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Amy Stacey Curtis

Art New England, Nov/Dec 2012 


By Craig Stockwell

In early May I visited Amy at her home in Maine. Actually, I was awarded a visit in return for purchasing a small drawing, all part of Amy's efforts to raise money for her 7th "solo-biennial," SPACE, which was staged in October in the former Carlton Woolen Mills in Winthrop, Maine. 

Upon my arrival Amy immediately took me in hand and we marched out to the rural hardtop that runs in front of her home. Each day for one year at 3pm Amy walked 65.1 feet forward down the yellow line shooting lo-tech video of that brief moment. This day we were lucky in that the progress of the project had brought the location near to her driveway, having started 3.5 miles down the road, now nearby (before reaching the end of her 4.5 mile road). I stood as an extra set of ears and eyes to warn of any approaching cars. The finished film, which was part of her video installation forward VI, is three minutes long. 

The work of Amy Stacey Curtis is laded with such obsessive attention to detail. When the solo-biennial opened in October it was the result of two-years carefully plotted and scheduled work. Amy is among those artists that have tied their work to a set of rules and prescriptions that build toward an end point. The pleasure for the artist is in the unfolding of the specific projects and the surprises they exhibit as they begin to manifest. The pleasure for the audience comes in understanding the various proposals, viewing the results, and participating in the outcome. 

We sat in Amy's upstairs studio in her house. This room is gray, small and remarkably uncluttered, really exceptionally empty. Things get put away. Within this studio exists an integral office presence that keeps track of and gives momentum to all the scheduled tasks...finding an available Maine industrial/mill building that has a suitable space, raising funds, selling work, gathering volunteers, buying materials, drawing, writing. Each activity has an assigned time and an assigned storage area. As we move out in the house I am introduced to Bill, her husband and an invaluable technical assistant, and I'm taken down to a basement workshop where an intern from MECA is painting wooden blocks white. There are hundreds of wooden blocks that have been cut to size, sanded and were being painted white in preparation for an enormous piece of interactive sculpture, inversion II. In the exhibit this would be originally placed as a thirteen-foot diameter convex form made up of 1,520 white-painted 4x4s of 24 different lengths. Participants/visitors then transferred the pieces until the form became concave during the course of the exhibit. 

I visited Amy again in August as she was beginning the installation process within the massive mill building. Again, no opportunity goes unused so that my visit to interview was an "opportunity" for me to volunteer a few hours work moving large things around. Afterwards I posed a few specific questions. I was curious about the spiritual nature of the work, one can't help but note the ritualistic cleansing and penitential scrubbing that was occurring at this point. Amy hand scrubs the 25,000 square feet of floors. She agreed that the work, in its totality, is spiritual but, "not in words, more as a meditative undertaking." Amy is also deeply aware of audience, "without the audience, the work is literally static." By this she means both the interactions asked of visitors and the way that the works and the project itself are brought to life by others. In some cases the audience literally "completes the piece," the audience is asked to slowly move blocks of wood or slate tiles from one position to another. Amy purposefully uses the most simple and raw materials in building her works, she feels that, "by keeping things simple people are more likely to bring themselves." She speaks of the entire installation as a form of self-portraiture and expresses the immense vulnerability that she feels and allows when the doors open. 

Amy has come to this work not through MFA study but through an MA study of psychology and the understanding of therapies of healing. But what is most curious is that this non-art path has led her to replicate many of the practices of conceptual and minimalist artists from the 60s and 70s…propose an action, do it, exhibit it. This is work about connecting and generosity. First, the obvious gesture of healing old mill buildings. Second she has painstakingly, through the solo-biennials, constructed a system of volunteers (close to 80 for each exhibit) and supporters. She recounts how, in the early years, she systematically would accept any opportunity to speak to groups about her work, while today she's more apt to be invited. 

Previous solo-biennial exhibits – EXPERIENCE (2000), MOVEMENT (2002), CHANGE (2004), SOUND (2006), LIGHT (2008), and TIME (2010) – took place in Lewiston's Bates Mill, Westbrook's Old Sebago Shoe Mill, Brunswick's Fort Andross, Waterville's Lockwood Mill, Sanford's Millstone Place, and Biddeford's Pepperill Mill respectively. The final two exhibits are: MATTER (2014) and MEMORY (2016). Amy had placed the nine biennials' themes in a self-deduced chronological order of difficulty. "I saved space, matter, and memory, the themes I thought would be the most cerebral, for the end, thinking that by the time I got to these themes, I would be used to the rigor, perhaps have more resources and art assistance, and I would be further along in my creative maturity." For SPACE, Amy explored the ideas of expanse, breadth, distance, capacity, direction, and place. The nine sculptural installations were conceived to heighten the visitors' sense and awareness of space itself. 

The work of Amy Stacey Curtis is both familiar and strange to contemporary art practice. Her fierce regionalism and self-invented projects can almost set her in a kind of Outsider Art category, although the art world is slowly recognizing and pulling her in since 2002 with shows at Barbara Krakow, Bates College, and an upcoming solo show at Portland Museum of Art. Her individual pieces succeed in the very fact that they're realized, but there's a necessary rate of failure and nonentity. What there is, is a very determined and original voice emerging from Maine.