This is a conversation conducted over email between American artist Amy Gibson who currently resides in Eugene, Oregon and Claire Sarfeld A WAY Founder located in British Columbia.
It felt as though Amy and I had become friends the moment that first email was sent. Amy's answers made me smile, her thoughts profound and honest, from the beginning she has been eager, willing to participate and share her insights and knowledge about the art world. Amy takes the A WAY Community into a deep dive to share about herself, her drive, and her unique perspective on the arts.
Thank you Amy for taking the time to participate in this Q&A between everything else you have going on.
Will you tell the A WAY community a bit about yourself and your background?
I was born and grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. I was a troubled kid lucky enough to land in an experimental high school, and then fortunate beyond all reckoning to also land in a unique, experimental undergrad program that took shape on an otherwise extremely conservative state university campus when I was young. This was the Western College Program at Miami University of Ohio, 1975 – 1979. Our remarkable Dean and a set of excited young faculty members had just created this program to focus on Interdisciplinary Studies and community. It was a tiny program, about ten faculty and a small group of students who had begun with them the year prior. It seemed many of the first students did not stay in the program, as it was so new and not yet gelled. When our group came in, it lit the fire. We all took the same classes for two years, in which the faculty team-taught courses in the 3 obvious major areas of study: Creativity and Culture, Social Sciences, and (Hard) Sciences. From the start, we were taught to look at issues and problems from many angles.
Besides team-teaching, the faculty were required to live in the apartments on the first floor of the boys and girls two dorms, where we all lived and where there were also classrooms, labs, an auditorium, cafeteria, gorgeous common areas indoors surrounded by the incredible nature of southern Ohio. That means that we had our formative, start-out-the-gate years while surrounded by our faculty’s young children, interesting spouses, and were invited always to see their human sides. Shy as we were, it was so exciting. Often in the evening, one of our own very shy science profs would invite groups of us into his apartment, his wife would share her work, the scientist would read us poetry he wrote, their kids would tumble on and around us. Other faculty would gather and play music, one hilariously belting out country-western songs (he was great actually) – while yet another would be belting out Teen Angel with her voice that was some cross between Freddie Mercury, Frankie Vallie, and maybe me off-key as always.
The Dean of this program was truly visionary. Mike Lunine had studied with Gandhi and MLK, focusing on peace and non-violent resistance. Mike had already served as Dean of the Honors Program at Kent State University. He had been the first faculty member to rush to the scene when the young woman in the famous photo was shot. He is credited in Michener’s book on this historic moment as having talked the National Guard down from what would likely have gone way beyond those four students killed. We adored this man like a benign but amazing father, and are busy preparing a tribute to him now, as he passed away just weeks ago, somewhat ironically on the very day of the 50th anniversary of the Kent State shootings, peacefully, while still teaching in his 90's at San Francisco State in Berkeley, CA.
In the second two years of this program, we constructed our own interdisciplinary pathway through more traditional Miami courses, with the help of our Western advisors who knew us each so well. My own focus was on philosophy and literature.
While I had grown up loving art, wishing and hoping every day that I would attend The Cleveland Institute of Art (which I passed every day on my way to high school, it is on the Case Western Reserve campus, the coolest part of Cleveland, in its cultural heart) – the Western Program created a hunger for learning everything. That hunger drives me still, even in my sixties, and is as real and vivid now as ever. After a Ph.D. in Philosophy (focusing upon the idea of the unconscious, which means trying to tie together epistemology, theories of mind and language, ethics and psychology, as a true Western Program grad would do, via the philosophy and novels of Iris Murdoch) -- I went on to teach philosophy at Oregon State. I fell in love with Oregon, where I ended up marrying and raising my three wonderful sons – but soon enough went back to school for a degree in counselling psychology.
Finally, at age 50, I gave in richly to my constant craving to make art. (It is now practically a trope to say it is not uncommon for women to find their way to this kind of creativity until after they have lived the fractured life of parenting and work, rewarding as those may be.) After fifteen years in the community and private practice mental health, I went back to school at the fabulous community college in art and art history. The passion grew as I did. I finished the full BFA in art and art history at Oregon State University in December of 2019 and now, in the summer of 2020, this old babe starts an MFA in Visual Studies at the Pacific Northwest College of the Arts (Portland, OR) “low-residency” program. For me, it will be a non-residency until it is safe to travel again.
