GUEST 25 | The Art of Improv with Amanda Smith


Amanda Smith

on The Art of Improv

Our guest this week is Amanda Smith is a painter who has also recently begun working with quilts and textiles. Smith earned her MFA from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and her BA from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA. She has exhibited and lectured nationally and internationally, with exhibitions in New York, Kansas City, Houston, the Twin Cities, Miami and Seattle, and Chile. She was a visiting artist at Temple University, Rome, Italy, and has been an artist-in-residence at Fljótstunga in Iceland, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, Arrowmont Pentaculum, Art 342 in Fort Collins, with upcoming residencies at Monson Arts in Maine and Est-Nord-Est in Quebec. Her current exhibition, Limbo Thicket is on view at Watkins Gallery, Winona State University on Winona, MN through March 8. Her quilted work that she shares with us here, is part of a series she calls past lives. She sees quilts as objects built for time travel, as they are commonly passed from generation to generation while maintaining relevancy as objects of visual pleasure and tactile comfort. She also describes these works as creating retrospective heirlooms that mark and become evidence of the time spent making, revisiting her intuitive vision.  The textile paintings, in this series are compressed packages of thoughts and questions, offering a series of choices, source inspirations, and relationships that were arrived at over a length of time, but presented to a viewer all-at-once.    

Do make sure you take a look at her website,  you will get lost, and not be disappointed! Read on!  We are so lucky to get her perspective. 

Past Lives No. 4   Amanda Smith

Past Lives No. 4 Amanda Smith

What does working improvisationally mean to you?  How would you define the ‘Art of Improv’?

Working improvisationally requires an attitude of openness and responsiveness. Cultivating the conditions to turn that attitude into something productive, generative, and sustaining is how improvisation intersects with art. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately--the difference between improvisation and impulse. I don’t think improvisation is just making choices spontaneously or on a whim, but rather more of a scaffolding for surprise.

Have you always worked improvisationally?

I’m a painter who has started exploring painting outside of itself, recently through quilting and textiles. Incorporating improvisation as a significant part of my process is something very new to me. Until fairly recently, I would develop fairly clear compositional plans before beginning my paintings. In the past year I have begun working in textiles, and thinking about my painting ideas through quilting has helped me establish a balance between decision-making and process, a balance that has eased me into trusting improvisation as a larger part of my practice.   

Past Lives No. 6   Amanda Smith

Past Lives No. 6 Amanda Smith

Do you work improvisationally, consciously, intentionally?  If so, how do you begin?  If not, how do you find yourself getting there?

It really depends on the materials and associated process that I am using, but often my way into improvisation is to start with something that is very predetermined or straightforward. Inevitably, I will get bored with the straightforward thing, and look for ways to complicate it, deconstruct it, merge it with other things, undermine it, or make it weird.

The series of quilt works that I made in 2018 all started in response to a single painting that I made about 8 years ago. I felt compelled to reflect on my life at that time and now, and this painting has a quality of openness and unresolve that continues to feel exploratory but specific. I’m not interested in making that same painting over and over, but rather in starting from the same spot again and again to see how I navigate from it differently each time.       

Please share a bit about your process.  Do you have methods to getting started?  Do you have tricks to getting unstuck?  Do you have motivators to finishing up?

 When I get stuck, the only thing that tends to get me unstuck are big, dramatic changes.

For example, the first 2 works I finished in 2019 are these stuffed “raft” or “cushion” forms, and both of these started as one 90” square quilt. The quilt top was probably my most involved piecing project to date, and I quilted it with the intention to paint on it while I was at the Arrowmont Pentaculum residency in January. Once I got to Tennessee and started painting on it...well, it went south pretty quickly! The pattern I had pieced together was just too busy to serve as a space that I could add to. It was frustrating and disheartening to see all of that effort fail, but I chopped the quilt into quadrants, disassembled the layers of the quilt, and worked with the sections as textile to mix with other components. Doing this then led me to push the work into a 3D space to help balance the optical overload of the pattern. I’m really excited about this new direction, and I don’t think I would have explored it without that initial failure.

Past Life Raft   Amanda Smith

Past Life Raft Amanda Smith

Where do you find inspiration?  How do you use it?

As someone who works and thinks in collage-like manner, I find inspiration in many, many different places--films, architecture, wordplay, quilts, design, print material, travel, landscape, swimming, climate, podcasts--the list goes on and on. I don’t know that the specific sources of inspiration are ultimately that important to the end result or interpretation of my work. I am more interested in the conditions of all of these inspirations sharing space in a composition, especially if they are sources that might seem to be formally or conceptually irreconcilable.

 What advice would you give to someone interested in trying to work improvisationally.  Can you share some good advice that you received that helped you become more comfortable this way?

I’ve heard several anecdotes about advice from artist Elizabeth King, and they’ve resonated with me as I work more improvisationally: “Process saves us from the poverty of our intent,” and “make more, think less.” Improvisation allows us to think through our materials, and develops a strong sense of intuition.  I’ve felt this particularly as I work to translate painting ideas into a material that does not behave like paint.

Thank you Amanda, for sharing your work and your process with improvisation. I love your idea that improv is the ‘scaffolding of surprise’, I too see it as a building component to the overall process of art making. I find it so interesting that in your way through being blocked is to make a dramatic change. I have often heard that it is important to keep your beginner’s mentality as a tool to aid artistic exploration and progress. Your story of your project at Arrowmount reminded me of some of my own experiences, being new to quilting and finally have the courage to cut up and reassemble what’s not working. I think this takes real courage to experiment with something that you have put so much time into, so BRAVA and congrats on following your intuition!

You can find more about Amanda and her work, on her website, and on Instagram. Enjoy!

If you would like to be featured on The Art of Improv please contact me!  I would love to hear how improvisation impacts your art making process.