Moriah LeFebvre MFA EDA ‘21: “by & by”

This is part of a series showcasing the work of the MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts Class of 2021. Learn more about the program and its graduating cohort here. For this installment, Alexa Dilworth, publishing director and senior editor at the Center for Documentary Studies, interviews Moriah LeFebvre MFA EDA ’21 about her thesis film by & by.

The short film uses hand-animation techniques to juxtapose the story of LeFebvre’s great-grandmother’s twin boys, whose lives were lost to eclampsia in China in 1919, with that of her own twin boys, who survived the same fate a century later in the United States. The two discuss how Moriah uses drawing and animation to tell highly personal stories, including those in Works in Rough Going: Recovery Community and Communication During the Pandemic, currently on view online and in the Keohane-Kenan Gallery. by & by will be available to stream through the Screen/Society on Friday, May 14 at 7pm.

Moriah, you’re from Durham (and grew up down the street from me)—what was it like being in school here, and in school here during Covid? How did the pandemic affect making art and creating your MFA EDA thesis work, the animated film by & by?

It’s pretty special going to grad school in my hometown. I’ve encountered so many long-standing personal connections—like the one I share with you—while in this setting of academia, and I think it’s added a whole different layer of depth to my experience. As far as COVID . . . it’s been challenging for all of us I know. That said, I think my project was more easily adaptable to the circumstances than it was for other people, because I didn’t absolutely need to get out in the field and record. There are some things I would’ve done differently, but they weren’t essential.

I’m really interested in the way you use words and images together in your film and your approach to graphic non-fiction.

I’d been sitting with the ideas for by & by since 2013. I knew I wanted to make something from this story but I didn’t know how. After I fell in love with animation in 2020, the story came back in my thoughts. For the first time, I felt like I had the means to tell it. I scanned a paragraph from my great-grandmother’s memoirs, which she wrote on a typewriter, and used that in the film.

Another integral part of my thinking was that I was going to be making work during COVID. I was sheltering in place with my sons at my mom’s house and realized that whatever I worked on, they would witness it. I knew I wouldn’t have space and privacy; it wasn’t like they were going to be in school.

They’ve seen me working on this basically every day for a year now. My bedroom walls are covered with animated frames. [laughs]

The artist at work at home. All images courtesy Moriah LeFebvre MFA EDA ‘21.

When I was pregnant with them I was high risk, because they shared one placenta, which is the case for a lot of identical twins; it put them at risk for twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, which is basically when one twin is getting what it needs and the other is not. And that can be fatal. I was having weekly ultrasounds. When I was about six months pregnant, my great aunt mentioned that her mother, my great-grandmother, had given birth to twins. I didn’t remember hearing about them, so I pulled out her memoirs, which I’m lucky to have.

My great-grandparents, Charles and Grace Riggs, went to China in 1916 as agricultural missionaries. He was a farm manager. Their work was very much about finding ways to feed the hungry. In 1917, they had their first baby. It’s funny because in Grace’s memoirs, she talks about how they had been warned to wait to get pregnant but that no one told them anything about how to not get pregnant.


[laughs] And then in 1919, she was pregnant again. There’s only one paragraph in the memoirs about this. In it, she says, “Another baby was due.” To deliver the baby, at the closest women’s hospital, she and Charles had to take a boat up the Min River to Fujian, a trip that was supposed to take like three days but took nine because of flooding. She was very pregnant with a toddler in tow, and the only food they had to eat was the boatman’s small supply of rice and salt fish.

When they arrived at the hospital, she had a seizure and was unconscious for three days. She woke up to discover that she had had twins, and that the first one was stillborn, but that the second one had survived. She’d lost her vision as a result of the seizure so she couldn’t even see her child. He lived for 12 days. Her vision did come back eventually, but it took months.

A couple months later, in one of my check-ups, they saw some concerning stuff in my tests and I had to be admitted for pre-eclampsia. I was 35 weeks pregnant. I had the same condition as my great-grandmother, but five days later I got to take two beautiful, healthy baby boys home. When I put them in their bassinet side by side for the first time, they instantly curled in toward each other.

I knew I wanted to tell her story—and our story—but didn’t know how.