I have been a bit leery of the expected eye-rolling from friends and family about yet more education. People treat it like an addiction! For me, it is no longer about the degree, it is the constant drive to learn more, to be part of a learning community, to be pushed and challenged to go even deeper. And perhaps, to finally tie all of these studies together at last. I see how they braid together but have not yet expressed that tie in a way I am satisfied with. I did just read a quote from Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, in their 2013 book The Undercommons, that spoke to why I find academia to be the greatest of all playgrounds. They said, “It cannot be denied that the university is a place of refuge, and it cannot be accepted that the university is a place of enlightenment.” With my interests, colleges and universities have indeed been my refuge, a place to return, to grow, to learn, to reflect, to synthesize, to gain new skills. Although absolutely one recognizes how conservative and cautious they can be.
I would credit my original WCP program, 1975-79, and the community of peaceful intellectual warriors it created (who have now been family for life) with lighting the candle that has guided me to seek ever more learning. Now, as an artist, I bring this whole world of possibility with me, and I have this kind of abstracted language that art is, always changing form, to speak and search in new ways. Some of the same questions still drive me, about the nature of the unconscious, the psychological, philosophical and political systems in which ethical questions emerge and answers to them are attempted. But some days, as a friend says, for artists, everything is a squirrel. I guess the analogy is to some animal alert to every scent and sight. Sometimes it is to what is beautiful or good, sometimes it is to what is ugly, scary, dangerous or wrong.
Have you always been creative?
This is in a way is a loaded question. I don’t mean to be flip in saying: hasn’t everyone? I think children are, and perhaps we always are, but in some people it gets shut down early. Of course, artists have no lock on creativity. In any case, if we are lucky it is not shut down and we go on to infuse it with our own history, personality, and talents. We all have them. What I can say is that while I came from a family that fell apart by the time I was a teen, both of my parents were creative and supported me early on. That is its own kind of privilege.
Here is a tiny story that could be a guide for any parent:
When I was four, in what was then called “nursery school,” there was a day we were doing finger-painting. At the time these paints came in powdered form. I remember so clearly that the teacher passed out papers all of the same sizes, the paper was a bit shiny, and she made sure we got water all over them first. Then she came around with some yellow powder and sprinkled on our papers. She sprinkled mine up in a corner, which troubled me. Then she came around with some red powdered pigment and sprinkled that too.
Though this is a very early memory, I think I hold it because there was a tiny art trauma there.
She absently put the red right on top of the yellow, both caked up in the corner. I was so mad! This made two problems. First, I was upset that I could not easily move the colors to the center, or all over. Second, trying frantically to move the paint around, the two colors of course mixed to make orange, and I did not want that to happen. I felt like I was losing the beauty and definition of the two colors. So I ended up in tears, a very frustrated little girl, furiously working the paint with my outside of that dense coloring in the corner. I went home crying and did not stop all day.
Finally, my father asked me to explain in detail what happened. I told him, he soothed me, and I forgot about it for the most part. But weeks later, he tried to explain to my four-year-old self that he had thought the painting beautiful; that it reminded him of the story in the bible about Moses and the burning bush, and this had made him take an action. Without telling me, Dad had got the painting professionally framed, with a mat that had these delicate red and yellow lines surrounding the whole thing, and had entered it into The Cleveland Art Museum’s local call for artists under the title “The Burning Bush!” I was little, but because we went to that amazing art museum on many weekends, I knew this was a big thing. Of course, you had to be 18 to enter and they figured it out. My dad got “busted” for entering. He did not care, because he had shown me something about my value as an artist, at least to him. I think it changed the world for me. I got the memo. Somewhere, I still have that painting. Have to dig it out.
