Though multifaceted creator Elena Megalos may not speak as many languages as she’d prefer, she does possess an extraordinary “ability to connect with worlds beyond” her own. The Brooklyn-based writer, artist, and animator holds an MFA in fiction writing and teaches fourth grade full-time. Though she has never formally studied visual art or animation, Elena is currently at work on her first picture book for children in addition to the breathtakingly detailed animated shorts that take a year apiece to produce.
“When prepping an animation, I rely heavily on folders and envelopes, since hundreds of tiny paper cut-outs go into a finished film,” she says. Portability is key. She makes progress on her work in the shreds of time between other activities, or even in transit to them. Elena views her various creative efforts as working in conjunction toward the same point of self-expression. “They’re all forms of a bigger storytelling pursuit,” she explains. The visual work has informed her literary process, and vice versa. “When the missing ingredient presented itself unexpectedly, I’d think: this piece has felt inevitable for a while, but couldn’t have happened until now.” —Annie
Photography by Elena Megalos
What’s in your toolbox?
Gouache (Winsor & Newton black and white are my staples, though I love Acryla’s playful colors), a sketchbook, Bristol board, cheap paintbrushes, a portable water dish, pencil and eraser, scissors, a razor blade, and a storyboarding notebook. I never studied visual art or animation, so a lot of what I do feels learn-as-I-go, including which supplies to buy. I only started painting with gouache after following other illustrators on Instagram; their posts gave me ideas about which brands and colors to try. Corollary toolbox items: a laptop (for tunes, podcasts, reference images, film editing), headphones (I often work in public places, and share my home workspace with housemates), Final Cut Pro software, a scanner and external hard drive. If I’m home, I keep a Japanese daruma doll in sight. The idea is to set a goal and color one pupil, then color the other pupil when you’ve reached the goal. I enjoy — and usually respond to — the visual kick in the ass. I used to have different daruma for different creative goals; now, in an effort to de-clutter, I use one as an all-purpose motivator.
Fill in the blank, “When I am in my studio, I feel ____________.”
What’s on the top shelves of your inspiration library right now?
Michael DeForge’s First Year Healthy, Sina Grace’s Self-Obsessed, Bianca Stone’s poetry comics, Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies, Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty and everything else she’s ever done. I love artists who write, writers who draw. The forms they choose are consistently fresh and empowering; they give me permission (and challenge me) to combine words and pictures in new and better ways.
On the animation front, Hayley Morris’s worlds are breathtakingly beautiful while preserving a handmade look and feel. Julia Pott tells the darkest, most moving stories with unexpected yet perfectly complementary visuals. I love what Emily Collins can do with cut paper, and her commitment to education and female empowerment makes me want to be a better artist and person.
How do you keep yourself organized?
I’m not a very organized person, but space constraints work wonders! My fiancé and I recently downsized from a four-room railroad apartment to a bedroom in a house that we share with five other adults and a one-year-old (!). The workspace, which doubles as our dining room, is communal, so I need to be able to store work and supplies in a tight, minimally invasive way. When a work session is over, I need to be able to clean up all traces of myself. Right now, I’m relying on IKEA baskets in my bedroom and a couple communal shelves. I keep most of my work to 9”x12” dimensions.
Another benefit of working small is portability. I work full-time as an elementary school teacher, so I’m often squeezing art sessions into limited blocks of time. It’s helpful if I can fit everything I need in a backpack, and have the option of working in public/shared spaces like coffee shops.
When prepping an animation, I rely heavily on folders and envelopes, since hundreds of tiny paper cut-outs go into a finished film. I only make about one short a year, but the prep needs to be something I can chip away at wherever I am — at home, in a cafe, on the subway, on an airplane.
If you could have one superhero (or magical) power, what would it be and why?
The ability to speak many languages. I know a number of ordinary people with this gift, and admire/envy their ability to connect with worlds beyond their own in such a direct way.
What is the best advice you have ever received, and what is the one piece of advice you would offer to a young artist, maker, or designer?
During a crisis of confidence and procrastination, one of my fiction MFA classmates paraphrased something a professor had once told her: “You’re always writing” (subtext: even when you’re not writing). I’ve adapted this line for all forms of creativity: you’re always working, you’re always collecting. The idea helped shift my mindset about those dreaded gaps between projects, those periods of seeming inactivity. It gave me permission to treat “the search” as a useful and necessary stage of its own. The trade-off, of course, is to stay open-eyed and open-hearted — to keep your antennae up rather than moving through your surroundings in a closed, distracted way.
My advice: put yourself in the proximity of other makers you admire, in whatever capacity your location and “world” permits. If you’re lucky enough to live in a place where your heroes show their work or give talks or readings, lucky you! Regardless, seek out — better yet, build — a community that will inspire you. Act on your talent crushes. When the people you admire are generous with their time, treasure it. Ask questions, seek guidance, initiate collaborations, say “yes” a lot. Make a point to encourage and appreciate other makers around you; the sentiments are bound to boomerang back, and generate the best kind of fuel for making more good work.
How do you combat creative blocks?
I see my whole practice as a visual artist as an attempt to combat creative blocks in my writing! Maybe a better way of putting this is that I like working across mediums and telling myself they’re all forms of a bigger storytelling pursuit. I try to be gentle with myself when something isn’t cohering. I tell myself that time and my subconscious will do the work, and move forward with other projects in the meantime. I’ve had stories come together that took months (or years) of processing on the mental back burner before they were ready. When the missing ingredient presented itself unexpectedly, I’d think: this piece has felt inevitable for a while, but couldn’t have happened until now.
Some tangible practices that facilitate this creative slow-cooking: keeping lists, maintaining regular access to ideas in progress, keeping my antennae up (“you’re always writing”), walking, brainstorming, and free-writing by hand. I make sure I have a notebook and pen in every bag I carry.
Where do you like to look or shop for inspiration?
I have a deep affection for picture books, and am lucky to live near libraries and bookstores with wonderfully curated children’s sections (Book Court, powerHouse, Community Bookstore, and McNally Jackson are my favorites). The glorious paper department at New York Central has supplied the look — and texture — of many animation sets. The American Museum of Natural History has been [the] backdrop to some of my best writing, doodling, and daydreaming sessions. And while I’m rarely in a position to spend more than $30 at these shops, I love the beautiful objects at John Derrian, Top Hat NYC, Collyer’s Mansion, Steven Alan Home, and Mociun.
If you could peek inside the studio or toolbox of any artist, maker, designer, or craftsperson, whose would it be and why?
Joseph Cornell, whose studio must have been one epic curiosity cabinet.
What’s on your inspirational playlist at the moment?
Joanna Newsom’s Divers