Artist Amanda Smith creates beautiful, intimate work with thread on canvas. I'm so pleased to be able to share her process with you, in her own words.
by Amanda Smith
I was born in the 1950’s in Aotearoa / New Zealand. I mention this because nothing much happened there, back then. And with a mother who was raised in the aftermath of WWII in England, the necessity to eke the most out of every single object or experience was fierce.
[I'm the cute one on the far left]
My mother would often interrupt herself in the middle of a fury, “oh look at that - a daffodil about to come out. The first we’ve seen this year.” From her I learned the enormous joy of Noticing the Little Things. It’s a skill, or privilege, that’s been invaluable over these last 9 months here in New York City. Lockdown has been, frankly, a bit shit. So to be able to continue to pull down on my mother’s lessons has been invaluable. Recently I noticed the first of the hellebores opening their pretty heads in Fort Greene Park. It’ll keep me walking up there to monitor the evolving colors and the eventual frenzy of blooms.
[You were comforted by the tenacity of spring, (2020); canvas, wool, thread and fabric; 21 x 21” From the series, I Really Don’t Want To Be Talking About This]
Growing up in a large family, storytelling was super-important in the aural chaos that was our dinner times - or any time together. Telling an interesting story meant you got heard - and you mattered. All this sits on my back whenever I start new work.
Starting usually means being struck by a memory or idea compelling a narrative sentence. Despite being a visual artist, a verbal narrative is the part I must clarify first. It becomes the title of the piece, and influences the way it develops.
[You fomented discord and now you are lost, (2020); wool, thread, pen, pencil on canvas; 15 x 15” From the series, I Really Don’t Want To Be Talking About This]
When I draw, I use a Micron pen, so the mistakes are visible and have to be acknowledged. I don’t see well, so imperfection is part of my life. Sometimes I use a white pen to cover over lines that really annoy me, or to make textural dots or shiny spots. Often an error turns out to be the start of something new. That’s always satisfying. Working in thread, the same principle applies.
Currently I tell stories in thread, wool and fabric onto a rough canvas backing, drawing from skills I learned as a child - sewing and decorating our own clothing. Making a piece of art using these skills renders the skill itself indistinguishable from the memory. It’s revitalized in my head when I look at the finished object - I can’t look at Your Dad ate his ice-creams without the entwining visual accompaniment of Sunday afternoons spent making dolls clothes, or writing books, or building fabric huts, hoping Dad might bring home some treats for us.
[Your Dad ate his ice-creams with unmitigated joy, (2020); linen and thread on canvas; 11.5 x 15” From the series, A Formative History and Foretelling, 2019-2020]
While I never have a clear picture in my head, just the gist of the story, before I start to work, often the image starts to take over. I remember reading that the great British crime writer, Agatha Christie, complained she loathed her most famous character, Hercule Poirot, because she found him annoying. I love this idea - while you are the creator, the thing you create has a life of its own too.
[You worried the change would get lost in the message, (2020); thread, tape, wool on canvas; 15 x 15” From the series, I Really Don’t Want To Be Talking About This]
I really enjoy the ‘twitchy’ part of making - the bit where I have a wonderful vision, but am not quite ready to start. It’s a bit like waiting for a sneeze. I get edgy as the pictures zoom across my brain, but I really need to get the story into a pithy synopsis, small enough to become a title. Once that’s clear I allow myself to cut the drop cloth canvas into its 15 x 15” panel and prepare to plant the first needle.
[You were grateful for their contribution to the cotton industry, (2020); canvas and thread on canvas; 15 x 15” From the series, I Really Don’t Want To Be Talking About This]
I don’t like to show people work in progress. Often they’ll want to give me an idea or suggestion, which sullies the way I see what I’m making. Or they’ll say, wow that’s great, which makes me feel under pressure to not ‘ruin’ it, when there’s stuff I still need to do.
[You were at the start of a sweet dream when they burst in, (2020); canvas, wool, rope and thread on canvas; 15 x 15” From the series, I Really Don’t Want To Be Talking About This]
I relish the feeling of urgency to keep working even when my neck and fingers are sore, and my eyes are screaming for a break. It’s so exciting to let go of control. Best of all is when I go back to look at something I’ve made and think, Heck, was that me???
