Winter arts guide
    Next Score View the next score

    In ‘Torrey Pines,’ making art from a misbegotten road trip

    Clyde Petersen

    Seattle-based multimedia artist Clyde Petersen does a little bit of almost everything. His chief day job is directing music videos — he’s worked with bands including Deerhoof, the Thermals, and Kimya Dawson. But he’s also an animator, installation artist, touring musician (his band Your Heart Breaks celebrates its 20th anniversary this year), and runs an all-volunteer performance space called Woodland Theater, complete with recording studio and screen-printing shop. In his spare time he hosts a conceptual musical performance Web series called “Boating With Clyde” that crosses over into occasional gallery installations. He’s also a vocal advocate for fellow trans and queer folk.

    “Torrey Pines” is his first animated feature, made with co-animator Chris Looney. Its first half depicts some of the growing pains experienced by Petersen’s 12-year-old self before segueing into a travelogue about the cross-country trip on which his mentally ill mother abruptly took him, without telling anyone else, with the goal of talking to the president about aliens and conspiracies.

    The film, presented by ArtsEmerson, screens Wednesday through Saturday at the Paramount Center’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box theater, with a live score performed by Petersen’s band. Petersen spoke with the Globe by phone from Seattle.


    Q. At the time shown in the film, you were being raised by a single mom?

    Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
    The day's top stories delivered every morning.
    Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

    A. I’d spend time at my grandma’s house and with my mom, depending on how my mom was doing. We never really acknowledged what was happening with her. She was just going to work like normal and I was going to school like normal, but every once in a while something wild would happen and I would go stay with my grandma.

    No one even said anything about her being schizophrenic or anything until much later. At some points they were trying to get her to be treated but nothing happened.

    Q. “Torrey Pines” addresses some very serious subject matter, but it’s frequently funny and the overall mood is whimsical. It’s also a bit disorienting at times.

    A. I wanted the film to be from the point of view of the kid. I was trying to make a film that was combining adult hallucination with kid’s imagination, and keeping it loose. Things aren’t always clear all the time. I wanted to be true to the experience of being a kid and not really knowing what’s going on all the time, just rolling with it.


    I was trying to touch on those feelings of puberty that everyone experiences in their own way. Puberty angst. I feel like every single person experiences something weird in that time period. I’m also trying to tell a story about the ’90s culture on the West Coast, to talk about growing up in that kind of environment.

    Q. Were you identifying as queer at the time?

    A. I definitely felt weird and “other” at the time, for sure. I didn’t know what queer was for a long time. Not until high school.

    Q. What was the incident that triggered the road trip?

    A. It was just one day my mom was like: “We’re going to talk to the president of the United States about all of the conspiracies going on in the world. And we’re going to go drive there and talk to him.” And we just got in the car and started driving toward Washington, D.C. It was a long drive, a couple weeks, maybe a month.


    Q. Her goal was to talk to President Clinton?

    ‘Things aren’t always clear all the time. I wanted to be true to the experience of being a kid and not really knowing what’s going on all the time, just rolling with it.’

    A. We toured the White House and weird stuff like that but obviously we didn’t talk to the president. Then we went up to New York and got in a car accident, and the cops found us. My dad had been looking for me, so I wound up living with my dad.

    Q. One day your dad realized he just wasn’t able to get in touch with you or your mom?

    A. Everyone was like: “They’re gone, they’re missing, they took off.” Everyone was looking for us. He was up in Seattle. He had been trying to get custody of me for a long time because he knew something wasn’t right, something was going on.

    Q. Are you in touch with your parents?

    A. I’m not in touch with my mom. She’s getting treatment now and living in assisted living. But I hang out with my dad all the time.

    Q. What was it like taking the film on a 60-day tour last year?

    A. We went to so many small places and played in art spaces and DIY spaces and bars and theaters and galleries. We screened the film for six trans people in Regina, Saskatchewan, at a mall. You tour it like that so it gets to those places, because traditional distribution won’t get it there.

    Q. I’m so impressed by the fact there’s no traditional dialogue in the film, but we still see and understand conversations between people because of sound effects and what you’re doing visually. Why did you go that route?

    A. I’m pretty interested in visual storytelling. And I was studying American Sign Language when I started writing the film, so one of the goals was to make a film that could really go around the world without much of a language barrier.

    Q. You’ve been described as “intimidatingly prolific.”

    A. Ugh. I just feel like death is on my tail and I better get some stuff done, you know? I just feel like we’re all slowly dying right now, so it’s better to do what I want to do while I’m able to. There was definitely a switch in my brain when I realized I was not immortal and I better get to work. It was probably about 10 years ago.

    I’m excited about making art. It’s definitely a hustle, especially in big cities. Our rents are all rising so quickly. Every day that I can not go back to work in a restaurant or a movie theater is another good day. Every day I can just make art is another good day. So I have to hustle or else I have to go get a freaking job again.

    Torrey Pines

    At Jackie Liebergott Black Box, Paramount Center, Feb. 14-17. Presented by ArtsEmerson.

    Tickets $60-$70, 617-824-8400,

    Interview was edited and condensed. Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at