Many of us scour books, magazines, and various online resources for new inspiration; new artists to follow, to study, to collect. This obsession creeps into your life even if you do not notice at first. As a gallery owner / curator I tend to do this everyday…sometimes to the dismay of those wishing to discuss things other than art. This describes my place in the world well. Just throw in a cat, an insatiable lust for coffee, a sailor-like affinity for the sea and a crippling obsession with collecting fabric and old objects.
However, being an artist that is a partner at a small gallery has granted me the privilege of meeting well-known and lesser-known artists that create accessible art in a number of different mediums. With this blog I will share an array of treasures I have found lying in the folds of the internet, in other small galleries / retail spaces and within the pages of various periodicals.
One such treasure is the art of Amanda Louise Spayd (but Amanda herself is pretty fantastic as well). I came across her work one evening, canvassing Chicago’s numerous gallery openings. I noticed upon arriving a small “family” of tattered eerie rabbits in the window. They appeared to have embarked on a long and tiring journey from their home–covered in stains, worn, holding little working lanterns. When I returned home I immediately searched for Amanda’s name online, found her on Facebook and promptly messaged her. We became fast friends (and shared an eerily similar photo of a childhood Halloween costume). I have since had the honor of showing along side her and displaying her work at my gallery space. But, if you are not familiar with Amanda’s work, let me rectify that problem.
I asked Amanda: How do you describe your work to someone that has never seen it?
Antique stuffed toys with impish, unsettling sculpted faces. Calico taxidermy with human teeth and staring eyes. Remnants of a childhood that never was.
How did you get your start making sculptural / plush pieces?
I actually started dabbling in the plush/sculpture arena many years ago, before Etsy; before the big craft-boom. It was all very primitive, and I used wool felt because it didn’t fray, and I stitched the entire thing by hand. From the very first one I made, I used paint and ink to stain the living daylights out of it, so it looked old and rotted. I’ve never stopped doing that.
One of the most wonderful things about being an artist is that if you want a world to exist, you can create it. I don’t really feel much of an affinity toward a lot of modern design. I find it far too clean. I like to get dirty with natural materials, wood, cotton, wool, ink—everything washed in a slight haze of grime and sepia-tone. I really just make what I like, and what I would gravitate toward. I imagine some kind of history where these things were either made or somehow lived—a world like our own but different enough to accommodate pre-20th century design and the eternal reverence of the natural world. That’s where they live. In some basement or attic, eating dead bugs and discarded scraps, thriving on the detritus of a populace that generally overlooks them, save for an insightful and special few.
Describe your creative process, how you start a new piece and when you feel you have a finished work?
I go shopping! I am an avid antiques-shopper, and I like to have all sorts of things on hand—fabrics, feed bags, scraps of fur, keys, bottles, all kinds of things. My studio is overflowing with random objects and materials. It’s a bit cluttery at times, but it’s comforting to know that all I need to do when I’m stuck for ideas is just root around in drawers and boxes, and I’ll probably come up with something right for the job. I get a lot of inspiration from objects themselves, and how they can be used/worn/interacted with by the creatures I make. The right fabric can spur all sorts of ideas. I even use old tools when I work—everything I make is sewn on a hand-cranked sewing machine from the mid 1920s.
I’m also very much into color and texture, and sometimes entire bodies of work are dictated by color combinations. I used to work in the graphic design/social expressions industry, and I think my obsession with color and subtleties thereof is a remnant of that. Also I’m not ashamed to admit I subscribe to Martha Stewart Living.
To me, the work is finished when it is “alive.” By that, I mean that it has a real, unique sense of emotion to it, and also that enough layers of faux dirt are built up on it that it looks believably old and weathered. But it’s really about the emotion – I’m creating these little characters who, even though they are fundamentally similar, all have their own personalities. I’m limited in how much I can determine that personality as well. I can guide them into a type of look but they always surprise me with something. It’s a very uncontrolled and organic process. The mood I’m in when I’m sculpting can change the subtle shape of the mouth, or how the eyes are set in the face. The fabric used on the bodies can completely alter the final shape of the creature once it’s stuffed, which can determine overall weight and posture. There’s this kind of 80/20 ratio of controlled to random, and I love that because there’s a little surprise when they’re done and I get to “meet” them for the first time.
What would be your dream project?
Honestly, I’m just working toward projects that will get my work in front of lots of people—not in the sense that I want fame and fortune, but more for the connection it makes. I know there are a lot more people out there who like the same things that I do, and feel that strange nostalgia for a faraway history that isn’t theirs. I want to connect with those people, wherever they are. I really do feel that making those connections with people is the best reward. It makes me incredibly happy and grateful when somebody tells me that what I do brings them joy, so I suppose I just want more of that! I have “practical” goals as well. I’d love to work on the set/props for some kind of film or stage play. I grew up in a very theater-centric household, and I’m always thinking of how great it would be if I could see my creatures move!
