CG: The name of this latest exhibition is “Creeping Through.” Where does that come from? What does that mean?
AC: I feel like the characters are creeping through the paintings, and I’m creeping through life.
CG: You really feel like you’re creeping through life?
CG: You were born in Erie, Pennsylvania, which is an industrial town, businesses, factories.
AC: A small city. It reminds me of a small Cleveland.
CG: Are you a city person?
AC: Yes! (laughs)
CG: What is it about the city that fascinates you, because it obviously influences your work.
AC: I think there’s an energy in the city which is different, which I’m attracted to. I like the loneliness of it.
CG: You like the loneliness of the city? Why? Do you like the anonymity of the city?
AC: There’s a quote by Walt Whitman. I never found it again, but it was in a documentary about New York. He was
talking about the electricity created when you walk by people you don’t know, the possible attractions and the possible
relationships that don’t happen, but could. I think that’s really interesting. I like looking at people.
CG: But when I look at your paintings, there aren’t any people.
AC: I don’t like painting people. I like looking at people.
CG: What’s wrong with painting people?
AC: For me, right now, when I paint a person, I feel like I’m looking at the painting, saying, well, this is painting of a girl --
if I painted myself -- this is a painting of a white, middle-class girl. Or these are poor people. These are old people. I just
don’t want to think of all those things when I look at what people do. I feel like you can’t escape that when you paint
CG: Do you object to paintings with people in them?
AC: No, no, not at all. I just object to my paintings with people in them.
CG: What about portraits?
AC: I’m not interested in trying to paint exact representations of a single person. I’m more interested in the things that
people do, less about the exact things that make up who they are.
CG: When you look at a portrait of somebody, how do you feel?
AC: It depends on who it is.
CG: I don’t mean the person but the fact that it is a portrait. In this newest body of work, there are no people. There are
creatures, there are beings, but there are no people. I’m wondering how you respond to looking at something like a
portrait which really focuses just on the person and not on the surroundings, not on the environment.
AC: I think that’s fine. I don’t have any problem with it. I think it’s just about something else. I worked at the Terra
Museum of American Art in Chicago for a year. They have some great folk portraits that I really love. There’s nothing
wrong with painting people. I’m just not interested in doing it.
CG: Have you ever painted people at all?
CG: Did it make you uncomfortable?
AC: No. It’s just not what I’m doing now. It’s not that I’m embracing one way of painting for the rest of my life. It’s just not
what I’m interested in now. I used to do all these paintings of old ladies. I painted old ladies all the time.
CG: Paintings of old ladies? Meaning what? Old ladies you knew?
AC: No, I didn’t know any old ladies. I think that’s why I painted them. I would see old ladies in my neighborhood, or I
would look at pictures of old ladies. I was just fascinated with the idea of old ladies and being an old lady.
CG: What about old ladies fascinated you?
AC: I think just the lack of them in my life.
CG: Do you paint what’s missing in your life?
AC: I used to. Sometimes I paint about what I’m missing. It’s like the figures -- some of them have holes in them. It’s
about having empty things and parts of you that are gone.
CG: About those figures: comparing the last exhibition [in 2002] to the work that I’ve seen now, they’ve taken on a more
prominent role. In the last exhibition, the figures, especially in the large paintings, the figures were much smaller, much,
CG: Much less significant. I mean, they were there, they were obviously there, but you had large expanses, you had a
lot more decorative elements. Now very often the figures are in the foreground or much, much larger.
CG: You really focus on these figures. Why the shift from small, more insignificant seeming element to a larger, almost
central element in the painting?
AC: I think I’ve shifted back and forth. If you’d seen my work before the last show, the figures were very central. There
was virtually no background. Or just color fields. Then I began to think, where do these characters exist? What’s their
world? Then they began to become about how small the characters were and how large the world was. Now I’m more
interested in once again examining the characters a little more. I think that space was really important in the other
CG: In the older work?
AC: Yes. It still is, but now I’m more interested in finding a balance between the space and the characters.
CG: In the previous exhibition, there was a lot of detail in the paintings. It must have taken you forever to paint. Did you
focus more on the background and then put the figure in, or did you have a figure that you wanted to put into a
background? What came first, background or figure?
