Thursday, December 9, 2010

Amy Ellingson: San Francisco Artist

Lynette Haggard's Weekly Artist Interview 

Amy Ellingson at work

Lynette Haggard (LH): Can you share with my readers a little about yourself?

Amy Ellingson: I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. I'm the only artist in the family, and the first to go to college and graduate school. All of my grandparents were from the Midwest. Their parents were farmers and shopkeepers. My paternal grandfather was a self-made man—a businessman and rancher—who could do just about anything: woodworking, bricklaying, building, ranching, hunting, fishing, etc. I learned a lot from him about building and making things. Both of my grandmothers were expert seamstresses, and my paternal grandmother was skilled at baking and needlework. My parents continued those traditions. In addition,
they were fascinated by and avidly collected antiques. From all of them, I picked up the idea that inanimate objects have power. I've always been fascinated by work—mental and physical labor, thinking through problems, etc., and with the idea of making something
tangible, lasting and meaningful.

Variation/Mutation (umber, red, violet, white) oil and encaustic on two panels, 72" x 78", © 2008
Photo: R.R. Jones

LH: Where do you live now?
Amy: I've lived in San Francisco for 15 years.

Recursions, installation
Charles Cowles Gallery, New York, 2008.  

Photo: Bill Orcutt

LH: Did you receive any formal art training? 
Amy:  I received a B.A. in studio art from Scripps College in Claremont, CA. At that time, there was a great studio art program at Scripps-- traditional in some respects, but very effective. Most of the faculty had been teaching for many years at that point, and they all had big personalities and devoted followers among the students. Also, Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University) was there, and I hung out with grad students a lot. I graduated with nearly double the number of credits required for my major—I took every studio class that was offered, many of them multiple times. After graduating, I worked for four years and then went to California Institute of the Arts for my MFA. CalArts was the polar opposite of Scripps, which was perfect for me. It rocked my world in every respect. My education represents the contrast between formalist and conceptual pedagogies.

Variation/Mutation (scatter)
 and encaustic on two panels 60" x 160", © 2009
Photo: R.R. Jones

LH: At what point in your life did you become interested in making art?
Amy: I was interested in art from the moment I first picked up a crayon. I was obsessed with drawing. One summer, when I was about nine or ten, I drew and redrew the same scene again and again, trying to get it perfect. My parents took us to museums and, though I didn't always understand the art that I was looking at, I loved that it existed. When I was 12 or 13, my parents agreed to pay for private watercolor lessons. Like many kids, I was primarily interested in representation—being able to draw or paint people, nature and animals.

LH: Was there a certain point when you decided you were primarily an artist?
Amy: I always knew I was, and would be, an artist. However, when I became conscious of what it means to be a professional artist, I struggled a bit with the difficulty of that—understanding the sacrifices I had to make, the financial riskiness of the endeavor, the competitiveness of the field, and so on.

Variation/Mutation (brown, blue, red, white) oil and encaustic on two panels, 36" x 168" © 2006
Photo: R.R. Jones

LH: Can you describe bit about your work in general.
Amy: My work exaggerates the dichotomy between the lightning-fast process of digital rendering and the painstaking method of execution through traditional oil and encaustic painting techniques. All of my imagery, whether geometrically intact or abstracted and chaotic, is comprised of a vocabulary of very simple forms that are digitally manipulated. The paintings consist of many interrelated layers of repeating geometric forms—lines, arcs, and grids—that I compose on the computer. I replicate these basic elements into an increasingly complex field that I then render in discreet layers of oil and encaustic paint. Using ephemeral, computer-generated images exclusively as my source material, I create paintings that physically assert themselves through the materiality and permanence of historical painting media.
The translation from the ‘virtual’ to the ‘real’ is paramount.

LH: What is your media? 
Amy: The sketches are created in Photoshop and Illustrator, and then I render the paintings in oil and encaustic on panel with traditional chalk gesso. Since 2007, I have also been making works on paper. My recent series of gouache works on paper are based on the skeletal, or ‘wire-frame’ versions of the forms that comprise the vernacular of my paintings. These works are the result of a direct and immediate investigation of the relationship between the computer, the projector and the hand, restrained by the careful application of thin, painted lines in a reduced palette of grey tones.

Working at Civitella Residency

LH: What is your current work about? 
Amy: I'm interested in the history of abstract painting and I posit that the project of abstraction, as a philosophical position, can be advanced through means of digital technology. In my work, the digital component allows for a progression of the tradition of abstraction: the ability to develop a vocabulary of forms (as opposed to a vocabulary of gestures) that is used again and again, becoming a “signature” vernacular that allows for a hermetic yet familiar interpretation.

