Thursday, June 2, 2016

Interview with Artist Amy Pleasant, Part 2

Interview with Artist Amy Pleasant, Part 2
Encounters with 'Terrible Beauty': Trauma, Memory, and Healing

Yesterday, in Part 1 of my interview with figurative and abstract painter Amy Pleasant of Seattle, Washington, Amy provided some background about her journey to becoming an artist, and discussed her style, techniques, materials, inspirations, and goals. Today, in the concluding, in-depth segment of our talk, Amy responds to my questions about her current autobiographical series TERRIBLE BEAUTTY: under the canopy, which is the subject of a solo exhibition now on view at the Seattle artists' collective Gallery 110. Included here are images of Amy's work from the series and a video introduction to the deeply personal, life-changing experience of being sexually assaulted in the mid-1960s, when she was a child out for a ride on her bicycle. Images generously provided by Amy complement our interview, which concludes with another of Amy's exphrastic poems for an artwork from her series A Woman's Work.

* * * * *

MD: Amy, you relate on your Website that you were sexually assaulted in the mid-1960s by a group of teenage boys and that your most recent body of work — the TERRIBLE BEAUTY series that is the primary focus of our interview — gives voice to the young girl you were then. Tell us what you lost when you became a victim of this awful crime.

AP: It was not only what I had lost, which included a loss of innocence, a child's worldview, confidence in myself, a feeling of safety but also what I gained, which was a sense of shame that I could not readily define at the time. It translated into the self-talk that I should not have been in that situation. If someone knew I would be in trouble. . . . As much as it did not make sense, I somehow felt that I bore some responsibility for [the assault].

I think the most significant and lingering effect was the internal companion of fear. I spent my childhood working at staying under everyone's radar. At that time, [the fear] manifested in high anxiety every time a car passed me while I was walking home from school and [at] the sight of any groups of boys or men—a fear of seeing any of the young men again, a general distrust of men that developed from that point on, and an unease with life itself.

This sense that bad things can happen at any moment really [had an impact on] all my decisions into adulthood. I learned at the earliest age that the world is not safe, and spent so much  time trying to make it safe.

Amy Pleasant, Fear Was My Imaginary Friend, 2016
Acrylic on Canvas, 8" x 10"

MD: What was the catalyst that makes now the right time for you to explore through art so life-changing an event?

AP: I struggled with a health issue for three years and was homebound for two years because of illness, surgery, and a long rehab. It was a time when nearly everything about my life was changed, and [my world] got very, very small. It was such a time of complete uncertainty and really became a time of questioning everything and reflecting on what had gone before in my life. It felt like life was taken to nucleus, from one breath to the next, and it was mine to rebuild. I began to write A LOT, and I could avoid the subject no longer. This was the beginning, and I knew that once the writing was done, it [would be] time to take the next step, which was the artwork. After many years thinking about [the sexual assault], I was finally ready.

MD: Is knowledge of the paintings' backstory essential to understanding the journey to healing they depict?

AP: No, although I think enough overt clues are given that people can figure it out. People are free to bring their own interpretation and experience to it.

Amy Pleasant, Hiding in Plain Sight, 2016
Mixed Media, 36" x 36"

MD: Think back to your first painting in the series. When you started it, how aware were you that you might be breaking free from the understandable hold of silence and secrecy?

AP: Very aware. I knew that dipping into this pool would require something different from me as a person and as an artist. Only a handful of people in my life knew about [the assault], so I had always looked at it as having to make a commitment to be all in or not even attempt it. This is a very vulnerable place for any woman to be in.

I have to say that this year, there have been plenty of courageous women who have come forward after the fact. I deeply admire them.

I think what surprised me was the (psychological) work that I thought I had done wasn't quite complete. Doing this series and writing brought me complete closure and a feeling of freedom that I have never [before] experienced. I am grateful.

MD: Before you began the series, what, if any, other art forms had you tried to help translate or narrate your difficult physical and emotional experience.

AP: This was the first and only attempt.

Amy Pleasant, Voices in Her Head, 2016
Mixed Media, 8" x 10"

MD: I'm struck by the dichotomous title of your series: TERRIBLE BEAUTY: under the canopy. How did you choose this title? What do you intend the title to mean?

AP: Well, it's a bit of a play on words. It's grounded in my perspective of lying under that tree [where the assault occurred]. I remember every detail of my surroundings as if [the assault] were yesterday, and I believe part of this was the mind's protective attempt at distraction.The tree above me, the bicycle tire by my head, the fabric of my shorts to the side, the blue sky through the leaves—each [image], in an of itself, was beautiful; however, in my context, [all] became iconic images that served as reminders of that day [I was assaulted]. For years, it didn't dawn on me why I was not able to lie under a tree on a warm day. I would try, but had to sit up within a few seconds. Doing this work helped me put these images to rest and allowed me to reframe their meaning: Take the "terrible" out and leave the "beauty".

MD: I recently read a piece about a writer who, sexually abused as a child, found a way to work through that  abuse by relating her experience in the form of a fairy tale, a story she could write from a distant, third-person perspective, and then rewrite with a changed ending, reflecting what she wished had happened. Doing this, she achieved some control, was no longer helpless or silent, and could come to grips with the emotional effects in a different way. Has your painting been that conscious a process for you, especially in choice of visual metaphors? 

