The Rebellious Loves of Leo Crane

“There’s a sense of animation as a field of transformation, of depicting transformation, that’s always been at the heart of it, that continues today.”

– William Kentridge

Leo Crane came to web3 in early 2021, a time when the ruling ethos was marked by a distinct hostility toward the physical, a sort of whiplash effect from the electrifying possibility that everything in one’s life could be digital, especially the art. But where some may see dichotomies, Crane sees only raw material and possibility. This much is obvious in his first web3 work of substantial ambition: L’amour rebelle (Rebel Love)

The piece — whose style is obviously indebted to the work of William Kentridge (though not detrimentally so) — is a hand-drawn charcoal animation in concert with a darkly dramatic reinterpretation of the most recognizable aria from Bizet’s opera Carmen, “Habanera” (also known as “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle“), care of composer Zachary Whitney and singer Merav Eldan

In Act I of Carmen, the titular character, a captivating and free-spirited gypsy woman, sings “Habanera” shortly after emerging from a cigarette factory with her fellow workers. 

The informal title of “Habanera” refers to the borrowed Cuban style Bizet incorporates, flashy and exotic (and not altogether welcome) in Paris at the time of its debut. 

The lyrics describe the wildness of love — the person in love cannot control the direction of their love nor can the unrequited love of another coax actual love from the object of their affection. And that only defines one aspect of the fickleness of love!

The bird you thought you had caught
beat its wings and flew away ...
love stays away, you wait and wait;
when least expected, there it is!

This scene and the aria are pivotal, as they mark the beginning of the fatal attraction between Carmen and Don José, the driving force of the tale. In the context of the opera, Carmen revels in this facet of love, more than happy to flit from lover to lover and to let her unbidden fickleness lead the way. 

In the version Crane and Co. brought to the blockchain, the same words tell a very different story. 

From  L’amour rebelle directed by Leo Crane

The dark, atonal score replaces the vivacious Latin flavor of the original, evoking not the original’s lust for life itself but forlornness and frustration. The opening frames show not an excitable bird but a rain of feathers — white charcoal on black paper — coagulating into a free-falling bird that struggles to gain purchase on the air before waking, trying to escape its confines, falling, and melting again into feathers. The bird of love has died. 

Next comes the figure of Roy Joseph Butler, Crane’s husband and creative partner, mourning the pile of feathers — his deceased affections — before merging with them. After a nightmarish climactic sequence, presumably the mourning of the end of love, the figure of Butler is reborn from an egg before transforming into a bird. The bird of love lives again, and flies off to find its next prey with an urgency that Carmen herself would never have had. See the full version here.

From  L’amour rebelle directed by Leo Crane

Released in 2021, the piece is, by all accounts, the first hand-drawn charcoal animation released on blockchain and the first opera. The work was soon thereafter reimagined as an intimate immersive performance with members of the LA Philharmonic, couturier Rami Kadi, and Crane’s charcoal animations.

What sets Crane apart from so many other web3 artists is not necessarily his fusing of traditional art forms and techniques with digital technology. While it’s an admirable quality of his work, it’s hardly unique to him. No, what I find most striking about Crane’s work is in another dichotomy: the balance of his creative ambition with his patience. 

In a world where Beeple’s rising star set the pace with his years upon years of daily output followed by the bottom falling out of the market just as many artists were getting their first taste of compensation and recognition, patience is not seen as a rewarded quality in an artist. 

Matthew (gesture) by Leo Crane

He does not succumb to the pressure to constantly mint new work, though he’s constantly working. Based solely on minted output, compared to other artists who have been in the web3 space for a similar timespan, Crane might seem like a bit of a slacker, but the submerged section of the iceberg that is Crane’s artistic practice is equal parts colossal undertakings and meticulous craftsmanship. 

In 2019, Leo Crane was teaching an animation workshop. In his class was a woman named Ilona Suschitzky 

née Misheiker, daughter of Betty Misheiker, a prolific and popular South African children’s author who penned around 2,000 stories in her lifetime, all of which were published in acclaimed books, except one, which had been left unpublished for good reason. Suschitzky went to Crane’s class with that story. 

