Studio Visit: Amy Todman

Text and images by Varduhi Kirakosian


Even locals swearing to know every single street in the city might struggle to spot addresses in Yerevan’s confusing and congested neighborhoods. But this doesn’t seem to be the case for Amy Todman, a Scottish born artist living in Yerevan for the past two years, who, I believe, finds her way around the city better than most. 

This is my second visit to Amy’s apartment on Komitas Avenue, Arabkir district. I challenge myself to find her flat, refusing her offer to remind me of the way. Luckily, I recognize the familiar entrance where I notice wool, washed and hung to dry for sewing linen – a popular household tradition among Armenian women. 

Amy is at the door. She greets me warmly just as locals are used to kissing on the cheek when they meet. As we walk into a quiet wide room filled with small and big canvases piled up in the corners, I ask Amy whether she gets along well with her neighbors. Amy describes the nice little garden she sometimes visits and notes, “I don’t know what people think, but I’m pretty quiet and usually, I stay by myself”. That quality gives her the chance to spend time on her own and feel free to create and experiment. Amy has been trying hard to learn Armenian since she moved here from Scotland. She finds Armenian very challenging and the language barrier is limiting and makes communicating with her neighbors practically impossible. “Until I learn well, and am confident to speak Armenian, really I can make friends with only those who speak English,” Amy explains. 

“I’ve always made art,” Amy notes. She graduated with a Bachelors in Fine Arts from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in 2003. Her first artworks were with textiles, which she exhibited through a number of installations. She was inspired by the process of making work that involved tactile materials like thread. In her early career she also worked in Arts education, working with a range of learners to explore what art might mean to them. For the next four years she lived in Leeds, England, and Glasgow, Scotland, where she worked on a range of public art and education projects. Amy kept the impulse to create and experiment with different media throughout the years, though she acknowledges that making art has always had a special impact on her, “driving [her] crazy in a way.”  That’s when she convinced herself to “start being a grown up,” as she puts it.

Amy’s “grown up” years brought her to various art institutions as both an educator and researcher. At the Pier Arts Centre in Orkney she looked at the connections among landscape, museums and contemporary art collections. Her passion for nature deepened when exploring plant collections at the Glasgow Botanic Gardens, which formed the foundation for her Ph.D. in the idea of landscape in 16th and 17th century Britain. Amy spent several years working at the National Library of Scotland as both a curator and archivist, where she dove into their department of Manuscripts and Archives and worked with their Political Collections.

“But then I suddenly left everything. And here I am,” Amy laughs.

Right after welcoming me, she gets back to her work, sitting on the floor in the middle of her studio. I can see the full picture now: Amy seated cross-legged surrounded by her artworks, flanked by her recent sculptures and the one in progress. Amy presents me her works, excitedly showing me “The Brain.” “The Brain’’ is her recent sculpture, made of old newspapers, chicken wire, and flour and water paste (Papier-mâché). It’s quite big, maybe the size of forty human brains, and is symbolic of Amy’s journey.  “The Brain” is the materialization of that side of Amy that is more analytical, methodical, organized and makes more logical conclusions. 

“I moved to Armenia two years ago because I wanted to refocus, just make art. I wanted to feel more alive,” Amy continues thoughtfully. In 2018, with a developing creative practice, and a desire to engage with new cultures and communities, Amy wanted to work on her art, writing and archival practice in a new environment. 

“I had reached a successful point in my professional career. I loved my job, but at some point, I felt unable to continue. Even though I always realized that making art has driven me to craziness, I realized at some point, that it is also the thing that makes me want to be alive. Once I understood that, the rest was easy.”

The idea of sculpting her own brain came from a need to separate herself from her brain. “I made ‘The Brain’ to be sure it’s out there, to be watchful of it and to remind myself to let go and be a bit more relaxed,” she reflects. In contrast to “The Brain”, looking at Amy’s artworks one notices repeating patterns, forms, shapes, and colors that resemble or remind us of oranges. Oranges appear in Amy’s embroideries and on canvases. For Amy, her oranges seem to symbolize a kind of chaotic energy in opposition to her analytical self. One could say the orange motif (life full of energy, vibrance and colors) represents Amy’s choice to leave everything and start a journey to the unknown. More recently this idea has developed into a sculptural intestinal form, physically wrapping the brain and perhaps symbolizing a kind of conflict or coming together. I don’t think she’s quite sure yet what it means. 

