Interviews

Jasmine Becket-Griffith Will Change the Way You See Disney

By David Jenison

Jasmine Becket-Griffith lives in a planned community originally developed by the Walt Disney Company in Florida, and she’s created co-branded Disney artwork for the last decade. Her work with the Mouse portrays the artist in a certain light, but the real Becket-Griffith is so much deeper and arguably much darker. This official Disney artist is also a world-traveling, voodoo-embracing bone collector who specializes in the type of gothic and fantasy art adored by the Dungeons & Dragons set. Now add an art history degree that infuses her work with sophisticated nods to classic art and literature. PRØHBTD spoke with Becket-Griffith, and she becomes more and more twisted with each answer.

You had a show at the WonderGround Gallery in Downtown Disney last year. What did you showcase?

I actually [did] what they call a takeover of the entire gallery. They basically take all the usual artwork out, and it was 100 percent my artwork for three days. A couple of paintings I did were Princess Jasmine with Rajah from Aladdin and Princess Leia from Star Wars with R2-D2.

The Star Wars-Disney connection still sounds strange to me.

It's funny to think of Princess Leia as a Disney princess now. I painted her with a gun and everything.

What did the Disney characters mean to you growing up, and what new twists do you give them?

I've been a huge Disney fan since I was little, and a big part of my early childhood was spent doing Disney coloring books. As I grew up, I liked painting Disney characters because I like to think of them as being timeless. When I paint them in my own style, I feel I'm not necessarily contemporizing them but putting them into a context in which they could exist in 2016 as well as in the 1930s or 40s.

I looked at a whole bunch of the paintings you did specifically with Disney, and the characters rarely smile. Is there a significance to that?

Part of it is me thinking realistically about the actual characters. If I'm painting Snow White in the forest, I think, "Her stepmom is trying to murder her, this guy with an ax is coming out to kill her, and she's really had an awful time of it.” I don't know why she'd be sitting there smiling. Or let's look at the Haunted Mansion. The bride character is supposed to be this murderous widow cutting heads off and doing all these terrible things up in the attic. I don't know why she would necessarily be a smiling, happy character. A lot of the Disney heroines are tragedies in a way.

Images (from left to right): Alice in the Garden of Earthly Delights, Unseelie Court Wrath, Étreinte de Papillons, Green Goddess, Allegory of Loss, Alice in a Van Gogh Nocturne, Divine Hand and Princess Jasmine and Rajah.

Do you think the original Disney artists added subtle, subversive elements into the animation?

I'm sure they did. Being artists in general, you feel an obligation to stick a little commentary in there. A lot of them were very good artists in their own right, not necessarily working only for Disney.

Anything you noticed?

I hear a lot of different theories on the internet and read a lot of interviews with the old illustrators. They put in a lot of inside jokes, and a lot of the topics they touch on are grown up to begin with. There's always people being murdered or evil family members plotting against you. Of course, a lot of them are based off Grimm's Fairy Tales, and those always had a lot of interesting things happening.

Do you add subtle, subversive elements to your artwork?

Not so much with the Disney stuff. Sometimes there are inside jokes, sometimes I'll put a friend's initials up in the leaves, but in my own paintings, I definitely do.

What would be an example from your Allusions and Allegories show last year?

I've got a couple of pieces from my Unseelie Court series that are nods to the seven deadly sins. Like in my Wrath piece, I have Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes down in the corner. I have the main character holding a very similar knife. I incorporated a lot of background elements since it is an allusional reference to different art historical pieces. If you knew the paintings that inspired some of the backgrounds, you would get the sinful wrath element to it.

From a visual arts point of view, what's your favorite deadly sin?

That's hard. Pestilence is pretty great. It wasn't one of the sins, but it was part of the Unseelie Court series that also had the Horseman. Sin specific, I like wrath because there are a lot of medieval and Renaissance paintings that provided an outlet to show really awful, terrible, violent things happening, like people clawing each other's eyes out and eating their children. That's a pretty fun one.

What classic art references will people find in your recent works? 

You're going to see a lot of my personal favorites. There's a handful of Hieronymus Bosch, some Rembrandt, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, some Pre-Raphaelite imagery. I've got a lot of still-life references from different Dutch painters who did wonderful flowers and things like that. I've got a great Gustave Moreau one with a sphinx and Salome. Quite a few really. I was an art history major, so I nerd out on that sort of thing.

What is an example of an allegory in the new exhibit that you gave a new twist?

