It’s one thing to make a painting, and it’s another thing to sell it—to have someone appreciate its value, hand over cash, hang it on a wall in the home, and live with it. Amy Wilson is the rare artist who has managed to build a life around her artwork. Museums exhibit her paintings and drawings, and galleries sell it. When she is not in her studio, she is teaches art history and drawing at School of the Visual Arts in Manhattan. Wilson will have a series of prints on view in the 20th Annual IFPDA Print Fair in Manhattan. We recently caught up with Wilson to learn more about her work, and what it takes to build a successful career as a contemporary artist.
The IFPDA Print Fair is unique among the world’s major art fairs for its focus on fine prints from all periods. The Print Fair takes place at the historic Park Avenue Armory. Show dates are November 4 to November 7, 2010.
Hi Amy. Tell us about yourself. Who are you, and what do you do?
Well, I’m an artist, and I work primarily in drawing (watercolor, ink, and pencil) but also etching and I also make books and occasionally sculptures. I’ve been in Jersey City for about 14 years, first in the Greenville section, then Journal Square, and now out by Lincoln Park.
When did you begin to paint and draw?
I didn’t seriously start to paint or draw until the very end of high school, when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. My grandparents had always taken me to art museums growing up, so I knew I loved art – it just never really occurred to me that I should make it myself. But one day when I was in the end of my junior year, some friends of mine and I took the bus into Manhattan and wound up walking around Soho where we went to some galleries. That night, I came home and cobbled together enough supplies by rooting around the house and made my first “real” art work.
What was this first work of art, and where is it now?
It was an abstract painting just of various shapes. If it still exists (I’m not sure), it’s in my parent’s house in Baltimore. I would not be surprised if it rotted away into nothing, though.
Amy, you’re a great role model for a lot of artists. You have built a life and profession around your artwork. BravinLee programs represents you. Diane Villani Editions publishes your work. PS1/MOMA and The Drawing Center have exhibited your drawings. In addition, School of Visual Arts hired you to teach art history and drawing. I am interested in the day-to-day realities of this stuff. I want to concentrate on your relationship with your gallery BravinLee programs. How long have you been with the gallery, and why did you choose them? Also, what does gallery representation mean for you, and how does it help sustain and nurture your career?
I joined BravinLee in December of 2007. Previous to that, for several years, I was with another gallery in Chelsea, but our relationship deteriorated – they were moving in one direction and I was moving in another, and it just wasn’t working. So I sought out another gallery and talked to several different places, eventually settling on BravinLee. I chose them for two main reasons: they specialize in works on paper and books (which is very rare to find) and because I really liked the owners and easily pictured working well with them. The personality of a gallery is very important – the tone that the owners set, the way that the employees respond, and so forth – it has to fit with who you are as an artist and what your professional goals are. I put tremendous pressure on myself and work myself very hard, so I need to be with a gallery that recognizes and respects that, and doesn’t add to the stress. Some artists need a gallery breathing down their neck to get a deadline done in time – I don’t. I need space, calm, and trust, or I can’t make my work.
And I need to be able to believe that the gallery that I work with can talk about my art and represent me well to the public, and I get that from BravinLee.
Your gallery is really your public face – they are your representatives to other galleries, museums, collectors, anything on the business side of things. So the gallery has the task of explaining your work to people who might not otherwise know it. They put your work in exhibitions and take it to art fairs, but their real job comes down to the one-on-one conversations that they have with people about it, and how well they’re able to keep your intentions and ideas in mind. It’s a relationship that involves a lot of trust and faith on both sides.
The 20th Annual IFPDA Print Fair is a few weeks away. You will have work on view. First, what is a print fair, and why should people go. Second, how did you become involved in the fair, and what work do you intend to exhibit?
The Print Fair is an annual event where art dealers from around the world come to NYC and set up shop for a few days at the Armory, and show off the work that they represent to potential collectors and people interested in art. It’s open to the public, and anyone can go – what’s fantastic about it, is that in one relatively small place, you have about 100,000 works of art displayed. As a viewer, you have to pace yourself a bit. You can spend a whole day looking at art and see a tremendous variety of things. There’s often rare Picasso prints or work by old masters, and then also art that was made just a few months ago by artists like me.
I’m displaying six new etchings. I’ve loved printmaking for years, but only got really into it in my own work this summer. A student of mine, Shannon Broder, is studying etching and offered to help print some of my work, so I took her up on it. She printed the pieces that are in the Fair. But I had such a good time with that, I wound up taking an etching class and now look forward to printing my work myself.
