-making Guggenheim Fellow has embarked on her first feature-length film, The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes. Behind it will be the queer, complex creativity that expressed itself in a neighborhood art class in suburban Washington, DC circa 1970.

Animation stills from The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes, featuring Michole Briana White; animated by f...Animation stills from The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes, featuring Michole Briana White; animated by faculty member Nancy Andrews and SL Benz (Lauren Benzaquen ’14).

Not that everyone endorsed Nancy’s vision quite as heartily as those fair officials. That lonely tree? “Well, the kid next to me in class could draw Superman perfectly, and that’s what I thought you had to do,” she says, laughing. “But I suspected that that wasn’t true.” The daughter of a successful engineer and a former secretary, Nancy knew what the inside of a museum looked like.

“One of the markers of middle class aspiration was giving your children cultural experiences: piano lessons, visits to cultural spaces,” she says.

If the slip of a girl had her bullies, she also had the work of her particular favorite, Paul Klee, to admire — and a burgeoning imaginative life of her own.

Today, much of Nancy’s work draws on vaudeville and early film influences. In her world, song-and-dance might punctuate a scrupulously silent animated sequence. Crisp fields of black and white give way to shadows. And, as in her Ima Plume trilogy (Monkeys and Lumps, The Dreamless Sleep, and The Haunted Camera, created between 2003 and 2005), a film noir homage centered on an artist who attempts to illustrate the unseen, imagination becomes something to investigate. Did her open approach to mystery, her attraction to bathos and black humor coalesce at art school? “Actually, I think my fifth grade teacher is responsible,” says Nancy. Mr. Grossman introduced his class to Shakespeare, The Three Stooges, old radio shows, pulp fiction, and opera. He even projected the silent horror classic The Phantom of the Opera onto the classroom movie screen from a 16mm film projector. “I loved all of it,” she says. “I had a lot of those ‘That’s what I’m talking about. That’s it,’ moments.”

Rebel, rebel

For college, Nancy headed to the Maryland Institute College of Art. As a photography major, “we learned about composition, light, contrast — the basic building blocks of cinematography.” She’d been playing around with Super 8 cameras for years and, in addition to film production and film history, took MICA’s first course on video technique. She describes borrowing avant-garde films from the Enoch Pratt Library back when a reel in your hand might be the only way to see a particular, potentially life-changing film. With punk rock in the air, it was also a good time for rebellious do-it-yourself art-making. Studying abroad in England, Nancy photographed the butcher hanging slabs of beef — and made earrings out of the prints. Recounting this to the LA Record recently, she said, “I also made a jumpsuit with clear pockets for pictures related to plastic surgery,” showing that, for Nancy, art has always been interdisciplinary.

Nancy never did go to film school; she’s always been a human ecologist, assembling her films from multiple sources. A decade after graduating from MICA, she began an MFA program at the The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, not in film but in performance art. The Art Institute is known for fostering interdisciplinarity, a key factor in Nancy’s decision to attend. Why the shift to performance art? “The Baltimore scene,” she says, with a wry smile. Intense friendships, communal living, supportive community, cheap rent: after MICA she remained in Baltimore, a perfect city for experimental artists at the time. “It was a real art community. People collaborated and helped each other out. There was nothing to compete for: if people wanted to ‘make it,’ they moved to New York. We made art because we loved to do it.” In this context, almost by chance, Nancy formed a three-person band that morphed into a four-person performance group.

Soon they were playing gigs in DC and New York and were written up in the Washington Post. Encouraged, “we wrote more and more songs, and a friend made us crazy costumes,” says Nancy. As a performance art troupe they aired on college radio and appeared in the pages of Interview magazine. They were almost booked for a slot on David Letterman’s Late Show — “we were too weird, so they cancelled” — and never quite “made it,” but it had a major impact on Nancy’s art. Those eight years of performance added another dimension to her work in video and film.

Animation stills from The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes, featuring Michole Briana White; animated by f...Animation stills from The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes, featuring Michole Briana White; animated by faculty member Nancy Andrews and SL Benz (Lauren Benzaquen ’14).