Allegories—some are a little bit more vague—but I do have some called The Language of Flowers, which is a Victorian idea. Instead of putting things out there in writing or saying it out loud, they would pick different flowers that had hidden meanings, which is where you get the name for flowers like Forget Me Nots. You'd send that to somebody in lieu of telling them to their face what you thought. So if you were romantically involved, you would send them certain flowers.

I've got quite a few Alice in Wonderland paintings at the show, too. Those are already allegorical because of the Alice in Wonderland story, and I also included some allusions to historical art pieces. I have a series that are specifically allegories. I have three in that [show]: an allegory of decay, an allegory of infinity and an allegory of loss. Those are all different paintings in which I tried to take a vague idea like loss or infinity and put symbolism in the painting that's either well known or that I personally would see.

When you look at ancient traditions and folklore, what do you think they say about society at the time and in what ways do they apply to modern society?

A lot of early artwork was probably meant to imply cultural ideals in general that are still universal today. As time went by, things became more specific, and they became commentary on specific people or political movements or simple things like capturing nature in paint. A lot of the things still resonate, just based on random, human behavior. It’s a way to connect back through the centuries or millennia when you see that ancient man thought in ways similar to how we do. Other things might just seem mysterious because they’re old.

Do you believe in the reality of magic and voodoo?

I do, definitely. It's something I'm very interested in. It's nothing I practice specifically, but it's definitely a part of my daily life and certainly inspirational to my artwork. I grew up collecting tarot card decks, and I developed a lot of my own tarot and oracle decks that are kind of gateways—not just collecting art, but also spiritual meanings, or looking for mysterious messages in the day-to-day world through that.

I have a question about your hometown, Celebration, Florida. There was a 1999 New York Times article in which someone described the city as having a Stepford Wives quality to it. Do you agree?

Yes. I would say that the buildings definitely have that aspect. The Walt Disney Company was involved in building it, so it almost looks as if it is a film set. It’s like you're walking down Main Street, U.S.A. in Disneyland. Once you live there for a bit, you realize, "Oh yes, people live here," and there's a very wide variety of very creative people.

Taking away the art angle, what was the most inspirational place you visited in your travels?

That's hard. I just came back from visiting half a dozen countries in Africa, and that was extremely inspirational because it was very different to most of the places I usually visit. I went to Botswana, Zambia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia and Ghana very briefly. I was there with my friend, musician Robyn Hitchcock, who was doing a tour of Africa. From an art perspective, though, I'd probably have to say Europe in general. Not necessarily because of the museums but because you see an appreciation for art and art history everywhere. It just creates an idea that art can be part of a day-to-day world even if it's something very old.

What did you learn from African culture that you can apply to life here?

Something that really struck me was how many different cultures there are in Africa. I knew that abstractly before I went there, but you see how it's presented sometimes in Western media, and you think, "Oh, that's Africa, Africans live there, and they have African art." Then you go there, and it's dozens of different countries, and within them dozens of different groups with so many different philosophies and ideas. Everything from seeing little hipster galleries in South Africa to seeing native people craft things at markets. It was almost like sensory overload.

What is something funny, weird or strange that somebody said or did at a fantasy convention you attended?

A fan recently came up and gave me a little bag and said, "You can open this now, or you can open this later." I'm like, "Okay, I'll open it now. You're here.” I guessed it's maybe some body spray or something. I opened the bag up, and it had some human vertebrae that they scavenged for me from a New Orleans graveyard. They thought I would enjoy it, and I did. I put it on my little voodoo wall back home. People know I collect bones and fossils so it wasn't completely out of the blue. I think the fact that it was in a Bath & Body Works bag confused me.

I’m sure Bath & Body Works would love that image put up on Instagram. So you pull out this vertebrae, and the guy says, "Yeah, I dug this out of a graveyard in New Orleans"?

Yeah, she did.

How terrible that I assumed it was a guy. It’s so much cooler that it was a woman digging in a graveyard.

Yeah. She was really cool.

Last question. You straddle the line between Millennial and Generation X. What do you like and dislike about each?

I like millennials a lot because they have a very positive attitude towards the future. When I see my nieces and nephews, they automatically have better ideas about the earth, the environment, diversity in the world, more so than kids did when I was little. Some Generation X-ers have this underlying anger, too. Maybe it's a reaction against being pissed off at Baby Boomers. I don't know. I like to think I take the good things from both, or I try to.

David Jenison (david@prohbtd.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.

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