The playful art of Amy Wendland
An interview with the local artist and FLC professor
Amy Wendland peeks through one of her Mechanical Model sculptures at the Fort Lewis College gallery on Tuesday./Photo by Todd Newcomer

by Jules Masterjohn

American artist Alexander Calder created sculptures known as kinetic art, and the term "mobile" was coined to describe his most popular works: shaped planes of color dangling playfully overhead in space, their subtle motions stimulated by air currents from viewer's movements below. Lesser known is "Calder Circus," a miniature reproduction of an actual circus fabricated from common materials like wire and wood. The creation is a hybrid of a performance, game and toy. Another creator in the realm of kinetic art is Paul Spooner, a contemporary English artist who designs and makes moving sculpture called "automata." These mechanical, toy-like sculptures require the interaction of a viewer to power their movements and, often, the sculptures exhibit humor and/or political commentary.

The qualities of viewer participation, play and humor are dominant aspects in the work of Amy Wendland, Durango artist and Fort Lewis College professor. Humor, especially, holds an important place in her art and life. Her wit was apparently inherited from her father, who in a gesture of parental concern informed her that there was "no genetic basis for her artistic talent." Despite his loving caution, Wendland pursued art diligently, through two graduate degrees and seven years as a commercial artist to today's tenure-track professorship in the FLC Art Department. Acknowledging the important role that wit plays in her work, Wendland admits she is "delighted" when viewers find her work "amusing, creepy, attractive or thought provoking." Sipping coffee from a cup that reads "Don't Drink and Draw," we shared a conversation about the art-filled life.

JM: Amy, you had an exhibit last year that displayed small, rolling sculptures that you called "pull toys." I was most attracted to the piece with human teeth embedded in its highly finished wooden chassis. Why human teeth, and from whose mouth did they come?

AW: The teeth are my sisters' and mine - they're on extended loan from the tooth fairy. They have no particular significance other than the fact that human teeth are completely inappropriate for a dainty little toy. The other two pieces in that series feature hair and bone respectively - little reliquary toys.

JM: What inspired the incorporation of nature-made artifacts into the small sculptures?

AW: Everything inspires. There's a cabinet in my studio with 25 small drawers. I have mango pits, dried worms (you know, the ones on the sidewalks after it rains), gears, Spanish moss, lead type, plastic farm animals, false teeth, cello strings, raw pigments and catalpa pods. Since the home studio is now also the guest bedroom I have relabeled the drawers to say things like "fragile organic collage" instead of "dead beetles."

JM: Your most recent body of work, "Mechanical Models: Studies for Toys," in the current FLC faculty exhibit, has no naturally found materials incorporated in them. Their aesthetics seem to come more directly from a mechanistic aesthetic. What is a consistent theme throughout your work?

AW: Movement and rich surface textures.I like to touch art, and that's a big no-no, so I make my art to be touched. Almost all of my work relies on the viewer doing something to it to make the piece complete.My sculptures spin, roll, wobble and pop, and they always feel good. This need to know things with my hands most likely comes from generations of peasant blood.

JM: As I was interacting with the pieces in the gallery I had a sense that each "model" described a specific emotional state. One piece was particularly provocative for me as I turned the tiny hand crank around to motivate the blue, top-heavy lever to wobble and thump up and down. It reminded me of the feeling of running into the same obstacle over and over and over again.

AW: I'm quite familiar with that feeling! It's interesting how a little block of wood can reference an emotion - just add color and movement. It is, also, important to me that the mechanism of movement is visible ... I don't like the "magical" thing. These rudimentary little pieces are influenced by the work of Paul Spooner. One of my favorite pieces of his, "The Last Judgment," features a life-size skeleton whose ribcage opens to reveal devils playing pool and damned souls riding a moving escalator into the depths.

JM: Your models are immaculately finished, beautifully crafted objects. This "fetish finish" invites me to touch them. Do you have a favorite piece among them?

AW: My favorite piece is always the next one I'm going to make. I'm fond of these little mechanical models, but it would be a mistake to call them "art."My sculptures are becoming increasingly dependent on good mechanics to achieve the movement necessary to the idea of the piece. Unfortunately I am not mechanically inclined, so I made the models to give me inspiration. And all that stuff about waiting for the muse? Complete rubbish. Every good artist I know works like a troll. Stravinsky said, "Just as eating brings appetite, so work brings inspiration."

JM: You mentioned that you were "born an artist," and, except for a brief flirtation during the fourth grade with becoming a paleontologist, you never wanted to do anything else. What influenced your early aspirations?

AW: I was raised without a television. We had a little bit of land - an acre or so - with a field and woods and a garden and at least two tree forts. My father built an art desk and installed it in our unheated front parlor - my first studio. Nothing nurtures creativity more than being comfortable with silence and being good at amusing yourself. When I feel creatively hindered it's usually because I'm preoccupied with myself and by what other people think of me. The hardest part of being an artist, or maybe just a human being, is getting out of your own way.

Amy Wendland's recent work can be viewed at the "Faculty Group Exhibition" on display through Jan. 27 at the Fort Lewis College Art Gallery. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. ☯




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