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Art AND: Amanda Burnham

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Amanda Burnham is fearless. I tell her so, looking at stacks of ink drawings piled up and pinned to the walls of her small home studio—cut-apart drawings, shadow-box-framed drawings, highly rendered and barely started drawings.

By fearless, I don’t mean she’s planning a base-jumping trip any time soon (although maybe she is), I mean that Burnham is an artist who has been working steadily in her studio for so long, using materials she is so comfortable with, that fear of failure has left her practice. In here, bent over her small desk and layering pieces of paper onto her walls, she’s free. To improvise, to stick things together that didn’t use to belong, and to start over.

“The reason I love drawing is it’s just so easy for me to fall into a wonderful zone, when I’m reusing that material and I can work quickly if I need to,” Burnham explains. Working digitally as well as in traditional media, she has new freedom to freeze progress at any state and return to it. She works often on large-scale installations, taking her wall-sized drawings and cutting them up to install them in galleries like VisArts, Arlington Arts Center, and other college and community art spaces where she frequently shows work.

“What I love about collage is that you can always save it” to rework and reimagine in a new context, she says. Living with her work all around her in the studio, she has the flexibility to pause and return at will, leaving some pieces pinned behind the door for as long as five years. She feels “nothing is ever failed. It’s just going to take a form that I don’t know about yet.”

Making work for installations that she then dismantles, Burnham looks forward to new pieces coming together. “I love that feeling of being surprised by something you made because you gave yourself distance from it or because you let it live in a pile with a bunch of other stuff, and then you just kind of have the right mindset when you’re looking at it one day,” she says.

 

A Haunting, 2021, mixed-media dimensional collage, 9 x 12 x 1 inches
Mouth Grabber, 2021, mixed-media dimensional collage, 13 x 19 x 1 inches

Her open-ended approach bleeds into other things as well—Burnham admits she went to Harvard University by accident. Once there, she realized she probably could have selected a school better known for art, but as a 17-year-old aspiring artist from the Mississippi Gulf Coast and Toledo, OH (born in Toledo, Burnham lived in Pascagoula from age 4 to 10 and then moved back to Toledo), she didn’t have the preconception to worry about that. She’s honest that she picked the school because it was famous and made it her personal mission to get in. 

After grad school at Yale, where she continued her studies in painting and printmaking, she applied to 75 teaching jobs and was hired by Towson University. Fast forward 15 years, and Burnham is a tenured professor at Towson, teaching painting, drawing, and printmaking, and working as the Foundations Coordinator. She was hired right before the 2008 recession which the education industry has never fully recovered from, and she recognizes that her path—two ivy-league degrees interrupted by a three-year stint in New York City and then a job offer—was difficult in 2007, and is especially hard for today’s graduates to replicate.

Having the same full-time job for 15 years, Burnham has found her routine in the summers, the only break in the calendar where she can spend entire days in the studio. She explains that she “parking lots” her creative ideas for these breaks in time, storing up plans for her drawings while working and taking care of her two kids, and dispensing the ideas in her next studio recess.

A lifelong draftsperson, Burnham credits her mother for “fermenting a sketchbook practice without even knowing it” by buying hundreds of ruled notebooks at the beginning of each school year when they were on sale and doling them out throughout the year. Her parents, who met doing community theater, were supportive of her path to the visual arts, a stance Burnham is replicating with her own children.

While Burnham is absolutely at ease in her own constructed studio world, she has always felt out of place in the larger, monied art world. Arriving on the rarified campuses of the two most aspirational East Coast ivy leagues, she says, “I never felt like I was the right kind of person to be a part of that. I always perceived that wasn’t me at all.” She had trouble connecting with peers who she felt “weren’t interested in any of the ideas I was interested in.” As a result, Burnham returned in her work to the forms of art she has always drawn inspiration from and continues to reference today: magazines, comics, and cartoon TV. After college, she saw anew the value of accessible art that, without the gatekeeping of a gallery space, felt more in line with her values.

Together in her world of paper, Burnham and I discussed how her love of running assists her problem-solving in the studio, her collaborative sabbatical project with her husband, the writer Adam Hossein Fuller, and why the Disney animated movie Robin Hood still holds up today.

 

SUBJECT: Amanda Burnham, 43
PLACE: Waverly
WEARING: A thrifted shirt, Joe’s jeans, Justin western boots, gold earrings from Hunting Ground

 

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading? 

Amanda Burnham: Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction comics and graphic memoirs (as research for the classes I’m teaching and the book I’m working on, but also because my tastes run this way). The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui is astonishing, and The Arab of the Future series by Riad Sattouf is witty and gut-wrenching and just expertly crafted all at once. 

I can’t remember when I first read The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, but discovering it helped me articulate the intense draw I felt to the dense, mixed-use urban corridors of the East Coast when I moved here from the Midwest, and opened the door to a field of knowledge with which I had previously been unfamiliar. Another writer I love is John Stilgoe—all of his stuff is great, but Landscape and Images was where I started, and his fascination with looking closely at the weird stuff around us and unraveling histories in the built environment resonates with me. 

