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A Well-Rounded View

by Joseph Gallivan
photos by Kyle Green
December 3rd 2004
Portland Tribune

As an artistic ouvre, it looks about as impressive as a stack of coasters.

Vladimir, as she calls herself, makes movies for the View-Master. Typically she'll hand out 200 plastic viewers in a theater, supplying everyone with their own set of paper reels. They lift their eyes to the white cinema screen and click through the story when the audio track says to do so. Vladimir usually sits off to one side, watching the upturned faces,thrilled by the chorus of clunks.

So far there are four "Vladmaster" movies. The newest one, "The Public Life of Jeremiah Barnes," receives its Portland premiere Dec. 10.

"It's about the discovery of a huge number of steam shovels in the forest," she says. "I mean excavators, earth movers. They're not even made with steam anymore, but I like calling them steam shovels."

Vladimir's other original story is "Lucifugia Thigmotaxis," the tale of a cockroach that ventures out from under the fridge, gets stuck in a glue trap, and is saved when his brethren chomp his legs off (they grow back). She also did interpretations of "Parable and Paradox" by Franz Kafka and "Invisible Cities" by Italo Calvino. For Kafka's odd take on Alexander the Great, for instance, she photographed tiny toys on handmade sets. In the age of the bloated PowerPoint presentation, she tries to tell an epic in seven slides.

Vladimir is small, has a girlish voice and wears brightly colored clothes. "I tend to buy whatever's he silliest thing on the shelf. They put fabulous things on children's T-shirts, but I have to go to the thrift store where there's only one copy, and then you feel special."

The 27-year-old Vladimir says she was christened "J-O-A-N-N-A Solmon." (She doesn't like to say the name Joanna.)

"When I was 16 in writing class, we had to write papers about each other by looking up names in a baby book, so I thought I'd better change my name really fast."

At the time she was aware of Vladimir Lenin and Vlad the Impaler. "I'm not sure, maybe Vladimir Nabokov, too, then," she says. "But I wasn't emulating any of them; I just liked the sound of it."

So at 16 she started wearing a name tag, and although a couple of teachers refused to call her Vladimir, her family and friends went along with it. "My brother calls me Vlad. My parents call me Vladi - I guess they think I'm prettty entertaining."

Her mother is a longtime staffer at the public library in Corvallis. Vlad's dad is a math professor at Oregon State University. They are nothing if not supportive. When she needed to round up more View-Master viewers for the PDX Fest last April, her parents went around the thrift stores of Oregon and found 70 of them.

All of which would be moot if the works were not so beautifully conceived and executed. They are not destined for Portland's great pile of thrift-store-to-thrift-store art.

The reason she photographed cockroaches was, she says, because she found them beautiful. She collected them - dead - at the Northwest Film Center's old digs at the Masonic Temple next door to the Portland Art Museum. (One of her day jobs is maintaining film equipment and loaning it out to students.)

According to Vladimir, lucifugia means fleeing from light, and thigmotaxis (at least for her cockroaches) means needing the body to be squeezed. Portraying the thrills and spills of an apartment from a cockroach's point of view appealed to her, and suited the stereoscopic medium.

The story begins with a cutesy, kitschy quality. That is gone by the end, when we hear the mandibles crunching in the name of love.

"I don't thyink of it as doing art, I think of it as making things," Vladimir says. "I really like solving problems."

The first reel she made was just for friends in November 2003 - a record of a road trip they took together. It took her a while to find a method. . .

Today View-Master is a Fisher-Price product, which is part of toy giant Mattel Inc. Though the Beaverton View-Master plant closed down amid allegations of water pollution, Vladimir's art does not have an activist ax to grind, nor is she a View-Master collector, willing to pay high prices for vintage reels.

The best-selling View-Master reel is of views of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The best-selling sereis is of the Grand Canyon. The format also is strongly associated with cartoon characters - there already is a series for "The Incredibles" on the shelves, although today the viewer looks like a big pair of binoculars. Viewers of Vladimir's films get a double wave of nostalgia, since they are adults playing with a beloved toy again, one that has vintage associations.

She explains the medium's appeal:

"It's such a novel experience for an audience that they're all having this private moment looking at the tiny pictures, but it's simultaneously a public experience."

For "The Public Life of Jeremiah Barnes," she bought the little men that go on model railways from Vic's Hobby Supply. They are German made and have surprisingly fine features close up. . .

"I get really excited about making imitation mass production things," Vladimir says.

A pile of circuit boards, capacitors and resistors are evidence that she likes to tinker with electronics.

"I like making things that beep and flash. I make toys as birthday presents for friends. You know, open the box and something happens. I'm interested in interactive stuff."

She also has made her won scratch-it lottery tickets. She printed icons of prizes (such as beers) on cards, covered them in clear packing tape and painted over that with Wite-Out. Then with an inkjet printer, she printed an image of people from a camera catalog, which could be scratched off. Of course she gave each card a number so she knew who had won.

"They're much prettier than the Oregon Lottery tickets," she says.

Vladimir's second job is as projectionist for the Northwest Film Center. She says she doesn't want to become a filmmakerr or an animator because she works best along.

"I really love film as a substance. I like to experience movies as a sequence of still frames - to get to see the film and touch it rather than passively watch it."

Favorite directors include Robert Bresson ("Pickpocket," "A Man Escaped") Jean-Pierre Melville ("Le Samourai") and Jean-Luc Godard ("Breathless," "Weekend").

Her plank and cinder block shelves groan under books by Jorge Luis Borges, Flannery O'Connor and Don DeLillo. She gives away DeLillo's "White Noise" a lot, because "it makes people really happy when they read it."

As an artist, she's dealing with big ideas in small packages. The packaging, like her web site, www.vladmaster.com, is stylish. Again with the problem solving: "I've been using Photoshop for years, and recently learned how to make web pages." She did it the tinkerer's way, learning how to code line by line from a 1999 book called "HTML."

Vladimir lacks the usual self-importance of the puppeteer; she's a visual artist who can talk clearly about her work. For instance, she chose Kafka's tiny parables not to be ironic - great writer, silly toy - but because she was a big fan of them.

"The toys are acting as metaphor in the same way that (Kafka) is using Alexander the Great as a metaphor," she says. "Like all of Kafka, it's about the howling uncertainty that's inside of everyone, and he's a master at taking internal confusion and insecurity and bringing it to the surface."

So how would she feel if the crowd hated her work?

"I think I probably would have been unhappy," she says, smiling. "I generally have pretty low expectations."

She pauses.

"It's wonderful to hear the audience responding. As a dangerous thing would happen (in the cockroach story) they would gasp, or they would laugh. It's nice to make people happy for a little while."