We had the good fortune of connecting with Amy Russell and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Amy, can you share a quote or affirmation with us?
I thought I would sit down without all my theories and aesthetics. I was going to start in a more humble place with just my eyes and my hands”. -Vija Celmins
22 years ago, when I had my first child, my art practice shifted from predominately darkroom photography to mostly drawing. During those early years when I was beginning to make drawings I discovered Via Celmins. This quote of hers really resonated with me and reflected the way I was thinking about my art practice. I was compelled to used my hand to record what I saw. Not that there isn’t potential meaning to come from that, but it really did feel as though my drive was coming from “a humble place”, from a learning and discovering place, and it continues to. I also just love the activity of art making, I have for as long as I can remember. My current art practice, during the pandemic, has shifted to include photography again. Even though I’m working in different media it all feels connected. In the study of semiotics, I found the notion of the “indexical sign” to be really compelling. Photography is the prime example, having a direct physical link to the referent, but in some ways, I also find myself trying to obtain this linkage using other media.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
Following from the last question – my most recent project, Pandemic Surveillance, came from trying to find a way to maintain a tactile, analogue photographic practice while teaching my high school photography students remotely. I was aware that my students would be sitting at a computer a lot for all of their classes. I wanted to find something that would pull them out from their screens and to be making things by hand, so we made these pinhole cameras that would make an exposure for days or weeks or more. It became clear as I was learning this technique that the weeks long exposures, that would fail to record any human activity, said a lot about the experience of living (shut up in our homes) in a pandemic, so I started placing pinhole cameras around the outside of my house looking out at my still neighborhood. The project was consistent with what has interested me for a long time – my work has been very much about ideas around home and family. Another recent project I’ve done is drawings made from family archives, which is something I’ve done off and on for over 20 years. Home and Away came out of the loss of my parents pretty close together (in 2016 and 2017). After they died I was spending a lot of time in my mother’s home and with my father’s things and found this amazing set of polaroid photos of my grandparents RV. And I also saw, starkly, how my mother’s neighborhood was/had changed since my childhood there. Home and Away is a suite of drawings that look at loss and presence, home, family connections, but going back to what I was describing at the beginning – they’re about time and process too. Each drawing takes me between 20 to 40 hours and there was something very comforting and loving about spending that kind of time with my lost loved ones. I also like to bring a little humor into my work. Sometimes this comes from the title or the contents or both. One example of this is Google Amy Russell, as someone with an extraordinarily common name I thought it would be funny to make a “self-portrait” of all the other Amy Russells. Another current project that just makes me chuckle is these drawings of scrapers. It was just this silly thing that I noticed in my mom’s house (with more than 50 years of accumulation of things) that she had about a dozen things to scrape or apply material. She was a big “do it yourselfer” which is a big part of where I get my handiness from. The series (in process) is about home, family, adding and subtracting, work and process and – it’s just funny – kind of wraps it all up for me.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
As you can probably tell I’m a bit of a homebody (!) but there are some super special places in Los Angeles that I like to spend time in and show friends. The first 2 are the Museum of Jurassic Technology and The Center for Land Use Interpretation. It’s hard to really say much about them – they are just two magical institutions that sit side by side on Venice Bl in Culver City, sort of 2 sides of the same coin. They each look at the world in singular ways that contrast but compliment each other. A third magical spot is The Velaslavasay Panorama. The Panorama is a full 360 painting (currently of Shengjing China) housed in a historic theater building in South LA, with a beautiful garden in back. They also host events such as film screenings and live music from time to time. No visit to Los Angeles would be complete without a visit to the beach – I happen to be from Venice and, as cheesy as it is, I always like to bring friends there. For other walks I also love Elysian Park which is close to where I live now – It is not as crowded as Griffith Park and has some really lovely trails and overlooks. As for food and drink – the best bar in LA is 1642. It is a tiny little wine and beer bar at 1642 Temple St. in “HiFi” (Historic Filipino-town) that hosts “old time” live music a few nights a week including a once monthly old-time music jam. Of course during the pandemic, they are closed but they have become a beer and wine shop for now and host music jams every Friday night on Instagram live. Finding this bar using Google street view was the inspiration for my series “”Street(view) Photography – they are water colors of google street view screenshots of people looking at the camera.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
My parents. They were raised in the 50s in families that didn’t especially support their artistic interests. Both of them were very creative, but never realized creative professional lives. Despite growing up quite poor, I always felt encouraged and supported by them in my artistic pursuits, and I know I would not be an artist and art teacher without their support and encouragement. Also – I really don’t think I would be the artist I am today without my students – many of the things I do as an artist started with techniques or concepts that I came up with for a class idea.