Artist Interview: Amy Bay
Interview with Portland-based Artist & Educator Amy Bay.
Learn more about her background, art experiences, how she maintains and balances her art practice with being an educator, the evolution of her work, and her solo show Yes Please Thank You at Melanie Flood Projects this August.
Photo Information: Amy Bay at Outlet with her Art Guide Issue. Photo by Ashley Gifford.
Please tell us a little about yourself (just a short introduction)
I am technically a Hoosier by birth, but I moved all over as a kid. I lived in Chicago and Brooklyn in my 20s and 30s. Now I’m based in Portland, where I make paintings and teach.
What's your background in art?
I had a pretty typical trajectory in art. I went to art school at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, then was lucky enough to study at Winchester School of Art in Barcelona, Spain and Winchester, England for my MFA. But I flitted all over the place in terms of media -- printmaking, book arts, drawing, installation, photography, sculpture -- everything but painting up until about 6 years or so ago. I also took some Textile Surface Design classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology in the mid-aughts. That’s when I really got into pattern and decorative arts. I did a lot of work with gouache after that, which led to working in oils. Gouache was kind of a gateway drug to painting in oils for me.
How did art making first find its way into your life?
I wasn’t really the type of kid who drew or made art all the time growing up. With the exception of 2 traced drawings of my dogs Guido and Texina Lou, made when I was around 11, I didn’t really pursue art consistently until my senior year in high school. And I didn’t commit to it fully until I transferred to SAIC my junior year of college.
What advice would you offer to people interested in pursuing a career in the arts?
I think there is a kind of “particularity” that each of us brings to making art. So I would say not to get bogged down in notions of genius or mastery -- we are each totally distinct, so our work will be distinct, as long as we don’t lose our way by making pointless comparisons with other people’s work.
I remember reading a Bomb conversation between Nicole Eisenman and David Humphrey about painting. I think I’m slightly mis-characterizing their discussion, but I walked away feeling like we all make the things that no one else can make or would make - that there is a place for it all and we make things for each other.
What keeps you motivated and engaged in your creative practice and how do you maintain it?
I used to struggle with maintaining my practice, but at this stage in life I am just hungry for it. I think this coincided with my shift to painting. There is something about focusing on one medium that is deeply engaging to me. Painting, with all the decisions regarding color, surface, viscosity, format, content, and positioning yourself within contemporary and historical approaches -- it’s like I never find the edges. It’s vast! It’s sublime! Truly. And I don’t consider that at all hyperbolic.
My dear friend and fellow artist Bellamy Printz has lived off of Lake Erie for over 20 years. She once said she loves living there because the scale of the lake is so much greater than her -- that it is constantly changing and hard to pin down, always engaging. I’ve been thinking lately about how painting is kind of like my Lake Erie. It’s a great motivator.
I also see a ton art and read a ton about art, I listen to a ton of music and watch a ton of movies. I’ve been reading a lot of poetry lately too -- especially Bernadette Mayer. I’m a bit smitten with her work. And all of that fuels my painting. Teaching does too. That’s a bit of a cliche, but it truly does.
Could you describe a moment, experience or situation that profoundly changed or influenced your work?
I feel like my work profoundly changes all the time! I know that’s not a very popular notion professionally, but I have just come to accept that it’s part of my process and that I can’t really do it any other way and feel good about making work.
Looking back I always see threads that connect things, but I do try to follow all the impulses as they come up, even if they don’t seem to make much sense. Some I don’t end up showing to anyone, but I think you can see a lot of change in my work over the years. I wouldn’t say there was one particular moment. I was way more emboldened after the birth of my kids. I think I just started to have more confidence in myself and what I could contribute after that. But it is constantly evolving.
Do you have a favorite artist(s), in general, and/or right now?
I’ve been looking back a lot lately. Florine Stettheimer is a favorite. I’m pretty preoccupied with re-thinking the canon and figuring out where the women were -- because plenty of them were painting and participating professionally, but we are just learning of them now. Hilma af Klint and Paula Modherson-Becker are really important to me. Their work has totally been overshadowed by their male contemporaries.
