Laura Amussen is a material girl. Working with both natural and artificial elements that she buys, collects in nature, or receives as donations, Amussen is known for site-specific, indoor and outdoor installations as well as smaller meditative works that center an inventive use of material.
Over the last fifteen years, Amussen has worked with everything from moss and money plant membranes to artificial ivy and metal, as well as her own body. Drawing on her experience as a curator, Amussen self-curates her own installations and solo shows, creating thematic exhibitions around singular ideas such as the buoyancy of water as a metaphor for overcoming struggle.
Growing up Mormon in Utah, Amussen participated in weekly homemaking nights in the community, where she was immediately drawn to the creative arts. She married at 16, left Mormonism, had a son at age 27, divorced her husband at 33, and came out as gay at 34. After working in elder care intending to become an occupational therapist, Amussen realized she wanted to change her career path and took a sculpture class at Towson University. The rest, as they say, is history.
Amussen is open about grappling with her sexuality, her religious background, and poverty, explaining that as a result of these experiences, “I’ve struggled with addiction and I’ve struggled with a lot of childhood trauma.” She has lived paycheck to paycheck for much of her life, and raised her son as a single mom while going to graduate school and then teaching. She has spent the last ten years focused on self-healing, getting sober in 2020.
Nature has always been a healing site for Amussen, and she has an extensive meditation practice. During the pandemic, she found solace in hiking and walking the same trail almost daily. The repetition of returning to nature feels like an echo of her artwork, which is often created by laying a singular material over itself to create a form.
Amussen is a 2006 graduate of MICA’s Rinehart School of Sculpture and was formerly Director of Exhibitions at Goucher College. She currently teaches at Towson University, where she encourages students to work through trauma and use class assignments to make art that feels important to them.
“I’m always thinking about trying to connect with people and offer support, love, or beauty,” she says.
Having shown her work throughout the Baltimore area at the invitation of such places as Ladew Topiary Gardens, School 33, and Creative Alliance, this fall marks a fresh achievement through her first solo museum show: a new exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art for Baker Artist Prize award winners. With this exhibition, Amussen envisions a new chapter: a chance to bring together ideas new and old and create an environment where viewers can process their own pain.
Constantly moving away from hierarchy, judgment, power, and control, and towards vulnerability. Accepting people as they are is what I strive for. Offering guidance and tools to help heal trauma and promote self-liberation is what I see as my life’s work. I’m a repeat listener and reader, some books [I’ve revisited] over ten times.
Influenced by your work as a curator, your own installations of work reflect the viewer’s consideration. Who was the visitor you were imagining, or what was the experience you wanted them to have, for example with your show at Ladew?
I love creating environments that tell a story, offering people a reprieve or something new to consider. For my show Afloat [at Creative Alliance, 2013], I made work about the end of my 17-year marriage, my mom dying, and coming to terms with my sexuality. Water became the metaphor for my life’s struggles, and the constant effort to remain buoyant. Flourish, my exhibition at Ladew Topiary Gardens, on the other hand, was in direct response to Ladew’s history, architecture, furniture, and ecology. In that show, I invited visitors to contemplate how ecology and humanity are constantly colliding.
You grew up Mormon, but left the religion at 16 and now practice Eastern religious traditions such as meditation. Is there anything from your upbringing that you think is reflected in your work?
My lived experiences are absolutely reflected in my work; they are the foundation of who I am. Our family vacations consisted of either going camping or driving to California to visit our cousins. (Imagine a family of seven in a Honda Accord: my favorite spot was upfront, on a pillow, straddling the emergency brake.)
I grew up camping in Utah, in both the red rocks of the south and high-elevation forests of the north, among glaciers in August. The landscape has always been important in my work; the use of rust definitely came from those red rocks in Utah. Nature is church to me; it’s spiritual.
Growing up Mormon, I attended many “homemaking” nights, in which I was introduced to craft making. Perhaps studying the Bible and Book of Mormon frequently with my family has also impacted my interest in storytelling.
