Natessa Amin is a Philadelphia-based artist and co founder of Fjord Gallery.
She is currently the Visiting Artist in the Art Department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA.
Interview with Natessa Amin
Questions by Andreana Donahue
How did you become interested in art-making? Are there other artists in your family?
I’ve always been sensitive to color and touch, and I’ve always liked drawing and playing with different materials. In elementary school I spent a year or so going to a clay studio after school and I remember feeling really excited about going there. I think this is when I first consciously realized I was interested in art-making and from there I quietly continued to seek other creative opportunities. There aren’t any other artists in my family; my dad is a doctor and my mom is a nurse, for most of my life I was “expected” to go to Medical school and I never felt that medicine was something I wanted to pursue. In high school I was lucky to have an excellent art teacher, a wonderful painter named Rita Baragona. Rita showed me it was possible to sustain a career as an artist and she motivated me to apply to art schools when it came time to do so.
Does your work have any connection to place? How has living in Philadelphia, or being from Pennsylvania more broadly, influenced your practice? In what ways does your work reflect aspects of your identity?
In grad school I received a travel grant to go to India between my first and second year. My time in India deeply impacted my practice and I still reflect back on that experience and try to maintain a connection in the work I make. India is a chaotic place but through that intensity a kind of system emerges, this has become a an underlying philosophy in my work.
Pennsylvania appears throughout my work in odd and quirky ways. My mom’s family has lived here for several generations and I grew up practicing certain Pennsylvania Dutch traditions and superstitions, mostly these kind of old world ideas that promise good fortune. I recently made a painting about Hex signs which are colorful circular star motifs painted on barns throughout PA that are meant to ward off evil. Being from Pennsylvania is part of my identity and I try to combine those symbols and forms with imagery from my Indian heritage as well. I think a lot about what it means to be hybrid and how I am the result of many different cultures, religions, and traditions. My work reflects this through application, composition, pattern, gesture, tactility, color, and material.
Does your approach to installations involve detailed planning or is it a more intuitive process? Do you usually respond to the architecture of the space? How do your paintings, large-scale newsprint collages, and sculptures inform one another?
Certain elements are planned in advance but a big part of the installation process for me is responding to the architecture of the space and approaching the installation in a somewhat improvised way. My approach to installation is similar to how I think of drawing and collage. When I am planning an installation I have many working parts or fragments that surround a body of work, which become married and activated through the installation process. I call them fragments because it’s usually something like the wallpaper, a drawing, a photo, or found object I wouldn’t show autonomously but it has the ability to provide context for the other works. The staging of these parts form the world I want my objects and paintings to live in for the duration of time they are together in one space.
Your installations typically incorporate a wide range of media, including plaster, printed textiles, embroidery, ceramic, powdered pigments, flocked paper, and cardboard. What draws you to these materials?
I’m drawn to the tactile qualities of these materials and their power to invoke nostalgia. While making a painting or sculpture I search for moments when materials interact in unexpected or unfamiliar ways, I’m constantly asking ‘what would happen if’…I apply metal leaf to cardboard for example or sprinkle dye into flocked paper. I love that uncertainty can lead to discovery. This process helps activate memories, to recall moments from my past which then guides the tools and materials I use. Sometimes these choices are intentional but they can often be intuitive or spontaneous based on what’s available at any given time.
What is the significance of the various patterns in your work? Do you select these from textiles or do you use other source imagery?
The patterns I use in my work are sourced from Indian and African textiles as well as Pennsylvania Dutch Fraktur drawings and quilts. Many of the patterns come from objects or garments that belonged to my grandparents. My dad is Indian but was raised in Kenya and his parents lived there until I was six. It’s interesting to me that many of the patterns I use come from two very different worlds and yet often appear very similar.
You often use water soluble dyes that bleed and absorb into the linen alongside paints with more predictable behaviors. Are spontaneity and accidental interactions between materials important to you?
It’s interesting for me to see what a material does on its own and how it creates its own natural patterns. Spontaneity and purposeful play are important to my process. I like that the dyes absorb into the surface and become part of the linen, there’s a kaleidoscopic effect that happens and fascinates me.
Your titles seem to suggest an underlying, ambiguous narrative. Does your work have an explicit relationship to storytelling?
I try to title works in a way that is specific and abstract at the same time since they do ultimately relate to storytelling and a personal narrative. I like to give enough information to suggest an event or place or thing in a way that leaves room for the viewer to form their own relationship or make their own associations to the work. Sometimes a title expresses the nature of the entire work and sometimes a painting starts as one single mark or moment and that mark defines the work and gives it a name.
Can you talk a bit about your perspective on failure and imperfection in your practice?
Revealing imperfections is a way of storytelling for me, there is a humanness to it that I want reflected in the work. Embracing failure or the possibility that an artwork could fail has been a liberating notion for me. I’d rather make something and have it fail then not make something out of the fear that it might not be successful.
Who are some artists you feel your body of work is in conversation with?
A few artists of note that I’ve felt inspired by and connected to are Agnes Pelton, Jackie Tileston, Michelle Segre, Ree Morton, Edna Andrade, Beatriz Milhazes, Hilma Af Klint, Mary Heilmann, Charline von Heyl, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Leeza Meksin, Jessica Stockholder, Sarah Cain, and Dona Nelson.
