Amy Masters has been an artist all her life. Formally trained as a painter and printmaker, she pursued a degree in Interior Design at the Parsons School of Design, and worked as a draftsman for an engineering firm in New York City, before dedicating herself exclusively to painting and drawing. For over two decades, she taught in the New York City’s public school system, and spent her summers painting and drawing the world around. Moving to the Catskills in 2006, she was suddenly given far more space and limitless opportunities for inspiration. Amy likes to think about her work as being inspired by the natural world and the actual objects and vistas around her studios. But she likes to re-arrange and re-envision the landscape in the abstract. What is important to an abstract painter, says Amy, is the relationship between colors, lines and shapes, and the complexities of pattern and texture that emerge at the end of the process.
I spoke with Amy in her studio in Arkville, New York, earlier this summer.
Simona David: Amy, let’s talk a bit about your training.
Amy Masters: As an undergraduate student, I was a studio art major at Ohio State University in Athens, Ohio. I mostly studied painting and drawing. Then I wanted to come back to New York, and went to Sarah and Lawrence College in Westchester. I studied for about three years under Ansei Uchima, a phenomenal printmaker. And then I started my life, just working different jobs. I ended up working with my dad, who was an engineer. I worked as a draftsman, drawing plans – that was before computers. And then I went back to school and studied interior design. For a while I worked in an architecture firm, doing architectural design – I thought that was kind of a creative job. That’s where I met my husband, Ted Sheridan, who is an architect. All the while I was still painting; I had a couple of shows in the City. Fast forward, I went into teaching, and continued to paint, mostly throughout the summer, when I had time off from school. When I moved to the Catskills, ten years ago, I got all this space to work, and that’s when I feel like I got really serious about it.
SD: Do you think that moving to the country has helped your career as an artist?
AM: Absolutely. The environment informs my work. My work has always been about the place where I am.
SD: I’m reading a book What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy. Ultimately Tolstoy defines art as the transmission of an emotion felt by the artist, and calls it an infectious phenomenon. What moves you, as an artist?
AM: That changes. As an artist of course you’d like to think that your work has improved over time. You get better, just because you’re doing it: the muscles get stronger, you get more confident, the dexterity improves, everything. But going back to just what moves you, I think that has changed dramatically for me. The things that I’m drawn to now I wasn’t drawn to before. And I see things in other artworks that teach me something new or move me in some way I didn’t think possible.
SD: Where do you start a new project?
AM: That’s a really good question, because I do feel like I get onto something and I can’t stop. Sometimes it would be just the strangest thing. For instance, the feather print series – I don’t know where I first got the idea of this feather. There is something about the object itself, it’s very fluid. And I was thinking how unique, how individual each feather is, and that resonated with the process. Each time you make a print, it’s completely different.
SD: Let’s take a closer look at this series.
AM: There are different versions. Some are just monotypes, one-time prints, made with a soy based ink that I was experimenting with. I took a printmaking class in the City – an etching class, and had access to all sorts of equipment there, and began to explore what I could do with an etching. I made hard ground etchings where you just draw on a plate, and then etch it in a bath. I’ve also made actual impressions of feathers: you lay the feather onto the copper plate, it picks up the image, and then you remove the object, and etch it, and that’s what you get. It’s an amazing process.
SD: What kind of paper do you use?
AM: Some are done on rice paper, others on printing paper. A lot of the etching is done on printing paper.
SD: I see other types of prints in your collection.
AM: I was doing etchings, and just couldn’t stop. And from there I thought, oh, I could do other botanicals. And the leafy quality of the feathers made me think of roots. So I started doing a root series. From there I don’t know how I got into these.
SD: Bird nests?
AM: Yes. Keeping with the botanic idea, I started to do the nests. And inspired by the nests, I started doing a new kind of monotype: wiped monotypes. I would start with a plate full of ink; and then it’s more of a reductive process. I like these two images together. One reminded me of the sky at night – the galaxy; and the other one is a nest.
SD: What an unexpected association! Especially if you see them from a distance.
AM: Yes, I like that. From doing these, I got into this wiping process. I use a reverse surface roll. With an etching you push the ink into the etch line. With the surface roll, it’s reverse: it’s like a relief process, when you’re just keeping the ink on the surface, and you don’t want it to go into the etch line. It’s tricky. But you get a different kind of image. It’s interesting to try it a couple of different ways. For the past year or so I’ve only been doing prints – learning the medium, and the limitations of it. With printmaking there really aren’t any limits: you can do tremendous things.
SD: Let’s talk about your paintings. You’ve been a painter your entire life. Abstract painter. I know that your approach has changed over time, especially after moving to the country. How about your color palette?
AM: My palette changes a lot. I get into a color palette, and I work on it until I feel like I exhausted all the possibilities. Late last summer I did a series of white paintings. I don’t know how I got into this subtle palette, but I just wanted things to be very peaceful. I was looking for a way to convey that. I like to use a little bit of red, because it makes everything else look so much calmer. Generally, I like a limited palette. One reason I’m attracted to prints is their limited palette. Then you have to think about other things like the image, and the composition.
SD: What do these paintings represent?
AM: These are trees. It’s the landscape.
SD: I’m just wondering how you name your paintings. As an abstract painter, if you name your paintings in a fashion that doesn’t really give people any hint of what they’re looking at, I imagine it makes the whole experience more intriguing.
AM: The naming of work is a really curious thing to me. Sometimes it’s very obvious, other times more mysterious. For instance, some of the feather work I’ve done began to look very fossil-like to me. I began to name them “Fossil I,” Fossil II,” etc. They kind of look like something that was left in a stone.
SD: Let’s talk a bit about the artistic process.
AM: It’s always an idea that I start with. For instance, there is this orchard on the Thruway. In the winter all the trees look like big hands, and fingers. I wanted to pursue that idea for a while: the idea of these finger-like trees. I got distracted by printmaking, and were put aside for now.
SD: How do you know when a painting is done?
AM: It’s such an elusive thing. I guess when there is nothing more you can bring to it. You don’t want to overwork it.
SD: Talk about your transition to country life.
AM: I really struggled in the City. We have a very small apartment, so it’s very hard to set up things. I had periods when I had a lot of materials in the studio, and painted a lot. Printing, on the other hand, is very portable, I would just bring it back and forth with me. I could print all winter in the City.
SD: How has your daily routine changed after moving to the country?
AM: In the past few years it’s become really important to spend a few hours daily in the studio. Even if I’m not producing a new piece of work, it’s really important that I commit to spending time in the studio. I could be cleaning, or doing research, or just doing anything to be in this space. I like a book called Rituals – it’s about artists’ daily routines. It maps out what everybody does. For instance, some writers would take walks and think. I like to get up early, and garden for a bit, and then come in the studio and work six – seven hours. I try to get a swim in there, if I can.
SD: Who are your influences?
AM: I love Turner. Bonnard was an early influence of mine, for his colors. I like Morandi, an Italian painter of the early 20th century. Morandi is a painter who uses a very limited palette. I adore his still life bottles. You can really feel the artist’s presence in all his work.
SD: Looking back at all the work you’ve done as a painter and printmaker, is there any piece in particular that you can call your favorite work?
AM: It’s a painting called “Rocks in the Pool.” It was painted on an island in Maine. I think it’s my favorite, because it’s me – I think this painting really is me as a painter. The colors reflect what I was seeing. It’s a magical place that I like to remember. I struggled a bit, because I’m not a realist painter. But I just wanted to paint what I was seeing.
SD: What’s your next project?
AM: I think I’ll do more beet roots.
To learn more about Amy, visit her website at http://www.amymasters.com/.
© 2016 Simona David