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Meet Robyn Romain

Today we’d like to introduce you to Robyn Romain.

Robyn, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
My family handed me a crayon and I never stopped. I started with fan-work of warrior cats and magical girls. I drew every day, wrote stories and gathered classmates to read out loud to on the playground. I trained myself to finish homework in class, so I could draw and write at home uninterrupted. I went to a public high school with a large art program. Theater, drawing, pottery– I took them all, including in animation! We made animated flip-books on notecards and created basic animation in Adobe After Effects. I put my all into studying art. Senior year, Scholastic awarded me a Regional Gold Key in Illustration and hung my artwork at an exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum. It hung with other student’s artwork from around the state. I felt the pride to see it in a place of lots of historical art, a place I had gone on many field trips as a kid. Truthfully it was a piece, I had only spent five minutes on. What could happen if I put my all into a piece? I knew from there, I wanted to pursue art as a career.

I had the drive and passion, but not enough scholarship money to go to art school outside of the state. I went to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and spent two years studying Digital Arts with a minor in Film. I pretty much tried to tailor-make my own animation major, including a 40-minute bus ride once a week to a community college to audit a figure drawing class and use their Cintiqs. Beyond my education, I got a chance to explore a new place and myself. I tried spoken word, performance-based poetry. Performing my own pieces made me vulnerable, something I struggled with and still feel when creating for animation. I was a featured poet at Lyrical Sanctuary, the university’s open mic, and won a poetry slam downtown, where I wrote a piece about gender and spaghetti. I learned later that a teacher who had been in attendance used that piece to teach some of his students how you can talk about hard topics in a playful manner. I’m still floored to this day that piece was used in a classroom setting. I was known around Milwaukee as “Spaghetti” by some for a year, a name that made me smile every time. I felt I belonged.

I participated on the university’s Sociocultural Council, creating events to highlight and celebrate the diversity in our community. I learned to be an advocate, to really listen to people and to be open to new experiences and ideas. After two years, I hit a wall. I had taken every animation class and there was nowhere left to go. My closest spoken word friends were applying to animation schools. With their encouragement, I tried too. We drew, wrote poetry and watched a lot of cartoons. They took me to places like the Milwaukee Public Market and we drew people while eating tacos. Together, we started building portfolios. That summer, I attended a month intensive animation residency at CalArts. I fell deeply in love with animation and LA. I found community and a workspace that worked for me. I returned home, talked with my family and dropped out of university. That fall, I started working full-time to save money and build a portfolio. I worked 60 hours a week for six months. Needless to say, I burnt out and vowed never again. I took a bus from Madison to Milwaukee for figure drawing classes every week, an hour and a half each way. I drew whatever interested me and recorded it like they are precious memories. Every drawing I made were cherished moments I wanted to share and remember.

The first year I applied to CalArts, I was rejected. It shocked me how little I was disappointed. With all the work I had spent time on, it didn’t feel like a setback. It felt like a step forward, like growth, like progress. It was absolutely worth it. Even if the school didn’t let me in, I told myself that I was going to continue pursuing animation however I could make it possible. Even if that meant teaching myself at home or finding other like-minded people to learn with. My spoken word friends, who I had worked alongside making portfolios, were both accepted to CalArts. They extended an offer to move with them across the country. I weighed my options. I would be far from home and my partner. I could stay in Wisconsin and move the following year. It nagged at me how much easier it would be to have access to figure drawing in LA, to be able to go to galleries and events with animation artists. I thought about how animation was where I wanted to end up and how little opportunities I had left in Wisconsin for it. Ultimately, I decided I wanted to take my chances. My mom just about pushed me out the door, knowing how happy I’d been the month of the residency. I had all the support from my family. After leaving a lot of my stuff behind, my friends and I drove a small van with their parents three days across the USA to LA.

