If you ever get the chance to go to an exhibition with the artist behind the work, grab it with both hands. I’ve had that opportunity and loved hearing how the artist had created each painting: where it was, how she felt and the mood she wanted to portray. Once I had the background, I could appreciate the art so much more. It was an even better experience to sit down with Amy Baker the other day to learn about her amazing textile art and discover the incredible detail behind each piece.
Reading the little card beside a piece of art in a gallery — or even the longer notes in an exhibition guidebook — comes a poor second to actually talking to the artist.
Those brief, condensed written words can’t even begin to give you a sense of the intensity, passion and hours upon hours of work that went into creating it.
And, believe me, those are apt words to describe the emotion that Amy Baker puts into her work.
The Political Portrait Series
Amy’s probably best known for embroidering satirical, many-layered portraits of well known political figures.
It’s almost impossible to capture the richness of these portraits in a photograph. On screen the picture is flat; in real life,
And when you
It Takes So Much More Than Inspiration
Amy’s first step is hours and hours of research.
Her subjects create controversy and their opinions and actions evoke passionate responses from the public. Before she can express that in her art, Amy needs to feel connected with the person behind it.
Gradually, as she digs deep, a picture forms in Amy’s head. Shapes, materials, textures, colours — there is so much to consider.
His call for tough controls on feral and domestic cats unleashed a storm of controversy. Cat lovers pounced and Gareth’s essential message about the dangers cats pose to our native wildlife blew away in the wind. Amy’s a cat lover herself, but she’s not blind to Gareth’s point. So she began, as she always does, with some research.
“Who is Gareth Morgan?” she wondered. Where did the outspoken economist come from, and what formed his ideas?
Amy speaks with fondness about Gareth now. Her research uncovered his hugely philanthropic bent, his trading roots — perhaps an influencing factor in his son Sam’s creation of Trade Me — and his staunch willingness to take on unpopular crusades when he believes in a cause.
So she created her portrait; a playful take on the issue — “Gareth Morgan On Cats.” It’s a lifelike picture of Gareth embroidered onto felted cat fur.
In another layer of symbolism, Amy surrounded her portrait with a handmade frame, created from an old window and recycled timber. Her quirky nod to Gareth’s self-made wealth; begun by flipping secondhand goods.
Just as an author will talk about a character going in directions he hadn’t planned for, so it was with Winston’s embroidered portrait. Amy says that somewhat frustratingly, it took on a life of its own.
“Winston just wouldn’t behave and do the things I wanted him to do while I was stitching him,”
I’m guessing that’s what gives the likeness its richness and depth. Winston has never been known to behave as others would like.
The more Amy researched Winston Peters, the more of an enigma he became. His stance on immigration in New Zealand is well known. It’s ironic to consider that every single Kiwi comes from immigrant background. Some have been here longer than others, but all our ancestors came to New Zealand from over the sea.
Even Winston, with his Maori and Scottish roots, isn’t exempt from that inescapable truth. And yet he’s adamant about that tough decree on people from other lands who now want to live in New Zealand.
So Amy set out to make a satirical comment on Winston’s immigrant status and policies. Every piece of his portrait comes from “immigrant stock.” And in typically frustrating Winston-fashion, it took Amy six long weeks to source all the materials for the work.
Stitched on dark blue Thai silk, Winston’s portrait has a variety of threads from many origins. Of course, there are wool and flax fibres to represent his Scottish and Maori ancestry.
A brush full of dog hair gave Amy exactly the right shade for the grizzled grey in Winston’s hair and added another light-hearted joke: after all Mr Peters, with his vast political experience is a bit of an “old dog.”
Love him or hate him, the current American president tends to polarise people’s opinions.
When Amy was sifting through competition lists and the theme “Outrageous Orange” caught her eye, Mr Trump leapt straight to mind. While she was still thinking about his, he made one outrageous remark which was the final straw.
I haven’t seen “Where’s The Pussy, Mr President?” in real life — it was on display in Arrowtown when I visited — but I think Amy’s use of cat fur as Donald’s hair is a touch of genius.
People have occasionally suggested that she should add a bit of caricature to her work, but Amy has one word for that. No!
In her book, making fun of someone’s looks is tantamount to bullying. “I won’t make comments on a person’s looks,” she says. “But I can use what they’ve said and done — those are things that they chose to put out into the world.”
Shows and Awards
Amy has entered all three of her political pieces into art shows around New Zealand, which is how people are beginning to know her name and work.
Winston’s portrait “Had Enough?” was runner-up at the Aspiring Art Prize awards in January 2018. Then in March, Amy was honoured to discover that all three of her entries were accepted into the Changing Threads Contemporary Fibre Art Awards in Nelson; a fairly rare achievement, she was stunned to learn.
The “Woman Inside My Head”
Recently, Amy started down a new path with a picture that came entirely from her own imagination.
“Punk Girl” formed in Amy’s mind one day. Imaginary she may be but Amy still needed to know her story before she could stitch the picture. So Amy began some research into the fascinating world of Punk to discover more about this fascinating character.
It’s work that could fuel another series of portraits. Amy wants to explore the theme of how one face can change when it’s surrounded by different colours, hairstyles and clothes.
I can’t wait to see Punk Girl’s next incarnation.
When Does Craft Become Art?
This is a much-debated question, and there’s probably not a simple answer.
Amy has embroidered for years now. She was hooked by a kit found in Grandma’s drawer when she was just six years old. It was the first of many and those kits taught her about stitching, drafting, colours and following a pattern.
But there’s only so much you can do with a kit. When she moved to Kingston Amy was thrilled to join the Queenstown Embroiders Guild and learn more about creating her own work. Eventually, she grew bold enough to enter an original work into a competition. It didn’t win a place, but it did give her the thirst to do more.
Amy’s thought a lot about the art/craft question and thinks her craft became art when she began stitching a message into her work. Because now there’s more than a pretty picture and intricate stitching; Amy’s work also makes a political comment on a person, position, place and time.
What Next For Amy Baker?
It’s 125 years since 25,521 women signed and presented the Suffrage Petition to New Zealand’s parliament so now Amy’s got Kate Sheppard in her mind.
This is a portrait still in its infancy, but even as she researches and learns all about Kate, there’s already a special connection between Kate and her great, great, stepgranddaughter, Amy Baker.
And in between those intensely-worked political pieces, there are more playful and therapeutic works in progress.
One of these playful pieces turned into a delightful 3-D embroidery of a New Zealand forest floor — now sporting the addition of an inquisitive bird. (We added that separately-worked little fellow on a whim during our afternoon together and rather liked the look.)
The little piece — mounted on its wooden stump — has been so well received that Amy is now booked to tutor a class at the Wanaka Embroidery School in March 2019, showing how to make a similar creation. It’s an honour, but also hard work designing the lesson, putting the basic materials kits together and sending out information.
These are exciting times for Amy. She feels a little overwhelmed by the attention her work is beginning to receive after such a short time in this new artistic space.
But what fun it will be to see what Amy Baker comes up with next!
For a small town, Kingston people have an incredible number of artists living in their midst.
On Time of my Life, you can already enjoy reading about Kingston’s Michelle Goggans and her whimsical watercolours, and I hope that I’ll be privileged bring you more of Kingston’s talented residents in the coming months.