ARTIST’S SELF-ANALYSIS EXPLORED THROUGH MULTIPLICITY
Story by Mariam Magsi
With her impeccable drawing skills, remarkable composition and fluid use of colour, Sarah Ammons is a painter worthy of attention. Born and raised in Canada and currently studying in America, Ammons is a powerfully talented artist with a unique self-exploratory vision. In the artist’s own words, “self-analysis” is the primary motive behind her work, with a personalized touch of “multiplicity” in her subjects used to better identify personal insecurities in a visual way.
Ammons’s characters tell a genuine story. Her work seems photographic, yet her painting captures beyond the illusive exterior into the self. Mastery is evident in the way she paints realistic portraits but plays with imagination at the same time in order to maintain freshness in the content. Here, she shares some thoughts about her work.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up in Bowmanville, Ontario by Lake Ontario, and attended high school at Trinity College School in Port Hope. Recently, I have completed my BFA at Queen’s University. I am a big fan of existentialist and psychoanalytic philosophers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, wine, food, and cheesy romance novels.
How did you choose painting as a career?
I have been able to be completely absorbed in making art; it has been a part of me. So the choice to be a painter was not really a choice so much as a natural progression or maturity from childhood doodles to large paintings.
Were you always a painter or have you dabbled with other art forms?
I love painting and drawing because the image is immediate and changeable. I have also tried printmaking, which I enjoyed for different reasons; it allowed me to incorporate new methods of drawing and painting, whether it be lithography, screen printing, or etching, while tending to a kind of ritual of working with the material. Printmaking was great for keeping the hands busy so the brain can escape.
Your colours are soft to the eyes, at times even matte. What is the aesthetic reason behind this technique?
I use oil and sometimes a little cold wax medium on mylar, which is like a frosted plastic drafting paper. I use a lot of washes too, and paint thinly so that my graphite lines are still visible. I like the way that the oil paint interacts with the mylar, and the effect it has, which is a kind of dreamy haze, half painting, half drawing. The matte finish seems to break down a barrier between the viewer and the story in the painting – there’s no glossy shield.
Who are the subjects in your paintings?
Most of my paintings are self-portraits. I spend a lot of time self-analyzing so in my paintings my multiple selves converse, argue or emerge from former selves. I have also painted family members and friends in the same way.
Are your paintings based on imagination or do you seek landscapes and people from reality?
The figures in my paintings rely on photographs, and the backgrounds are based on photographs or memories of places, and then changed according to the demands of composition or the meaning of the piece. Everything I paint or draw is observational and has its basis in reality.
Let’s discuss some art movements that have shaped your work today.
I am still in awe of Expressionism and German Expressionism, especially Egon Schiele, which I am sure every art student around my age says too. I love depiction of emotion and struggle, because it is so very human. Also Abstract Expressionism, like Arshile Gorky, and Conceptual Realism, like Chuck Close. I find it hard to talk about more contemporary work in terms of movements because it just seems so forced to lump people into one group or style. Artists today sample many things from many movements over the ages, and sometimes they do not know that they are.
Who are your biggest influences?
I think Canadian artist Betty Goodwin had a huge impact on my current works. I looked at her expressive lines on vellum and it led me to experiment with various surfaces and papers – that is what led me to mylar. The videos of Pipilotti Rist also have left their mark on me. I love the way she turns an ordinary experience like a grocery store into a surreal out-of-body experience. I see it as an investigation into our reality and our own perceptions. I adore the treatment of flesh and figure by Kent Williams and Alex Kanevsky, as well as the movement of their paint – the pushing and pulling. The people who motivate me conceptually are my parents; both psychologist-philosophers who raised me to be self-analytical, introspective and artistically neurotic.
How do you turn a concept into a successful painting?
Trial and error. I have an idea for a painting, then I do a photo shoot for the figures, and then I start arranging them by drawing on the mylar. Sometimes they work at first try, sometimes I feel like I have spent three days erasing. There is a back and forth with the painting that is hard to describe with words. It just a process, a playing with the directions you want or do not want your painting to go in, while balancing intuitive demands of aesthetic.
Do you believe formal education in the arts is essential to make it as a painter in today’s day and age?
I think it is a good idea. If not for the challenging of your ideas and broadening your perspective, for the connections you will make which will further your career and involvement in the art community. However, there is something more impressive in this day and age about a completely self-made artist. If you have enough drive, if you are dedicated to being an artist it is totally doable.
What are some of the greatest challenges you have faced as an artist?
The biggest challenge, for me, is me: the struggle with myself – which is I guess why it is the central concept for my paintings. I get so emotionally involved and invested in my art. When things aren’t going well one day, the bad mood can take over the rest of my life, and I can end up alienating myself from the people who love me. So the realization that I have to get up and make art everyday – and make a lot of art all the time – has helped me roll with those times when I feel like nothing is going right. The struggle just becomes something that you do, your endeavour, so if it is not going well today, this week, or this month (that may be pushing it), it’s okay because you will just keep working at it and that’s that. It’s a challenge that I will always wrestle with, so I just have to own it, trust that I will not suck forever, and take a c’est la vie kind of attitude.
Tell us about your ongoing and upcoming projects.
I have recently moved to the San Francisco/Bay area, where I will be working on my MFA in painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. So I am very much looking forward to having my mind ripped apart and then put back together, as I hear is a good experience at grad school. I recently showed at Canadian Fine Arts in Toronto, and I’m doing commissions in the Toronto area as well as starting up my practice in San Francisco. All my paintings deal with this struggle of the self; the feeling of the self existing not as a single unchanging entity but rather in multiples – evolving, conflicting, or confronting.
From your series of paintings, which is your favorite and why?
One of my newest paintings, unseen by anyone as of yet, is my favorite so far. The painting is of a girl (self-portrait) three times in blue overalls, blowing bubbles in a hot suburban backyard. I like it, even though it is not quite finished yet, because it feels very honest and it came about subconsciously. It is attached to childhood memories, but also feels kind of surreal and distorted. To me, it feels like it addresses the dichotomy between the Sarah I was, that I remember being, and the Sarah that I am trying to figure out today. It feels like a dream.
Any words of wisdom for budding painters out there?
Just paint a lot. One of the pieces of advice that most helped me in a slump, was that talent will only take you so far. Sure, talent is a gift, talent is unique, you may be the most talented person, you may think you have lost any talent you may have had, but talent is secondary to and useless without making a lot of paintings.