Was I any more creative than the children sitting to either side of me? I doubt it. But I had a parent who took that creativity seriously. When I had three sons of my own, you better believe I made sure at least one of each of their artworks from school got framed. Those still live on our walls. The boys are now grown and really solid young men. Mine were quieter statements to them than what my dad had made. But I think taking their creativity is all we need to do for our kids, besides making a safe, structured space they can really count upon. (Well, that and some actually good materials would really help. I do think a lot of kids give up early because of cheap, garbage materials we give them; clearly we do not allow our schools to value art.) I was creative, but more than that, I was lucky to have the parents I had.
Why Art and Philosophy? How do these two fields of work come together and how do they combined inspire your artistic practice?
I “meant” to go to art school right out of high school. But many kinds of questions called to me. In college, I recognized my craving to understand and to learn. Philosophy was the area that led to trying to do first things first: to question the bases of knowledge and learning itself. The philosophy called and while most people kind of hate it as this dry activity, for me it was like a big ice cream cone. It was a way of opening the door to how to think about all the other interesting things. In time, I realized that we do not learn in unbiased ways, and maybe do not even need to, and this led me back to psychology. I taught philosophy as a professor for a few years but found myself too engaged with my students. Not inappropriately, but in a way that taught me something about myself. That understanding individuals was as important to me as understanding the big subjects. So then it was on to psychology and work in both community mental health and private practice. These are enormous learning paths. Every “client” is a whole world, every “case” is an education! All of it takes a willingness to explore your own creativity, to be honest, to let genuine curious about another person lead you to compassion and bearing witness. In both philosophy and psychology, you build maps, but then you need to throw those away and be present. My creativity kept getting differently channelled, and all I could feel was lucky for that.
But to really take in philosophy and psychology are to do the work of taking in the history of ideas, not to mention those of other cultures. There are long stories one must take in before you can see the road signs that begin to tell you where you are. And what else is really like that? Well many studies. Certainly, science has its own history and odd shifts in perspective... But so does something else as we know: art.
Art begins for most people I think as either an attraction to beauties, large or small and/or a need to express oneself. What is the natural world in which we find ourselves, and what is our place in it? Anyone who pays attention to even the slightest daily walk knows that beauty is all around us, in the most common birds, the most inessential weeds. The structure of nature is breathtaking. And we are part of that. Sometimes we want to be part by making things, adding our voice or reflecting our world somehow. I remember when I first moved to Oregon, beautiful as it was, for years I had the sense that “the landscape was wrong.” I grew up with mostly deciduous trees in Ohio, and the pointy outline of fir trees in Oregon felt foreign, even if gorgeous. I don’t feel that anymore, but the trace memory of that feeling still stirs my thoughts at times. What does it mean for a landscape to feel one’s own?
I finally gave in to the deep call of art when I turned fifty, after three bouts of being the primary caretaker for people I loved who were each terminally ill with cancer. That kind of caretaking can be brutal, and it was for me. Some deaths are beautiful. None of these were. I turned to art classes to heal. It was immediately transformative, restoring joy and the delight of exploration.
When I began art history, then I realized at once the connection between art and my prior studies. For me, a lifetime of learning comes together in this braided way that I wish we had never lost, and pushes me to further critical studies. Perhaps the Greeks had some inkling of the relations between “subjects,” and certainly many indigenous cultures have. Western modernism and its political discontents, plus its technical requirements, taught us to specialize. That twinkle seemed restored for a moment in the Renaissance, although it had glinted in many areas all along. I won’t say we “should” follow out these connections. Artists have different reasons for making art and need to follow their souls. But for me, art shifted from therapy to another form of critical study. Some days that is super abstract and non-verbal; at other times it is purely conceptual and written. Often, maybe always, it is a kind of not-knowing and exploring in whole new ways.
I’ll just add this. As a philosophy, both by nature and by training I find part of the very essence of Western philosophy, the demand to define and generalize, almost completely anathema. If I say to you that meaning to me cannot exist without context, well any of you with any art history experience at all will hear a distant bell tolling. The discussion of context leads us into the modern part of the story of art, and even into the post-modern. But this is only the first word, not the last, on the subject!
We find it very inspiring that as an artist you've moved across so many different mediums and subject matter. This includes but not limited to painting, mixed media, sculpture, film, encaustic, and zines (to name a few). Your work has also touched on personal stories, societal injustices, art on a microscopic level, and material discovery. Where do these concepts come from? Does one artwork inspire the next?