Who do you consider your audiences to be? What ideas or qualities do you most hope are recognized by the viewer?
I consider my audience to be my friends and family, my students and colleagues, the Philly arts community and whoever happens to encounter the work in life or through social media. I hope the work provides a haptic, alternative visual experience for the viewer where they can find a way to feel included in the journey that has informed the work. I hope themes of duality and hybridity are recognized in my attempt to navigate different notions and understanding of identity.
As a co-founder of Fjord in Philadelphia, what have you learned through your curatorial experience?
I’ve learned so much from being part of FJORD. It’s given me access to and introduced me to so many artists that otherwise I would not have had that opportunity to get to know. It has also taught me to be open and flexible when working collaboratively, the value of communication and to be more critical about how I view the work of my peers.
You’re currently a Visiting Artist and instructor at Moravian College. What are your priorities as an educator?
I find a lot of joy in teaching and I try to cultivate a supportive community in each of my classes. I think it’s important for students to learn from each other as they explore what it is they are seeking as young artists. My goal is to make my students aware that there are endless possibilities for communicating through the art-making process and I hope I can help them find the right path and feel confident in making their voices heard. I try to prepare my students for the challenges that art-making presents and to understand that the expectations they set will evolve with time and practice. I hope to teach them how to think critically, stay curious, and to strive to maintain their own practices based in honesty and truth.
What type of studio scenario do you need to get work done? Can you tell us a bit about your workspace? What are absolute necessities in the studio?
I’ve had a few different types of studios over the years and I feel like I’ve tried to adapt and respond to the conditions of each scenario. I’ve really enjoyed situations that have easy access to the outside, I also enjoy having other people around. I prefer to have space to work on the floor, space I can use on a table and the wall. At the moment I have a great space at the school where I teach that has awesome lighting, AC, tons of wall space etc. I love working there but it’s over an hour outside of Philly so I only get to use it about 2 times a week when I’m there to teach. I’m actually just about to switch studios in Philly which will be a semi shared space with two other practicing painters I’ve known since undergrad (Sarah Pater and Meghan Reilly) so I’m excited to have other artists I admire close by.
Is there anything that significantly supports or destroys your mood or energy in the studio?
Temperature—I can’t do anything if I feel cold! Having snacks and staying caffeinated usually helps keep me moving along. I also need some peace when I’m working, if there’s too much going on I become easily distracted.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
A few authors that have been influential include Anne Carson (If not, Winter, Autobiography of Red), Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things), Writings by Agnes Martin, and more recently a collection of biographies called Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists by Donna Seaman.
I just finished reading a collection of short stories by Neel Patel called If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi. Neel is a family friend and I love this collection of stories/the different voices he manages to portray and the many relatable and candid moments about growing up in the U.S. with first generation Indian parents.
What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of being in the studio?
It’s not necessary for me to have music while I work but it can be important because music has the ability to set a mood so it can affect the way I work. Some of my go to studio music that first comes to mind and in no particular order would be Tame Impala (Currents), Robyn, Gorillaz (Plastic Beach), Frank Ocean, Talking Heads, Aretha Franklin, Solange, Rihanna, Sia, M.I.A. (Matangi), Fleetwood Mac, Paul Simon, Neil Young, Dolly Parton, Amy Winehouse, Lana Del Rey, Fiona Apple, Sufjan Stevens, Beach House, LCD Soundsystem, Dirty Projectors, Ariana Grande and Chance the Rapper…..I’ve most recently been listening to the new albums by Lyyke Li (so sad so sexy) and Mitski (Be the Cowboy).
I also listen to podcasts some favorites include Reply All, Criminal, Serial, Sound & Vision, Song Exploder, Raw Material, Still Processing, Ear Hustle, Invisibilia, Beautiful/Anonymous, Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations, Intelligence Squared, and My Favorite Murder.
Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
In undergrad at BU Richard Ryan would always say we needed to be generous with paint and materials, I remember he would tell us to “feed the painting”. This is something I often think about in the studio and tell my students as well.
What is one of the things that might be most beneficial to your career as an artist at this point?
I’d love to have some mentoring again, I’ve sort of recovered and reflected on grad school at this point and it would be nice to have some critical/constructive conversations about my work from someone with fresh eyes as well as some coaching on more practical concerns about showing/getting the work seen.
What is one of the best exhibitions you have seen recently?
Most recently Sarah Tortora's solo show “Witness Mark” at Napoleon in Philadelphia and from a few month back “Outliers and American Vanguard Art” at the National Gallery in D.C.
Besides art, what are some of the things that interest you or that you enjoy the most?
I’m pretty passionate about food. There’s a lot of good food in Philly and I also enjoy cooking and using food as a way to gather the people I love. I’m a social person and enjoy spending time with friends and family often, I enjoy meeting new people and making new friends. I also like to travel.
What are you excited about working on right now in the studio? Do you have any upcoming projects or exhibitions?
I’ve been gearing up for a two person show called But We Can’t Say What We’ve Seen with Mark Brosseau at TSA LA opening October 13th and I recently co-curated a show of Philadelphia artists with Fjord at Orgy Park in Brooklyn called Double Meeting. Over the next year I’m excited to be working with CUE Art Foundation in NY on a solo exhibition that will open in September 2019.
Thanks so much for talking with us!
To find out more about Natessa and her work, check out her website.