Artists Who Inspire! #2: Deb Sivigny

A designer who tapped into Japanese mythology as a vehicle for inspiration and connectivity

Welcome to the second installment of Artists Who Inspire! During this unprecedented shutdown of live theater, DCMTA will use this space to lift up local theater artists who are finding ways to remain creative and share their craft.

Amabie #2 by Deb Sivigny. Photo courtesy of the artist.

This time last week, I had never heard of Yokai, a group of mythological demons and spirits from Japanese folklore. Nor did I imagine that I would now be able to sketch a mean Amabie! (For you neophytes, that’s the mythical mermaid who prevents pandemics.)

But a lot has changed since last week. And it was artist and teacher Deb Sivigny’s reaction to those changes that led to my newfound art skills. Like most DC-based theater artists, Sivigny found herself with a lot of unplanned downtime as the COVID-19 epidemic necessitated that theaters and schools close overnight.

To fill that time, she began to host Facebook Live sessions in which she coached people in drawing these fictitious creatures. Her inspiration was twofold: ramping up her online teaching skills before her classes at George Mason University went virtual and also putting some positivity out into a world that badly needed hope and connections.

Deb Sivigny. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Sivigny was inspired by an article about the Amabie, a mer-creature, usually depicted as a woman, that can predict a pandemic. “The idea is that if you draw an Amabie and someone else sees it, they will be cured of sickness,” Sivigny explained in her first video tutorial. “While that is probably wishful thinking, I thought, why the heck not, and this is a great moment to try this thing out.”

The resulting project has been a diversion and a teaching moment for Sivigny’s friends and students – and for me. So much so that I reached out to Sivigny to learn more about her strategies for coping with this unprecedented turn of events and to congratulate her on being an artist who inspires.

Note: Since we conducted this interview, Deb has begun another project, spearheading an effort to rally area costume designers to make protective masks for local hospitals. More on that effort later.

For those who may not be familiar with your work in real life, can you briefly describe what you do for a living?

I am a designer and educator, working in the gray areas between disciplines. I work as an Assistant Professor at George Mason University, teaching both scenic and costume design. When I’m not there, I’m working around town (and lately) nationally as a designer. I was also part of The Welders (2.0) where I wrote and designed Hello, My Name Is…

Did you have any work put on hold due to the Coronavirus outbreak? If so, what?

It’s been a very busy spring, so I had three productions in the mix. The first was Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes at Signature Theatre, which came close to finishing its run. The second one was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at Arkansas Rep; this is the same version that happened at Round House Theatre last fall. I had just left Little Rock when I heard the news. The third makes me the saddest: my students and colleagues were busy rehearsing and building Men on Boats at George Mason, and because the University has moved completely online for the rest of the semester, we don’t get to do the show, which is tragic for our students.

OK, let’s get the negativity out of the way: What’s the worst/hardest thing about this quarantine period for you?

I think about my students all the time. Current and former. Current students who feel they have had the rug ripped out from under them, former students who are out freelancing in the world and have lost future income. I wish I could say the words to make the anger, anxiety, and sadness go away.

Now on to the positive! Share with us one professional achievement that you are proud to have accomplished so far this year.

This past winter, I traveled to Malaysia and Singapore with my husband Randy Baker (of Rorschach Theatre) and the artistic directors of Pointless Theatre, Patti Kalil and Matt Reckeweg, and company member Scott Whalen. We met over 20 artists and writers from the region in prep for Pointless’ July production of The Legend of Hang Tuah. The research itself was a huge achievement and I can’t wait to share the production.

How are you coping with being cooped up at home and what are some things you have done to keep busy and stimulated?

I’m pretty introverted, and I don’t get to spend a lot of time at home because of work, so spending time at home isn’t that hard for me. Plus, I have Randy to keep me company. That helps a lot. I make a daily schedule for myself to keep moving forward and avoid mindless smartphone scrolling. Every day includes time for meditation, coffee and/or a cocktail, deep cleaning a different area of the apartment, daily drawing sessions, getting outside for air, an online meeting or two (or three) for work, concentrating on redeveloping my classes into a virtual format, and a little TV watching.

You caught my attention by sharing videos of yourself teaching Yokai drawings. What inspired you to do that and what did it involve?

I began with Yokai after reading about Amabie, a mermaid-type creature that could predict/prevent pandemics (article here). Yokai are Japanese supernatural beings, and there are so many of them. It’s said that if you’re sick and you see a drawing of an Amabie, you will be cured. I thought sharing a drawing would be a great way to cope, for myself and others. In the few days I’ve been doing this, the subject has certainly morphed into other realms by request, like pandemic fashion and animals in self-quarantine, but I’m glad I can provide a small source of joy in these strange times.

Why did you want to experiment with online videos, and why did you choose this subject matter?

I teach a lot of my in-person classes with a document camera. With a group of people, it’s easier to demonstrate small craft techniques or illustrations when the images are blown up on a large screen. When the possibility of teaching online came up, I decided that it would be a good time to get my own equipment. Because I don’t spend a lot of time in front of the camera, I thought sharing daily videos would help me get over my performance anxiety. It’s also fun, slightly nerve-wracking fun.

Share with our readers a little about this art form and why it struck your interest right now.

I promised myself that I would challenge myself this year with mediums that were new to me. While drawing isn’t new to me, making videos for others is. I’m looking forward to seeing what other work I can do.

List three other DC-area artists who inspire you and tell us why.

I’m cheating — there are four…but there are amazing people in our community!

Sherrice Mojgani and Mimsi Janis, my tenure-track colleagues at George Mason. Sherrice is an incredible lighting designer, educator, and activist who also manages to balance two kids while teaching. Mimsi is a gifted actor, director, educator, dog-mom, and avid kayaker who creates a beautiful space to learn in, whether rehearsal room or classroom. Both of these women build me up every day by just living their inspiring lives.

Ryan Maxwell, a talented director and photographer, is also an avid bread baker. He’s started making loaves a few times a week, and I have been a lucky early sampler of the gluten-ey goodness. He inspires me because he’s developed both a clever and delicious source for income (check out his bread site here), and he’s found a creative way to use his time that engages the joy of slowing down — something we crave when we’re constantly busy.

Randy Baker, (yeah, he’s my husband so I’m biased…but he is an incredible inspiration to me) multi-disciplinary director, playwright, educator, and producer. Most know him as the co-artistic director of Rorschach Theatre, but I get to know him for his spontaneous guitar playing and improvised songs, his ability to make coherent sense of a complex web of storytelling, and his talents for keeping a rehearsal room of actors alive and generative for hours. He keeps me laughing, and that’s its own source of inspiration.

About Deb Sivigny: Deb Sivigny (she/her/hers) is an award-winning costume and scenic designer from Washington DC. Specializing in new work, she was a member of the playwrights collective The Welders, and creator of Hello, My Name Is… an immersive promenade about Korean adoptees. Her research includes “design-driven” works inspired by literature and personal experience and design dramaturgy. She is on the faculty at George Mason University. @indepenguin


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