Well, this is Contemporary Art in capital letters, yet not for the sake of the title.
Just: why not? Art is a kind of language, a kind of voice. One wants to say so many things. What works best for me is to have an ever-expanding toolbox. I came to it perhaps too late to gain true expertise in any one or two areas. So I have concentrated most fully on painting and sculpture. Fortunately, I came up with a really great program. My mentors in each of these areas were constantly pushing us to try more, to work past the limits of our materials. My painting became more sculptural, and my sculptures became: open to everything. A great sculptor who had been my first design teacher and later a dear friend told me she had finally chosen sculpture because it hit her hard that in sculpture your materials are ANYTHING. That lesson hit home for me and has reverberated. Now I find everything materials. The bigger question is: what do you want to say, and what would help you say it this time? And then, some of us become materials junkies; all the colors and textures of the world just demand you find new tools and make discoveries. Some artists can spend hours just watching the paint move around, letting the informed accidents happen and delight, and these light new sparks for ideas and further expression. We find joy and also a kind of relief in the accidents materials allow. Relief, in new ways of saying things we hadn’t even known we wanted to say!
All of this sounds like play, and few artists I know would deny the delights and importance of play. But also, there is this way that art allows insight and the hope for deeper compassion. That comes with tasking yourself to see, to use all your senses more fully. But we artists are just as human, with our own biases and prejudices, just as much to work through as anyone else. We just happen to have these tools that work on ourselves as well as others, if we are fortunate and keep pushing, stay open...
Has there been an artistic project that you’ve been a part of that has really impacted your community? Or one that has brought on a wider conversation that you're particularly proud of?
Certainly, I have made more directly political art. In recent years I have been especially interested in the deep pain that cries out for prison reform in my country. I have painted about that, and sculpted about that, much of it from my own deep hurt, as I have a beloved family member who has been trapped inside the Kafka-esque institution that is the American prison system or should I say the whole judicial system. Well, I am not quite that cynical. There are many people who go to work each day, even lawyers and judges, police, people in all kinds of professions or even daily grinds, to do some good. But there is so much money at stake, the temptation to corruption is both overt and also calls to us all in subtle ways. By which I mean, in a whole social structure that is built upon competition and money makes it is so very easy to step on others or make use of others as tools. Or to just think: I’ve got mine, I’ve got people to take care of, I just can’t be responsible for everyone.
So much in the U.S.A. is ugly -- really harmful and lacking in creativity in addressing social issues, education, the environment, every aspect of life. The problems are systemic, and it is really hard to change just one part. As I write, things have come to a head in a whole new way, and we are rightly focused upon police brutality. Difficult as it is, I think this national convulsion had to happen, although I don’t think it is an accident that protest has suddenly become a way of life just as we were all separated from each other by the pandemic in ways we had never, ever imagined. Still, the protests are justified, and most of us are just hoping against hope that real, systemic change happens. Only time will really tell. The virtue-signalling that is going on everywhere is perhaps good, but it could in the end perhaps just become a new way for capitalism to swallow up change and benefit from it. We have so much to heal, we will need many, many more generations in order to make real progress. So what can one artist do?
I could tell you about shows I have organized or curated with political themes, such as one of the great Terri Warpinski’s photography about border walls various countries have built at various critical times in history, and how those borders have affected people. Terri has focused mainly on the walls that separate Israel and Palestine, and the U.S. and Mexico, and also the remnants of the Berlin Wall and all it stood for. This is an example of an artist using her technical, theoretical and looking skills to show us something deeper. I have built art organizations, run galleries, represented artists and created my own works, and continue to curate shows. I cannot think of a single instance in which what I was doing did not have political implications, in any of these roles either as an artist myself or facilitating arts and other artists.