Something “stupid” — and profound

In her 2009 short, On a Phantom Limb, Nancy collages medical footage, drawn animation, and live action to tell the story of birdgirl, “a human-made hybrid, a surgical creation — part woman, part bird — passing through death, purgatory, and returning to life.” Over the course of the film, birdgirl is literally and figuratively reanimated: returned from near-death and rendered visually intelligible by Nancy’s brush — and her performance. On one level, says Nancy, the film took shape like most of her art: “I have what I call a ‘stupid idea’ and just start working with it. It’s a collage process.”

She continues: “This one idea always dovetails with multiple other things I’m thinking about. Often these things don’t fit together in obvious ways, so I sort of force-fit them and ask myself, ‘Why am I thinking about things that wash up on beaches — things that can’t be identified or assigned a provenance; and at the same time, Jane Goodall and her research on chimpanzees; and Donna Haraway’s cyborg theory? Why am I thinking about these things together?’ I don’t really know, of course, but I use these questions to begin exploring leads.”

The process is fundamentally experimental, involving more mystery, contingency, and uncertainty than you’d expect. “It’s like going down a dark hallway and just trying a key in every door until you find one that fits. But it’s not a singularity: the key is going to open more than one door. It’s a blind faith thing. I also use the metaphor of taking a journey without a map. And so it’s very much about finding my way as I go along.”

Even on the brink of death. The “stupid idea” for On a Phantom Limb can be traced back to the Intensive Care Unit of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where for two weeks in 2005 Nancy fought for her life, remaining in the hospital for another two weeks. She had undergone multiple life-threatening surgeries; now, wracked by delirium and convinced that her doctors and the hospital staff were trying to kill her, she struggled to survive. Diagnosed at the age of twenty with Marfan’s Syndrome, a genetic disorder affecting the connective tissues, Nancy was not new to hospital stays. In her senior year of college she underwent open-heart surgery to replace a heart valve and part of her aorta affected by an aneurysm. But this time was different. The surgeries were riskier, and her delusions threatened to pull her under. “I was on a raft, in a space-pod, in a fly-by-night health clinic, in a conference room, in a library, in the arctic, in the desert, and even in a hospital, each with its own terrible narrative,” she writes in her blog devoted to the art and science of ICU delirium.

Radically healing art

Nancy credits her partner Dru Colbert, COA faculty member in art and design, with helping to save her life. In a TEDx talk on ICU delirium, Nancy recounts that Dru “offered me a pencil and paper to make drawings. She asked me to draw the dog that I would like to get once we got home. My first drawings were considerably worse than a two-year-old’s, just a series of jagged lines. But after a few days I could draw something that resembled an animal, with legs and ears.” Nancy continued drawing, creating “a heroic birdgirl avatar that represented myself.” It could fly between heaven and earth “to negotiate the space in between, that space that I had inhabited within my delirium.”

The drawing helped Nancy piece back her fragmented sense of self.

“By externalizing my memories I began to understand how my version of what happened related to what really happened.”

On a Phantom Limb, and the projects that followed, are a result of — and a further step in — this healing, though like many who have experienced ICU delirium, Nancy suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. A comic book, Loupette and the Moon, tells the story of another of Nancy’s “avatars,” a girl with the genetic mutation hypertrichosis, commonly known as “werewolf syndrome,” in which the face and body are covered by a thick pelt of fur. While Loupette’s genetic mutation is different from Nancy’s, she says, “the struggles are not so different — from trying to understand who I am as a person with a genetic mutation that is life-threatening and life-changing to determining how to be defined as a person, and by whom to be defined.” On the book’s final pages, Loupette escapes from the sanatorium where she is unfairly held, flies to the moon, admires a Ziggy Stardust-like magazine, Mutant Style — and scrubs away the monstrous black shadow projected not by herself but by an uncomprehending society.

Post-ICU, Nancy’s work externalizes the bad and internalizes the good: a radical aesthetic project with therapeutic psychological effects for herself and her audience. She says that since Loupette began with images, not words, and since text can reduce the primacy of visual narratives, she kept writing to a minimum, allowing readers to “internalize the experience while actively having to work out what is happening.” Something similar is at play in her Ima Plume triology, in which Ima says, “There were things I could draw pictures of, and there were things that couldn’t be drawn. More and more I was attracted to the second category. There were things I wanted to describe, but I didn’t know how. There were things that I wanted to show but there was no way to show them.”

