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CalArts gets its close-up

A series at MoMA holds up to the light the student works of the great and may-be-great.

May 21, 2006|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

KEESLING'S 2001 thesis film, "Boobie Girl," contrasts a little girl's desire for an ample bosom with her discovery that there's a downside to getting what you wish for, like not being able to balance on roller skates, and having other girls whisper, "I think she swallowed Dolly Parton." Only at the end credits of that animated short do viewers get a strong hint that it's not a fictional fable, when Keesling thanks her doctor for "the most splendid breast reduction."

"Boobie Girl" virtually took over Keesling's life for two years, winning a Student Academy Award and showing at 70 film festivals, earning her trips to Tokyo, Cannes, Sundance and the like, financed in part by her sales of $20 "Boobie Girl" T-shirts.

"It's like having just the teeny-weeniest perfect piece of fame," says Keesling, who worked for a special-effects company after graduation but says her goal always was to teach. The two student films -- and the recommendation of a CalArts teacher -- helped her achieve that just recently when she was hired to "help raise the bar," as she puts it, at the animation department of Detroit's century-old College for Creative Studies, best known for its industrial and car design programs.

"I don't expect to become a millionaire," said Keesling, 37, who while she teaches is making yet another personal film, this one about her father, who once designed "trippy" light shows for rock bands such as Pink Floyd and the Who, and now has a model train store in Hollywood.

Keesling plans to come to New York for MoMA's opening reception, though her films will be screened later on, as will the film of one of her former colleagues in CalArts' experimental animation program whom she got into the show. After copies of her films were requested, she threw into the package one made by Dave Lebow, a.k.a. "Maniaman." By his own admission, Lebow does not expect CalArts to include him yet on its lists of prominent alumni along with Harris, Tim Burton and the Pixar folks.

"I'm probably not famous enough, or famous at all," says Lebow, who went to CalArts "as an older guy," after years of painting, to learn animation. He then spent two years making 4,000 drawings by hand for his seven-minute thesis film, "Night Sweats," about a man who can't sleep and imagines himself being attacked by an anthropomorphic coffeepot until morning brings a return to his mundane real life.

Lebow, now 51, works part time at CalArts while doing freelance animation, currently for "The Secret Life of ... " series on the Food Network.

"Every week it's a different food -- this week I'm working on 'The Secret Life of Chilled Treats,' " he said, detailing how he had to create 11 seconds of animation on the history of sorbet, how "in the Islamic world, merchants would import snow from the mountains [and] mix ice and water and fruit syrup."

Lebow also produced 10 original paintings for the TV show "Medium" and displays other works, mostly portraits and still-life scenes, on his website, Maniaman.com. He sees some irony in having his student film on insomnia as his debut at one of the world's leading museums.

"I would love to get a painting in the Museum of Modern Art," said the artist-animator, "but this is a great way to sneak in."

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