Interview conducted of the 18th of May, 2015, in Harringay, North London.
Tell us about the name Ami, where does it originate?
It’s a change I made about 12 years ago. I was given the name Amy Louise and I got to know an art form called Eurythmy. The sound Ah is the venus sound, the sound of wonder. I decided I wanted to live with the sound of wonder so I change Amy to Ami. And then I changed the spelling because I liked the idea of making a play on the phrase ‘I am’, which is highly significant in the spiritual realms: to speak of the ‘I am’, so Ami I am.
You were born and raised on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania and then you went and did a degree. Tell us about that.
I was born and raised on a dairy farm in Pennsylvanian. I went to Penn State University to do a fine arts degree. I knew from a young age that art was important for me to be engaged with in this life. I had no cultural context to guide me through that and I’m saying to you that I had to find my own way. I had no direct mentors, and I gradually found my way and doing that first degree, that bachelor of fine arts, was literally a first and very significant step and truly just a beginning. As important as it was, it’s very important to me that I was able to spend part of my junior year in Italy and I had my twenty-first birthday in Rome. And in the experience of that, I felt how valuable it is for Americans in particular to travel and how wonderful it was after having had art history where I’d see slides on a screen, I’d go with our teacher to the sites that I had seen in art history books and I got to be in the presence of Michelangelo’s Pieta for example, that was a highlight, and many, many other works. So that was significant and another step. And on from there, meaning that after I did that first I decided to go to Manhattans and Greenwich village and become an artist. And I did.
And what was the scene like in New York city at that time?
As I experienced it, we all know that we enter into life in different realms and different levels and the level that I chose was the bohemian artist and I quickly became friends with jazz musicians. And that was so wonderful and energising for me – a different world. And then also the emerging feminist art movement so I arrived in New York in September of 69 and the emerging art feminist movement was gaining power. So during some of those years I was an angry feminist. It feels like it’s important for a woman artist to do that and it’s important also to move through it and to go as deep into it as one can into any experience. And I was more familiar in some ways with some of the literature that the feminist artists were producing, reading what then was the Feminist Art Journal, gradually learning more about what women are and were up to. And yes there was a lot going on in California so it has a lot to do with this coastal polarity. And jazz, for the jazz scene, New York was the big apple. For the art scene it was also a big apple but there were also a lot of other apples on the west coast.
In New York you did a lot of the big collection that we now have in the UK. What was your studio like?
In the first place I would rent with other artists, a loft space somewhere. I had the first couple of years in Greenwich village and then the lofts in Soho. Again an exciting time to be there: Soho was being born and created as I was there and so with two Irishmen I rented one of the Soho lofts. So after having somewhat improvised studio spaces, then that space was huge and was plenty big enough for two painters and an actor. And from there I moved to a one-bedroom apartment and that is indeed where I did most of the body of work that you see from the 70s. Mostly I worked at night and also involved in the jazz so if I had day jobs then I would just have to go without sleep.
What were your day jobs?
Mostly waitressing then eventually I did some office temp work. My typing was good enough that I could get paid to do that as well, so I’d alternate between the two.
And the size of the paintings then is significant. Tell us about the size you chose.
As I matured into what became the most common size was basically stretch out my arms and with just enough bend in my forefingers, I could hold the canvas and that’s 66 inches. My wingspan. And it felt like some approach to an archetypal size clearly it’s significant to me that a fairly large size is appropriate that somehow that it’s a field that you can walk into in a way. Somewhat physically and also energetically enter into. I was aware of Jung’s work and with focus on mandalas. I knew of various aboriginal arts and Native American arts and that there are patterns and circular patterns used quite a lot and they are central to what I do – they’re not the only thing. Along the way I started doing black and white photography that I had been introduced to in my bachelor’s degree and I decided to get my own enlarger and printer and I’d work all night in my apartment in the kitchen and I started particularly following the passion I have for the human figure and yes, they were female forms for the most part. So it would be black and white photography and I would make slides of the negatives for some of them, project them onto the canvas or simply be inspired by the patterns I saw as I projected a strong light source through an afghan onto the female body. So on the website for example you’ll see examples of the black and white photography. So the form could be a movement and the form can be still and the body disappears in a way. So that’s not what I’m fostering, an awareness of the physical body; it’s colour and pattern on the body. So I project from this strong light source onto the body and the curves of the body would naturally respond to the light and the light responded to the body so many if not all the paintings have figures in the background so to speak, underneath the shifting patterns. Some will be identifiable if I indicate, so for example in this painting I can’t indicate the figures because they’re covered up but depending on what painting it is, you’ll say ‘oh I see’, or not. So the human figure in a not direct way. So that figure is inspiring to me, whether it still is identifiable in the painting as it’s finished or not. It’s part of the heart and soul of the work.
