Our Q&A with RWA Artist Network member Amanda Chambers…
“…The main challenges I set myself are innovation, experimentation and a degree of fear. If I’m not excited by the prospect of an idea, how can I expect anyone else to be?…”
Based in Bristol, Amanda Chambers is a multi-disciplinary artist working in sculpture, ceramics, music, drawing, photography and printmaking. A member of the RWA Artist Network, she is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and an elected member of the Royal Society of Sculptors (MRSS).
Amanda has a strong affinity with Japanese art and has travelled to Japan to explore her interest in ceramics and the wider significance of aesthetics in Japanese culture, in particular wabi sabi. In 2017 and 2018 Amanda worked as an artist in residence at Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park. She will return in 2020 for a three month residency to create new site specific work.
Here’s our Q&A…
When did you realise you were an artist?
I was encouraged to draw and make from a young age by my father who is also an artist. There wasn’t a specific moment of realisation. I think I was very self-directed early on and keen to look at the world around me, especially people.
Why do you make art?
I recently found a quote from Japanese Anime film director Hayao Miyazaki: “The world isn’t simple enough to explain in words”.
What is your usual process for making an artwork? Do you have a clear image in your mind before you start, or does the artwork ever emerge from the process and surprise you?
Both happen. I rarely have a blank canvas moment, but my greatest challenge is responding quickly enough to the ideas that come along. I enjoy working on projects where research is involved, but I am equally happy responding playfully to ideas and materials in a very unstructured and loose way.
The main challenges I set myself are innovation, experimentation and a degree of fear. If I’m not excited by the prospect of an idea, how can I expect anyone else to be? I also like taking a medium and seeing what I can make of it without too much formal instruction. I like art to contain a spirit of improvisation.
But I also enjoy technical accomplishment. Clay is offering me endless scope as a medium right now: from large scale unfired sculpture, to highly detailed miniature forms. I have also been greatly inspired by the ambition and dedication of Japanese artists. Observing this commitment to process first hand has helped me realise more ambitious work myself.
What other artists, works or art traditions have most influenced you?
My influences come mainly from my interest in literature, architecture, history and music. The medieval period has been hugely influential and I see its impact in Japan too. The craft traditions of that era have so much to tell us about ourselves as humans. The imprint of the hand visible before the machine age brought uniformity. The use of natural materials especially wood and clay, still speak to us today – it’s timeless and universal. My involvement in clay has probably brought me closer to a tradition than any other medium I have worked in. I would also say that the Japanese aesthetic philosophy of wabi sabi (perfect imperfection) has resonated very strongly with me.
I studied Fine Art at Newport School of Art in the mid 1980s where the emphasis was placed on new media (at that time, video!). It was a highly conceptual course. As a result, I consider my work a reflection (as all art is) of the times in which I have lived, crossing from the post industrial into the digital age. From a socio-political point of view Derek Jarman was an important artist for me – I saw in his films how history could be made contemporary in a visceral way.
Much of your work responds to Japanese influences. How important is place to your work?
Coming to Japan has had a profound influence on my life. I see it as a homecoming, a place I always needed to be. Pushing yourself as an artist to get beyond the studio walls, or the walls in other aspects of your life, is so important. But I think art is fundamentally about place no matter where you are: the constant drive to create new environments and perspectives. Japan is very refreshing because the artist sits within a recognised context in society. So much value is placed on aesthetics culturally that no one has to argue the case for art, or the role of the artist.
But I also feel a strong connection to my British roots, and my work inspired by the life of Alan Turing (Stilboestrol and Love Song – see below) is a good example.
I was also compelled to make work about Palmyra in 2016 (Exhume – below) after the destruction of the historic site by ISIS. The final installation was subsequently commissioned for a museum exhibition in Norway. It was a wonderful experience to conceive a work in the UK about the Middle East, which was then shared with audiences in Scandinavia.
How has your work changed or evolved through your career? Was there a particular turning point?
My early work in the 1980’s was film and video based, largely autobiographical. I came back to art full time in 2013 having spent several years developing my practice through collaborations and projects whilst working in the charity sector in communications. A lot of my work at that time was based on a technique of graphite rubbing.
One piece made in 2004 felt like a turning point: Night Stairs was a full scale composite piece of a medieval staircase in Bristol Cathedral. It was my first ambitious large scale work but more importantly it brought together technical and conceptual ideas in one piece. I saw this approach as a form of sculptural drawing, so when I discovered clay it seemed like a natural progression to be working more specifically in three dimensions. People sometimes regard me now as a ceramicist. But I’m wary of labels and consider myself a multi-media artist. Alongside sculpture, drawing, photography and printmaking, music has also developed as an important element of my work.
Another major turning point was obtaining a space at BV studios in Bristol. This radically changed my ability to realise larger scale work and to develop a working process. I now also have a production space at home supported by a research and development grant from Arts Council England.
You became a Network artist in 2016. What did that mean to you?
It was really important because the RWA is a major asset to Bristol’s artistic community. With so few quality spaces to exhibit work in the region, joining the RWA has been invaluable.
It has also given me the space to meet interesting and supportive artists, to share ideas and give talks, as well as taking part in the Open Exhibitions. I think the RWA has the potential to grow significantly as a gateway for emerging artists, and as an artistic hub for the region as a whole.
Your work ‘Love Song’ was selected for the RWA Open Sculpture exhibition 2019. How was that?
It felt like an important show on many levels. Sculpture at the RWA appears to be having a renaissance so I was delighted to be chosen to take part in an exhibition that had seen a 20 year hiatus.
“…I think art is fundamentally about place no matter where you are: the constant drive to create new environments and perspectives…”
What are you working on now?
I am working on several projects. I am organising work for the RWA Academician Candidates Exhibition this autumn and developing a series of pieces around the concept of ‘Emotional Architecture’ prompted by my recent trip to Japan. I am also developing ideas for an outdoor sculpture for the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park when I return to Japan for three months next February.
Tell us something about you as an artist or your art that most people don’t know.
I’d like to work in theatre – I’m excited by the potential of working as an artist collaboratively in a performance setting. I grew up in Stratford-Upon- Avon and theatre became an important part of my life. Seeing Ninagawa’s Macbeth at the Barbican in 2017 was incredible.
You can see more of Amanda’s work on her website.
Interview by Laurel Smart