But what I really want to say is that it took me a long time to understand what one of my earliest teachers said to me, and which I had to chew on because at first, I could not take it in. She said that "being an artist is itself a political act". Prior to her saying this I would have at least agreed that there is no non-political breath we can take. We cannot not affect each other, the world, or the very ground we walk. This is not to reach for something profound. In very ordinary and exceptional ways we are connected and affected. How we live matters, every moment. This can be a great weight, yet it is something that just is. We cannot choose. What is tough is to live consciously, and choose well. When I am tired, or hurt, afraid, or feeling out of control or that things are simply unjust in matters great or small, I can become as petty as anyone. One wants to scream from the rooftops. Art gives you a way to scream, if you are fortunate: constructively. It also gives you a way to cherish the beauty and goodness that is also all around. That, too, is a political act. But also, being an artist is a responsibility. I no longer can look at a pretty landscape without thinking about its history. Who walked this land, who lived here, how did they interact with the land, what happened to them? To me, being an artist is to ask questions. One can play and rest, but those questions keep calling.
Being an artist is a way of life. One can’t get too precious about that! But you can take it seriously, and try to live artfully. You are going to fail, often and hard. But every next moment is one in which you can try again. I wear many hats as an artist. In the fall of 2020, I will probably finally go back to my mental health practice. For many years I have allowed myself to be immersed in the long slow osmosis of skills and attitude that it takes to become an artist, with at least some comfort with materials and the self-trust to go on or know who to ask for help, or who one might best collaborate with. I wanted to get away from the direct dealing with other people’s traumas. There had been enough in my own life and those of people close to me. But I feel ready in a new way, and there is so much work for all of us to do with the skills we have been given. I think that being an artist means giving whatever you have to give. Cannupa Hanska once said in a lecture, with the greatest love and heart, that we must “weaponize our skill set.” There are huge forces to reckon with. Just living is hard for so many, and every one of us even if privileged. So much is at stake, and a world to preserve for our children.
I often curate, and this about six months ago a lovely community arts organization in Corvallis, where I got my BFA, asked me to pick any month in 2020 to curate a show for them. The show was completely up to me: it could be my own work, or a call to artists, or an invitational; anything. And I thought: ANY month in 2020? What is the most important month in this year? This choice was made way before COVID, and I thought: well, we have a chance in November of 2020, in the U.S., to get rid of a leader truly chooses the path of dictatorship. It is simply imperative to see the end of this so-called administration. I’ll take November, I said. And then I spent months wondering: what will we artists do if we lose this election? What kind of show would we be able to put on then? For now, I have framed the question behind that show as: how do we heal? I was not even thinking in terms of the pandemic at the time. Even without the pandemic, we have to heal win or lose. But now the question has a whole new meaning.
What is a lesson or some advice you would give to an artist as an artist, and some advice you would give to an artist as a gallerist?
To the artist, I would say: trust yourself, ignore the superficial judgements about talent. It is not that talents are irrelevant; we all have them. But being an artist is not a competition, it is about learning to make use of the tools around you and inside of you. Study them, study yourself, and yet paradoxically, let go. Perfection is not, to me, a huge or interesting value, although skill still is. Also: learn to collaborate as well as to work on your own. Both are important. Authorship is not everything. (In many of the arts, there is no way not to collaborate!) It is, however, important to be able to think for yourself, and not to just succumb to the norms of the groups and systems of which you are apart. It is also important to recognize that we do not become the individuals we are alone; hardly. Not a new insight, but one that Americans are particularly in need of remembering.
Go deep as you can, but be shallow sometimes. (One of my most brilliant artist friends, a woman whose work just naturally flows and is shown around the world, was having a zoom-artist-play date with me, we paint a lot together while we chat. One night she cracked me up because she observed suddenly that “Oh I have just accidentally painted Bette Midler!” This is a serious artist! But one who allows herself to laugh and see what happens.) Work hard, learn about materials, but let them speak to you too. That will mean something new at every stage. Let yourself play, even when you are working hard. Be conceptual, let yourself have ideas and not just make things that sparkle. You have many gifts, being an artist. But trust that ideas will come. All you have to do is pay attention, and take yourself and the world just seriously enough, but not too seriously. Everything is deadly serious. And also slightly ridiculous. Learn to live with paradox. Give back, always. But in ways that are true to who you are. And be kind. Just be kind. That in itself is a political act.
