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accents on english | fall 18-spring 19

Marieke Davis and 'Ember Black'

Creating an Artistic Vision, Accessible by All

Courtesy photo of Marieke Davis.Born and raised in Arizona, ASU alumna Marieke Davis is an author and award-winning artist at work on an intricate creative project: a graphic series titled Ember Black. According to the Arizona Commission on the Arts—which granted Davis funding for her work in 2018—the story is “a classic hero’s journey narrative, rooted in the rich traditions of legend and folklore, told in two separate but complementary media: a graphic novel and audio drama.”

But that story is not the whole story.

Suffering from recurrent tumors since age 10, Davis underwent three brain surgeries resulting in hemianopsia, so she has only half her field of vision in both eyes. Undeterred, Davis went on to earn a BFA in art with a concentration in drawing, minors in English literature and women and gender studies, and a certificate in creative writing, all from ASU in spring 2017.

Upon admission to her professional art program, she realized that she wanted to extend access to her visual art to the blind and visually impaired.

“I was working toward my senior exhibition and finishing up the first chapter of Ember,” Davis recalled. “My disability resource liaison was legally blind, and she told me that her daughter is also an artist, but because of her blindness, she could never see her daughter’s work. My mom told me she would be heartbroken if she could not see my work, so it gave me the idea that I wanted to make art for everyone.” Since Davis was already receiving her printed materials through speech-to-text software such as Kurzweil, it made sense to produce an audio companion to her printed graphic series in addition.

“I tried to create the audio script and the audio itself with blind and visually impaired people in mind,” explained Davis. “The audio has to describe my panels without going panel by panel. I have to set the scene verbally. So people listening to the audio will be able to hear sound effects like wind as well as ambient music to set the mood. They will hear the narrator and the voice actors over the top of that.”

Davis says ASU helped make her creative dreams a reality: “ASU was able to provide me tools and resources to make the audio portion. I hired Derek Stevenson, an AME (Herberger Institute’s School of Arts, Media, and Engineering) student, to help piece together all the audio, music, and sound effects. All the voice actors were ASU students from the theater department. The ASU Print Lab on the Polytechnic campus was also a huge help, since they printed out the first chapter.”

Draft panels from Ember Black, Chapter Two: "Searching for Emily."

Believing that no artist should work for free, she made sure her cast and crew received monetary compensation for their efforts (made easier after she won the Audience Choice Award at the First Annual Herberger IDEA Showcase in 2016).

Davis further explained how her studies at ASU helped her achieve her artistic dreams. Her BFA helped her discover how the small frames used in comics and graphic novels accommodated her visual impairment. Her minor in English literature helped expose her to great works of fiction. “Particularly, my ‘Legends’ class with professor Larry Ellis (who voices a character in the audio version) inspired me to create work that was focused on myths and legends. I have always had a love of those. I fell in love with Greek mythology and Neil Gaiman,” said Davis.

The course also introduced her to some Native American folklore, which she incorporated into her work: one of her main characters is a young woman named Emily Black who is possessed by a Wendigo. Davis added that her minor in women and gender studies helped add depth to her characters and storytelling. “My mom is a huge part of the production,” Davis said. “She voices one of the main characters, Nadie, which means ‘wisdom’ in Algonquin.” Davis’s mother, Karen, is also the narrator for the first and second chapters. It was an easy choice since she had been recording Davis’s classroom readings for her before she had assistance from her speech-to-text software. “Because my frames have to be described, it was much better to have a narrator. My mom has her MFA in theater and playwriting, so she had experience directing actors to create a multi-disciplinary dramatic work. She also helped me organize my scripts and she gives me constructive feedback.”

Davis says that all of the voice actors so far have been ASU students or faculty. One of her main goals is to allow ASU students to use this experience on their résumé. In addition to monetary compensation, each voice actor is given a complimentary copy of both the print and audio versions of Ember Black. When asked what is the most challenging aspect of creating an audio version, Davis explained, “It is always challenging working around people’s schedules. Actors are very busy people. Trying to figure out who is available and when, that is always a challenge.”

For this second chapter—made possible, in part, by the Arizona arts commission grant—Davis’s sound designer is Shane Matsumoto from SER Soundworks. In addition to recording the voice actors, he developed the sound effects for the recording, and his student intern, Kolby Bergquist, developed the music that was excerpted for the audio. All of the music in the second chapter is original. “I would tell them what the general vibe I was going for was and then they could approximate the music I was looking for from that. They would send me samples and I would pick what I would need from it.”

My ideas need to incubate for a period of time, and Ember came to me slowly. At ASU, I was actually able to write and flesh out my story.

—Marieke Davis

As with most creative projects, there were awkward moments that resulted in hilarity. “We recorded on the ASU campus for the first chapter,” Davis shared about one such moment. “The AME department has a lab studio on the second floor of Matthews Center, and my voice actor, Sedona—who voices Amy (Emily’s sister)—had to scream a lot for that character.

“It’s not easy to scream in a closed space,” she explained, “and she had to do several takes. We finally got it, though, and when we took a break we didn’t realize people were outside eating lunch. They just stared at us as we came out of the room,” Davis laughed. “I just quickly said ‘sorry’ and slunk out of the room.”

So how did the idea of Ember Black first come about? It turns out the place came first. The story is set in the northeastern part of the United States. Davis chose that setting because it is presumably where the Wendigo legend arose: “With the dark trees and creepy things that lurk in the dark, it was the perfect setting for this story.”

Davis was also inspired by a television show she watched as a child called Fear Itself, a horror anthology. The episode about the Wendigo always intrigued her. “Being the scared kid that I was, I was surprised to find that I could sit down and watch the whole thing. I really liked Native American stories and Wendigos ever since.”

Even with ideas percolating, it took time for Davis to realize Ember Black. “My ideas need to incubate for a period of time, and Ember came to me slowly. At ASU, I was actually able to write and flesh out my story.” 

Davis premiered the second chapter of Ember Black at Phoenix Fan Fusion this past May 26 , featuring a reading and panel discussion with five of her voice actors. After the publication of Ember Black—Chapter Two, Davis has more planned. “When I complete a chapter, I take a hiatus to work on the script for the next chapter while also creating more work for my comic strip, Life is Blurry.” It was excerpts from this latter online comic strip—which depicts life from the perspective of a visually impaired visual artist and that she developed in her final women and gender studies class—that earned Davis a Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts/VSA Emerging Young Artist award in the fall of 2017.

Presently, Davis is applying to graduate schools to pursue an MFA in design and illustration and explore more ways to extend visual art to the blind and visually impaired while entertaining all audiences.

Fans can purchase print copies of Davis’s work on her website. The audio version is available for free via Bandcamp. Both Chapter One versions are also available at Ash Ave Comics & Books in Tempe (Davis’s favorite comic book shop).

Kira Assad

Image 1: Courtesy photo of Marieke Davis.

Image 2: Draft panels from Ember Black, Chapter Two: "Searching for Emily." Davis provided an action summary: "This second chapter begins with Nadie's dream and takes place shortly before the explosion that ended Chapter One. The protagonist (Emily Black) has agreed to allow the Wendigo known as Ember to occupy Emily's body in order to save her lifeand, in turn, to save the life of her sister, Amy, who has been abducted by a couple of nefarious characters working for an evil entity (voiced by prof. Lawrence Ellis). Nadie, her daughter (Nina), and Emily's friends strive to reclaim Emily and determine what caused her transformation into Ember, even as the evil entity dispatches his henchmen to search out Ember and destroy her." All images courtesy Davis.