My work includes painting, drawing, and ceramic sculpture, all exploring the body and language through repetition. Adopting the structure of a diagram or list, I explore the fragmented figure as sign or symbol. With a limited palette and an economy of line, I draw and redraw images like writing a letter, documenting essential, universal motions and human behaviors. My stream of consciousness approach to drawing allows a freedom in the evolution of the image and I am interested in how this creates a visual language over time, like an alphabet.
Most recently, I have been developing a series of un-stretched paintings that hang like banners from grommets. In this current state of the world and political climate, it has been imperative for individuals to express their outrage with markers and poster board. I wanted these paintings to function in the same way, many displaying images of the female body, drawn across the canvas like pictograms.
Interview with Amy Pleasant
Questions by Emily Burns
Hi Amy! Can you tell us a bit about your background as an artist? Were there any early experiences or influences that piqued your interest in art?
My father was a painter, engineer by trade, but always maintained a studio practice and our house was full of art books. My dad brought home the book from the Picasso Retrospective at MoMA in 1980 and I was obsessed with it. My uncle is a photographer/animator and my great uncle was an artist and window display designer in New York. Art was a part of our daily life so it was natural for me to want to do it and my parents were completely supportive. My dream school was the School of the Art Institute of Chicago so my parents suggested I attend the summer program of my junior year in high school. That is where I met some of the greatest people; people that were like me and wanting to get out of their hometowns to connect to a vibrant community of makers and thinkers. Luckily, I ended up there getting my BFA in Painting and Drawing.
Can you give us some insight into how you begin a piece? What is your overall process like from the beginning to end?
The drawings start with staining the paper with ink. I add drops of color to the ink and spread it across the surface with a large, wide, soft brush. Every piece of paper is different and the subtle variations can go unnoticed until you see them hanging in groups. After the paper is dry, I draw the figurative shapes with gouache and brush. I never sketch an image and fill it in and they are made in one motion. Part of my intention is that the image forms as I draw. I have a gesture in mind, an image that is a starting point, but I try to leave it open enough so there is room for it to shift and change. It is in these small shifts that they feel alive. I draw the same image again and again, each one revealing a moment in time, each one different from the next. There is no erasure and this brings me to the act of drawing and my seeking a place where I am completely present. The paintings begin in a similar way layering many coats of thin paint on the canvas before drawing the images. I start the ceramics by hand-rolling slabs that I cut the forms from trying for that same fluid mark of drawing.
What role does drawing play in your work, both as a preliminary practice or a finished piece?
Drawing is at the core of everything I make. My continuous activity in the studio is drawing on small pieces of paper with either brush and ink or gouache, drawing and re-drawing an image until I find one I want to explore more. I need a very fluid material so that I can create an image in one motion. I want the images to evolve over time as I work in a repetitive process, drawing the same image again and again. I am discovering the form during this process and the slight shifts in the gesture are important to me. Like a crude animation, the figures move and attention is drawn to moments that could be missed. I don’t call any of these drawings preliminary, as they can sometimes be as resolved as one much larger and one that required way more time. These small drawings create what I call my “image bank” that I can pull from for a long time.
Way back in 2014 you wrote in an Interview with Studio Critical after your first solo show, and said that "there was a lot of post-show follow-up and cleansing the studio.” Can you expand a bit on this? What does cleansing the studio entail? Is this a post-show ritual for you?
I guess it is a ritual. When all the work leaves the studio I have this need to prepare the space for the work that is to come. Sometimes it means I take everything off the walls to make space for new ideas, new shapes, new forms. Sometimes it means reorganizing all my tables, shelves and materials. It is always exciting to start again and I see this as an opening to allow new things to enter.
Can you tell us a bit about your current studio? What are the most important components of your studio space? Is there anything you love about your current setup?
My studio is in downtown Birmingham next to the historic Alabama Theatre. My landlords have always wanted to support my studio and have rented me space that I probably couldn’t afford in other cities. This has been critical. I would also say the high ceilings are a necessity, especially since I started making the banners. They require quite a large wall to prepare. I have to say too that being a part of downtown Birmingham all these years has been really satisfying as it was always abandoned after 5 o’clock when I was growing up. It is exciting to see the city coming alive all around me.
You work in a wide range of media, though the work always seems to feel very cohesive and related at its core. Can you talk about your use of different materials and what draws you to use a particular medium or method for a piece?
It is through my drawing practice that I found my painting and sculpture. In these other mediums, it was still about bringing that very direct, process driven drawing activity to canvas and oil paint. I wanted the paintings to have the same fresh, immediate quality that the works on paper had. This means thinning down the paints so they have a similar fluid quality of ink or gouache. With sculpture, I had this urge to pull drawings into three-dimensional space. Working with slabs like pieces of paper, I cut out the forms with a knife in the same way I draw a form on paper with a brush. I like that the clay remembers my hand and has a life of its own.