You know, just personally, it’s funny to talk to you about this, because I’ve known you since I was a young mother and you were a little girl. There are so many layers to all of it. . . . Tell me how you came up with the idea to try animation.

For a long time I thought maybe I’d work on a photo essay, or I’d write about it, but Ted Mott, who coordinates the MFA EDA program, pointed out that I could make my drawings move. Animation had never occurred to me, and it opened a world of possibilities.

I met with Casey Herbert, who teaches animation, after I’d made my first, like, 20 frames and asked him, “Is this a thing, can this work?” And he said, “That’s called rotoscoping. You are rotoscoping.” [laughs] And so I was rotoscoping these animations from cellphone home videos, and that’s how the process began.

“I made the videos as a mother, which creates a vantage point that’s very intimate.”

I made the videos as a mother, which creates a vantage point that’s very intimate—there’s a scene where I’m nursing them, just looking down at their faces, and my hand reaches into the frame. In some scenes, they look directly back at me, so they’re also looking at the viewer in a direct and intimate way.

So in addition to your thesis work you’ve been working on this project, Works in Rough Going, during your time as the Kenan Graduate Fellow in Experimental and Documentary Arts. While these projects are very different, both thematically and technically, the two seem to share this common thread of combining both text and imagery. Words have such an important role in both of these visual works. Can you talk a little bit about the words you have chosen for the title of Works in Rough Going and their significance?

This project is about the recovery community and their struggles and resilience, generally, but also specifically during COVID-19. In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, there’s a sentence that says, “It is a design for living that works in rough going”—the idea is that this design for recovery can work in many different circumstances, and that this design involves one recovering addict helping another. This connection and desire to help each other is at the core of many of the images in this series. While I’m looking at people who are in 12-step recovery, these are also works of art that are being made in a time of very rough going.

During COVID, all of us have had to figure out how to get our various needs met—from getting groceries to sustaining social connections. The struggles addressed in the series are in many ways universal, but in this totally new circumstance, there are unique challenges that recovering people have had to face, because in recovery, meeting in person is a lifeline. Sharing coffee and cookies. Circling up at the end and putting your arms around each other.

I was concerned for people, but I also had faith that people would still find ways to connect, to make it work. And there were unexpected gifts . . . Zoom meetings popped up very quickly. I have a friend who lives in Hillsborough but decided that she wanted to go to a meeting in the Bay Area that happens every morning. There are people from all over the world who attend meetings together.

How did you arrive at the graphic form you use in this project? These nonfiction “moments” occupy a highly imaginary space. And how did you balance people’s privacy while giving voice to their experiences?

I had started pairing text messages with drawings before COVID. And some of those pieces dealt with addiction and recovery. Others dealt with relationships, sex, and break-ups. For this, I narrowed my focus. All of the people whose words appear in this work have given their consent. That was incredibly important to me.

I think it’s beautiful from the ethics side of things that you got consent even though no names were used. The words are devastating at times.

The context is so personal and often raw. I ask, “Are you comfortable with this?” No one has said no, but if they did, I wouldn’t include the piece. This is a community of people that is deeply important to me; my life has definitely been touched by the disease of addiction and the power of recovery.

I wanted to take these moments, these texts that flit across your cell phone screen, that you forget about but that are so precious and important, and make them last. So I take the time to hand draw these words letter by letter, to break them down and memorialize them in a very slow, intentional, and analog process, and then I take it one step further and make cyanotype prints of some of them as well. And that’s a process that’s contingent on the sun! [laughs] You’re using nature to print an image, so it’s taking it about as far away as you can from a cellphone.

By & By Screening Info (Fri, May 14)Moriah LeFebvre’s Website

Moriah LeFebvre is a graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and is in the 2021 Master of Fine Arts in Experimental and Documentary (MFAEDA) class. LeFebvre was the 2020–2021 Kenan Graduate Arts Fellow in Experimental and Documentary Arts and the recipient of the 2019 David and Elizabeth Roderick Scholarship Award. A native of Durham, much of LeFebvre’s work since 2014 has focused on the changing landscape of her hometown.

Alexa Dilworth is publishing director and senior editor at the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) at Duke University, where she also directs the awards program, which includes the Dorothea Lange–Paul Taylor Prize.