[You couldn’t imagine the terror of dying like that, (2020); canvas, thread, wool, rope on canvas; 15 x 15” From the series, I Really Don’t Want To Be Talking About This]
I’m lucky that my use of domestic materials makes it easy for me to keep working without a studio. Currently, there’s way too much chaos in the country to focus on - I hear a frustratingly irresponsible comment by a politician, or cry in grief over the death of yet another black person at the hands of the police - or simply express my own fear about my own future. Or both. Levels upon levels. A pretty piece might hide a dark threat.
[You knew when you called them that he could be shot, (2020); canvas and thread on canvas; 15 x 15” From the series, I Really Don’t Want To Be Talking About This]
The reverse sides of my work give me great pleasure. They feel like secrets waiting to be hunted out. Because each stitch is made by hand, the back of each stitch is just as important to the construction. I like to run my fingers across the texture of the stitch as I work. I often wish that it was possible to do the same with all artworks - touch is an important dimension.
[Reverse side, You knew when you called them that he could be shot.]
The process of making starts off intentional. I find materials from the pile that moved with me from my vacated studio at the start of the pandemic. It feels naive now - envisaging this would perhaps last only a few weeks. I made a conscious decision to utilize ‘leftovers’ for my Covid-time series named, “I really don’t want to be talking about this”. Which of us do?
Once I have a title in my head, I make a rough mental picture of how the finished panel will look. I have to ask myself what elements of a story I want to include, and how literal I want those references to be. I'm on #16 of the series and the images have become more and more abstract, yet more complex. It’s reflective of feeling a bit overwhelmed.
[By October, you recognized a pall has descended over everything, (2020); cotton, thread, wool, lead pencil on canvas; 15 x 15” From the series, I Really Don’t Want To Be Talking About This]
Sometimes it’s difficult to decide what ‘finished’ means. A completed panel has to move away from me and be seen by others. This creates a dilemma for me to know whether I want you to see it the same way as I do. I get worried when someone wants to buy a work - will the message I want be the same as what you see (and does that really matter)? What do I want you to take away? How do I want you to feel? Do I want you to dive into my history, or understand your own from it? Am I hoping you’ll laugh or cry, or both? 2020 ended up being a cacophony of narratives.
[You decided it was acceptable to grieve the small things, (2020); thread and wool on canvas; 15 x 15” From the series, I Really Don’t Want To Be Talking About This]
With the loss of small pleasures of daily life, the loss of companionship, work, food, money, life, health - we could no longer put our heads in the collective sand of racial injustice, or criminality in politics, or national hatred and fear. They raced one after the other tumbling into a confusing mix - fodder for artists, but also creating layers of guilt and confusion about what was the most important thing to address. Was it still ok for me to feel resentful and sad about having to leave my adopted city for financial reasons when people were dying by the thousands? Was it ok for me to worry about my son, when black mothers know their sons are never safe? Could I criticize a government that wasn’t mine, when I was a guest in this country?
Now, I know this is my tale. Your’s will be entirely different. That’s the best thing about this process. It just doesn’t matter. It can’t be right or wrong. Don’t plan too far ahead and, if you’re lucky, the process will shift and change and take on its own life, out of your control.
[You watched this son go down (2020); thread, wool and pen on canvas; 15 x 15” Final piece in the series, I Really Don’t Want To Be Talking About This]
On the evening of December 31, 2020, surely the strangest New Year’s Eve, I made the rash decision to finish the series I really don’t want to be talking about this.
It felt like its time had come. I’d started it on March 12 with the heady optimism that it would be a project of a couple of weeks, before we could return to our lives. I sometimes long for those naive times. It’s been a tough year, even tougher for many, many people than for me, and I wanted to leave this body of work safely tucked into the period to which it belonged.
“You watched this son go down” was formulated as a wish - it was time for the election by the people to take hold, and for the lost son to disappear with grace and dignity. That didn’t happen - but in this work, I try to plead for the president to slip into the past. I want my adopted country to have a chance to heal and to grow and to restore its reputation in the world.
I’m sad to say goodbye to the series but want to greet the new year free of the exhaustion that weighs so many of us.
So slip into the horizon, son, and let the country heal.
Amanda Smith is a New York-based artist, born in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Her work forms a visual narrative drawing on the necessary skills she learned as a child in order to stand out from a crowd. She earned an MFA in Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York and currently works from her home studio in Brooklyn, NY. She takes a lively interest in always seeing the funny side of life, luckily.
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