Welcome to the extraordinary imagination of Diana Thorneycroft.
In 2021, her thoughts, her world and perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic have led to a fairy tale unlike any other. It’s a stop-motion animated story that follows Quinn, an odd-looking being, who takes a macabre journey, visiting a sanatorium that features characters such as Horse-head Girl and Gord the Goat, filling a cart of items it pilfers along the way.
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Black Forest Sanatorium
By Diana Thorneycroft
- Platform Centre for Photographic and Digital Arts, 121-100 Arthur St.
- To Oct. 29
Included with the seven-minute film are the sets Thorneycroft used to create it, 13 desk-sized dioramas festooned with trimmings from evergreens and twigs, or made to resemble laboratories, dotted with small animal skeletons on their walls.
The animated film, puppets and sets are part of Black Forest Sanatorium, Thorneycroft’s latest exhibition, which opens at the Platform Centre for the Photographic and Digital Arts today and runs until Oct. 29.
"Some people might come in and look at one thing and flee, which has happened before, but I think there’s something for everyone in this. There’s humour, but it’s dark and it’s playful," Thorneycroft says.
Her latest exhibition began during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the award-winning Winnipeg surrealist whiled away days at home returning to the basics of art — putting pencil to paper and drawing.
Thorneycroft had visions that the drawings would become part of an exhibition, but other artists, including Winnipeg filmmaker Danielle Sturk, encouraged her to take one step further and make her first foray into animation.
She was scared at first at the idea of adding film into her artistic repertoire, but the suggestion became too good to pass up for a risk-taker such as Thorneycroft, who has courted wonder and controversy during her 30-year career in the arts, as well as garnering many awards, including the Winnipeg Arts Council’s Making a Mark Award in 2009 and the Manitoba Arts Award of Distinction in 2016.
She was prepared to dive headlong into the project, learning the ropes as she worked, but decided to hire experienced hands at film and animation, Mike Maryniuk and Evin Collis, to shoulder some of the load.
"I took courses at Winnipeg Film Group. I thought I could do the camera work myself. I thought I could do the animation myself, and if I was 20 I could do it, but I’m not, so I had to hire people," Thorneycroft says during a break in setting up the exhibition. "Mike got into my brain. I don’t know, we’re like we’re separated at birth."
So in addition to sketch artist, painter, sculptor and photographer, Thorneycroft can call herself a film director, thanks to Black Forest Sanatorium and teaming up with a small crew who help her make the film.
"It’s the collaboration with other people that made it really special," she says. "For visual artists, we’re used to working alone. For filmmakers, you have to hire people."
The puppets are a fusion of pieces of found art, which have been a hallmark of many of Thorneycroft’s recent works, including Black Forest (Village), which debuted at the Vernon Public Art Gallery in British Columbia in 2019 and Black Forest (dark waters), which premièred at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba in Brandon in 2018.
Some of the pieces from those exhibitions found their way into Black Forest Sanatorium, she says. Horse heads from childhood models and dolls make up many of the characters’ faces, while those pandemic drawings from 2020 became the backdrops to many of the sets in the film and the dioramas in the exhibition.
An alcove at the Platform gallery beside the dioramas offer visitors an opportunity to see the film. The combination of the two not only makes it easier to follow Thorneycroft’s imagination, it provides an appreciation of the detailed work Maryniuk and Collis did to create the film from Thorneycroft’s sets.
"People come in and watch the animation, and then look around, or look around first and watch the animation and see it again in a different light," she says.
Winnipeg singer-songwriter Christine Fellows, who has branched out into sound effects and sound mixing for films and music videos, provides an eerie soundtrack to match Thorneycroft’s unconventional landscapes in Black Forest Sanatorium.
"I basically said, ‘Here’s the ball, go run with it,’" Thorneycroft says. "I wasn’t really directing. I was letting her play."
Sturk, whose 2018 documentary, El Toro: The Best Truck Stop in Town, landed a spot in HotDocs at the Toronto International Film Festival and was a top-10 audience pick at the Gimli Film Festival in 2019, was a fan of Thorneycroft’s photography, but gleaned the film possibilities later, after seeing other Thorneycroft creations.
‘When I was in the studio, it was the three-dimensional aspect that we’re seeing now, that looks like it’s really alive," says Sturk, who has her own exhibition, Jukebox: El Toro, scheduled to open at La Maison des Artistes on Sept. 23.
She says Thorneycroft’s latest reminds her of such Tim Burton films as Corpse Bride and Beetlejuice that bridge the gap between horror and comedy.
Comedy and horror are two sides of Thorneycroft’s personality too. People who meet her notice her humorous side right away; folks who have only encountered some of her controversial works and left scratching their heads in confusion or revulsion only see part of Thorneycroft’s world.
"When I was doing my black-and-white photographs in the ’80s and ’90s, people would come up to me and say, ‘You’re so normal! I thought you’d be six-foot-seven and all black leather with a whip.’" Thorneycroft says.
"A lot of people think things that are dark but they suppress them or they don’t talk about them. For me, it’s fertile ground for making the work."
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.