AC: Always background. Even now, actually, I do the background first. Except for the three paintings with the large
figures. Even in the black and white paintings I’m doing now, I almost always do the landscapes first, and then, while I’m
painting the landscape, I get a feel of who lives there or what kind of things could happen there, and that comes in last.
Although in the old paintings I’d say that the figures appeared in the paintings in the same way that the details in the
CG: The landscapes you’re talking about were urban landscapes, but they did have those totally artificial decorative
elements that looked like wallpaper or fabric coming out of a sky or out of a wall. Where does that decorative element
AC: I don’t exactly recall why I started doing that, but it became a way to remind myself that they were imaginary places,
that they weren’t real places. I wasn’t trying to depict a scene in life even though it had elements of life. Now I want the
backgrounds, I want the landscapes -- they’re not really backgrounds -- to be very convincing so that people can
believe the figures that are in them. Whereas back with my older work I didn’t feel as much of a need for that. I feel the
figures I’m doing now are really not very convincing in themselves.
CG: What do you mean by convincing?
AC: I think they’re such weird little characters. I don’t want them to become cute toys. When you look at the painting, I
want you to say that it feels real, there's a gravity that makes the characters believable. I want to believe that those
figures have thoughts and feelings and lives.
CG: You mentioned that the figures have holes in them because of things they are lacking. Some of those holes really
look like bullet holes to me. Are they?
AC: Some of them are bullet holes.
AC: Yeah. Life is long, and you usually get hurt a few times in the process. It’s almost a trite metaphor for that.
CG: You say you don’t want the figures to look like cute toys. They are attractive, but then you’ve got that double-edged
sword. You put very nice, colorful fantasy figures in a somewhat threatening or questionable urban landscape, and then
you put a bullet hole or two or three or four through them.
AC: I guess to me the landscapes aren’t really that threatening. I find them kind of empty, and maybe that’s threatening
in a way. I could see how they might be perceived as threatening. I just take things from the world around me.
CG: In this recent body of work, if there are words on the signs, they are often cafes or bars. Here’s liquor, come get me!
AC: I think a lot of people center their life around that. I don’t know.
CG: In the middle of the urban landscape, factories, brick buildings, the place to find happiness is in the liquor store.
AC: I don’t know if I feel that. I think a lot of people find comfort in liquor stores. In my neighborhood for sure! I grew up
very much involved in bar life, because my father owned a bar and my grandfather owned a bar. I’m sure that’s part of it.
CG: Do you come from an artistic family?
AC: No one else, really. I wouldn’t say there’s any other artists in my family.
CG: Where does your interest in art come from?
AC: I have no idea. When I was growing up, we had a painting of a French prostitute in the living room. Maybe that’s
what spurred me on. My dad bought it when he was in the air force when he was very young. He was stationed in France
for a while and bought a painting of a woman standing on a corner of a seedy neighborhood. It looks a bit like a
prostitute to me, but maybe it’s just a lost woman.
CG: And your mom said fine?
AC: Well, you know, you choose your battles in life. That wasn’t one she chose.
CG: When did you discover that you had a talent for art, or when did you start pursuing your interest in art?
AC: When I was very young, I was convinced that I was going to be an artist.
CG: Very young means ... ?
AC: Like eight, seven or eight. And then I realized that people don’t make careers of art, normal people like me, so I
thought I’d be more realistic, and I wanted to be a writer, because that would be more practical. Around the time I was
fifteen, a really good teacher steered me into the School of Performing and Visual Arts in Erie. I’m not sure what’s going
on with it now, but at the time it was very focused and the students in it were very focused. My teacher, Ken Kopin, was
very focused on making you do the work. He forced me basically to apply to the Pennsylvania Governor’s School of the
Arts. They choose 60 artists from across the state who are 15 or 16 years old, and you have a summer of doing art.
That’s when I decided I would go into art.
CG: What motivated you?
AC: It was the people I met really. They just made me feel like the only life that was worthwhile living for me would be
involved in art somehow.
CG: Why painting instead of sculpture or collage?
AC: I’m so not a 3D person. I don’t really think in 3D. I worked for a florist for a year, and every time I was forced to make
an arrangement, my boss would come in and say, oh, it looks great from the front, but as soon as you turn it around, it
would just be awful. I guess I just think flat. I’ve always had a feel for painting more than anything else.
CG: Have you ever tried sculpture ...
CG: ... other than in a class.
