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Felice Amato on narrative, experience, and second glances

Felice Amato on narrative, experience, and second glances

The Madison artist's installation "Visions For A Wayward Mother" is up through August at the Overture Center.

   Detail from "Visions For A Wayward Mother."

Detail from "Visions For A Wayward Mother."

Connections provide narratives with shape. The weaving together of disparate pieces to create a common thread produces a story unique to that given combination or arrangement of elements. Through visual art, puppetry, and poetry, Madison-based artist Felice Amato draws linkages between diverse forms and materials to generate narratives. Amato and Andrea Woito Murray’s joint show Second Glance is on display at Gallery III in the Overture Center through August 30, and Amato’s other recent activities include interpreting Greek myths through a puppet performance at the Madison Children’s Museum. The Second Glance exhibit reflects Amato’s ability to blend media in the service of storytelling. In Amato’s half of Second Glance, comprised entirely of a the large mixed-media piece titled "Visions For A Wayward Mother," the artist’s depiction of dismembered cloth limbs, transfigured domestic artifacts resting atop wooden mantels, and ghostly corporeal shapes offer audiences a tale that is haunting and surreal while simultaneously grounded in familiar household relics.

Amato’s ability to tell a story is not restricted to a sheet of paper, a piece of canvas, or a stage. Rather, the artist playfully traverses mediums in an exploration of the tensions and spaces existing between the real and the imaginary. In Amato’s work, process takes precedent over planning as a means of both exercising artistic intuition and pursuing the layers and nuances of experience. Amato recently spoke with me about how she defines creative expression, what drives her, and the stories behind her recent and exhibitions and performances.

Tone Madison: What inspired you to begin making art?

Felice Amato: I have compulsively drawn since childhood. I mostly loved to draw people in scenes. In some ways everything I do now—regardless of the medium— is just an extension of that love of drawing people in scenes. I did take a long hiatus from art though and became a Spanish teacher and a mother but I couldn’t stop wanting to be making art and step-by-step I worked my way to where I am now.

Tone Madison: What influences inform your work?

Felice Amato: I am inspired by myth and folktales. I love stories that are full of symbols, are enduring and archetypal, and blend the real and the impossible. I adore the art and the sensibility of the Middle Ages. Maybe it is the decorative and allegorical nature as well and the fleshiness of the materiality of that work. In addition to religious and devotional art, I have a fondness for the Surreal. I have also loved miniatures and dolls and rather than fighting that I am surrendering to it being part of my visual language.

Tone Madison: How would you describe the processes through which your art is created?

  Detail from "Visions For A Wayward Mother."

Detail from "Visions For A Wayward Mother."

Felice Amato: Most of my work emerges from the process of making vs. planning. I work very intuitively. My apartment is like a cabinet of curiosities (thanks in part to the Dig and Save). Sometimes a headless doll hangs on the wall for months and then suddenly the head appears on a shelf across the room—a perfectly odd pairing that I couldn’t have intentionally made. I get a lot of images in my mind’s eye. I doodle a lot. However, I also find that manipulating and working with the physical objects often yields something that may come more from the rich subconscious and then suddenly there is all this rich potential for narrative and metaphor.

Tone Madison: You describe yourself as a visual artist, storyteller, puppeteer, and poet. For you, what threads connect these different forms of expression?

Felice Amato: All of these words are such a struggle to own but once one does it is like a sigh of relief—especially when it is what it is. I have long written and had a very powerful relationship with language but have never fit in anywhere with it as a “writer.” I feel a symbiotic relationship between what I write and what I make. The narrative has always been important to me—the story—but not only in a real sense but also in metaphor. I like to build my stories by stacking up images, fragments, words and metaphors then to also defy my stories in a way I feel is more akin to poetry that fiction. I always felt a sense of agency in the figures I created and that’s why puppetry and object performance were almost destined. In the past, I would look at a figure and be amazed by the power of moving the head subtly back and forth and in the end I would lament having to freeze it in position— now I don’t.

Tone Madison: In a biographical statement, you note, “I am always in a process of layering onto my never-ending search for a beautiful, magical, bewildering heartbreak of a tale in the wreckage and nonsense of life.” How do you define layering as it relates to creative pursuits?

  Detail from "Visions For A Wayward Mother."

Detail from "Visions For A Wayward Mother."

Felice Amato: I think it is a way of experiencing life that doesn’t compartmentalize or even really shut the door on things. Even a certain event can have multiple ways of being experienced —in time for example. Then there are the metaphors that can be gleaned from each happening which create their own layers. Many events can have a layer of tragedy and melancholy but also a layer of humor and of awe. I always think of my practice as one huge body of work in which nothing is probably ever done really. Each new iteration is a layer onto the old. In fact, I often recycle items and figures, heads or hands from one body that suddenly find a better fit but then it creates layers of history for that persona and an odd sense of family resemblances.

Tone Madison: In a recent puppet performance of three ancient Greek myths at the Madison Children’s Museum, you created props and objects for the piece in collaboration with visitors. Tell us more about this performance and how collaborative elements inform your work.

Felice Amato: The performances took the form of narrated, participatory improv. The structure of the myths and the set and characters were made during drop in sessions held the previous days in which guests helped create masks and puppets etc. We repurposed objects and materials. I love to encourage that imaginative way of seeing. The people who showed up for the performances were invited to manipulate the characters and participate in the telling. It was very fun and we hope to continue the series. I was a K-12 teacher for almost twenty years, half of which I spent with elementary students. I love the spirit of play that informs kids’ art process. I felt like my job was always to encourage the forward momentum of kids’ intuition, their discernment and their willingness to take creative risks. In collaboration, I strive to always to be open aesthetically etc. to the decisions that others make—which will be different than my own. That can be a struggle unless one adjusts the attachment to some end result. Things end up unexpectedly wonderful and confounding because no one brain followed its natural course—rather their were interruptions and diversions in the flow.

Tone Madison: Your current Overture Center exhibition entitled “Second Glance” features work from both you and artist Andrea Woito Murray. What inspired the title for this collection?

Felice Amato: We wanted an open-ended title. In some senses the spirit of a "second glance" is exactly that: to not take something in without that shadow that asks, “Is it what it seems? Just what it seems? All that it seems?" We are both mothers of similar ages, still passionately making but having pursued our art in a way that weaves in and out of our other lives and identities. I imagine that we both have felt that the physical demands and the emotional landscape of mothering are bittersweet in terms of competing with our ability to focus on work but also so crucial in shaping that work. Maybe at times the art has felt like a second glance at life—a way to see it again. We use a lot of domestic imagery but there is also something either quite or just slightly unexpected that might, if we succeed, catch your eye and your imagination.

Tone Madison: How do your artistic practices converge with Murray’s in this exhibition?

Felice Amato: Andrea draws visual language from the domestic and the quotidian, finding poetic moments, powerful juxtaposition and depth through layers of imagery. I think my work does something similar but it is more surreal, theatrical and probably a bit—or a lot—darker. I would also say that her work often references the real community and her place in it. While in my day-to-day life I am very interested in these issues, my work is primarily preoccupied with the internal and imaginative. Still, I think we also both use motifs of the domestic—I am thinking of her clothes lines— as points of departure. We start with the assumption that objects and images from the home and the yard are a common language. That foregrounds a primarily female experience which neither of us apologizes for or sees as lesser.

  Detail from "Visions For A Wayward Mother."

Detail from "Visions For A Wayward Mother."

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