Divya Srinivasan Is Living
the Dream of Art

The multimedia creator's work wakes a world's imagination

Still from the Octopus Project's I Saw the Bright Shinies video
Still from the Octopus Project's "I Saw the Bright Shinies" video

Getting a phone call from Ira Glass of This American Life while she was shopping in Target wasn't a thing that suddenly shifted Divya Srinivasan into creative overdrive. After all, the artist – who'd started out in the early Nineties doing comic strips for The Daily Texan – has been trucking along with her artwork for about two decades now.

You might have seen some of the stuff Srinivasan's done. She illustrated a nine-minute segment of Richard Linklater's Waking Life; she's done a series of animated videos for They Might Be Giants, a steady stream of illustrations for The New Yorker; she created the award-winning wraparound artwork for Sufjan Stevens' Illinois album; she –

But let's not just scroll out the industry rap sheet that ends with her current success, the children's book called Little Owl's Night. Let's talk to the author and videomaker – whose second illustrated book for kids, Octopus Alone, will be out from Viking this spring – let's talk to the artist herself and find out how she got into the business, the whole drawing-for-a-living career, and what that's been like.

Little Owl's Night book trailer from Divya Srinivasan on Vimeo.

Divya Srinivasan
Divya Srinivasan (Photo by John Anderson)

We're sitting at a table outside Thunderbird Coffee on Manor Road. It's cold – too cold for Texas, damn it – but there's only an occasional breeze, not enough wind to amplify the chill, and the sun is bright up there in the unclouded blue. Srinivasan is smiling uncertainly, her pretty face framed on both sides by shoulder-length hair like trickling liquid licorice. She's not comfortable, not really, with being interviewed, but she's generous with her words.

"I was always drawing in college," she says. "I had a comic strip called 'Sexually Repressed Girl,' and I did that for a few years. And I made some ugly paintings in the Nineties, like people do in college, when you're more bold and you can put things up and not care. Or, I don't know, maybe you're not so self-conscious about it then. But, yeah, I always liked to make stuff on my own. I didn't take art classes – I was always intimidated by taking a class. Having people look at your stuff and critique it? For better of worse, I didn't want to do that."

Illustration for theater review of <i>Book of Grace</i>, published in <i>The New Yorker</i>
Illustration for theater review of Book of Grace, published in The New Yorker

After graduating from UT in '95, Srinivasan got a job with Andersen Consulting in San Francisco. Which doesn't sound ... precisely artistic?

"I really wanted to get to San Francisco, because CD-Roms were being made there by Electronic Arts – with a lot of activities, like what apps are now? Back then I wanted to do that, so I thought, if I can just get to San Francisco, I can wiggle my way into doing animation and things like that. But I wasn't able to do that at Andersen. I hung on for a year there and then took six months to do a kids' book idea that I had." She shakes her head, black hair shifting, and lets out a small self-deprecating chuckle. "Knowing what I know now, I see the problems with it. But I tried, because doing stuff for kids, that's appealing to me. But nothing happened with that, and I needed money, so I started working for a web design firm – this was in '97 – for about a year."

And is that where Srinivasan learned the multimedia skills she's used in her personal and high-profile projects?

"In college, my friend and I would do independent study, like how to use Photoshop and Macromedia Director – heh, that was pretty horrible – but we learned a lot from that. And when I was working at the Web design firm, I wasn't a designer. I got the low-person-on-the-totem-pole position doing production art. So I did learn how to make Web pages and how to make graphics for online projects. And then in '98, Flash came on the scene, and my boss was like, 'OK, you're gonna be the person in charge of learning Flash.' And that was before it was program-heavy. And I love that, and that's when I got to do more animation – and that's when I went freelance."

"I Saw the Bright Shinies" The Octopus Project music video from Divya Srinivasan on Vimeo.

And two years later, Srinivasan moved back to Austin. Because of Waking Life. Well, really because of her sister and Waking Life.

