Interview with Artist Amber Jean Young

Viewing Amber's work transports me. All at once, I am lifted out of the buzzing hustle of New York City that I've chosen as my home and returned to the more peaceful and basic elements of what at first seems to be another world. Quickly though, the geometric shapes of blue and peach and green I recognize as earth tones, and coupled with the fabric of the piece, remind me there is a home quite different from this city. It's one I've visited before - one that envelopes you and frees you at the same time. It's a world we all share - sky and land and trees - but sometimes we don't see it, sometimes we miss it. When you learn about Amber's upbringing and the place she called home - an epic undeveloped California landscape - it's clear where she draws her inspiration from, and you feel a gratitude for her creations, for her generosity in sharing that home with us through her work.    

You talk about your upbringing and specifically the physical geography and landscape that has influenced the content of your work - what other elements from your upbringing motivate you to create?

My parents are musicians, and I was raised in an environment that very much fostered and encouraged creativity. I was painting and drawing from a very young age and just never stopped making artwork. Throughout my life I have had an interest in landscape imagery because the land I spent a lot of my life on is so striking and epic. To get to the house you drive for ages through redwood forests only to turn a corner and have the forest open up to a panoramic view of vast mountains and a valley of open fields, pockets of redwood forests and, if it is a clear day, the ocean on the horizon. I’ve been looking at it for thirty years and it is still breathtaking. The house is down in the valley and is surrounded by yellow or green fields and hillsides and massive open skies. Because so much of the land out there is undeveloped, everything, even as an adult, feels huge and amazing.

Your work incorporates several distinct processes from photography to printing to quilting and textile work to installation - can you talk about each of these processes, what you like best, what you might dislike, and how you zeroed in on this cumulative process to execute your final pieces?

Sure, I can tell you a few things about how the work comes together. All the photos I use are either taken on the rural property I grew up on about an hour south of San Francisco, which is the inspiration for a lot of my work, or they are taken from other Northern California locations in my life. For example, most of the sky images in recent work were shot in Berkeley, where I live. There is a fair amount of time spent cooking up ideas and trying things out. Sometimes I design patterns ahead of time, and sometimes I cut the fabric first and try out possible compositions with the physical pieces of fabric. Physically constructing the work, including cutting fabrics apart and sewing them together is my favorite part of the process, even if it can get tedious at times. Waiting for fabric to arrive from the printer is probably my least favorite part of the process. Like waiting for anything, it feels like it takes an eternity. When it comes to the installation work, I feel like I am just at the beginning of those experiments. I plan to push those inquires farther and perhaps delve into more overtly sculptural work again.

When did you first identify as an artist?

I always identified as an artist. I was really lucky to find something I love really early on, and everyone in my life encouraged and reinforced my identity as an artist. For me, being an artist is in my bones. Making artwork has always been my main interest, what I excelled at, and I can’t think of a time when that wasn’t the case. Even if my practice was less developed than it is now, I was still better at and more interested in making things than I was at doing anything else.

Can you tell us about your social practice project Community Quilt?

Sure. I love this project. Community Quilt brings people of all skill levels together to work on a quilt designated for a charity or non-profit for fundraising. The first quilt we made went to Root Division, an art and art education non-profit, for their annual Art Auction Fundraiser in 2015, and they will receive a second quilt for this year’s 2016 Art Auction as well. I am always looking out for good causes to donate to. I would love to donate a quilt to a family in need. Participants each design a 12.5”x12.5” block for the quilt using fabrics provided or brought along by participants. If they are interested in hand sewing or adding stitching they are welcome to do that. If they prefer that I sew down their design I am happy to do that as well. There is no pre-set design. The design is completely open ended and decided upon by the participant. That means we end up with some wild blocks and a very unique completed quilt. I like to say that Community Quilt is low a pressure and high spontaneity collective activity. It is a fun project because it brings people together and encourages a cross pollinating of ideas, and a general excitement about seeing what you and your neighbor are coming up with. I’ve noticed that people really respond when given a lot of freedom to create something, and everyone has been excited about the charitable aspect so far.