Amy’s journey also appears in her work in the form of  a long horizontal line that stretches from one side of the canvas to the other. I spot the identical line on the wall of her studio, as well as in a tattoo running the length of her arm. Amy has more journeying to do in Armenia. “I don’t have a plan to leave Armenia. My work flows here.” She also has some ideas for collaborating with the local artists. “There is something about Armenia that gives me room for exploring things and experimenting. It inspires me to make whatever kind of art I want without too much judgment, or criticism. I feel less pressure here in Armenia and I feel that Armenia drives me forward in my artistic journey.”

Amy has been profoundly influenced by images, colors, patterns, structures and systems of nature around her.

“Sometimes I feel at home in Armenia because there are similarities to the Scottish landscape. There is wonderful color in the Armenian landscape, shades of ochre, yellow, something flat, desert, but not desert, it’s something else. The color is very unique. When you come into Britain by plane and look from above, you see and understand the way that the landscape is arranged. The landscape is, among other things, an organized area. If we understand the idea of landscape as a kind of tension between chaos and order, natural and man-made, for example, then we see it reflected in our psyche, through the landscape and places we are surrounded by. The landscape feels less regulated in Armenia, and that is interesting for me, different to what I am used to. Armenia has its own way of being ordered and arranged, but it is not clear to me exactly what that is, whereas in Britain I understand the order more.” 

Amy thinks there is more flexibility in the Armenian landscape. “I just walk around the city, look and feel. Because there are a lot of abandoned factories in Yerevan, when I walk, I have the same feeling as in Glasgow, which also has an industrial past. There, lots of old factories are repurposed as studios or similar places, and it is relatively easy for people to go in and do something: these areas seem to fit for doing some crazy stuff. I’m not entirely sure what I can or can’t do here, but I feel that these things are happening here too.” 

Not only the nature, but even the basic distinct features of the neighborhood, be it the surrounding yard, a half destroyed building, or just the solar panels of a building outside her window, appear unconsciously or knowingly in the artists’ works whether through the colors that repeat or the forms and shapes. Amy’s work is meditative and ephemeral. She explains in her artist statement that ‘using drawing, found objects and words, my work explores the delicate territories of self and other, what’s around the edge, and what lies at the heart of the matter”. She “plays between imposed external control and trust in a process”. As curator, Anna Gargarian notes, 

“[Amy’s] process is intuitive, yet disciplined. She is less concerned with the outcome (she calls her pieces “relics”) and more interested in what brings them to life. The tension we find in her work reflects a personal tension, as she oscillates between her identities as artist and archivist, intuitive maker and structure-loving analyst”. 

Amy describes herself as someone very organized and detail oriented. She loves order and routine, which are at the core of her everyday life as an artist. “There are two sides of Amy,” she tells me; “Completely creative Amy, unpredictable, and there is very orderly Amy, and her very structured work. Amy can’t be both at the same time.”

Amy takes me to another room, small in comparison to her main work space. The walls are colored bright green and there is a large window that lets in enough light to make it another perfect studio space. “Some of my works I made here.” On the small work table, I can see Amy’s collection of map drawings. While I closely observe the works, trying to grasp the details, Amy describes the significance of the process of working and archiving within her artistic practice. Her progress partly relies on a practical and ritualistic approach.

It is interesting to see how Amy makes sense of her own journey as an archivist, art historian and artist. She reflects upon the influence that each of her professions have had on her art making. As a student of art collecting and the art market, she has learned to value artworks but at the same time look beyond what is art and what is not. “What defines art?” is a question that she explored during her studies. As an archivist, Amy believes she learned to take care of each thing she makes, however insignificant something might look, and put things in order, make sense of everything as she records her daily work. Art history, she thinks, helped her to develop an analytical and critical eye on her work. She observes her works in great detail and writes about them, creating a kind of conversation between her, the art work and the written description.

When asked about her future projects, Amy notes that things will change after her exhibition in Armenia. “The exhibition that we are planning for this fall is going to be an end point and a starting point at the same time. It will be the beginning of something new.” Amy has some projects in mind which she might be developing at the IN SITU project space. She is also interested in artist residencies in general. She believes that an artist residency offers a whole new environment where different artists combine and share a whole new energy flowing through them. 

“I feel comfortable working here in my studio, I can’t say that I am attached to places, because I like moving a lot. It helps me to disturb the routine sometimes. For someone who likes following a routine, changes are needed to introduce novelty.” Though Amy likes change, she also longs for constancy and permanency, since being far away from home, the only way to develop a sense of home is to have a space where she can find herself belonging to. 