To a gallerist or a curator? I had to revisit this part of your question after answering it once. (Thanks, Claire, for giving me time to reflect upon these questions and not answer immediately. Much appreciated!) When I first started to answer this question, I was thinking about the interns and students I have worked with who are just trying out work in a gallery or curating shows at school. Here I want to say: reach for the deepest generosity in your bones when supporting others in their own creativity. Each person will need something slightly different from you. Be open for those clues from them about what that is; the may be subtle or that person may be in their own quiet way screaming at you to be heard. It is really easy, under the various pressures of putting on shows or running either a for-profit business or a non-profit, to move too fast, to not hear your artist, or to get caught trying consciously or unconsciously to please others way too much. Listen to your artist(s). Yet you also bring your own vision and values; how will you integrate these humanely? What is most important in the situation? There is a deep vulnerability in the artist. Be sensitive to that.
But today, after reviewing this, I want to add that gallerists and curators also need to really think hard about their own goals, and how those goals are affected by the demands and pressures of the market. I worked briefly at a wonderful art museum, under a great director. I wish now that I had known enough to ask her questions I would ask today. What sorts of compromises did she find herself having to make, and how did she stand up for the things she believed in? She certainly did, but I wonder how all of that invisible – to various stakeholders even including museum employees – the process actually worked for her, and how much she was aware of those pressures. These are complicated things, with huge ethical as well as aesthetic implications. For instance, how are you deciding who to show, as well as how to show, and who are you leaving out, and why? Last, I would also challenge the gallerist and curator today: why are you doing what you do? What vision do you bring to your work? What are the aesthetic, ethical and humanitarian implications? And how might you approach those goals with the creativity of your own? Contemporary art calls for a whole rethinking of institutions, markets, ethics. We cannot change all of our circumstances. But we can be conscious of them, and respond creatively. Nor does the format for art fit neatly into a box anymore (I know I know.) That is a good thing. But don’t be different just to be different, edgy or cool. Make your work mean something.
Why did you decide to go back and get your masters? Where will you be taking it? Will you be taking this on full time?
I began my MFA today as I finish this, at the ripe age of 62, after a lifetime of other studies and other degrees. We have already talked about this, but I will say again that this MFA, at the great Hallie Ford Pacific Northwest College of the Arts (PNCA) in Portland, Oregon, is an opportunity to keep learning yes, and to expand my art community in a deep way. The dialogue with art and artists just means the world to me. Plus, I am still thinking through some things, and as I have said, time out in university is a great way to do that. Maybe in an ideal world, it would not be, but in the one we have, it is its own form of privilege. I am so grateful and determined for it to mean something. I am still growing; I hope until I die. There is also just something I specific I have carried and chewed on for decades, and still not articulated. I hope maybe I can try again with some success in this program.
This MFA begins in the fever pitch of the pandemic and cultural change. I thought I would be in Portland for the summer; suddenly I am just hoping that I meet my fellow students at all over the next three years! As for the culture; it is past time we wake up to how the ways we live are supported or supportive of the ways that other people live. I hope that we are all taking a deep look at how we have taken advantage of each other, and not been our best selves. We all know and have known for ages, maybe generations, that so much is wrong. Clearly we do not agree on what we see as problems or solutions. But I hope that living and working with creative people, struggling to understand, be aware, and use our skills to highlight questions and wrongs as well as beauty In this tortured time yields some hope as well as respite. I think we are seeing freshly how much we crave connection, that we are none better than each other, that exceptionalism is a lie both individually and as nations. We have to come together even as we have to have some boundaries. We have to take our own well-being seriously at the cellular level. The time for denial is over, though denial will keep trying. That is the real devil we live with. Being an artist is above all: the attempt to see. That seeing is the opposite of denial. If we can see, we can make healthy choices. But seeing is a constant task. It requires the capacity for joy, for being moved by the beauty of what there is to see. But also the willingness to be horrified, to see the harshness and pain and destruction too, so that we can respond responsibly. Also to try to identify the lenses we each bring with us; never an easy task. It is one that can make me irritable with myself, with others, and with the sheer work of living. But being with others, learning with and from each other, also makes the work so much more of a joy.
Thank you again Amy for your time, insights, and inspiration. I look forward to hearing about your journey in completing your Masters, your upcoming projects, and I look forward to working with you in the future.