Community Quilt II, 2016 (Front)

Community Quilt II, 2016 (Back)

What other mediums have you worked with? What is the significance for you in working with fabric?

Over the years I have had the opportunity to try out a lot of mediums. Like I said, I never stopped making things, so that gave me a lot of time to try things out. In undergrad, I experimented with wood and metal sculpture. Learning how to use those tools was interesting, but I mostly focused on oil painting, which remained my focus through my first year of graduate school. In 2009, I felt that I wasn’t communicating well with paint anymore - I began exploring yarns, fibers, and fabrics, making sculpture and 2D work. I started quilting in 2013.

Fabric is interesting to me because it can reference many subjects depending on the fabric choice and context. A lot of my work has been sentimental or cathartic, and I chose fabrics that lent themselves to those themes. My interests have changed over time, but I have found working with fabric consistently rewarding. As my practice has progressed, I have thought a lot about fabric and quilt-making in terms of taking an image and fabric apart in order to rearrange it and construct something new. I like the physicality of taking something apart and using those pieces to rebuild. I think the building part is why I tend to think of quilts as sculptural objects. Quilts are interesting because they are utilitarian objects, but can also hang on the wall as art. Either way, you have to construct them.

The Drive In Floods Through Me, 2014, 42.25"60.25"

If you could collaborate with another creator - dead or alive - who would it be and why?

It just so happens that my friend Anna Valdez, a wonderful Bay Area painter, and I recently discussed a collaboration. She paints striking, colorful, often large-scale still life paintings of home items such as books, textiles, and potted plants. Her paintings are really distinctive and engaging. I am looking forward to seeing what we cook up together.  

Cathy Fairbanks, who is based in LA, makes great work in a variety of mediums. I just saw some of her ceramic busts at Royal Nonesuch Gallery in Oakland and was reminded how much I love her work. She also makes really interesting work with fabrics like expelled airbags and does performance work too. I think she would be interesting to work with and I would learn a lot, for sure.

Shift, and It Broke Away, 2014, 43"x41"

Who are three women you look up to creatively? In general?

I have always really admired Louise Bourgeois. I am interested in her story even more than her art in a lot of cases, but I love that she broke into parts of the art world that were generally not accessible to women at the time, and that she was a prolific maker very late in life.

Patti Smith is someone I think a lot of women admire, especially after Just Kids came out. I think she is really something. I’ve been fortunate enough to cross paths with her a couple of times. Every time we meet, I leave those interactions thinking she is such a thoughtful, kind person.

My grandma Helen was not an artist, but she was a force. When I think about strong, no nonsense women, she comes to mind every time. I tend to find excuses to tell people about her. Kind of like now.

Do you ever feel uninspired? What do you do when that happens?

Definitely. I experience burn out occasionally, especially if I feel like the work isn’t turning out the way I want it to, or I just completed a big project and need to recharge. My method of dealing with this is to give myself a couple of days or a week off, but then go back to the studio whether I feel inspired or not. For me, staying in the habit of showing up to the studio and being in the physical space for art-making, regardless if I feel ready to make work, is really important. Even if I just walk around the studio thinking, that is me showing up for my job.

We'll Take Black Snake Path To The Other Side, 2014, 29.5"x49.5"

What does feminism mean to you?

Feminism to me is the belief that men and women should be treated equally in society and under the law. Women should not be objectified or infantilized just because they are women. To me, it is extremely important that feminism is intersectional and includes women of color and the LGBT community, otherwise it is exclusionary, which I find unacceptable. Feminism is about combating patriarchy in our society that reinforces the notion that women need to be guided through their lives by men. Everything from anti-abortion state legislation attempting to strip women of their autonomy, to the fight for equal pay for equal work, to street harassment, and everything in between is why we need feminism.