Name: Amy Meissner
Location: Anchorage, Alaska, USA
You are a textile artist. But you weren’t always a textile artist. Career-wise, what were you before you became a textile artist?
This current career path is the culmination of everything I’ve done before: I have undergraduate degrees in both Art and Textiles, spent 12 years in the clothing industry doing everything from production cutting & sewing, to pattern making, to custom bridal design (mostly this last one). At 30, I went back to school (yes, your math is correct, I started in the fashion industry when I was 17) and got an MFA in Creative Writing, then I illustrated children’s books (13 total) on and off for 13 years. I had my first child 9 years ago. I say this last part, because having children was a game-changer for me and was the catalyst for exploring textiles as an art form. It was difficult for me to illustrate books (ironically) with the distraction of children, so I turned to the kind of work I could do with children right beside me. There are reasons why women historically worked with cloth and some of this has to do with being able to set the work down, tend to other matters, then pick the work back up again.
What has prompted your career changes? Was it the same thing every time?
Apparently I’m on a Dozen-Year Cycle, which, as a number on paper seems like a good chunk of time to do anything, but when faced with the need to look up and out and begin something new, a dozen years is a hell of a lot of work and training to just walk away from. I left the clothing industry for a billion reasons, one of which is that we relocated to Alaska in 2000, another is that I weighed about 105 pounds and had a migraine every day. In 2014 I received a substantial Artist Fellowship Award from the Rasmuson Foundation, which allowed me the time and freedom to dive into this new medium and put my illustration career on hold indefinitely. The end result was a solo show last June and a body of work that feels substantial and continues to be shown and/or sell. I can’t imagine I would have had the cajones to embark on this new path without that kind of support.
How did you come to choose Textile art instead of some other art form?
I started embroidering and crocheting when I was 6. I come from a Scandinavian background and this kind of work (it’s work) is such an integral part of that history and culture. I spent a lot of time in the fashion industry sucked into a pace and a lifestyle that often didn’t honor this work and I forgot why I started that career in the first place. It wasn’t until later when I realized I’d entered that industry because I loved to sew. I still do. It was the thing I missed most leaving that career. I hold that skill on a cellular level and to walk away from that forever wasn’t realistic. I needed a break, yes, but it was very natural to return to it, especially with small children. It is difficult to have publishing deadlines and watercolors and canvases drying all over the house with small curious people, but you can sit down with handwork, answer 5 million questions, and keep right on working.
There are obvious connections between haute couture wedding gowns and Textile art, but does your book writing and illustrating experience influence your current work? If so, how?
If the former training lends my hands the skill to do the work, the latter offers the ability to find the narrative voice, the distillation, the heart of each piece. I explore this combination heavily on my blog and writing about the work is an invaluable part of the process.
Practically speaking, how did you make the change from children’s book writing and illustrating to Textile art?
This was a slow process with a lot of overlap, so I can’t say I have practical advice on the matter. I also wouldn’t turn down the right illustration project should it come along (this means having the time to devote to it and feeling deeply drawn to the manuscript). More than anything, I just needed a break to explore something new. Art is a constant act of reinvention. If you don’t do this, your work stagnates.
Most of the Funk Files interviewees are young, in school or fresh out of it. What are the advantages and disadvantages of entering the field later in life?
Ahhh, to be fresh out of school. Yes, well, now I can spend the rest of the day feeling like a Grande Dame. Here’s the thing: I loved school. If I could be in school for the rest of my life, I would. I loved the discourse, the intensity, the community, the naivety. But I think entering anything later in life — writing, child-rearing, art, running, whatever — allows a person to apply their broader world view. Some days I call this “jadedness,” other days I call it “wisdom.” The most important thing is to temper any seasoned grumbling with curiosity, because if being jaded puts on the brakes, curiosity is the accelerator. When you stop being curious, it’s time to do something new.
What is the hardest part of your new career?
