Amy Sacksteder

Detroit, MI | by May 27, 2012

“Maps can be simple tools, comfortable in their familiar form. Or they can lead to different destinations: places turned upside down or inside out, territories riddled with marks understood only by their maker, realms connected more to the interior mind than to the exterior world.”


–The Map as Art:  Contemporary Artists Explore Cartography


In the most literal sense, a map is a utilitarian tool that helps us navigate from Point A to Point B.  Artists have long been using the language and imagery of mapping, from Jasper Johns to Jules de Balincourt, blurring boundaries, deleting or adding information, disturbing the map’s functionality, and confusing expectations.  Amy Sacksteder’s work contributes to this dialogue, however in a less literal fashion.  We do not always see obvious maps in Amy’s work and there is no Point A to begin with or Point B to end.  Furthermore, we get the sense when exploring Amy’s paintings that even if we knew how to get there (wherever there may be), we still may not arrive.

I first met Amy Sacksteder in the Fall of 2010 when I began teaching for the Art Department at Eastern Michigan University (Amy is an Associate Professor of Drawing, Painting and Foundations at Eastern Michigan). I became familiar with her work soon after at Royal Oak’s artist run gallery space Butter Projects.  Amy was participating in an exhibition called non-native, an invitational group show consisting of artists who were currently living in the Detroit area but did not grow up there.  Amy was born in Georgia but moved to Illinois at a very young age.  She received her MFA from Northern Illinois University in 2004 and has been teaching and living in Ypsilanti, MI since 2006. Her work in non-native is perhaps the most “map-like” work that I have seen.  Last Map (2010) consisted of 15 framed gouache paintings on paper, arranged in an irregular formation on the wall.  Landscape imagery, particularly of bodies of water, are readily apparent. However, parts of the drawings have been deleted with clean cuts, leaving behind white negative shapes that begin to mimic the shape of continents– creating a strange, absent land.

During my studio visit to Amy’s former studio in downtown Ypsilanti (she has since moved to a new, glorious studio space), it was clear that she maintains a rigorous studio practice.  Stacks of blank canvas squares awaited transcription and a large, in-process painting rested horizontally on a table.   The studio  itself was a mid-size loft space, with lots of windows letting in natural light.  At the time, Amy worked in two studio spaces, one above the hardware store for large oil paintings and one in her home for drawings.  Our conversation was comfortable and easy, more of a dialogue than a question and answer session.  She talked about her process, source materials and use of found objects.

Although Amy’s work is clearly rooted in painting, she also works with collage, drawing, installation and projections.   She begins each work with a digital projection of an image, often relating to a landscape, which is then explored, manipulated and changed through the painting process.

We spoke during our visit about deadlines and the both positive and problematic outcomes with them.  Amy mentioned that deadlines give her a goal for completion, which is positive, but the deadline can also prohibit her from taking risks and exploration (a problem bemoaned by many working artists, myself included).

Naturally, Amy’s most exciting works are the ones where it is clear that she is taking risks, where elements are hidden, rearranged and rediscovered.

Some of my favorite paintings of Amy’s (one of which is the large painting I saw in process in her studio) were recently shown in conjunction with the launch of PASSENGER, an exhibition space and soon to be residency program located in downtown Detroit.  PASSENGER’s first exhibition Lost and Found: Belief and Doubt in Contemporary Painting that was curated by Brian Barr, showcased 13 artists from around the country.   Two of Amy’s paintings were shown; one at PASSENGER’s temporary project space and another at The Museum of New Art Detroit’s annex space at The Russell Industrial Center.  The imagery in both paintings refers to water and islands from an aerial view.  The paintings are displayed vertically confusing the typical vantage point of the viewer, making us unsure of our relationship to these constructed images. (Are we looking down?  If so, how can we be standing on the ground? Or are we really still standing on the ground?  Where is gravity?)

In this age of easy information and phenomenal scientific developments, we sometimes forget that there are things that we don’t know, events that are inexplicable and mysterious despite attempts to figure them out—from the origins of our own existence to the lonely last words of the forever missing Amelia Earhart.

Occupying an aesthetic territory that can neither be defined as clearly representational nor abstract, Amy’s work pulls us between images we can recognize and marks that we cannot. She creates unexpected connections between highly rendered imagery coupled with spills of paint, bursts of volcanic ash, grass stains and delicate paper cut-outs.

In a statement about her recent work Amy writes, “I am attempting to reconcile vitality and mortality and their accompanying celebrations and mournings. I am interested in records and relics: of past events, of lived histories, of significant sites. Drawing from maps, artifacts, biographies, the landscape and natural imagery, I chart my connection to those who have gone before and to resonant places in my life. Using this visual language, I become personally connected with the histories of observational and landscape painting and field illustration, re-inventing the mapping and charting process to best relay my empathies and experiences.”

The result is a body of work that is both unsettling and lovely, a collage of disparate experiences, maps that reveal as much about being lost as being found.

After speaking for over an hour, we made our way to a coffee shop downstairs to chat about events in our daily lives.  Amy is an avid traveler and was about to take a road trip out west with her husband, Mark Dickson.  Although we did not discuss this in detail, it was clear that travelling and visiting new places greatly impacts Amy’s work, both in terms of the visual imagery of different locations and her experiences and relationships with those places.

Amy’s work has been exhibited internationally, in cities such as Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, San Francisco, Budapest, Hungary and Reykjavík, Iceland.  Amy’s work will be included in several forthcoming exhibitions in 2012, including two-person shows at 2739 Edwin (Hamtramck, MI), Gallery 249 (Dayton, OH), and the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts (Clinton Township, MI).  Amy will have a residency and a solo exhibition at Sheppard Fine Art Gallery, The University of Nevada (Reno, NV) in 2013.  More of Amy’s work can be viewed on her website

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  • Debra Wolford says:

    Amy, I truly was in awe after reading this article. I have always been moved( in many different ways) by your work, but now I realize just how dedicated you are. You are more than just my daughter in law, you are an amazing artist. I am so proud……… 2

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