"My sister had come to visit me," she explains, "and on her flight back to Austin, she ended up talking to somebody who was an animator on Waking Life. And when she landed, she called me and was like, 'You should come back now, because they're still hiring for Waking Life.' And I was kind of tired of being in San Francisco. I was not in a great place then, out there, and I was freelance anyway ... so I got back to Austin, and I met with [software designer] Bob Sabiston and started working on Waking Life." She laughs. "It's funny to me that I had to come back to Austin to work on animation. I was always interested but nervous to take an RTF [radio/television/film] class in college. I was kind of intimidated, because the guys who were in it always seemed so confident, and I didn't understand how someone could be that confident."

Tour poster for musical comedy duo Hard ’n Phirm
Tour poster for musical comedy duo Hard ’n Phirm

So the Linklater film was a good move?

Srinivasan nods. "And my style in Waking Life is so different than the others, it's more stylized and not realistic. I think my experience with the film was perfect – because my style showed through. That's kind of a dream, and it doesn't happen too often in animation. I wouldn't have liked to have followed someone else's style guide. And then Bob said I could use his software for other projects. And I did a video – my sister and I did. We shot on 35mm film, but the video was all stills, for "Record Player Party" by the Crack Pipes. It was the document of a house party in December of 2001 in Hyde Park."

In 2004, Srinivasan moved to Chicago.

"I was kind of in a rut in Austin. And I work from home, so for a change of scene I went to Chicago. And it was really good timing, because as I was moving there, I got a call from John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants. He said, 'Hey, we're making a children's DVD and wanna know if you'll do a few videos for us?' And that was kind of a dream, because I'd been wanting to do stuff for kids and wanting to do animation. And it was surreal to be called by him. I felt like I couldn't listen to certain They Might Be Giants songs because I listened to them too much in high school. One of my friends would always be calling their song line in high school, Dial-a-Song. I don't know, it was just nuts to have him call me. And I think that's how Weird Al saw my stuff, and one thing led to another – in weird ways."

"Skipper Dan" Weird Al Yankovic music video from Divya Srinivasan on Vimeo.

That's "Weird Al" Yankovic, of course, for whom Srinivasan did the video of "Skipper Dan." And then, we assume, that led to doing the artwork for Sufjan Stevens' Illinois project?

Illustration from a 24-page graphic novel insert for a high school English as a Second Language textbook.
Illustration from a 24-page graphic novel insert for a high school English as a Second Language textbook.

"No, that was because of The New Yorker," says Srinivasan. "It was real lucky, because I hadn't heard of him, but I got assigned to do an illustration of Sufjan. And then he saw it. And he was looking for someone to do the artwork for Illinois – he was recording it around then – and he asked me if I'd do it. And it was while I was living in Chicago, too, so I felt like, 'Yeah! My little time in Illinois, I get to work on this album!' ... So that was neat. And, from that, I ended up doing the artwork for This American Life, their Greatest Hits, Volume Three."

Srinivasan grins, perhaps just a lumen less brightly than the winter sun. "I've been meeting so many super-nice people who I really admire – people who are so nice that you almost feel they're making fun of you. But they're not – I don't think – they just happen to be really nice people."

And now the artist's back in Austin – "It's my home base," she says – and doing books for children.

Children’s book illustration for <i>Octopus Alone</i>, coming May 16, 2013
Children’s book illustration for Octopus Alone, coming May 16, 2013

"I like doing the kids' books," she says. "And that's good – because it is what I'm working on for the next couple of years. Octopus Alone comes out on May 8, and then next year there's another book, and the next year another book. And right now I'm working on an app, a game app for Little Owl's Night. I'm doing all the artwork and animation and design and all that – and producing it. But first I have to make the book trailer for Octopus!"

It's an industrious thing, this waking life of Srinivasan's, where getting a phone call from Ira Glass while shopping in Target isn't part of some crazy dream: It's just another episode of business as usual.

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Divya Srinivasan, animation, Waking Life, Little Owl's Night, Octopus Alone, Sexually Repressed Girl, This American Life, Bob Sabiston, Record Player Party, Crack Pipes, They Might Be Giants, John Flansberg, Sufjan Stevens, Ira Glass, Weird Al Yankovic, Skipper Dan

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