And the grid pattern, tell us about that.
I do not claim to have been the originator of working with the grid. It’s part of what ancient cultures used for various art forms including basketry and pottery. So the idea of patterns and the grid in particular was somehow inspired by a photo I saw of the tip of a platinum needle enlarged 175,000 times by an electron microscope and the image is not pure grid, it is like constellations who have a symmetry. So there is certainly a symmetry in many of the things that I do, either in all quadrants or along the one axis. And that grid then became a source of play and so the paintings…I didn’t dream them and I didn’t bring them from my cognition, I would begin somewhere and then literally play using a string and a straight edge for the most part and then I started to learn about sacred geometry and I could see that that was what I was doing. I started to learn about the crystal realm and I could see that that is also present in the patterns that are there and relating to the macrocosm, andthe microcosm and unseen realms and the Hubble telescope for example has brought us wonderful images and there’s one painting that definitely inspired by one of the Hubble telescope images. And so from the micro to the macro and the lattice-work, learning more about how the physical realm has come into being and how human being has evolved out of the unseen realm as well.
And at the moment you live in New Mexico, can you tell us about Dancing Colors, your studio there.
Yes, I do live in New Mexico, along with my husband we have built a studio. We named it Dancing Colors, it’s in honour of Native American women’s beadwork. So again the circles, it’s not that there’s a full circle that’s static; the circle is a kind of a vortex, a kind of a spiral so it is alive. So that return to periodically to consciously acknowledging women’s art and in this case it was Native American beadwork by women from numerous tribes. So Dancing Colors comes from that, I recognised that it’s the perfect phrase to say what studio is: meaning that it’s for painting and for movement. So the local building material is adobe and that’s what we use, so it’s not a restored more ancient adobe – there are many of those in the valley where I live – we used earth from the valley and trees from the forest to build a studio and that is indeed what happens there: there’s painting and movement. And being in the south west means I’ve come to another part of a full circle, being within reach of Georgia O’Keeffe territory and the territory of other women who have gone to the south west and Georgia O’Keeffe is the best known. Agnes Morten is a woman who is well known and respected, not as well known as Georgia O’Keefe for example and there are many more.
Who are your influences?
The influences I sometimes call them heroes are…and I don’t know that any of them are still alive. Marc Cheval certainly, Matisse particularly with the patterns and Monet with his sensitivity to nature and the subtlety with the way he works, the atmosphere he creates. Georgia O’Keeffe, Judy Chicago as a powerful feminist and the way she brought women in on large projects – not something I have done as an artist myself and I very much respect. Marian Shapiro who did work with fabric and patterns and they are essentially a generation ahead of me, those two women that I mentioned. Then again to honour the traditions of ritual art Tibetan art and the Thangka paintings and Native American art particularly the sand paintings that the Navajo use as a means of healing and are very temporary and the Buddhists do incredible mandalas. The aboriginal art is wonderful, not so much as grids, very much as patterns so the relationship to the unseen realms and the way they create the images, often out of pure dots and nothing absolute about that.
Previously you said that your work is alive and not static. Do you see your work as ongoing or complete?
I do see the individual pieces as complete most of the time. Occasionally in previous decades I have worked over the top of an older canvas, only a few times. And in the last two decades I’ve added to only one of the previous canvases and it was fun and healthy to do. I just literally did it while it was on the wall.