The forms are basic—straight lines and curved lines—that are used, repeated, grabbed, reused, manipulated, mutilated beyond recognition—I push them until they are transformed, and therefore, surprising. The basic forms often recall letterforms of various languages. Modified, they begin to resemble 'gesture'—a personal yet mysterious markmaking that is predetermined via digital processing. The digital allows the mark (particular to Photoshop and Illustrator) but also de-personalizes it. My work is not about an expressive moment, but a predetermined series of steps that hopefully result in a personal statement as well as a statement about abstraction itself.

LH: What is your workspace like?  
Amy:  I've been in the same studio for about nine years. I've outgrown it a bit, but it is very conducive to work and since I am a creature of habit, it is important to me to have a well-developed physical relationship to the space. When one works in the same room for a long time, one develops a real body-sense about everything—the number of paces from here to there, the exact location of every tool and piece of furniture, the movement of the sun and the change in light throughout the year, etc. If I was blindfolded, I would still be able to find any single object in my studio, no matter how small. Since my studio is only 800 sq. ft. or so, it means that I am often moving things around, rearranging the work in progress, and reorganizing around various tasks. At some point (hopefully sooner rather than later!) I would like to have a larger space so that I can have permanent work zones for certain tasks and more space around the work.

In the last few years, I have done three residencies (Civitella Ranieri, Ucross and MacDowell Colony) and I have found it interesting to work in a studio space, equipped only with the things I need for a particular project.

A peek inside Ellingson's studio

LH: Do you involved with any arts groups or communities? If yes, what do you gain from that affiliation and what do you contribute to it? How do you develop a sense of community with other artists, and how do you support your art colleagues?

Amy: I taught at the San Francisco Art Institute for eight years, so I have many former students and colleagues that I am in contact with. I have artist friends all over the country. It's important for artists to stay in touch with other artists-- to share ideas, to discuss exhibitions and books and to remind each other what it's all about. Interestingly, Facebook has also been a place to find community.   I believe in sharing information and in trying to be helpful and collegial with others— there's enough to go around. Teaching brought out my altruistic side. One must be generous with help, connections, ideas, etc.

Another studio shot
LH: Describe how you work in your studio. How do you get "in a groove" and what inspires you?
Amy: I don't have a problem with motivation. I'm usually very productive and disciplined.
I never really feel that I need infusions of inspiration, but of course I appreciate the fresh mindset that comes with travel, reading, seeing interesting exhibitions, etc. For me, all of the inspiration and motivation is ever-present, in the history of painting. What can I contribute to the discourse? That's what keeps me going: the desire to contribute in some significant way. Ultimately, as an individual, I am irrelevant. But if my work is part of the continuum, part of the conversation... well, that's success.

LH: Do you ever get stuck with your work and how do you remedy this?
Amy: No, I don't often get stuck. More and more, I find that I don't need to reinvent the wheel. Small, incremental changes in the work are actually very significant.

LH: Do you have particular habits that you think support your art practice?
Amy: I have a very regimented routine for home and studio. I'm a runner, which helps me to clear my head. I've begun practicing yoga recently, and that seems to be helpful, too. My studio hours are very regular. I'm in the studio 40 hours a week when things are "slow," and up to 70 or more when things are busy.

LH: What are you reading right now?
Amy: Parables for the Virtual, by Brian Massumi
Sight and Embodiment in the Middle Ages, by Suzannah Biernoff
The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, Galen A. Johnson, ed.

LH: Do you have other jobs other than making art?
Amy: No. I taught for a number of years at SFAI and even had tenure, but I gave it up recently.
I loved teaching but it just required too much time. Now, I teach the occasional class if I'm invited to, and I really enjoy it again.

LH: Where would you like to be in 5 years as far as your art making?
Amy: Progress is inevitable.

LH: Do you have any upcoming shows that you'd like to mention?
Amy: Yes, I'm currently working on an edition of prints with Urban Digital Color/Gallery 16 in San Francisco. They will be in an exhibition that opens Jan. 20, 2011

You can see more of Amy's work on her website.

Thank you, Amy!


Gwendolyn Plunkett said...

Another very interesting interview and introduction to an unfamiliar artist. Thanks, Lynette.

Nancy Natale said...

Thanks for this interview, Amy and Lynette. I like the look of your work, Amy, although it's hard to see what's really going on because your pieces are large and intricate. I would be interested in seeing them in person.

Anonymous said...

I would also love to see your work in person. Any plans to come to NYC?