Will your posse of effusive girls in sundresses make an appearance in these etchings? Also, etching is incisive, nearly surgical—the opposite of watercolor. Has this medium changed the way you view the young girls in your paintings and drawings? If so, how?
Oh yes, of course the girls will be there! Actually, the way that I use watercolor is very exacting and pretty similar to the way that etching is. If anything, I took to etching really well because it just slowed down the process even more, and really made me think about what I was going to draw before I actually did it. I can’t say it changed my relationship to the girls any, but it did affect my relationship to text – of course, when you’re etching, everything has to be written backwards. So I had to take some time to learn how to write backwards in some kind of normal-looking handwriting, and to do it relatively quickly so it didn’t look labored. At first it was pretty difficult, but now I think I know how to do it well enough that I can be fairly fast at it, almost as fast as writing forwards.
I have always found it difficult to price my work. How did you determine the value of your pieces?
Actually, my answer to this is totally lame – I defer that to the gallery. (sorry – wish that answer were better!)
You’re originally from New York City. When did you move to Jersey City, and what prompted you to switch sides?
I’m from NYC, but I grew up in Montclair. When I was in college at SVA, they used to have their dorms at the Newport Towers (which were brand new at the time, we’re talking 1991) and I had some friends who lived there. That was my introduction to Jersey City. When my husband (then my fiancé) finished grad school in 1996, he needed a place to live and I suggested he check out Jersey City. We wanted a place to live that was close to Manhattan but a little removed from the pressures of life there. And also, we needed a place that was very cheap and the rent control laws in JC really appealed to us. So that’s what initially attracted us here.
The West Side rarely gets mentioned in this town. A case can be made that the business suffers as a result. Here’s a chance to give a shout to your favorite places to eat, shop, and drink?
Park Tavern is, without a doubt, the best bar in Jersey City – not just on the West Side. We’re lucky to have it in the neighborhood. Johnny, who owns Café Leyana on West Side, has been super nice about making me vegan sandwiches with avocado, cilantro, and mixed veggies – they’re not on the menu, but he makes them for me. Other than that? I mostly live at the Lincoln Park dog park.
Your personal experience informs a lot of your artwork. How does Jersey City fit into the scheme of things?
I love Jersey City and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. I often get frustrated and annoyed at NYC and want to leave, but I love it here in JC. The pace is slower here (not super slow, but slower than NYC), people are friendlier and more open to talking to you, and I really feel like I’m part of a neighborhood and community. The conversations I have with people in the park or on my block pop up in my drawings all the time. Parts of JC feel like a small town, while other parts of it are really like a big city, and I love that mix that we have here.
If you had to ascribe an aesthetic to Jersey City, what would it be, and why?
That would be really hard, because the neighborhoods here are so different. Out by Lincoln Park, it’s almost like living in the suburbs. But in Journal Square, just a few blocks away, it’s totally different and much more like living in a city. I would say that diversity is Jersey City’s strength; diversity in the people who live here, and also in the city itself.
That’s a great point. I live on Belmont between Bergen and JFK. As soon as I cross the boulevard, and walk to Lincoln Park—we’re talking less than a few hundred yards—I am in a completely different part of the city. The vibe is mellow, even bucolic—the rows and rows of trees, the wide-open space, the pond, and the families enjoying a picnic on the green. It’s like a Manet painting… Then the Pulsaki Skyway knocks me to the ground with the brute force of a head butt.
Lincoln Park is beyond gorgeous. They do a fantastic job at maintaining it; I’m always very impressed. Have you crossed over the bridges yet, to where the dog park and pathways are? They’re restoring a whole section over there and it’s going to be so great.
What three pieces of advice would you give to an artist just starting out their career?
1. Make art that YOU love. Don’t worry about pleasing everyone else or what is in fashion this month.
2. Take really great photos of your work and start a website. Blog if you can. Don’t sit around and wait to be “discovered” – the web allows you to share your art with the public and lets you start a dialog with like-minded people. It can help you to find your audience.
3. Write to other artists whose work you find inspiring and reach out to them. Talk to them about their experiences and their approach to making work. Understand that we are all in a community of artists and that you shouldn’t be intimidated to talk to someone who is more “successful” than you are – most artists will welcome conversations with other artists.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a gigantic artist’s book for a show BravinLee is having in Miami, as part of the December art fairs.
Original post may be found here.