Drawing, for Nancy, is an attempt to describe the indescribable, to show the unshowable.

Filmmaking without a map

Her creative process continues to evolve. Inspiration for her 2010 short, Behind the Eyes are the Ears, came in the form of a song cycle, not images. Drawings were developed later; then the processes intertwined, “so that I might go from doing research to writing a song, to drawing an animation sequence, to finding some film footage, to shooting some live action. I didn’t do anything in a neat order.” That film, about Dr. Sheri Myes and her revolutionary attempts to expand human perceptions and consciousness, generated the idea for The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes. She’d been fantasizing about making a feature-length film for two years. With a month to spare before the COA winter term, and support from a friend who teaches screenwriting, she began to write.

Animation stills from The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes, featuring Michole Briana White; animated by f...Animation stills from The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes, featuring Michole Briana White; animated by faculty member Nancy Andrews and SL Benz (Lauren Benzaquen ’14).It was a new experience. “If you’re making a feature, you want it to have some of the tropes of the popular form: recognizable characters, characters who have relationships, conflicting interests. These things are not my bread and butter,” she says with a laugh. “So bringing them to life had to become a focus from the very beginning.” Along the way she discovered that “a huge amount of the creativity of making a film comes in the writing.” After completing the screenplay, Nancy sent it around to producers — and was told not to expect funding for her first feature. “Just make it and see what happens.”

She successfully turned to Kickstarter.com, adding $10,000 from her own pocket. Indie-film websites quickly spread buzz about the film, featuring Michole Briana White as Dr. Myes, researcher in the science of perception, and Jennifer Prediger ’00 (see page 17) as Dr. Linda Wiley, her best friend and love interest. “After a near-death experience, Dr. Myes attempts to graft animal senses to the brain to revolutionize human consciousness. She must face the consequences when she uses her own body and mind as a research tool and transforms herself into a creature with super-senses,” Nancy writes in an email.

This project has been her most challenging — and rewarding — yet. “It was my first time on a feature set, and I was the director. So I had a lot of learning to do.” But while the film may be large, the budget isn’t — requiring constant invention. “We’re always asking ourselves, ‘How do we make a film that looks interesting and beautiful with no money?’ — but Dru as production designer and the whole team have done just that. It’s challenging, but it makes you more creative.”

Scores of people got involved, from Rohan Chitrakar ’04 as director of photography to Zach Soares ’00 who co-composed much of the music to COA students to town officials to locals offering locations for free. “There are creative aspects to everything,” Nancy says. “Take a scene: you may have it story-boarded it out, but when you’re working, the actors, the weather, the cars going by — whatever you have to deal with that day, you have to come up with creative solutions.”

Nancy and Michole Briana White.She learned that “the buck has to stop with the director, one has to make decisions constantly — do we have enough takes? If we spend more time on this scene, what will we not have time for? Is a lighting set-up ‘good enough’ so that shooting can begin, even if it’s not perfect?” As with teaching, the quality of the outcome depends on leveraging collaboration. And enjoying it. “Having all of these skilled people around makes me like a superhero,” she says. They give me new powers, powers that I don’t possess.” When she says that she wants to let “everyone do their job” on set, it’s clear that this is Nancy’s creative ethic — and it benefits everyone.

Her work in the editing suite is no different. “The editor and I will be working on transitions and one of us will have an idea, so I’ll start drawing an animated transition, and we’ll end up inserting little bits of animation into the film, right in the middle of the editing process. It’s never stopped being inventive.” This meant leaving behind the screenplay. “Something works on paper, but then some people watch it and say, ‘I don’t really believe this relationship.’ So you go back to the cutting room and say, ‘How can I put this together to make these relationships more believable?’ At that point it really doesn’t matter what’s down on paper. What’s happening on the screen has to be doing the job. It’s about what I have, not what I wrote.”

Referring to her usual, collage-like creative process, she says, “I collect stuff and then I start looking at how it all works together. At some point during editing, that’s what this process became, too.” Hearing her, you get the sense that she’s more comfortable without the map. And that her film, due out in 2015, will take us on a trip we couldn’t make without her.

Visit thestrangeeyesofdrmyes.com for more on The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes.

Michael Diaz-Griffith ’09 now lives in New York where he continues his graduate studies.