By Sam Trevino
On a windy November afternoon in Allston, Massachusetts, I met with artist Amanda Atkins for an interview. I first became acquainted with Amanda when we were attending the Art Institute of Boston—and living in the same poorly-lit dorm. Now in her mid-twenties, Amanda is an educator and an artist living in Boston with a flair for both the old-fashioned and the whimsical. Crafting her stylized portraits is a personal and introspective labor of love, fueled by inspirations, influences, and an extremely intimate vision. Amanda and I caught up over coffee as she shared her process.
Sam Trevino: Is artwork your main means of earning a living?
Amanda Atkins: Actually no. There was a time when it was: I was working retail, just really struggling to get by, [and] working really hard to make art my primary career. But in the past few years, I’ve gotten really involved in teaching and working with kids. I have really kind of fallen in love with it. So…now it’s like I have two jobs! They kind of ebb and flow into each other, and the kids are really inspirational in terms of making artwork. It’s been really fun.
ST: When did you first start making art?
AA: As a child. When I was little—and even still today—my two biggest loves were animals and pictures, and I thought that I would either be an artist or a veterinarian when I grew up.
ST: If you had to pick one animal as your all-time favorite, what would it be?
AA: Well this answer is kind of boring and generic, but I love dogs. I grew up with dogs, and they are such wonderful creatures and I think they’ll always be my favorite.
ST: Don’t you have a cat right now named Unicorn?
AA: (laughs) That’s my roommate’s cat. I love Unicorn very much though. I actually grew up with both dogs and cats, and I have a cat that still lives with my mom and dad who I’ve had for 21 years. Her name is Tiger and we have a very special connection.
ST: Other than animals, what else influences your art?
AA: Since I was 11 I’ve had a really big fascination with the 1940s and 1950s. It’s impacted every aspect of my life, but most especially my art.
ST: Back in college you would often focus on famous historical figures as the subjects of your drawings, a lot of famous authors…
AA: (laughs) Yes! I [also] love Matte Stephens, a painter who works in an illustrative, 1960s-esque style. His color palettes are beautiful and his art is so fun. I love paintings that are kind of mysterious, and I’m inspired by people making their own businesses in a grassroots way.
ST: Going through the work on your website I was reminded a little of Portland-based artist Carson Ellis.
AA: Yeah, I love her work, how everything is sepia-toned and old fashioned, how she tells little stories with her work. She’s an amazing artist who definitely evokes a certain world.
AA: I did; I did a children's book which was also in collaboration with Write Bloody Publishing. It was really fun. Derrick Brown wrote it and I got to do some cool illustrations of whales and the ocean and nautical things, so that was very fun.
ST: What’s it called?
AA: It’s called I Looooove You Whale (laughs).
ST: How was your experience working and collaborating with Derrick Brown on that project, and contributing your work to Write Bloody in general?
AA: Oh I love Write Bloody Publishing. Even before I did work for them I was a fan of Amber Tamblyn, the actress, and she worked with them a lot in terms of her poetry and that’s how I discovered them. I got really into their books, and I always loved their cover art, so when Derrick emailed me to do the cover for Karen Finneyfrock’s book [Ceremony For The Choking Ghost] I was over the moon excited, so I’ve been lucky to have been a part of everything that they do.
ST: I mentioned already that subjects of your portraits are often actual historical figures—like Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf. At least as often, it's also women who seem fictitious and fantastical, like the tattooed lady on the cover of Ceremony For The Choking Ghost. Are strong female subjects a consciously planned theme in your work?
AA: Yes. I definitely want to paint women that speak to other women especially, and I’m really honored every time a women buys one of my paintings and tells me what it means to them. I love hearing the different meanings that other women derive from the paintings. They’re definitely often fictitious, but they all have different feelings when I’m painting them and I’ll have a different idea of what the girl I’m painting is like while I’m painting her. I like them to represent different strengths.
ST: Could you expand on that? What are some of the different strengths you've imagined for each of your paintings?
AA: Empathy, courageousness, adventurousness, and sensitivity to the world. These are all things I admire in other people, and I just like to try to capture them in the paintings of the women I do.
ST: Do you start out with a clear idea of what each of your characters, each of your paintings, represent?
AA: Sometimes I’ll start and have a solid idea of the painting before going in, and then the evolution is very minimal. But sometimes that changes while I’m working on one, and I feel a little detached from these characters, like it’s just something that "wants" to be created. I don’t always feel like I have full control over it, and I see what happens when I’m drawing. It’s sort of a dialog between the work and seeing what happens.
ST: Do your characters all have names in your head?
AA: Well the paintings themselves have titles, which I guess are kind of poetic. They can be a little wordy I guess, but I love titling the paintings to indicate how I was feeling when I painted the ladies, but I don’t really give them giant backstories. I feel like I have an idea in my head of what’s going on with them, but I kind of like to keep them free and not weigh them down with too many connotations. They’re pretty open for the viewer’s ideas.
ST: In your portraits, the figures are very stylized and all seem to have expressive eyes and drastic features, with elegant, elongated necks. Where does that choice come from?
AA: I honestly don’t know…I think it signifies a sort of ballerina-esque beauty that, for some reason, I want all my ladies to have.
All rights reserved to Amanda Atkins.