AC: A little bit. A little bit. Most recently when I was figuring out the figures for these paintings I made them all. Originally
what I did was I traced all these figures that I used in older paintings, and then I traced another figure on top of them to
make a flat version of what these creatures would look like. Then when I tried to paint them in three dimensions I couldn’t
figure out in my head what they would look like. It was just too flat. So I then sat there with Sculpey making all these little
things because I couldn’t figure out how to paint them three dimensionally from looking at the two dimensional flat
painted version. That’s the only thing I’ve done recently that's sculptural. They look really gimpy, but they do their job.
CG: More often than not the figures are in profile or in silhouette. They aren’t shown from multiple angles. They’re
always looking either at each other or both in the same direction.
AC: I don’t know. I was just looking at my paintings the other day, and I realized I have this tendency to compose on little
diagonals. I don’t really notice it when I’m doing it. Maybe I’m limited by my intuitive approach to painting. Before I put in
the characters I don't really try every possible angle. I just do what feels right.
CG: The characters in your pictures look recognizable but aren’t. How do you come up with these combinations?
AC: I did about 200 overlay tracings. They’re little figurines I had. A lot of them I used in the old paintings. There’s a
giraffe, there’s pigs ...
CG: It looks like it’s a teddy bear, but it’s not. It looks like a bird ........
AC: It’s because I combine them with other things. Because they’re from figurines, they’re already gimpy. They’re not
really birds. They’re somebody’s version of a bird. They’re already not exactly a bird anyway. Then when you combine
them with something else, they become even less like birds.
CG: Why do you do that? Why do you remove them from the identity of, say, a pig? You used to have very recognizable
AC: Maybe it’s my reflection on suddenly becoming a pig painter.
CG: Pig painter?
AC: People go, oh, you’re the girl who paints the pigs. I have nothing against that in a sense, but the paintings are not
really about pigs. It’s not that I have a great love affair with pigs. I didn’t want it to be about birds, and pigs, and squirrels.
CG: Can you imagine your paintings not having these creatures at some point?
AC: Sure. They didn’t have them at one point, so at another point they’re probably likely not to have them again. That’s
just what’s walking through my paintings right now.
CG: Coming back to words or texts in your pictures, I notice that the word “Payne” -- as in the street here in Cleveland --
comes up frequently. The Payne Bar, the Payne Cafe....
AC: The Payne Cafe. I think I painted that place about 7 or 8 times. I’ve never been there.
CG: So it actually exists.
AC: It does exist.
CG: But somebody who is trying to interpret your work or doing a critical analysis of it is going to say, she didn’t choose
the name Payne by chance. Yes, it’s a street in Cleveland. Yes, it may be a real location. But Payne ...
AC: Payne is pain?
CG: Payne is pain! Why is Payne pain, Amy?
AC: There’s a lot of pain out there, I think.
CG: Are you trying to capture that pain?
AC: I don’t think my paintings are about pain, but it’s in there. What I do for most of my paintings is I just walk and travel
around the city, and I take pictures of things that strike me. I love the buildings.
CG: So you photograph neighborhoods?
AC: Yes. I have probably hundreds of photographs now, and yet I keep painting the same things over and over. And
then, after going through my photographs, a lot of times the things that attracted me to take the pictures aren’t always
the things that attract me anymore to do the painting. Maybe I take a picture because I like the building, and then I
become entranced by the phone wires or the signs or the words. But I don’t purposefully go out and think, oh, if I put this
little sign in here, it’ll give you a secret about what the painting is all about.
CG: But the Payne Cafe and liquor come up often. Is that perhaps harkening back to ...
AC: My childhood! (laughs)
CG: You mention your fascination with neighborhoods and buildings and phone wires. What is it that fascinates you
about that? It’s not necessarily a welcoming environment.
AC: And yet it’s the one we live in! (laughs)
CG: Not everybody.
AC: Well, it’s the one I live in.
CG: I know where you live. I’ve been to your house. You’ve got trees around there. You’ve got bushes around there.
You’ve got plants around there.
AC: I’ve got trees and bushes and plants in my paintings.
CG: Very few.
AC: In the black and white ones I do!
CG: But then you’ve made them black and white.
AC: I’ve made everything else black and white too.
CG: In the large paintings there’s very little greenery.
AC: Yes, that’s true. Maybe it’s just not as fun to paint as the factories and wires.
