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Q&A with Award Winner Amanda Nicholas

"Burrow Hill," lithography crayon on Yupo paper, by Amanda Nicholas. (Click for full size.)
“Burrow Hill,” lithography crayon on Yupo paper, by Amanda Nicholas. (Click for full size.)

Drawn to the piece by its emotional content, interesting line, and “wealth of mark-making,” juror Trace Miller selected the drawing above, Burrow Hill, for best in show in this month’s all-media exhibit. The artist, Amanda Nicholas, a new Art League member, drew it en plein air using lithography crayon on Yupo paper.

Amanda usually works outdoors, visiting a place several times and drawing over a period of time and multiple perspectives. She told us more about her creative process, Burrow Hill, and how she captures “the bones and essence of a place” by drawing perceptually and not following compositional rules — it’s all in our Q&A, below. You can see Burrow Hill and the rest of this month’s exhibit in person through February 4.

You’re a new member here — how did you find The Art League, and what was it like to enter your first show?
I actually found The Art League years ago — I worked as an intern for Summer Art Camp in 2007 and 2008, then as a teacher in 2009. Following that summer, I moved to North Carolina for grad school, and didn’t move back until this past November. I remembered the Art League and wanted to get connected to an artist community here, so I thought it would be a good place to start!

This was actually the second show I’ve entered here — in the first one I didn’t get in at all! So getting in this month and receiving best in show — I’m just ecstatic.

Why do you work in lithography crayon, and how did you get started drawing in that medium?
Lithography crayon was a happy accident. I took a lithography class in grad school, and experimented for a while with transfers, hoping that I could draw my subjects plein air and then transfer those drawings to the stone. The actual transfers were a bust, but the process (drawing with lithography crayon on paper coated with matte medium) was great! I was really fascinated with the lithography crayon — it dissolves in water, but is oil based. This meant that by dipping the crayon in water, I could get incredibly fluid lines (not the usual grainy crayon look). I could also use water to dissolve marks or tint it to create washes. When I’m not using coated papers, I like Yupo paper. The toothless surface allows the crayon to glide beautifully; no water necessary. I enjoy the black tone — it’s warmer and richer than charcoal — and like the way the marks sit on the surface; there’s a great immediacy to them, like they’re coming off the page.

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What other media do you work in?
I’ve experimented with a variety of media, but have worked mostly with drawing media (charcoal, pastel, graphite), collage, monotype, ink, and acrylic.

You drew Burrow Hill on a trail in Greensboro, North Carolina. Can you tell us a little about the story behind the drawing and its title?
The spot where that drawing took place is on a bluff overlooking Lake Townsend. The trail was very hilly, going down into low, muddy areas and then back up again. At this particular spot the tree line stopped and the ground flattened out, transitioning to thick brush and open sky … it looked like the perfect place for rabbits or birds of prey. One day as I was taking a break from drawing and looking around, I noticed the ground to the left of me was moving. A small patch of soil was being lifted up a good half inch, then it would drop into place again. The same thing happened again a few inches to the right, and so on in a progressing line. Something was tunneling under there! I got up to investigate, watching the earth move but unable to see the creature underneath. I was delighted. How often do you get to say, “A mole tunneled by my easel today”? Eventually I stepped too close and the movement stopped; I’m pretty sure it heard me and went back down its tunnel. This spot was the highest point of the whole trail (bi-planes used to buzz over me as I worked), and I thought it funny that this creature was tunneling and yet up so high. I named the drawing Burrow Hill after that experience.

What role do the woods and animals play in your work?
Both are important! I actually choose my drawing sites based on whether or not I think wildlife might be found there. I naturally drift to areas where there are wildlife, because those places feel more welcoming, natural, active, and private. Over the course of a drawing, the sites become a sort of refuge, as I observe the space, its various functions, and the subtle and unexpected activity occurring within it. It’s always funny to pick a site and come back the next day and see that a deer scat on it, or the spot you’ve been drawing for a week is now littered with bunny fur (a sign that last night something found dinner!). A lot of times I’ll be drawing when all of a sudden I hear a loud snort, and look up to see a doe huffing and bobbing her head at me, perturbed that I’m sitting in the middle of her usual trail. Other times I’ve seen foxes, raccoons, bald eagles, blue herons, snakes, snapping turtles … It’s amazing what I get to observe, just sitting and drawing. I think my drawings become richer, because of those experiences.

Detail from "Burrow Hill" by Amanda Nicholas. (Click for full size.)
Detail from “Burrow Hill” by Amanda Nicholas. (Click for full size.)

What is your artistic and creative process like? Where do you find ideas, and where and when do you work?
Most of my work is plein air, which involves working entirely on site and returning several times, in varying conditions. Visiting a place repeatedly allows me to gain insight into its function and growth that I wouldn’t be able to glean working from a photograph. These insights help me to forge a personal relationship with each place. The aim of the work is to describe this relationship, and to give the subject of each drawing the sense of having been experienced over time.

I like to embrace the accidental and experimental in my work, because it keeps things fresh and unexpected.  I’m interested in basic elements like structure and line, but try not to make assumptions about the places I’m looking for, because a lot of times I’ll stumble upon poignant configurations I didn’t expect. My work tends to swing between intense, highly detailed investigations (drawings) and looser, more abstracted works (collages, monotypes). Switching up the media and method of working keeps the process engaging; when works start to feel businesslike or repetitive, I know it’s time to change something.

