Celeste Cottrelle: IRL

One of my favorite events each year is the Moore College of Art and Design Senior Showcase. It’s a chance for the students to show their best work.

    The only draw back is that the work is often so good, it spoils me for the art world at large. It’s tough to go into a gallery and see an art piece for $10,000 and think, Wow, I just saw something equally good, if not better, done by a senior at Moore.
    Founded in 1848, Moore is the first and only visual-arts college for women in the United States. I stopped by one interactive exhibit and met Celeste Cottrelle, an animator and game designer. Her game, “Ordinary Life,” was designed to be fun, but also to show lesbian characters of color in an ordinary light.

PGN: Tell me about little Celeste.
CC: Little Celeste was basically where older Celeste is now, very active, very chatty. I was the kind of child who would say hi and run up to total strangers and give them a hugs, “No Celeste, you can’t do that.” I was very animated, and I loved going outside just as much as I loved staying in and watching cartoons and playing games. And that’s been pretty persistent throughout my life. From 13-16, I had my little introvert period, that, “I don’t want to talk to anyone” phase, but I got over it and soon opened my shell again to be the person I am today.

PGN: Were you always creative?
CC: Yes, I would say I’ve always been a creative entity — that’s something that came from my parents, especially my mom. She’s the person who pushed me into the arts. She introduced me to drawing and still-life studies. I would draw everything I saw around me: toys, a shelf, fruit on the table. Younger me used to get frustrated if I didn’t draw it perfectly and would want to give up, but my mother explained that art was a practice and something you had to work at. After some pushing from her, I got better and began to realize that it was something I was passionate about. I finally said, “I need to be in the art world,” and my mom was like, [smiles] “I told you so.”

PGN: What did your mom do? Dad too …
CC: She does a lot. For a while she was a teacher working in different Philadelphia high schools. She’s also a culinary artist, specializing in baking. She’s always doing a thousand things, but she always makes time for laughter. One of the family life models is that you have to find something to make you smile every day. It’s good practice and it keeps us level headed. My father is great at working with machines, from cars to A.C. and heating units — he repairs things. But they are both into gaming and animation, so I got that artistic influence from both sides of the family. I think a passion for the arts was ingrained in me.

PGN: Do you have any siblings?
CC: I do. I’m the oldest of nine. I’m 22, and my youngest sibling will be turning 4 in May. I have five siblings on my mom’s side and three on my dad’s side. I’m the only product of my mom and dad, but what’s nice is that, though they split, the family has always been together. At the end of the day we always come together as a unit. We celebrate birthdays and holidays together and it’s always cordial and respectful and full of love and good times.

PGN: Are you a Philadelphian?
CC: I am. I was born in West Philadelphia and have been here all my life.

PGN: When did you first start to realize you were part of the LGBTQIA spectrum?
CC: That’s a good question. I identify as the B in that equation. I’d say the first time I noticed that I had feelings for someone the same gender as myself would have been at the beginning of high school. I’d be hanging out with friends, and they’d be talking about some guy on Instagram and would ask me what I thought, and I’d be like, “eh, I don’t know.” But then one of them was showing a picture of a girl and said, “Doesn’t her hair look cute?” and I remember thinking, “She’s just cute in general.” And then in my head I was like, “Waaaait a minute, uh, [in a high voice], did I just say that, is that OK? I don’t know!” And then a while later a girl asked me out, and I was like, “Oh no, what’s happening here?” Nothing came of it, but it made me start thinking about myself until I finally realized, “Oh wow. I think this is really a thing and it’s OK.”

PGN: Did you tell the folks?
CC: I think they always kind of knew, at least my mom did. She knows everything. But I did not officially come out until my sophomore year at college. Not out of fear of judgment, but fear of disappointment. I know the family had certain beliefs and expectations, and I always held myself to certain standards to make my parents proud and happy, but then I realized that I wasn’t happy and I wanted to tell that to them. My mom’s first words were, “I already knew, I was just waiting for you to tell me.” And my dad was like, “It doesn’t matter to me as long as they don’t hurt you. I don’t care if it’s a guy, girl or nonbinary person, I’ll fight whoever it is that hurts my daughter!”

PGN: Go ’rents!
CC: Yeah, though it’s not like I’m the first person in the family to come out. I’m like the seventh cousin to come out. There are a lot of us! It was just a matter of me accepting myself more that anything else and be like, “OK, I’m cool.”

PGN: Who’s the funniest in the family?
CC: Oh, that can range. I’d say my mother is the funniest, and then it goes to my 12-year-old brother who thinks he’s the funniest guy alive. He’s not, but the fact that he thinks his jokes are funny makes us laugh; so it makes him funny in a roundabout way.

PGN: What’s a favorite family memory or tradition?
CC: There are a lot. A recent tradition is something that we like to call Kwinismas. It’s a mash-up of Kwanzaa and Christmas. We’re not really religious, but we still like to celebrate, and about three years ago we started mixing the two traditions. We’d get a tree and decorate with a combination of commercial and handmade decorations. We also put everyone’s name on a slip of paper and you have to pull a name and say something nice about that person, but the best part is that we celebrate for seven days. Seven days of hanging out and having fun with people you love.