CG: Why is that?
AC: I don’t know that I’ve ever stopped to think about it. (laughs)
CG: What do you want people to take away from an exhibition of your work?
AC: It doesn't really matter to me what people walk away with, but it would be nice if people would look around them a bit
afterwards. The places I paint are threatening or lonely, but there’s just something really lovely about them, too. I really
appreciate the urban landscape. Although I think I do feel a little more threatened, and perhaps this is leaking into my
paintings. I was mugged a year ago in the urban landscape, in my neighborhood actually, while I was looking for
apartments. Now, when I go out, I do feel a little more paranoid and threatened than I used to. Maybe that’s part of the
paintings now. Maybe that’s why there are no trees to climb up and hide from things that go on. I’m a little less likely to
go out and run around the city like I used to. I don’t have a car. I end up riding the bus a lot or taking trains or walking,
and you just really get to immerse yourself in the landscape when you’re not zooming by it. Maybe that’s why I
appreciate the details in the landscape because I have to look while I’m walking through it.
CG: What about the bursts of color in your paintings? Or the decorative element?
AC: It exists. It’s something I’m acknowledging.
CG: Do you prefer the color or the black and white?
AC: I don’t really have a preference. It’s a very different experience to do the two different paintings. The black and white
is very small and you can sit with some on your lap. I hate to say this, but it’s almost soothing to me, like doing a
crossword puzzle. I like painting that way. It’s almost entertaining. I have a different relationship with them. A lot of the
larger paintings, especially the ones with the larger figures, I’m really struggling with a lot, just in the painting of them.
CG: A couple of the larger paintings are taken directly from the smaller black and whites.
AC: Actually it’s the other way around. Those were first.
CG: Really? The larger ones were first?
AC: They were first. When I was in the Vermont Studio Center I started on those three and I had the figures in there.
They didn’t look quite like they do now, but the set-up was exactly the same. I came to a point where I didn’t know what
to do with them. When I was in Vermont I was working from the blank prototype figures before I did the little figurines.
Originally all the figures were completely flat, blank and white. But it wasn’t working for me. I didn’t know what to do. I was
very frustrated with them. They were just so big and ugly. I just couldn’t take it anymore. So I stopped working on them,
and I started working on the small things to try to think about what to do with the large ones. The set-up in the black and
white ones was taken from the larger ones. After I finished the black and white ones, I went back to the large ones and
CG: I wouldn’t describe the creatures as ugly.
AC: You should have seen the paintings a few months ago. (laughs) I was just struggling with how I wanted to represent
them. How much detail I wanted, if I wanted them to be one color, how much I wanted to go into them. I paint the
landscape with so much detail. I felt if I made the figures that way too, it would be too much. At one point to me in my
mind they were pretty ugly. Although personally I still don’t know how good looking they are.
CG: They’re beautiful but intriguing because they have these holes in them. You think, are those bullet holes? Yes, they
are, and then you think, whoa!
AC: Originally when I was painting them -- a lot of times I’m a very listy person, so I’ll write down things I want to work on
-- I would always write them down as gunshots. I only call one “gunshots” now. Not every single hole in every single
creature is about violence.
CG: Are there any artists whose work you really like?
AC: I’m so out of date. I don’t know that much about what’s going on right now.
CG: Either dead or alive.
AC: The people who have made me very excited about painting in the past, I know when I worked at the Terra I got the
chance to see a lot of Bill Traylor. He’s a outsider artist. He painted a lot of figures and little barnyard animals. I think you
might like him. His work is really something. I also saw a lot of Henry Darger.
CG: Why him?
AC: Why am I attracted to him? The paintings look so good!
AC: They’re just so intriguing. They look so digestible, and then when you get a little closer, they feel undigestible.
CG: Do you feel that way about your own work? When you look at it, it looks digestible, but the more you study it, the
less digestible it is.
AC: Some of them. Other than that I like Albert Pinkham Ryder. I like Tom Friedman. I like Stuart Davis. I’m also intrigued
by people who do work and aren’t known in their lifetime. How can you not be intrigued by that? Just being in the art
world today, the idea of making work for yourself and no particular art audience has always interested me.
CG: Why do you make work? Do you make it for yourself or do you ever think of your audience?