I find ideas by exploring my environment wherever I’m living. I’ve worked in many different places — public trails, neighborhood fields, a golf course … it’s rare that I have a state park or wildlife refuge nearby, so I look for woods and wildlife close to home. I’m always amazed by the amount of wildlife — even in very urban areas.

Visiting a place repeatedly allows me to gain insight into its function and growth that I wouldn’t be able to glean working from a photograph.

I generally work from afternoon right up until sunset — knowing your light is going to disappear on you makes for good motivation! I’m not terribly picky about weather or time of day, because I prioritize structure, not value. I want to communicate a feeling of time passing, and I think rendering the exact light in a specific moment would go against that. A site’s color and mood can change greatly depending on the weather, seasonal light, and time of day. I’m not interested in tackling all that — I’m more interested in the bones and essence of a place.

How do you translate your personal and emotional experience of a landscape onto the paper?
One way that I translate my personal experience to paper is by drawing perceptually.

Perceptual drawing requires an awareness of how the human eye sees, as opposed to how the camera sees. I work by sitting on a tarp on the ground, so perspective becomes very important as I describe elements extending away from and towards me. I often turn my head when I’m looking around, so within the drawing I compress multiple perspectives — looking down, looking across, and looking up, into one picture plane to give the viewer the sensation of looking in multiple directions while sitting in the same place. Additionally, when I look at my surroundings, I donʼt restrict my focus to any certain distance. My eyes flit from strange branches 30 feet above, to a bank 200 feet on the left, to a leaf two feet away, and next to a stand of trees 50 feet in to the right. There is no depth hierarchy, and I do not proceed from one depth of focus to the next with any preset order; my eye is seeking out the interesting, no matter where it sits in space. I translate this into drawing by creating focal points in all depths of field, rendering areas I find interesting, and leaving uninteresting areas next to them more open and ambiguous. In this way I encourage the viewerʼs eye to meander through the work in the same way mine did through the actual space.

I communicate the emotional significance of these places through mark-making and my use of black and white media. The time spent in drawing an environment entails the occurrence of multiple encounters and memories within that space, and the drawings become a visual accumulation of those experiences. Each mark represents a search — an emotional investment — and my emotional reaction to the place can be felt in the gesture and expressiveness of my line. Similarly, by ignoring color and fleeting shifts in light, I can concentrate on experiencing the physicality and structure of a place over a period of time. The mood cast by the black and white and the expressiveness of the marks gives the work a feeling of enduring, quiet activity.

Why don’t you plan out your compositions ahead of time?
Because I don’t want to dictate what I’m seeing. I want to allow my eyes to meander and progress through the space instead of immediately cropping it according to a first impression or compositional rules. Preconceived notions make it hard to see. This might sound like a huge risk, but for me, not knowing exactly what the final drawing will look like makes me investigate each element that much closer. It’s a manner of looking that says, “Okay, the success of the whole is not going to be my first focus — my first priority is to draw this branch, as best I can, and then that limb next to it, and so on.” While I’m drawing over an extended time, plants are growing, trees fall over, and the place doesn’t look the way it did when I first sat down. It’s important for me to accept that and take that in stride, rather than constantly feel the need to go back and “fix” what I’ve already done, or stay true to a configuration that no longer exists! If the drawing evolves and the structural composition isn’t doing enough to lead the eye, mark-making and contrast can lead the eye in its place. It might provide a challenge, but I’ve never had to abandon a composition because of this method, and it’s ultimately truer to my visual experience of the site.

Preconceived notions make it hard to see.

What would you like the viewer to come away with?
A genuine, sincere experience of place.

Where do you see your work going next, or what are you working on now?
Right now I’m collaging trace monotypes. I started experimenting with them this summer during an artist residency at Pocosin Arts in Columbia, NC. I was working on a drawing by Albemarle Sound, and boy, was the foliage dense! I remember missing a week of drawing due to rain and bad storms, and when I came back to the site, the plants had all grown half a foot! Stuff like that was constantly happening – there was a particular stand of cattails that never held still. Trying to capture it all led the rendering to become so tight that it got really intense – I needed a break. So I started some new experiments with trace monotypes, which I hadn’t tried before. Essentially, the idea is to ink a glass palette, put a piece of paper face down, and then draw on the back. The pressure from the drawing tool causes the ink to transfer to the paper, resulting in a print with a distinct drawing quality. I did it with paper scraps, tearing sheets of paper into various shapes, placing them on the ink, and then drawing on the backs from memory. Pulling prints by the dozens, I then laid out the scraps and proceeded to collage. As I put pieces together I found myself making sense of the spaces based on places I’d been before — the scenes were entirely new, but felt familiar, as if from the same region. After working so long plein air, I’m intrigued by this more memory-based, open-to-interpretation method of working. It’s kind of like a memory dump for my brain! The collage is really tactile and brings with it a different sort of problem solving … I’m hooked. I see my work continuing in this vein for a while, but I know I’m not done with lithography crayon. Eventually the prints and collages won’t feel specific enough, and I’ll get the itch to draw again.

Click here to visit Amanda Nicholas’ website.


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