What artists do you admire / draw inspiration from?
When I was a kid, my head was filled with Jim Henson. Like any kid growing up in the 80s I certainly liked my cartoons as well, but there was always really something about tangible, actual objects that could be touched. Puppets, props, sets. Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, etc. There’s something really pure and real about a dimensional character actually moving in space. When I was in high school, I wrote a term paper on the history of stop-motion animation. That opened the floodgates—Jiri Trnka, Jan Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay, etc. All amazing worlds that I just couldn’t believe existed. This was all pre-internet takeover, so it had that added mystery of all being ordered from Europe on VHS via a distributor, from some ad in the back of an animation magazine. Exciting stuff.
What place do you believe plush and toys have in the art world?
This is a hard question for me because I’m still trying to figure out my own place in the art world! I feel like I sit someplace between plush, art dolls, and sculpture…but my work doesn’t necessarily fit in with most of the other work represented in those categories. It’s exciting to do something somewhat unique, but it makes it a little more difficult to figure out where you fit in.
I will admit that I have some definite opinions when it comes to the meshing of the art/toy world. It’s this strange mix of art and retail, and whenever those two cross, there are going to be some issues. One one hand, I really enjoy the innovation and creativity that collectible vinyl represents, also the way it can bring together professional artists and hobby art enthusiasts and designers alike. It can introduce people to artists that they might never otherwise come into contact with, and I think that is really great. What I find distressing is to see production vinyl sold (and bought) at prices that many well-known artists sell some originals for. I mean, yes, they were all designed by an artist at some point, but they were produced in an overseas factory and never once touched by the artists’ hands, yet sell for an exorbitant amount because of a small number produced, or because it is a special colorway. And collectors buy them because they are passionate about collecting the pieces. Collectors in this market have such a passion for the art and toys they collect, it’s really amazing. But as artists and designers, we should take care not to abuse that passion.
I think the hybrid art/retail stores are a really perfect setting for plush and toys. A stuffed ear of corn with a face can be in the same place as paintings, sculpture, and customized toys, and it seems perfectly natural. I think that type of location is a great reflection of the toy/art scene as a whole. It’s both a great appreciation for original art pieces and the artists who create them, but also an unabashed joy in collecting and discovering toys as well.
When you’re not creating toothed beasties, what else do you like to do?
I don’t have much free time, unfortunately. My life is pretty much split in half, with one half being my art making, the other half running Squeaky Queen Laboratory, which is a soap and perfume company that I started about 8 years ago. I’m very smell-centric, and fascinated by the role of scent in culture. I read a lot of books about scent compounds and essential oils and perfumery, and do quite a lot of blending and experimentation with those types of materials. As I said before, I’m a real antiques nut, and am fortunate to live in a rather rural area where there is no shortage of stores selling old rotting objects. I spend time adding to, and maintaining my collections—my husband and I have built up a rather sizable display of pre-1950 medical and scientific objects, some as early as the 1880s. Two of our prize pieces are a 19th century cast-iron dental drill with a treadle and a leather belt, as well as a human pelvis that sits atop our living room bookcase. That bookcase is stuffed with so many other things too—preserved insects and butterflies, haggard old taxidermy, bones, and tons of antique glass medicine bottles. I often wonder what the neighbors actually think of us.
Any new projects on the horizon?
Yes! I’m finding new ways to use the sculpted faces. I’m going to be releasing hand-painted brooches in early 2011, as well as some new limited edition handmades. I’m part of some great group shows next year too, that I’m excited about. The coming year is pretty wide-open for me, and I’m looking forward to experimenting with new materials and ideas. But one thing you can definitely count on is the creation of many new stuffed creatures!
Lana Crooks loves the antique, the creepy, the cute and the mysterious. She began her artistic life as an illustrator but became a sculptor of fabrics and found objects. She constructs all kinds of creatures (commonly those from the deepest oceans but even the ones from under your bed). These cuddly monstrosities have been spied at places such as: Munky King, Rivet, Rotofugi, G1988 and Art Basel. Lana has frequently been spotted teaming up with other artists to help create the monsters within their heads. She has also partnered with the OhNo!Doom collective and operates a gallery in Chicago, IL. But, on an average day, you can find her at the studio surrounded by model ships, books, skulls, faux fur, glass eyes, a menagerie of stuffed friends and a cat named Tanuki.