AC: I’m not unaware of the viewer, but it’s not that important to me while I’m painting. I think I would still paint if I didn’t
have shows. I’m not like the “Lust for Life” version of Van Gogh: “I have to paint!” But it’s almost a habit now.
CG: Painting is a habit?
CG: Do you paint regularly? Do you have a routine?
AC: I wouldn’t say I have a routine, but I always paint, even if it’s only a little bit, even if it’s just looking at the world. A lot
of times when I look at the world, I look at the world in terms of making painting.
CG: But you don’t make the painting for the world.
AC: No, not really.
CG: When you make a painting, you make it for yourself.
AC: Yeah, pretty much.
CG: Have you ever painted for someone else?
AC: With disastrous results!
CG: Really? How? Why?
AC: They’re just really bad. (laughs)
CG: What motivates you? What encourages you to paint?
AC: Just looking at the world. I see things and think how I’d love to paint that. Usually when I want to paint something, I
just do. Some things I mentally file for the future.
CG: Do you identify with your creatures?
AC: Absolutely. Very much so.
CG: Do you feel you have holes through you?
AC: Yes, I do, but maybe not quite so literally.
CG: As an artist, obviously you look, you see. It’s a visual medium. And yet these creatures have closed eyes or no
AC: (laughs) I guess I see them as a little bit dreamy, sometimes like they’re sleepwalking. I think a lot of people are
sleepwalking, myself included.
CG: Is this a danger?
CG: Do you hope to reverse that with your work?
AC: To wake people up? I don’t have any expectations. I make observations, and whatever people want to take from
that, they’re welcome to take it.
CG: How do you respond to critics writing about your work? Do you read it?
AC: Sure. I send it to my mom. Sometimes the inaccuracies make you say, wow! It doesn’t really bother me. So far most
of the public criticism I’ve gotten has been very kind. I don’t mind criticism.
CG: When people get it wrong, do you set them right?
AC: I feel really uncomfortable with having too many of my words out there. Honestly I don’t think of paintings in words. I’
m not one of those people who plans out what I’m going to paint and has some kind of grand manifesto statement. I
admire people who can think that way, but I don’t think that way. Adding my afterthoughts to the soup in the end,
sometimes it’s just overkill. I'd rather the work speak for itself.
CG: What do you think about the artist engaging in the type of dialog we’re engaging in now, the interview? Do you
object to that?
AC: I don’t object to it. I think that a lot of times being put on the spot you’ll say something that maybe next week you
would have a different opinion on. It’s interesting but it’s scary. I don’t come armed with notes, and I’m a bit scattered in
my thinking. Put under the gun I don’t always remember all my ideas properly.
CG: How are we to understand Amy Casey?
AC: (laughs) Life is beautiful.
CG: Is that what you want us to take away from your work?
AC: Sure. Life is hard, and life is lonely, and life is difficult, and life is beautiful. That’s all I know.
|Interview © Amy Casey and Christian-Albrecht Gollub
Paintings © Amy Casey
|The conversation between Amy Casey and Christian-Albrecht Gollub
took place in Lakewood, Ohio, USA, on September 29, 2004.
This interview was first published in the catalog issued to accompany the exhibition
"Creeping Through" at the Dead Horse Gallery in Lakewood, Ohio, October 8 - 30, 2004.
in conversation with
was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1976. She received her early training
at the School of the Performing and Visual Arts
and the Pennsylvania Governor’s School of the Arts (both in Erie)
and the Yale Summer School of Art and Music (Norfolk, Connecticut).
In 1999 she received a B.F.A. with a major in painting
from the Cleveland Institute of Art.
Her work has been exhibited in numerous solo and group exhibitions
from Rhode Island to Illinois to California.
She is the recipient of many awards, honors, and prizes,
including the Ellen Battell Stoeckel Fellowship
at the Yale Summer School of Art and Music;
the 2001 Juror’s Award at the Erie Art Museum 78th Annual Spring Show;
and the 2003 Juror’s Award at the Erie Art Museum 80th Annual Spring Show.
With a full fellowship award, she completed a one-month artist residency
at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont, in 2003.
She currently lives in Cleveland, Ohio.
|Complications, Acrylic on Canvas, 2002, 47" x 46.5"
|Stroll, Acrylic on Canvas, 2004, 30" x 31.5"
|to read christian gollub's essay about amy casey, click here.