Monday, July 7, 2014

The Story Behind the Poster: Interview with Annya Uslontseva

We had a chance to sit down with graphic designer Annya Uslontseva who has been designing the posters for Freehold’s Engaged Theatre Tours since 2005. Read a little bit about the story behind the posters including Freehold’s “The Flower of England’s Face: William Shakespeare’s Henry IV” poster …

When you create the posters for Freehold’s Engaged Theatre Tours you actually paint the image and then photograph it. Can you talk about the process of creating the posters?

I came into the design from a painter’s background so it might just have been my way of processing information. When I first talked to Robin Lynn Smith (Freehold’s Artistic Director), I think they had an illustration that they had on the computer and at the time I was having a hard time working off that illustration so I thought “Well, I’ll just try to paint it.” So it was my trying to find another way to illustrate since I couldn’t do what the designer was doing. Since then we have painted every single poster.

Can you talk a little about your painting background?

I was always interested in painting ever since I was a kid. I grew up in the eastern part of Russia.  My mom was very creative and she would draw, play piano and she always encouraged us to try creative things. So I grew up learning to play the piano, painting and writing poetry.  I pretty much explored pretty much every way of expressing myself. I came from Russia to Seattle at 17 years old with my husband. I finished high school that May, got married in August and arrived in Seattle in September. It was strange for me because in Russia I was leaning more toward writing, but once we ended up in Seattle I just kind of lost my language. I didn’t know English well enough and I could feel my Russian slipping away.  So I was somehow, perhaps accidentally, turning to a visual language because I still wanted to communicate.  It was basically the only language from my childhood that hadn’t changed.  I could still say what I wanted to say and paint what I wanted to paint and be understood. This was why I ended up going into design. It was me looking for a voice.

For the first couple of years, I was just trying to figure out what I was going to do with work as I was learning English which it made it hard to go to school.  My husband is a software engineer and one day he saw me painting and said “Well maybe you should try design”. It made sense to me.  I went to design school and I loved it. It was that voice I found, a way of talking to people.  It was a way to speak and reach out.  Early on I realized I wanted part of my work to be with nonprofits.  I felt like that was something I had to do, a way to help and give back. I worked for a few corporate businesses early on which helped me to understand the underlying processes related to the design work. Over time I started freelancing more and more.  

We often hear from our community how much they love our Engaged Theatre posters. Can you talk a little bit more about the process of creating the Engaged Theatre posters?

Even though I don’t paint as much for myself anymore, it’s always interesting to work with Robin because she brings things out of me that I don’t think anyone else would be able to.   She really makes me think and she always has been supportive of what I do.  I think it’s interesting how no other illustration works in quite the same way compared to how we work doing the painting. For example, I do very little retouches.  We come up with an idea and we go from there.  It’s very hard for me to repaint what has already been repainted.  There is a lot of trust between us and Robin really makes me think.  I have learned to trust myself. Whenever I start working with Robin I’m terrified I won’t be able to come up with anything but then I’ll just sit there and let it wash over me and wash away.  After that I’ll find myself drawing and thinking.  I’ll do word associations, ask myself what colors I see, what images come up. I might also do a word map where Robin will give me a word and I’ll expand the words asking myself “what is the meaning of this and what would be the image for that word”.

I have to first get an idea of what I’m looking for. For example, I might think of the word “despair” and go online and see what associations/images are associated with that word. Part of it is that since English is my second language, I have to do this to be sure that I’m getting the meaning right. I notice that if I go straight to the web without doing my word associations first and figuring out what I’m looking for, I end up straying and losing direction. I notice in those cases the image won’t be as powerful because it won’t have a strong meaning behind it.  However if I put my work in first, then it goes faster because I know what I’m looking for and it makes sense.

You’ve done a number of images in the past for the Engaged Theatre posters.  Were there certain images that stand out for you?

The Merchant of Venice might be one of my favorites because we basically focused on creating an illustration.  I was taking a class on typography at the time and we created an illustration from just the letters.  It was satisfying to figure that out – that it could be satisfying just working with no other elements other than letters and making it into a powerful image.  

With each next poster I feel freer and freer in the work.  This Henry IV poster image might be the first time we actually had a figure because usually our figures are more abstract.  So I feel like I’m getting more comfortable that it will work out. I am learning to trust that all I have to do is to keep working on it and eventually something will happen, it will click and there it will be. It’s always interesting to me how the image finishes off – it feels a little other worldly.  You don’t really know where it is going and the more I try to control it, the worse it looks.  The more I let go and move the paint around it seems to come together.  Most of the paintings I paint I end up painting overnight. I might do a first layer and then the composition at night and then add more to it in the morning and finish it off by photographing it.  

You said you’re not really painting apart from doing the posters? Does it inspire your other creative work?

In my other creative work, I went into the 3 dimensional.  My gardening is part of my art but so is my clay work.  I am such a practical person so I like working with clay because I make things that I can use.  I stopped painting for myself partly because I had no where else to put them. Also, I was too attached to them to give them away. I enjoy clay – it doesn’t take up as much space – I can use it and can give it to others.  There is also something about taking a piece of clay I made and go into a garden I grew and collect food and feed it to my child, I feel so connected.  I think that’s what we want when we look into the world … we want to see ourselves and what we love.  I look into my world and what I love and what I do is everywhere.

Check out more about Annya at her website: AUA Design
We hope to see you at The Flower of England's Face: William Shakespeare's HENRY IV is running July 12 - 20 (no performance July 15th) at University of Washington's Penthouse Theatre. Tickets are Pay What You Can.  For more information and to reserve your ticket:

Other past Freehold Engaged Theatre posters designed and painted by Annya Uslontseva:

1 comment:

  1. Люблю тебя, горжусь тобой и вижу вновь мечту свою и думаю о ней