***

From September 8 to 17, join us at Dalan Art Gallery for a solo exhibit of works by artist Amy Todman that take us on a journey “From here to there” across her daily artistic practice. Amy will be at the venue daily from 16:00 – 18:00.

Dalan Art Gallery
Open Daily from 11:00 – 23:00
Abovyan 12, Second Floor

Unlocking Creativity During the Lockdown

by Varduhi Kirakosian and Anna Gargarian


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Photo by Hrant Yeritskinyan for Evn Magazine

In response to the growing fear and anxiety around the ever-spreading COVID-19, some artists are embracing the #StayHome movement and making the most of isolation. Cities across the globe have declared a state of emergency, while artists have announced a state of inventiveness.

Trending Instagram challenges, live streams, and Facebook watch parties are finding ways to inspire creativity during confinement, encourage people to stay home, and raise spirits in the age of social distancing. A number of artist-run initiatives caught our attention, and we thought we’d share some of our favorites.

Restoring a (false?) sense of control

In a letter to “humans everywhere,” @Enyleeparker launched Clay Play, inviting interior designers to make tiny homes and rooms out of baked clay. The results are sweet and satisfying as scaled-down order is given to otherwise chaotic times.

Moscow-based photographer @Nicolaspolli has been running an Instagram page called @Homelife_Stilllife since mid March, calling on artists to share still life photographs taken from their interiors, including the backstage images. The result is a photo repository of everyday home sculptures that transform the domestic environment into a fantasy playground. Seeing images of both the final artistic vision and its process reminds us that reality is about perspective, and that the stories we tell (on social media and otherwise) are highly curated.

On April 3, performance artist Katya Bondar launched a digital performance MY-BODY-YOUR-BODY, in which she reflects on “time, the everyday state of reality, cyber communication and layered physicality”.

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In her four hour performance live streamed on Instagram, Katya embraces the Avatar as she gives herself over to the audience, allowing users to direct her movements and actions within the confines of her bedroom through commands sent via a private server. Katya notes in her performance description that due to the current state of events, “we all found ourselves in a new space of bodies, movements and communication”.

Such projects got us wondering, how are artists in Armenia reacting to confinement?

Pandemic -> Panic -> Performing Perspectives

Online performance has gone viral, from local music clubs like Yerevan’s Ulikhanyan Jazz Club and Gyumri’s Garage Club’s watch parties, to musicians and DJs inviting us into their homes for live-stream sessions. Among these musicians is Mikayel Voskanyan, who decided to turn his quarantine into a “Tarantine”. Tarantine (‘Թառանծին’ in Armenian) is a word play on “Tar” (Թառ), a traditional lute-like instrument that Voskanyan has mastered. He notes that his live stream sessions aren’t concerts at all, but rather “reflect a [new] chapter from my artistic lifestyle.” Mikayel hopes to shift the public focus and reshape the emotions dominating current news outlets and public conversation.

“Even though all my plans are canceled – concerts have been delayed and rescheduled – there is no way I can stop practicing and enjoying playing music. It’s an indispensable part of my life. I decided to stay true to my calling and encourage and give hope to people through music,” says Voskanyan.

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Renowned jazz pianist Vahagn Hayrapetyan has also joined the virtual bandwagon of live streaming. Hayrapetyan launched a series of watch parties he calls “AntiVirus jazz”. Though they’re mostly solo performances, he has the occasional accompaniment, some invited and others unexpected. In this virtual duet, a musician chimes in on the upright bass, while watching Vahagn from home.

Accompaniment takes on a whole new meaning in Ara Dabandjian’s music video for “By the River”, an instrumental arrangement the artist composed during the COVID-19 times. The video, directed by comedian and artist Vahe Berberian, depicts a four-person band playing at home. The catch is, Ara performs with, well… himself, in this one-man show that playfully embodies how isolation is forcing us to really be with ourselves. The Aras share coffee, laughs, and a jam session, and one Ara (the drummer) get’s the door shut in his face when he shows up late to the party. Berberian notes in his facebook post, “During these Coronavirus times this was the safest way to bring together all the musicians.”

Many electronic music artists are sharing content (old and new) on platforms like Bohemnotsradio.com, Mixlr, Soundcloud or Mixcloud in hopes of not only sharing content, but encouraging other artists to make it their own. DJ Arpie shared with us that she’s trying to promote good vibes and just “have fun, release everything into the music, and let it talk to you”.