Balance. I have a family and a home and my studio is smack in the middle of it. In some ways this is great, in other ways it’s maddening. My children’s needs keep me from my work, but they also deeply inform it and I can’t do the work without their energy. Some days, I feel like I’m on a rack, but this is what forces me to work efficiently and drives production.
How do you envision your future?
There’s a lot of sunlight streaming through the windows, maybe a non-shedding cat or two, the children are excellent cooks and get along so well that everyone is laughing, there are no balled up socks on the floor, I spend a minimum of 8 hours a day in my studio and others feed me lovely food and bring me tea.
What would you say is the difference between someone who sews, quilts, and/or embroiders as a hobby and a textile artist?
This seems to be peeping into the realm of the difference between art and craft, but the use of the word “hobby” indicates that there is perhaps no income from the work, or that it’s done for pleasure alone — there are those who actively engage in craft, and those who engage in crafting, which two different acts. I recently read an essay by M. Anna Fariello (from the book Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art) that describes art and craft on a continuum with a sliding scale. She writes, “Art is imagination, with or without skill; craft is skill, with or without imagination. Studio Craft—the best term we have so far—identifies a particular point on this continuum, the place where imagination and vision meet skill and craftsmanship.” To create is to be human, so it doesn’t matter what the medium is, but for me personally, I’m always conscious of hitting that mark on the sliding scale where skill and imagination converge. Do I find pleasure in the work? Yes. Am I making an income? No. But is it my hobby? No. The lines are all blurred.
What advice would you give to someone on the hobby side who wants to make the leap to the artist side?
Design and make your own patterns, work in a sketchbook, explore and define your vision, mine your own history for narrative. Read theory. Diversify. Take risks. Refer to yourself as an artist and refer to your work as art. Call your art “work,” because it is. Aim for the point where skill and imagination converge.
Would you give different advice to students fresh out of school who are embarking on careers in Textile art?
Learn the business side of things. Social media counts as a tool, but if you can’t correspond eloquently with a gallery or potential buyer, or meet deadlines, or file your taxes, or write well enough to apply for grants, it doesn’t matter how many followers you have. Walk the walk.
Describe your dream commission request.
I would love to design an album cover. I’m not kidding.
What’s coming up for you, and where can we see more of your work?
This fall, my work is in Auburn, NY, at the Schweinfurth Art Center’s “Quilts=Art=Quilts” exhibition, and also in Poughkeepsie, NY, at the Barrett Art Center’s “New Directions” contemporary art exhibition. I have a solo show here in Anchorage this winter at Alaska Pacific University and fingers crossed for a few other juried shows in state and in the Lower 48 this winter. You can follow my work on Instagram — @amymeissnerartist and Facebook — Amy Meissner, Artist. And I blog at www.amymeissner.com/blog.
Rapid-fire Round: (Don’t think too hard about these.)
Favorite material to work with: Wool.
You must turn a song into a piece of Textile art. What song do you choose? Anything by Lana Del Rey. Did I mention I’d like to design an album cover?
If your art were cataloged with books, what genre or category (besides art) would it be? Memoir.
What motif would you choose to represent you and your life? The circle.
Your next piece must be a single color. What color do you choose? Black. No, red. No, black. No, wait…definitely red.
You’ve been selected to participate in a show that combines Textile art with performance art. Describe your piece for the show. Something gauzy and foggy and suspended, with scratchy parts and slippery edges. And probably some animal bones embedded somewhere.
You’re writing a novel. The main character is a textile artist. What is the plot problem s/he must overcome? How in the world will she make as much money as the male textile artists?
Favorite tool in your arsenal: Leather thimble(s).
You’ve been asked to create a textile-art balloon for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. What do you do? Laugh.
You can place a piece of your art anywhere in the world—any home, any museum, any anything. What piece will you choose or create, and where will you put it? An album cover for Lana Del Rey.
Amy Meissner, textile artist + album cover + Lana Del Rey = Perfect Fit, so I hope she’s paying attention.
Credit for all but the last photo goes to Brian Adams, Anchorage, Alaska.