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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