AP: It's interesting that you mention this, because I feel like this series is my attempt  to go back and give voice in a visual context. Actually, I would say that every mark and every word is completely purposeful. Some meanings will be quite apparent to the viewer, while others are encoded just for me. To me, I have created something that is grounded in a real person, place, and time, and my memory as well. The visual metaphors directly reflect that.

MD: Apart from subject matter, how do the paintings in this series differ from earlier work; for example, in style or technique or even choice of colors or paints?

AP: They reflect a broader range of media and an integration of traditional figurative work and abstraction. Colors are darker in range than my usual palette.

MD: After beginning the series, did you at any time feel you needed to stop or that you owed it to yourself to follow the art-making though, however painful it might become?

AP: I definitely had to pace myself. It was quite difficult in the beginning, and I made sure I was working on other work at the same time to create some balance. At the beginning, I did have to squash my own self-doubts about taking on this project but the more pieces I completed, the more I understood that this was the right thing to do.

MD: What have been some of the challenges you've had to address in navigating your childhood experience through art-making?

AP: I think the usual difficulty of translating idea to surface, especially when the pieces are so laden with meaning. I had several starts and stops with certain pieces when the execution was not matching my intention. [What I was doing] was too important to get wrong. Also, some of these [paintings] truly are visual diaries, and I felt like I was sometimes walking a tightrope, of including too much or too little information.

MD: What have you discovered about yourself and your artistic work while making these paintings?

AP: That, as an artist, it is good to deal with a difficult topic, as it forces you to push your limits and try new things, because the same old way is not what is always needed. Also, it feels so great to have done this, to have had the guts to follow through and to have completed this long-planned project. I feel like this has also opened the door for me to expand myself for the next project. There are no limits in media or ideas.

MD: What images do you feel most drawn to in these paintings, and why?

AP: The painting Hiding in Plain Sight, because it articulates something that I always struggled with but could never share. This horrible life-changing event happened, and I was the great pretender with my family. Both my parents have passed, so I do not get to have this conversation with them now.

Also the self-portrait During, which looks a bit picaresque. It really does reflect the fragmentation that this event had at the time and what it left internally.

Amy Pleasant, During, 2016
From the Triptych Family Portrait: Before, During, After
Acrylic on Paper, 11" x 17"

MD: Are there any unasked questions or unexpressed feelings in these paintings?

AP: Oh, yes! Nothing is every entirely said in an artwork.

MD: Do you intend for this series to reach a particular audience? How have the paintings been received by those who have seen them? What kinds of comments do you receive, and do those comments reflect what you hoped you could achieve by showing the paintings publicly?

AP: I don't have a particular audience in mind. I am assuming that the audience [the work] most resonates with will find it. Since the exhibition has only just opened, there are a limited number of people who have seen [the paintings] in my studio, and their reaction has been positive; there have been some tears from those who know me. The series and the writing seem to have a powerful impact. Although [images] are on my Website, I have not yet directed anyone there via social media or an e-mailed collectors' list. That's for next week.

MD: Do you think your paintings contain something universal to all victims of sexual assault crimes and, if yes, what might that something be?

AP: Oh God, yes! The lengthening shadow of the aftermath, which affects all aspects of your life. . . I believe that is a universal response. In a general sense, it's the effects of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]; I think everyone who has experienced this can relate to going back to the time of the trauma to try to make some sense of it and to the power of breaking the silence.

MD: Art-making of all kinds is well-established as having therapeutic value. How do you think the exhibition of TERRIBLE BEAUTY will benefit others traumatized by rape and its consequences?

AP: I do believe it will have therapeutic value for some. The overall message is, breaking the silence and, beyond that, observing someone else's journey and [realizing] there can be healing and closure. In the words of Louise Bourgeois, "Art is restoration: the idea to repair the damages inflicted in life, to make something fragmented. . . into something whole." This work is my offering to myself and other who might resonate with it.

MD: You also write and include in your artworks your writing, which embraces poetry. What do you thing writing, specifically poetry writing, allows to happen that does not occur while painting?

AP: Oh, I'm in love with poetry as much as I'm in love with paint! [Poetry] is a doorway to the unseen, the thoughts between the words, a way to cut to the chase. My work is about relationship, and I feel that poetry embeds in the work richer and more diverse meaning. It's simply another layer. Perhaps its directness makes it more accessible to some.

MD: Do you feel that you have exhausted what you want to say about your childhood experience?

AP: Yes, I think I have.

MD: What's next for you, Amy?

AP: I can't wait for the work to all be installed, so that I can go on to the next few months, which will be filled with lots of experimentation with content and media. I like to [experiment] as a kind of purging between series. I have a couple of series ideas that I am exploring now that [involve] Shakespeare's metaphor of players on the stage as it relates to family dynamics. I would like to connect with a theatre to bring the dramatic and visual arts together in [using] this metaphor. I'll also continue to write every day. I wouldn't mind some residency time to develop a manuscript combining writing and art.

Amy Pleasant, She Was Her Mother's Daughter, 2016
From the Series A Woman's Work
Acrylic on Canvas, 24" x 30"

The roots of these women run deep,
straight through the rocky patch,
past the shiny shale which so easily flakes into pieces,
down to the rich, moist, dark soil.
The stuff of substance, of sustenance, of that which carried
them from one story to the next.


See my Artist Watch feature showcasing Amy's work at Escape Into Life.

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