When I was four, I was diagnosed with osteomyelitis and hospitalized for a month where I was alone the majority of that time. My nurse called me her “little pack rat” because I saved everything, from wooden ice cream spoons to needle covers. The impetus to collect objects has never left me. I’ve also come to realize the themes of emptiness and longing in my work emerged from that traumatic childhood experience.
You are often working with unexpected or unusual material. Would you say that you pick material first and then you decide how you’re going to use it?
I’m obsessed with materials, always collecting. If I’m drawn to it, I buy it or gather it, often with no idea how I’ll use it. For example, I collected bird nests for years, until one day I saw a bird cage set out with the trash, and I took it home.
Eventually, I had the idea to turn the bird cage into a giant bird nest that holds the cage door open, opposing metaphors of freedom and containment. Sometimes I need to spend time with the materials before the story unfolds. For my exhibit Forest Royalty at the BMA, I’ve created a faux forest peppered with faux fungi. The material limitations imposed by the museum are impacting what materials I can use so I’m in the throes of material problem-solving.
What’s the process of making a piece for you?
The process changes with each body of work. I approach solo exhibitions much like I did the thematically based exhibitions I curated while at Goucher College. I create thematically based works in multiple mediums—sculpture, installation, mixed media, photography, video, performance—works that speak to and inform one another in sharing a bigger narrative.
As creatives, we are problem solvers, and the knowledge we gather along the way naturally folds into each new work.
When I’m invited to create a project, however, like at Ladew or the Turchin Center for the Visual Arts at Appalachian State University, I look to the local histories and ecologies of the place and create works in response to those findings. As creatives, we are problem solvers, and the knowledge we gather along the way naturally folds into each new work. In some ways, one is birthed from the other, whether in terms of materiality, form, or processes. There’s definitely overlap from one to the next, a continuation. Regardless of whether it’s a solo exhibition or project, the process and end goal are always the same: to create an experience for the viewer offering considerations of humanity.
Forest Royalty, the project for the BMA’s Baker Artist Award Exhibition, has been a few years in the making. I went through a painful breakup early in the pandemic. Hiking is something we used to do together. When she left, I kept hiking, turning it into an almost daily practice. I hike the same trail most days, which allowed me to experience the slow daily shifts of the seasons, and observe the multitude of fungi that exist, often fleetingly. I hiked that trail so many times that even in the winter, when it was snowy and the trail was gone, I mostly knew where I was going.
When friends joined me, it was vulnerable and magical. At some point, I realized I was practicing a walking meditation—an act of present-moment awareness. I started noticing the smallest details, the way nature was in a constant state of flux and incessant change. As I documented the shifts occurring on the forest floor, something inside of me shifted as well.
We’re not taught how to love ourselves or how to heal from trauma. I’ve been doing healing work for many years; I’ve struggled with addiction, childhood trauma, and loss. But the healing that occurred during those daily hikes, because of my spiritual practices, was monumental. What’s interesting is that my creative process is often repetitive and meditative in nature. In my daily hiking and spiritual practice, I, myself, was the work. In visually creating a snapshot of this personal journey for the BMA, I hope to offer the audience a place for quiet reprieve, where nature’s beauty holds space for the connection and healing of all things.
We could say that you make work in and of nature, often with natural materials. Do you like collaborating with the natural world? Do you ever think about an intentional decay process of the work when installing your site-specific outside work?
Nature is my muse. With my installation at Ladew, I was thinking a lot about nature’s unwieldy propensity to overtake things if left alone, and humanity’s propensity to try to tame it. When I installed my two outdoor works, the wildflower meadow they were situated in was mowed to the ground. Over the course of the show, the plants grew up around the art.
The work started as objects out in an open field, and by the time it ended, they were obscured, engulfed. What I did not expect was the degradation of the faux greenery. I thought plastic replicas would be resilient, but that was not entirely the case. I was thrilled however when I removed the work and found a wasp hive among the flowers and real ivy creeping up through the faux. While collaboration and decay have not been concepts I’ve thoroughly thought about, they are concepts I could see working with in the future.
Do you pursue any hobbies in addition to your work? Do you think that these hobbies have any influence on your work or do you view them more as stress relief or a way to unwind?
