Amanda Burnham, http://amandaburnham.com/home.html
Amanda Burnham considers herself to be a perpetual renderer; these drawings sometimes remain in their original format, but often become large, immersive installations that reference pop culture, architecture, and signage. Most of the work in her studio, and many of her installations, are made with ink and watercolor. Amanda is a graduate of both Yale (MFA) and Harvard (BFA). She is currently Associate Professor and Foundations Coordinator for the Art+Design, Art History, and Art Education department at Towson University. Recently, she completed a collaboration with Laure Drogoul in the bathroom (yes, the bathroom) at School 33 and she has a solo show opening at VisArts in May.
When I started graduate school in 2008 at Towson University, Amanda was new faculty. She had arrived one year prior and graciously guided me and my peers while serving on our graduate committees, amongst her other roles for the department. Amanda invited me to her home studio in early February where we talked about urban environments, sports, and her need for a studio practice that is connected to the outside world.
Where did you grow up?
Toledo, Ohio. In terms of art making I would say that growing up there definitely impacts the fact that I look at cities the way that I do. Toledo is quintessentially Midwestern. It’s flat and sprawling, with farmland and strip malls, but also very industrial in places. I read somewhere that Toledo is one of the top test markets nationally for chain restaurants, and as a result has more restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the country. I think I’m very attuned to stuff like the weird, shaped signs at places like chain businesses and strip malls because of seeing all of this as I grew up.
I am also really taken with the opposite- when I moved to the east coast for the first time for school, moving to Boston, I had never been farther east than maybe Pittsburgh. My preexisting idea of the East Coast was informed by how it was depicted in television shows. When I first saw Boston and New York (and eventually Baltimore) first hand, I was so enamored of all the ways those cities were different from the Midwest – spaces that were dense, dynamic, and mixed use, where a lot of space is shared, and neighbors weren’t a thing you mostly avoided or ignored.
What is the driving force behind your work?
Drawing- I really believe in that sense that drawing is an ethic- I have bought into an idea that it isn’t even about what you make, but how you filter the world. It’s about the attention you pay to the world and how you think about that, it is a way of understanding the world around me. It is a process that as an ethic that is really useful and it’s something I wish everyone did all the time. It’s a way of knowing. The common thread is drawing; It’s always the process that I come to. It’s a way of putting things together and filtering. It has been useful to me in a lot of different ways. It ends up becoming a part of the installation work because I draw a lot and then there are things that keep bubbling up and then they become the things I end up using. Word bubbles have become a thing for me – and signs.
What is your biggest struggle in the studio?
Finding the balance- I love my job, it’s amazing and in a lot of ways it feeds my studio practice. After graduate critiques I find myself with so many thoughts and ideas and it’s such a rich experience. It feeds into what I do outside of teaching but it is exhausting. The temptation to come home and watch tv is very real and that is the big struggle. Just coming in the studio and starting is hard- the home studio gets obstacles out of the way and makes it a little easier to work. I get really antsy in the studio- if I feel locked in, I feel the need to want to get out. This has a lot to do with the nature of my work though; I always want that outside stimulus. I like to hear traffic and people, it helps me to not feel confined and there is more to respond to. It’s comforting for me to hear noise.
Put the following terms in order of importance to your studio practice: Form, Concept, Process
I would say that I start with process, because drawing is such a big part of my work. Concept, and then form.
Was there ever a time when you felt like you couldn’t keep making work? If so, what helped you to keep going?
Definitely, I am really particular with many things in my life. I really have to be in the mood to make work. My life has to be right; there have been times when I just had to adjust to being somewhere. When I first moved to Baltimore I was depressed and it took me a while to want to do anything. There were too many things in disarray. Work is a great thing to do when things are settled because it gives me something to focus on, but that is still hard to do. I think everyone has the impression that everyone else has it all figured out or that you are the only one that doesn’t know what’s going on. The thing I have learned to get through the moments of disequilibrium is to just do what you can. Sometimes what you can do is just cut paper, or drawing while watching tv. Just find a way to make something happen and follow that until things change again. There are times for all different kinds of labor.
Do you have any routines, rituals, or coping mechanisms that you use regularly in your studio practice?
Routines, for sure. If I have a full studio day, which I can usually get twice a week, or more in the summer, I keep to a pretty particular schedule. Set an alarm, wake up, go downstairs, make coffee, feed the cats, turn on the radio. It’s a banal sequence but it really has to happen or my day hasn’t started. I don’t like to just wake up and start working; I end up feeling disconnected. I don’t want to feel too separate from the world. Whether it is a studio day or not, these routines things really set the table for me. It’s not remarkable but it’s essential.
Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of your studio practice that help keep you sane?
I feel like I have too many! This is what makes me feel like a bad artist sometimes. I love to do things outside of studio practice. I like to run, which is such a good way of observing things. Actually, in that way, it is a part of my studio practice. I don’t run with music, I like to hear and see weird things; it’s like being a tourist in your own city.
I love sports; I am a product of my upbringing. I love competitions, I love going to football and baseball games. When the Olympics are on I freak out. I love to read about sports; I have fantasy football teams. I like to travel and read and write. I don’t write for any external purpose but I love doing it, just for myself. My husband and I like games; we have a lot of game nights, and we do bar trivia regularly. (Our team has made it to the citywide championships, though we’ve never won!)
Do you think the Internet is helping or hurting us as artists and people?
I think it both helps a lot and hurts a lot. Currently I think I come down more on the “it hurts” side, but by a narrow margin. There are many amazing things about it and many horrific things about it — on the whole the shitty things edge the great things. It’s so hard to not be distracted.
I grew up with lots of TVs around, and as result I am weirdly comforted by the constant buzz of TV, but it doesn’t demand as much as the Internet. The Internet always compels you to do something with it; TV doesn’t demand that, it can just be on in the background. I feel strongly that there is a certain subset of people, of which we are both a part, who were significantly impacted by the fact that the internet didn’t start to happen until we were almost adults, but still young enough that we could pick it up and feel native to it. Having both sides of that is a very strange perspective.
If we could go back to a pre-cell phone age I would take that. I think the democratizing aspect of the internet is amazing, and access to information is amazing, and we learn so much, but I just hate that I wake up in the morning and at all times feel like I need to deal with my phone.
I can’t get it out of my head; I am either falling prey to the urge to look at it or I am thinking about how I am tempted but am not looking. It is like being on a diet – there is so much guilt! Maybe it is better for people that have always had the internet, because they don’t feel that guilt. I would probably also give a different answer on a different day but where I am right now is not feeling great about it all.
Is there anything you would like to promote? Upcoming exhibitions, projects, passions?
In May I have a solo show opening VisArts in Rockville. I have been working on some books lately, including Rage Faces which can be found at Printed Matter and locally at Atomic Books. I made the drawings for this book while on a residency in China over the summer. I was really distracted by politics; it’s all drawings of people at Trump rallies.
Conversation between Amanda Burnham and Amy Boone-McCreesh
Purchase Amanda’s work to support Baltimore Youth Arts here