PGN: We do something similar. We put the names of family members that have passed away on Christmas balls. You pick a ball and then have to share a memory or fun fact about that person. That way we keep the memories and stories alive for the youngest members of the family. But back to you, let’s talk more about your artwork. Describe your style.
CC: My artwork has vastly changed over the years. Before Moore I thought I would go into illustration, but then I met a professor, Stephen Wood, who looked at my work and said, “You’re going to go into animation game arts.” I was like, “Noooooo, I’m going to be a 2D animator,” but eventually I realized he was right. Now I am a game developer and producer. I’m heavily into writing, and I develop games for visual novels. They’re basically text-based games where the choices that you make throughout the game affect how you play and the ending. That involves a lot of writing.

PGN: Writing as in storyline or programming?
CC: Both. There’s a lot of coding as well as story telling. My first script for my senior thesis was around 80 pages until my professor made me cut it down. My general artistic style is very simplistic. I like to do a minimum drawing and then add detail as I go along, if I want.

PGN: Who are some of your artistic inspirations?
CC: I get inspiration from a variety of artists, writing wise. I’d say Tee Franklin. I met her once and she was just lovely. Art wise, I love Shauna J. Grant. She’s the creator of “Princess Love Pon.”  Her style is very cute and whimsical which is the style I try to go for. Other than my mom, those are the two names that pop into my head when I think of female role models.

PGN: Let’s talk about the game you exhibited at the showcase.
CC: It’s currently titled “Ordinary Life,” but that could change. It revolves around a young adult named Gina Orleans and her life right before she goes to college. It touches on how you’re meant to grow as a young adult and the choices you’re able to make. It has an emphasis on issues of color and being LGBTQ. There is a huge deficit of representation in gaming, especially for queer girls of color and especially in the visual-novel arena. There’s a lot of gay content, but it’s usually white male characters in love or having relationship problems with other white male characters. So I wanted to create characters that were black or Indian or Asian and use dialogue that felt natural to the characters. I want people to say, “Oh wow. That person talks like me.”

PGN: Why is that important to you?
CC: I want people to be educated and know that there are tons of people who look like me who play games like this. Not just video games in general but, specifically, games like this, and we’re highly under-represented in this kind of media. I want people to know that they’re not alone and that there are people like me creating programs where everyone is represented. I’m out here, and this game is for you.

PGN: I understand that the gaming world can be very misogynistic, have you experienced that yet? Or are you cocooned in the bubble of Moore where it is predominantly female.
CC: Well, they definitely emphasize that once we leave the hard walls of this institution that we will be facing a lot of misogyny and prejudice, especially, for me, as a black, queer person. I’ve had to deal Internet trolls, but I’m a positive person. I don’t know why people waste their time; if you don’t have something nice to say, just leave it alone. Or I’ll get, “That was pretty nice… for a black woman” and you want to say, “You know you could have stopped at ‘that was pretty nice.’ But my mom always told me to use the negative to make myself stronger, and I feel like this is our time.

PGN: What’s your dream job?
CC: I’d like to produce my own game. I have a good start with this game. I’m planning to do a kick-starter soon, so I can hire musicians and sound effects’ people and other artists, etc.

PGN: Wow, I didn’t realize all that goes into it.
CC: Yeah, everything from sound effects for when people are walking or knocking on a door or whatever sounds are needed; all the different backgrounds; all the user-interface buttons; graphic designers for the fonts and logos; music, and you need to make sure everything is aligned and works together.

PGN: What’s the farthest you’ve traveled?
CC: [Laughing] Not very far, probably Florida.

PGN: What do you like to do away from the computer?
CC: Recently I’ve gotten into needle felting. I really enjoy it, and I enjoy cooking. I get that from my mom.

PGN: When did you last cry in front of someone?
CC: About a week ago with my best friend. We were both having a good cry about life in general.

PGN: What’s your favorite food your mom makes?
CC: Her brownies. They’re the bomb dot com! I don’t know what she does but no others compare.

PGN: An award that made you proud?
CC: Just last night I was told that I am the recipient of the Happy Fernandez Leadership Award. That’s pretty great. Not only do I get a grant, but I also get to speak at graduation.

PGN: That’s fantastic! I was in a celebrity basketball game with her once. What three celebs would you like to see as animated super heroes?
CC: Janelle Monáe, for sure, Lizzo, and then … Willow Smith.

PGN: What movie could you watch over and over?
CC: There are two. One of them I’m going to see again tonight: “Into the Spider-verse.” I paid to see it in the theater three times, and I’ve seen it many times since. The other is more of a classic, “Howl’s Moving Castle.” It’s an animated film from 2004.

PGN: You seem like such a calm, collected person. What makes you lose your temper?
CC: [Laughing] Because I have so many siblings, I’m a really patient person. It takes a lot. I’d say repetitive offenses. But even then I’d have to be really fatigued to lose my temper. I tend to let things go. I realize that no one’s perfect and mistakes happen. If something or someone doesn’t work out, then I let it be. I’m not the type to try to force things.

PGN: What’s your astrological sign?
CC: I’m a Taurus.

PGN: Ah! I knew I liked you. Me too. They say that our entire lives we only get truly mad a handful of times, but if we do, look out. That’s when the raging bull comes. I think the last time I got truly mad was about 20 years ago, and I almost got arrested.
CC: Oh no! It’s true though; if you manage to get us mad, look out!

PGN: In the meantime, we’ll look out for the “Ordinary Life” kick-starter coming soon.
CC: Now that would make me happy!

“The arts are an essential element of education, just like reading, writing, and arithmetic … music, dance, painting, and theater are all keys that unlock profound human understanding and accomplishment.”

— William Bennett

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