Camping and hiking are my “go-to” outdoor activities, they offer reprieve and inspiration, a win-win situation. I also enjoy rock climbing, roller skating, hula hooping, dancing, traveling, and live music. I think everything we do in life, including hobbies, teaches us lessons and helps us grow.
Do you have a favorite local restaurant or a go-to order? What is it?
During the pandemic, I started ordering Pappas Seafood grilled or broiled salmon, the veg of the day, and a side salad with their AMAZING ranch dressing, weekly. It’s only 0.4 miles from my house so it’s also very convenient. My favorite splurge/fancy dinner is Linwoods’ sea bass with jumbo lump crab meat over horseradish mashed potatoes, green beans, and lemon butter. Yum!
Would you say that art is inherently therapy for you? Are the two connected at all or is art separate?
For me, art is inherently therapeutic. I always say I need art therapy when I want to go work in the studio. I’m interested in fleshing out my lived experiences and those of others, highlighting the commonalities and struggles among us. I also strongly encourage my students to look to their lived experiences for inspiration. I believe that art can heal and foster understanding. I’m interested in how we can access different meditative flow states, deeper levels of creativity, and problem-solving abilities.
What advice do you have for young artists who want to “have it all”—i.e. a family, an art career, and relative financial stability? How did you decide what was most important to you?
Find an amazing partner. Someone who sees, understands, supports, and encourages you. Freaking life changer!!! Find a job that fulfills you, inspires you, and brings you joy, but allows freedom of time to pursue your creative endeavors. For me this has been teaching. Then find a side hustle, like real estate investing, to create long-term financial wealth and freedom. Actually, maybe it’s best to start with real estate investing first.
One of those eternal questions I get from college art students is how do you find your style? Does having a unified style matter to you as someone with two distinct ways of working?
I think this can be said for anything that we endeavor for: Research! Pay attention to everything, especially the overlooked. Then, take action! You don’t need to know or understand everything before you start. Just make something, play, and open. You will mess up, fail, fall down, and get back up again, over and over. And each time you do, you are becoming more of yourself and finding your inner creative voice.
Do you believe in astrology, and if so, what insights can your signs give our readers into your personality and mindset?
I do. I LOVE my Chani app! Here are some of the things the app says about my signs and placements. They are all on point.
I am Gemini Sun: “You have a unique ability to support folks moving through difficulty in their lives, perhaps through what you say, how you say it, or from drawing from your own experiences and desire to help carry the psychological load of this life. You don’t want others to feel alone and know how hard it is to make it through this life isolated.”
Scorpio Moon: “What you offer is a portal of transformation for others because you are comfortable with discomfort and unafraid of the process of change.”
Virgo Rising: “You’re constantly discerning, making judgment calls, and seeking ways to be of service to others, a level of effort that, when turned inward on your very human and flawed but beautiful self, can devastate.”
What are the last three emojis you used? Have you given up emojis?
Happy, thankful, and heart are my go-to emojis.
Meditation is a big part of your practice. What do you say to people who tell you, “I can’t meditate, I’m too uptight”? What do you tell people that don’t think they can do it?
They call it a practice because it takes time to build the skill of present-moment awareness; no matter how long you’ve been doing it, there will be good days and bad days.
Our brains are constantly processing information. The goal is to become aware of our thoughts and to recognize the way our thoughts impact our bodies and overall health. The first step is to catch yourself thinking. When I do, I gently say “thinking” and then return my focus back to my surroundings, my breath, or my mantra depending on which type of meditation I’m doing. I encourage beginners to try guided meditation, it’s helpful to have someone who keeps gently bringing you back. Eventually, this practice will follow you into your daily life. You will become more aware of your thoughts and able to focus your attention on grateful thoughts rather than fear-based ones. Those that say they can’t do it are probably the ones that need it the most. Start slow, keep going.
Like bumpers in a bowling alley?
Yeah. Just like duckpin bowling. Oh, there you go. Right back in there.
What would your teenage self think of the direction of your life so far?
I think she would be proud of me. For all the struggles I’ve overcome, the love and care I show people, my career in the arts which enables me to inspire, curate, and showcase local talent, and the production of my own art. But mostly, that I finally know with all of my heart that I’m worthy of love and belonging.
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