If the young are the future, then 25-year-old rising artist Amelia Steely is setting a hell of a tone for the future of the American modern art scene. Brooklyn-based Steely hails from Dallas and has worked with the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, a large-scale contemporary art exhibit founded by renowned artist Donald Judd. Steely agreed to speak with me about her work in New York and her work with the Chinati Foundation – and how, though Steely no longer lives in the state, she has found her Texan roots impossible to shake off. Steely works primarily in wood, metal, paper, and fabric.
EM: Tell me about your work in Marfa – what led you to Marfa?
AS: It was a chance to get to know a part of Texas I’d always heard about. Growing up in Dallas, I knew the plains of North Texas, the woods of East Texas, Austin’s beautiful Hill Country, and subtropical Houston. I had never experienced the legendary Texas, like the kind Frederic Remington painted and the kind portrayed in Westerns. I wanted to know the Texas of cowboys and ranches and vast desert landscapes that the rest of the world has in their head. So aside from being an art destination, Marfa was firmly grounded in a part of Texas that I wanted to know. At first, I just wanted to visit Marfa, because I’d heard so much about it. Then I found out about Chinati’s internship program during my last semesters at Pratt, which happened to be 2008/2009. I thought this three month internship sounded like a great opportunity. Interns wear a lot of different hats at the Chinati Foundation, but the job I really loved was giving tours around the 340 acre complex. I really enjoy seeing a work of art over and over again, in different light, in different weather, in different moods. A piece of art takes on a completely different life once you’re as familiar with it as you are with your furniture at home. I also volunteered at Marfa Studio of Arts (MSA) and Studio in the Elementary School (SITES), assisting with after school art classes for a school district that has no funding for arts education. After my time at Chinati was up, I stayed an extra two weeks with SITES and taught bookmaking at all grade levels in their elementary school.
EM: Tell me about the art you completed while in Marfa.
AS: I came to Marfa with a trunk full of handmade paper and drawing supplies. I tore the paper down to postcard sized pieces and used that as my sketchbook. Rather than keeping them as a sketchbook, I then mailed them out free of charge to anyone that wanted them. I liked the freedom of the postcard format: Intimate scale, made quickly or over the course of a day. And I liked that they were subject to change by the process of mailing them: they got marked on and they could be bent or lost altogether.
EM: You are a native Texan. Tell me about how you made the transition from Texas to New York, and at such a young age.
AS: I moved to Brooklyn for college when I was 18. I knew I wanted to be in New York – It’s expensive to live here, but art is everywhere, it’s cheap to see, and it’s easily accessible. Living in New York was really difficult at first, but once I got stuck on the city, I really got stuck and I’ve spent most of the last 7 years here.
EM: Do you plan to return to Texas?
AS: I will definitely return to Texas. Maybe I won’t live there. But the art scene, the landscape, and the culture are all things I need. I need to see a horizon line every once in awhile, and that is just not possible in New York.
EM: How has your art been influenced by your Texan roots?
AS: It’s hard to know how my art has been influenced by my Texas roots. I’m stubborn as all hell! Maybe I got that from being Texan. I don’t think I could be an artist unless I was really determined to do it.
EM: What is your opinion of the art scene in Texas?
AS: The art scene in Texas is varied. From huge art donors in Dallas, Ft. Worth, and Houston, to galleries in Austin, to installation/roadside attractions like Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo or Prada Marfa – there’s art almost everywhere. Northpark Mall in Dallas is full of world class art, like Jonathan Borofsky’s Hammering Men. Those sculptures are exciting to see when you’re three feet tall! And I’ve watched them move around the museum my whole life. By spending my teenage years at a mall, I got the same experience wealthy art collectors get: I got to live with the art, see it change as my perspective changed, and become really familiar with it. Who else get’s that in their mall?
EM: Do you think Texas is a noteworthy subject in art?