You often work with the figure, and in many cases are using a fraction of the figure at a time—a head, torso, leg, etc.—can you expand upon your decision to focus on a part of the body in lieu of the whole body?
I am interested in the suggestion of the whole body through these fragments. My paintings from the 90’s and early 2000’s were fragmented narratives. I had adopted the structure of the storyboard, grids of sketched scenes with varying perspectives. I thought a lot about memory and how and what we remember. Sometimes we only remember specific pieces, maybe a room, or how something felt, maybe it was the way someone leaned in a doorway. Now I am zooming in on these figures to such a degree that they become very abstracted and simplified. I wanted to remove all the unnecessary information to get at the core of the gesture or shape. I’m really interested in forms of writing and the images become like parts of an alphabet together spelling out a message.
You used to work with forms that were more androgynous, but recently have been more focused on female forms. What caused this shift?
Yes, that is true. I have focused on human forms that weren’t necessarily male or female but after the 2016 election things changed. I had been thinking about tapestry paintings for a couple of years but the protests that took place after this election, the Women’s March and the Me Too movement moved me to make banners that used images like symbols rather than text drawing these bold female forms.
You are based in Birmingham, Alabama but your work is shown all over the country and the world. Can you speak a bit about being based outside of the more traditional art-centric big city, and showing your work so widely? How did you forge these connections, and do you have any thoughts or advice for artists who might be interested in this type of path? Is this something that is more feasible now, with the advent of social media?
I do think it is something much easier to do now because of social media and because a lot of folks are moving to more affordable cities. When I realized I was going to be staying in the Southeast region I started seeking community. I started going to Atlanta a lot and with family in Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville, I spent time in all these cities and met very generous people who have become great friends, both artists and arts professionals. The Birmingham community has been incredibly supportive and all the connections I have made over the years have been due to the people who believe in my work. I am so grateful for these relationships.
As you stated, you work “with a limited palette and an economy of line”—have you always worked in this way? Was this minimalist approach inherent in your hand or was this something that you cultivated over time?
This is a great question and I think speaks to the long road practice that is a life in art. When I was in graduate school at Tyler, I was making these small drawings on little pieces of paper with ink and brush just trying to work out ideas and find images and was pinning them up on my wall in a grid fashion. I saw these drawings as background activity, preliminary and inconsequential. I was focused on The Painting. I realized with the help of my drawing professor, Margo Margolis, that the drawings were the work. The drawings were that thing that was mine, my hand, my practice. It was at that moment that I introduced this way of working into my paintings. They were very simple, quick, and all in black ink. I think they have become more stripped down over time but all the information was there from the beginning. I just had to see it from outside myself.
You have mentioned that your approach to drawing is "stream of consciousness” when working in this way, is there any preparation or exercise that you need to engage in before you begin? I always think of this type of drawing as a kind of mental exercise, especially when we are so inundated with distractions in a fast-paced environment.
Yes, exactly. My practice whether on paper, canvas or clay is about a connection between mind and mark. It is a practice in being present in the same way a calligrapher approaches drawing lines. It is what I aspire to. It is connected to breath just like meditation and yoga. It is something I think a lot about when I am in the act of drawing. We live in an age of distraction and there is a certain kind of focus that this process requires of me. It removes me from the noise, documenting time…documenting the passing of time.
Is this type of drawing ever challenging? If so, how do you overcome that barrier and get to a place when you are focused, and in the the moment? Can distraction ever be a helpful tool?
This type of drawing is always a challenge but it is what I love about it. It means there are failures. But something reveals itself in each one and it takes me to the next place.
I think that distraction can be helpful when it is leading you somewhere you wouldn’t have gone otherwise. Sometimes while doing one thing, I will get an idea for something else and in this sense it is good distraction. I try to quickly jot it down so that I can return to where I was without losing the thought. I guess in a way this is not distraction at all, it is a link in the chain.
You were recently awarded the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship—huge congrats! This is such an indication of your hard work and devotion to your practice over time. Can you tell us more about how you got to this point with your work? What were some of the challenges or highlights along the way to this moment?
Thank you for the Congrats. I am still reeling. The biggest challenge along the way was mostly financial. The award came on the heels of a very difficult year. You still have to keep going. You still have to keep finding a way. You can also wonder if you are visible when you live outside of a major art center. I just kept making the work and kept putting it out there best I could. It was a life goal for me and I cannot thank the foundation enough for this fellowship. It is making so many things possible.
You co-founded the curatorial project Fuel and Lumber Co. which is based in based in Birmingham, Alabama. Can you tell us more about this project? When did it begin? What was the impetus to start it? What are you working on now?