I’ve also been interested in looking at the Old Mistresses -- the Old Masters who were women. I recently substituted for a colleague’s painting class based on Old Masters techniques and it piqued my interest -- where were the women?? There had to be some working then. I could only think of one or two. And why had I never thought to even ask this question?? I had just accepted the narrative of the Old Masters. Turns out there women painters at that time. They weren’t part of the system of patronage and there were a lot of forces working against them, so they are hard to find. But it’s pretty fascinating and simultaneously disheartening.
Could you discuss your work in "Yes Please Thank You"? Are you seeking to explore a particular idea, narrative, or sentiment within the work?
I don’t generally work from a predetermined place, so the conceptual layers in "Yes Please Thank You" evolved through the making of the work.
I am really drawn to decorative imagery. I find it simultaneously beautiful and deeply problematic because of the strong associations with the feminine and the ways that have played out historically. But I don’t see the term “decorative” as essentially pejorative and that was a starting point, of sorts.
Floral imagery, in particular, is so easy to dismiss, but it has always been a kind of carrier of sentiment in our culture. Early American embroidery traditions it was a means to connect with other women and a way to record important details about family life. But it was also seen as a way to impress suitors and ultimately helped to keep women exclusively in the realm of the home. So I wouldn’t say my work illustrates these ideas, but they are definitely swirling around in my head as I paint. It’s a little fraught for me. My paintings push-back against that history, while simultaneously celebrating it.
The essay by Prudence Roberts that accompanies your show at MFP for "Yes Please Thank You" touches on the history of women in painting, and that flowers and still lifes' were considered acceptable themes in painting for women to explore, could you discuss this notion in your work?
Throughout the history of art, it was only acceptable for women to work with certain subjects such as the still life. I suppose once we get to modernism it starts to shift, but even as late as the early 1900s it was still considered problematic for women to paint nudes. And in mid-century abstraction, you still have this idea that women can’t paint as well as the men. It’s actually painful to read about some of the Ab-Ex women. Their gender is always at the forefront, always a problem. So I’m turning to decorative and still life traditions in "Yes Please Thank You" and playing with the qualities of the forms and how we expect them to behave within a painting.
When I work I feel like I need to channel my 11-year-old self -- right before I became self-conscious about what it meant to be female -- the 11-year-old who would sing 80s songs at the top of her lungs while jumping on her bed. This spirit seems to be formative to me and as important as any of the art historical sources feeding into my work. In fact, many of my titles come from music from the 70s and 80s -- the music of my youth. They are also drawn from bits of banal conversations, like texts and emails. And as I mentioned before, poetry has been feeding into the ways I think about the work lately too.
You recently launched a new project, "Art Hour", which helps participants spend more time with work and slow looking while facilitating probing questions from participants. Could you talk more about the project and the inspiration behind it?
I really value the process of seeing art and talking about it. For years while I lived in NYC, I taught from objects in places like The Brooklyn Art Museum and the gallery at Henry Street Settlement, Abrons Arts Center. And here in Portland I taught a gallery class through PCC’s Community Ed Program. It was always my favorite way to teach, because it really taps into the power of standing in front of a work of art and makes for some amazing discussions.
The idea in ART HOUR is that we give the work an hour of our time, sharing our thoughts and observations with the group. It’s not so much about figuring out what the work “means,” but more about seeing where the work leads us and what it evokes.
Are you currently working on any projects you can share with us?
In addition to my current show "Yes Please Thank You" at Melanie Flood Projects, I am part of "That Reminds Me (to nature the roof and the floor holding heart)", a two-person exhibition with Ashley Hemmings at BARDO-29, The House Museum in Newfoundland, Canada. The exhibition is curated by Robyn Love, and it comes out of an email correspondence between Ashley and myself throughout the fall and winter. We shared images and thoughts about things that interested us most about Newfoundland and these conversations became the launching point for creating new work. The show will be up until October 31st.
I feel like I’m just coming down from my "Yes Please Thank You" high! But there are a few other things in the works. I will be in a two person show with Justyn Hegreberg up in Seattle this October at Snag Gallery. I’m very excited about working with Julie Alexander, who runs the space out of her home.
And of course, there is the Art & About PDX Art Guide Pop-Up on October 21st (from 2-4 PM) at Outlet celebrating this year’s artist collaborations.