I had to start completely over. If things went wrong, I couldn’t just go home. I found within the first month that I needed a car to get anywhere in LA. At a used car lot, I bought a cheap, old, yellow Volkswagen Beetle named Sunflower. I worked odd jobs as a teacher’s assistant, a summer camp counselor and a retail stocker. In the evenings, I built my skills and portfolio, driving downtown for figure drawing sessions. In February, I got my acceptance letter from CalArts. I was horribly sick. When I received the letter, I thought I was in a fever dream and went back to sleep. Minutes later, I shot up from bed and checked again. I called my dad, who pulled a prank on me by saying he couldn’t hear me just so I could tell him the news again. I called my grandpa, who later told anyone with ears that his grandkid was in California going to cartoon school. And now, here I am! Third-year of school, still learning, still growing! Can’t get enough of cartoon school.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
After being in the program for two years, I would’ve never been able to go to CalArts right out of high school. My family and I didn’t have the finances to go to out of state art school. I looked for other local opportunities while saving up money. I had healing to do from trauma in high school. With better support and time, I became more equipped to handle the stress of making a film every year. Without these experiences, CalArts would have destroyed me. I count it a blessing that I stayed local for two years. I have tenacity, patience and resilience now. I let go of an ego and learned how to be a part of a community. I opened myself up new experiences and people and learned the importance of failure. If it weren’t for those two years growing at home, I wouldn’t be who I am now in school.

Please tell us more about your art.
I’m a student studying Character Animation at the California Institute of the Arts. My dilemma is that I find the whole process fascinating. Perhaps a blessing and a curse, because I want to direct. Might be the volleyball player in me, I love bringing out the best of people, finding inventive solutions to creative problems and collaborating as a team. When everyone’s unique skill set and personality come together, there’s musicality to it. I love working in color and painting, specializing in watercolor and digital painting. I love world-building and imagining how to push a fictional world to its limits and then dialing it back. Animation gives so many possibilities as a medium. It’s more than a children’s medium! My favorite animated pieces are ones that kids and adults can both enjoy, like Avatar the Last Airbender, Atlantis or Treasure Planet. I want more media to pull from YA novels and books. Kids’ emotions and feelings are real. I trust kids to find their own meanings within art. Like the library, animation can hold stories for everyone.

My first year at CalArts, I made a short animated film about two really long-distance girlfriends sending messages back-and-forth from Earth to the Moon. I’m proud of the schedule I kept during production of Starlight. From the beginning, I prioritize my health. Production on the film took six months, during which I worked a regular 9 to 5 day and I never pulled all-nighters, infamous within animation schools. I am overjoyed to have made my film on my own terms. I’m really proud of it as my first attempt at a film. It gained traction at festivals, even featured by KCET for the FineCut Festival and a few LGBT Film Festivals. LA and its LGBT community taught me I deserve joy in all aspects of creating, the good, the bad and the ugly. That when we tell our stories, it humanizes us. LGBT kids deserve media that represents them too. I’m elated and happy to honor a younger version of myself and questioning kids. I hope people watch my film and feel love.

What were you like growing up?
I was a shy kid. However, within my close friend groups, I cracked a lot of jokes. Mostly puns. Not much has changed. I had an active imagination and spent a lot of time outdoors playing with friends. We pretended to be witches and jumped out of trees with brooms. Being in nature made me feel alive. I could pretend I was a faerie living in the woods that could do magic. God, I was such a bookworm. I read a book almost every day. I didn’t know how to stop. I read graphic novels, YA series, illustrated picture books from the kid section. There was no bigger joy to me than going to the library, reading for 4 hours and then hopping on over to the ice cream shop afterwards for a cup of mint chocolate chip. I think that was where my education for storytelling started.

My dad was a Boy Scout leader and my mom spent a lot of her youth playing sports and camping. As a family, we went biking, camping and exploring the outdoors. After school, I went to check on my favorite tree or explored the train tracks behind Borders. I am the oldest of three kids. My brother and I were two peas in a pod growing up. We played DDR, watched cartoons and spent a lot of time together. My sister is the youngest, and we were at odds a lot growing up from our age gap. Now we are really close and, dare I say, we might be good friends!

My favorite class in high school was a high ropes course and leadership class, taught by a fierce, kind woman. We went caving, climbed real rocks overlooking the lake and spent a night camping under the stars. When I started, I could barely get my legs off the ground on the climbing wall. By the end of the class, my classmates became my second family within school. With their support and encouragement, I scaled a 30ft pole in the air and leapt off of my own will. That class and community gave me a strength I didn’t know I had.

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Image Credit:

Personal photograph by Stacy Carrillo

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