Outside of the musical realm, poet Arqmenik Nikoghosyan aims to educate followers and spark discussion in his live stream sessions where he recites and discusses poetry in order to, “fight against Coronavirus and isolation through literature.”

It’s safe to say that live streaming has become a trend, and content has varied with social media as a “free for all”. For those searching for content that scratches beneath the surface, “Pnti Khoghovak” (Փնթի խողովակ) podcast may be of interest. Translating roughly to “messy/disheveled pipe”, this Armenian language podcast features interviews and discussions on alternative music and subculture. In a recent interview with Evn Magazine, Pnti Khoghovak Founder Areg Arakelian shared that, “I don’t think there is a real underground scene [in Armenia] yet, but there are a lot of non-mainstream musicians and artists that I try to unite [on my platform]”. Arakelian hopes Pnti Khoghovak will be a go-to for people interested in what’s happening outside of the mainstream.

New Times Call for New Meaning

These times pose a real challenge for collaboration and have forced us to take a hard look at how meaningful our online communities really are. While sharing lends itself to performers wishing to “rekindle” an audience relationship, this presents an altogether new challenge for visual artists seeking a deeper exchange than image-sharing.

the square_vahrami_haypopup

This phenomenon is perhaps best represented in artist Anna Vahrami’s recent video work, “The Square”, posted to Facebook. Reflecting on the squares that outline our isolation, whether through the screens of our devices, Zoom windows, or the four walls of our homes, Vahrami laments the lack of direct communication, and brings our attention to the heightened mediation during quarantine.

Artist Samvel Saghatelyan told us he was “flourishing in the times of the coronavirus”. Known for his provocative and humorous social commentary that combines graphic, collage, and performance work, Samvel often incorporates the ready made into his oeuvre. His recent piece, “Save Your Ass”, remarks on the absurdity of human (re)action in the face of panic.

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The work incorporates his trademark graphic text (reminiscent of his political protest signs) on a roll of toilet paper. He posted an image of the work to Facebook with the subtext, “But you can’t save your ass with just toilet paper….”. In his letter to journalist Anush Kocharyan, published in the interview series “From Balcony to Balcony”, Saghatelyan reflects on crisis and opportunity. For Samvel, this is a “return to our original state”, a reckoning with nature that forces us to deal with our negligence and carelessness, and reintroduce discipline into our lives. “Let’s think about how to transform this period,” he says, “how to find a way of self expression not only in art but in all types of relationships.” As an artist who lived through the soviet system, its downfall, and the following hardships of the 90s, Samvel says that this situation isn’t so unfamiliar.

“I’m used to working with limitations. Sometimes you need limitations in order to help you give shape to all the sh*t you have inside.”

In an interview with photographer, Karén Khachaturov, he explained the challenge of making art these days since what inspires him most is social life. Karén is taking this time to reflect on, rethink and share works from his previous series which are acquiring new meaning in the context of Coronavirus. Khachaturov’s trademark pastel color palette and utopia/dystopia landscapes reflect on alternative realities. If before the works stemmed from his own experience, today his sterile aesthetic and surreal environments are uncannily relatable on a global scale.

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“Paper Factory”, from the series “Strayed in Utopia” by Karén Khachaturov.

No less relatable is the general concern for economic livelihood in the face of halted festivals, concerts, and exhibitions. Musician Arash Azadi offers a simple solution to this challenge, taking advantage of the current hyperactivity of the web during quarantine as an opportunity for artists to collectively support each other economically. With the knowledge that YouTube allows individuals to monetize their channels with a minimum of 1000 subscribers, Azadi invites artists to share each other’s work and increase the number of subscribers to their private channels in an act of collective social support.

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While global isolation movements have ironically leveled the playing field, creating an unexpected sense of unity in our shared struggle, there is an undeniable need for more meaningful communication. Artists Anna Vahrami, Vanana Boryan and Gohar Martirosyan aim to bridge this gap through a project called Antibody:

“Antibody is a social platform, where we would like to develop alternative ways of communication based on contemporary art. The main concept is to recreate an approach that empowers the ‘social body’ system, out of the ego’s competition and hierarchical structure, in order to organize an immune-strong and conscious process of collaboration,” Vahrami explains.

Antibody intends to be a virtual platform for artists from around the world to come together and discuss the future prospects of spreading art in times of COVID-19 and beyond. They hope to set the stage for collaborations between local and international artists, and “spread art like a virus”.

 


Originally posted on April 4, 2020. Revisions were made on April 6 to include Vanana Boryan among the Antibody collective.