Pete and I started The Fuel And Lumber Company because there aren’t many galleries in Birmingham and we wanted to create exhibitions that would show work not seen in our area. Our first show was in 2014 in a room in Pete’s house in Tuscaloosa (he teaches at the University of Alabama) and it was a solo show of our friend and Atlanta artist Jiha Moon. We have never had a brick and mortar and have used our own studios and most recently we have been invited to do shows in other galleries or institutions. We have collaborated with the Atlanta Contemporary, Coop Gallery, Nashville, Whitespace Gallery, Atlanta, and partnered with Air Serenbe to offer three artists in one of the exhibitions residencies. Because of our own busy schedules we try to do about three projects a year. We have had the pleasure of working with so many great artists and are appreciative of their support.
What is a typical day like for you?
I get up and make coffee and get my kids out the door to school (17 and 14) and then head to the studio. I have a drawing studio at home and I work on paintings in the downtown studio because of space issues. The sculpture is made in a clay studio in my neighborhood, MAKEbhm—a maker space that includes a wood shop, metal shop and clay studio to name a few. So, I can only answer this based on what I am working on that particular day. Sometimes I just stop into the clay studio to check on how the slabs are drying and then head to work on paintings or some days I stay to work in the drawing studio with my husband, Pete Schulte, whom I share the home studio with. We enjoy working side by side and having lunch together in the garden. (Yes, I garden). I love to cook so will start dinner late afternoon and in the evenings I try to catch up on email or other computer work.
Who are some of the artists you look at most often?
Most often, I would say ancient art and artifacts. I am interested in all the things that have been left behind. They are the window into who we are as humans and give us a sense of our collective past. Everything returns to the earth. There are so many artists that I look to who have changed me and my work.
Philip Guston, Bill Traylor, The Bayeux Tapestry, Amy Sillman, Stanley Whitney, Ellsworth Kelly, Hiroshige, Roger Brown, Fante Flags, Picasso, Matisse…these are just a few that I return to over time
What is the best exhibition your have seen recently?
David Byrne performing live in Birmingham a couple of weeks ago. This performance was visually and musically unbelievable. Outliers and American Vanguard Art at the High Museum of Art, Giacometti at the Guggenheim, Sarah Peters at Van Doren Waxter, two recent shows at Derek Eller Gallery-Nancy Shaver and Ellen Lesperance, Thomas Nozkowski at Art Omi, Richard Rezac at the Renaissance Society in Chicago, I could go on…
Are there any apps, tools, resources, etc. that you find helpful as an artist or person?
Books. I find just sitting down and looking at a book from our home library will resolve things I have been struggling with or suggest a new way to approach something. Sometimes there is such clarity that comes from seeing how another artist works.
My bird book. I am constantly flipping the pages to find a match to that creature I saw flicker across the garden.
Artist friends. I reach out to my artist friends a lot. Sometimes I just need to talk about a problem or need advice, or I just want to talk to someone who is having the same challenges living a life as an artist. These people are invaluable.
Is there any advice you have received that you remember often?
Always ask. The worst they can say is no.
What are you reading? What are you listening to? What are you watching?
More email than I could ever have time for.
I’ve been listening to playlists created by Pete and friends on Spotify and love this way we can connect and share with friends in other places. I have also been listening to a lot of WBHM, our local NPR station, and maybe too much. I am still trying to figure out how to deal with my growing anxiety in this political climate. I haven’t had a series that I have been watching for a while but I have been watching a lot of baseball however, as I am married to an avid Cubs fan. Even though they are out of the running I’m watching some of the playoff games now. We have always been a baseball family and the playoffs are always great to watch.
What are some of your interests outside of art?
The Garden and Birds. As I mention above, I love to garden. Both sets of grandparents gardened and my parents are big yard/garden people. I love the activity of digging, growing, dividing, picking, sharing, trimming and that incredible satisfaction of having my hand in shaping a small piece of the earth somehow. I plant a lot trees and shrubs that birds love and we have had one of the most exciting bird years with Scarlet Tanagers, an Indigo Bunting and a Yellow Breasted Chat. One of my favorite things is the birdbath as it attracts birds that don’t come to the feeder. When we walk from the studio to the house it can sometimes feel like we are walking into an aviary.
Any exciting recent news, or exhibitions, residencies, etc. coming up in the near future?
The first thing in the new year will be the Atlanta Biennial, curated by Phillip March Jones and Daniel Fuller, which opens on January 17th. I have a couple other tentative shows/projects in the works for 2019 but I am really in that amazing place of making right now after the completion of several shows, some that are still up. Part of what I wanted from this Guggenheim period was to make work not for an exhibition but for exploration, to challenge myself and give some time and space to the work. I am utterly grateful.
Thank you so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
To find out more about Amy and her work, check out her website.