After the workshop, Suschitzky approached Crane with the unpublished story — gifted to Ilona on her 16th birthday — and explained its personal and political significance. He wasn’t interested in helping make the film, but he was happy to offer his guidance. As time wore on, though, the story bore down on him, and Crane and his husband and creative partner Roy Joseph Butler finally agreed to adapt it with her. 

The Workshop by Leo Crane

Crane’s journey in the arts began with acting, writing, and ceramics before expanding into roles in museums and cultural spaces like the Victoria and Albert Museum and UK’s National Museum of Art and Design, where he was exposed to a wide range of artistic disciplines, from ancient ceramics to contemporary digital art, along with his interactions with innovative artists, which eventually drew him to animation. 

After getting his Master’s Degree in Animation from Bournemouth University in his mid-30s only to shun commercial animation for its exploitative track record, Crane started to take seriously the medium of drawing — the medium for which he is now primarily known — at the tender age of 39. In fact, Crane is the rare active web3 artist creating a substantial body of work with charcoal, which seems to be a dying art as far as blockchain concerned. I can count on two hands all of the web3 artists regularly minting thoughtful charcoal work across the Ethereum and Tezos ecosystems. 

Which leads me back to that day in 2019 when Crane agreed to co-direct an animated film with the daughter of famed children’s book author Betty Misheiker based on the author’s only unpublished story: “The Masterpiece of Tamagata,” an allegory set in ancient Japan but rooted in the realities of apartheid South Africa and inspired by real-life events.  

Flying with the Cranes by Leo Crane

In the late 1940s, the white Jewish Misheiker family had a young black woman living with them. When she became pregnant, law dictated that she was not to keep her baby with her in the white-designated area. Unable to bear the thought of separating their dear friend and her child, the Misheikers hid the baby in the house where he and Ilona, his de facto sister of the same age, shared a bedroom. 

As the boy grew to school age, the situation became untenable; the boy and his mother moved so he could grow up in an environment that wouldn’t jeopardize his life.

Still processing these events, Betty wrote “The Masterpiece of Tamagata,” which centers around a masterful painter, Tamagata, and the secret child he paints for himself and his wife because they cannot conceive. It’s an allegory that openly condones positive-sum escapism, allowing for an imaginative retreat from harsh reality.

The Solitary Tree by Leo Crane

This is not the escapism of the doom-scroller or couch potato; it is the productive, soul-unfurling escapism of artists, musicians, and poets. Despite a retreat into the imaginative, their strategy is not capitulation but world-building, deliberate utopianism in the face of oppression.   

The tale was apparently seditious enough for this beloved household name children’s writer to keep it unpublished in her lifetime. The story itself is Betty’s own secret child and monumental act of patience.

It’s now been nearly five years since Crane, Butler, and Suschitzky set out to make this film, which will be 40 minutes long in its final form. So far, Crane and Suschitzky dedicated two years to the study of traditional Japanese Sumi-e painting, and several passages of the film have been hand-animated and debuted in different venues, including as NFTs on MakersPlace and as an immersive installation at NFT Lisbon. 

The resulting scenes and sequences are gentle, evoking a quiet heartbreak that needs no context other than itself. If you know the story of Tamagata, you now only have specifics to explain the loneliness, yearning, and heartbreak that are already as apparent as a color palette in the few short clips and stills that have been released. 

Shikishi and Tamagata by Leo Crane

Just as Crane’s creative practice strikes a balance between the necessity to pay bills (in his case, primarily through client work) and be creatively fulfilled (through the meticulous and seemingly endless act of hand-drawn animation), Tamagata and his wife use art to reach the balance of cold reality with warm humanity. 

The project is still underway, the process itself both arduous and meditative — that too comes across in the available excerpts. One might even compare the patience and care of its creators to that of a parent. But unlike Tamagata and the elder Misheiker, this long gestation aims to birth a child that is no secret but rather a celebration.    

The Escape: The Masterpiece of Tamagata by Leo Crane

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