And your current work is, much the same but very different at the same time. How would you describe your current art?
To speak of the current art I would bridge, somewhat from the late 90s becausein year the 2000 I had met the work of Rudolf Steiner was drawn to do the art therapy that is offered through the anthroposophical stream and I did begin that process so there’s a foundation there and then a longer training. And in that, there is what is called, in the most beautiful sense, a sacrifice. So I sacrificed the way I was working in order to focus completely on what it means to bring art as a healing modality. And then when I moved to New Mexico in 2005 I was beginning to refind myself as an individual fine artist. And not that the rest would leave me but it would be transformed and I would go on from the way I discovered, rediscovered and evolved and so I worked smaller and more in water colour for years and then I had large sketches for a triptic literally for years and my question to myself was ‘what’s the next step?’, they’re wonderful sketches and how to take them to a finished piece so I finally got hold of it and it is a triptic and I have a centre panel that’s quite large, it’s 72” by 44”; and a side panel that’s 72” by 32”. And so I started working large for the first time in quite a while there and it’s wonderful. I have figures involved and they’re more evident than what they were historically. The central panel is quite an archetypal form so it’s a cloaked woman and so you don’t see any of the body so it’s a woman cloaked in colour and then the side panels are the two female forms who have different levels of meaning. One of the levels is that they’re each a nature spirit, relating to the elements so you could call them elementals, one being water and the other being fire. And the other level a level is that it’s a homage to the bee world, the bee kingdom and I am a beekeeper and it’s a sacred practice and very important to who I am now and the patterns in the background of this painting are a six-pointed star pattern and within that six-pointed star it creates a hexagon and that then follows through to the honeycomb in the beehive and so you could call those female figures bee priestesses. And that takes some courage for me. There is an actual presence of a swan with the water spirit and there’s a phoenix with the fire spirit for example that is a recognisable form and so it is my question to myself to be having the figure be that present. I’m so used to having figure in a way dissolved into the pattern and colour. The one particular reference I could make is to Native American dancers: incredible colour and wonderful costumes they have in that they’re dancing inside the colour and that is a lot relating to they way that I paint, that the figure is inside the colour. And then to have a recognisable form from the animal kingdom is different and new.
Speaking of new, journey of the evolution of art and humanity’s evolution to it.
Perhaps a little bit, it’s quite a gift to be able to articulate on that. The wonderful cave paintings are so often shown in the early stages of any reference to the span and arch of art history. And the art history training that I’ve received has helped me understand how the human being has evolved and one can follow the evolution of the human being through art. Art evolves us and art expresses the arc of human evolution. The idealism of the Greeks for example, is something that’s highly significant for the experience of the human body; and the Egyptian period before that with their relationship to the spiritual realms. And the Roman period is quite materialistic and militaristic so there is a deepening of the human being experience going deeper into form and materiality. And as I understand it, we’re now on an upwards arc where we are uniting consciously matter and spirit and evolving with the world that is also evolving with the nature spirits and the elementals for example and we are becoming leaders in that and that is a potential that we have. I have a devotional practices that I do and I have devotion to nature through gardening and beekeeping. To balance the intense materialism that we did come to, to have gone so deeply into the embodiment and we are having an arc that’s now returning more to the spiritual realm in a balanced way and with conscious evolution. Conscious evolution for example is a phrase that I speak often; freedom is a phrase; love is a word. So there are words and phrases that mean a lot to me about our spirituality and what the human being is doing and I’m here as an artist and it’s important that we’re all working together as best we can. It’s not up to any one group of people or any one skill or gift. It’s all part of it.
I realised that I didn’t mention Rembrandt and there are other heroes that I haven’t mentioned and they’re not obvious in the paintings that I create. It wouldn’t be necessarily evident who the heroes are.
Note: The Grid inspiration: tip of a platinum meddle magnified 7500 times under an electron microscope. Plus quilting traction from this life and past life/s.
Conducted by Ray & Austin Downing.
Interview is also available as a video and audio file.
Duration: 77 minutes.