AS: Of course … It’s stunningly beautiful. It has diverse cultures, endless social issues, and so many amazing people and places. Two interstates cross in Marfa, leaving you four ways out. Each direction lends you a totally different landscape. Toward Ft Davis you have these amazing segmented rocky cliffs. Toward Alpine and Big Bend National park there are gorgeous plains edged with mountains. Past Valentine is Sierra Blanca, an actual stark white mountain in golden desert. And then toward Mexico there are rolling green hills that look like Southern California. Something about the way the wind blows on the Rio Grande makes a lush little oasis just north of the border. Those right green hills are like nothing else in that region. Not to mention that Marfa is on a plateau in a basin, so the outskirts of town have amazing and vast views. At Chinati I had a favorite place to go where I could literally see so far that I could watch separate weather patterns move across the landscape. I’m not a good swimmer, but the desert is what I would imagine it feels like to be in the middle of the ocean. You can see everything around you in all directions and walking doesn’t get you closer to anything in particular. But you can see shadows of clouds moving over you and weather patterns you wouldn’t notice if there were buildings around. All that to say, if you’re a landscape painter, you’ve got it made in Texas. If not, you can find the inspiration and the solitude you’re looking for.
EM: Tell me about your current projects.
AS: My artwork revolves around architectural themes. I break down design elements of a space and reconstruct them in my paintings, so what you get in the end is an abstract painting that has a real connection to a certain place and time. I’m also interested in conveying my relationship to a space – like the rhythm with which I walk through a familiar space. Or if it’s from a childhood memory, I try to draw that space from a shorter perspective. If a dark event happened there, I will convey that.
EM: What is your (current) preferred medium?
AS: Today, I’m working on a watercolor. I have an experiment going in acrylic and resin recessed in a wooden panel. And I switch over to sketches while I wait for paint to dry. Looming over all that is an almost complete work in acrylic on paper that I’m stewing on.
EM: What social statements have you made in your art?
AS: I like to keep my social statements in my art a little ambiguous. Maybe the loudest I’ve gotten is making a series of layered drawings after film stills from violent movies. I’ll remove the action and just draw the surroundings. A big theme in my work is architecture as the silent purveyor and observer of daily life.
EM: What inspires you to begin a new piece?
AS: I get inspired by shapes, patterns I see in the city, ways that distant objects will line up with close ones. And I get a lot of inspiration from other artists. After seeing Yayoi Kusama’s show at the Whitney, I ran to the paint store and to get some reds so I could make paintings inspired by her early gouaches. And after seeing Alina Szapocznikow at MoMA, I got reinvigorated about self-portraits.
EM: What is your ideal working environment?
AS: My ideal working space would be large with a constant coffee supply. I have a hard time focusing on projects so I like to have several things going at once. I’ll often have a big project going and make quick unrelated sketches on the side, which requires either space or careful organizing. Right now I’ve got a 5 x 10 ft section of studio I share with a few other guys. They probably think I’m crazy! I’m always switching projects, leaving a painting for months at a time while I work on something else, then painting right over it.
EM: What have been your past working environments?
AS: I’ve had all sorts of studio set-ups in the past. At Pratt I had a locker. I would take over a whole studio at night and put things back by morning. My senior year I got a cubicle studio that I spent most of my time in. In Marfa, I appropriated an unfinished building by Donald Judd as my semi-outdoor studio. And I worked out of my tiny apartment for two years before finding the space I’m in now.
EM: What artists influence your work and your life as an artist?
AS: Anselm Kiefer really had an impact on me. He’s got two huge works at the Fort Worth Modern and they both floor me. He says so much without having to provide every last detail. It’s all there, and you don’t need to read someone’s dissertation to understand his work. You feel it when you see it. I also love Julie Mehretu’s layered paintings and Vija Celmins’ drawings and prints. As long as a work keeps me thinking, it will have an influence on me. If I think I understand it, I lose interest.
EM: What are your future plans/ambitions in your art?
AS: I’d like to scale it up. In the future, I want to be making installations and works scaled for public art.
EM: How would you classify your art?
AS: I don’t think it’s up to me to classify my art. I’d be digging my own grave.
Steely’s work is currently on display in Brooklyn at her alma mater, Pratt Institute, and on her website, www.ameliasteely.com.