Not a book, but I’m an avid reader of the employee-owned website Defector, which is the venture created by the ex-employees of Deadspin who all walked off the job on the same day in the wake of editorially intrusive practices by their idiot vulture-capital overlords. I loved Deadspin, too, and I find this origin story just so thrilling and inspiring. They have the best editorial voice, an absolutely fantastic roster of writers. Everyone should support them because this is one of the glimmers of hope for future journalism.

You list your earliest influences as cartoons, MAD magazine, and graphic novels. What about these ephemeral forms of popular culture captivated and continue to influence you?

We had a wonderful museum in Toledo, where I grew up, that had and continues to have an excellent, wide-ranging collection, and I liked going there, but cartoons simply felt more relevant to me. I could look at them whenever I wanted and they were made with tools I also had. And as a kid, from the standpoint of content, I appreciated that I felt like I was the audience for them. 

The fact of my continued love for the graphic idiom of cartoons is a bit of a chicken and egg situation: some of it probably has to do with the simple fact that this was the first art that I was exposed to and immersed in. But I think there is more to it for me than that—comics and cartoons in particular feel like a sandbox without restrictions. More generally, I love how marks made with a pen are at once totally familiar, widely accessible, and yet so potentially impactful: bold, loud, potent, declarative. And I love how autographic those marks can be—how close they are to handwriting, how specific and intimate. 

As a lover of this kind of popular culture, could you list a couple of your all-time favorites?

The absolute least cool stuff! Sunday funnies, Garfield books, Mort Drucker, MAD fold-ins, editorial comics. I used to VHS-record Muppet Babies and Tom and Jerry and try to pause/unpause as quickly as possible so I could try to copy the frames. I watched the Disney version of Robin Hood every day for a year when I was, like, five. 

I really wanted to be an animator. I was laser-focused on it, but once I got old enough to understand the industry and what was involved, I realized how process–driven and laborious it is, and my brain is absolutely not built for that.

Of the stuff I consumed as a kid, things like Calvin and Hobbes and old Looney Toons shorts absolutely hold up and I continue to adore them. I’m enjoying them anew as I introduce them to my kids. (And, frankly, Robin Hood. It rules!)

Oh, and Lynda Barry is a goddamned genius and forever inspiration. I aspire to a fraction of her amazingness. That is the best work I know and the kind of work I want to make. 

Sorry to lose the plot on you here, but why Robin Hood? It isn’t the most critically acclaimed or best-reviewed movie from that era by a long shot…

It’s just totally light and charming! Great songs, great characters. It’s absolutely not Disney’s “best” work—it came out at a time when Disney’s animation studios were considered by critics to be in a cost-cutting slump—but when I was a kid I had no idea about that. I just loved it. To be clear, I love ALL big studio feature animation, golden age and beyond. I have rewatched most pre-CGI Disney and Bluth films many times, but that one was the first that I ever fell in love with. Rewatching as an adult, the music and dance numbers are still great, and I really like that the protagonists aren’t self-obsessed princesses!

 

Installation view of "Jump Cut," solo exhibition at CCBC Catonsville, Fall 2021. Photo credit: Joseph Hyde
Nothing is ever failed. It's just going to take a form that I don't know about yet.
Amanda Burnham

Would you classify yourself as an illustrator or fine artist or draftsperson? You also make immersive installations of your drawings and light them, so maybe you identify as an installation artist mostly? Plus you’re working on a memoir with your partner, Adam.

I classify myself as an artist, though I’ve always felt slightly uncomfortable with the fine art world. As much as I love making and looking at art, I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider in that milieu. I never knew anyone who made their living (or aspired to make a living) as an artist until I was in college. I didn’t know that was a thing, and when I got there I was surrounded by people the same age as me who were somehow light-years more sophisticated and in the know than I was. Many of them just seemed like jerks. It felt impossible to be a part of that, and I also didn’t really want to be—I like all the trashy stuff I like! Anyways, I’ve never really shaken that feeling. 

Absolutely fair.

While I make a lot of different types of work, I classify all of it as drawing because, really, the only thing that varies is the substrate. Whether it’s a big wonky wall collage, a book of portraits from C-span feeds, a comic, a drawing with pop-up elements, or a more traditional plein-air landscape drawing—it’s all line, and it’s all a process of exploration through a line. 

You’ve been a professor at Towson for 15 years now. Are there any summations you can make about the changes in the student bodies that you’ve experienced? 

They are a lot more practical. They’re driven, but they’re not starry-eyed; they’re much more risk-averse, more anxious. We live in a pretty chaotic world, so it makes sense. I find the degree to which they’re able to rise to the challenges presented to them incredibly impressive, but it sucks what they have to deal with. It’s not fair. 

Because you’re a full-time educator with administrative responsibilities too, your life naturally follows the rhythm of the academic year. How do you get work done in the studio?

The summers are the big pushes. That’s when I can buckle down and have a lot of full days in my studio. I use that time to build momentum and then the goal during the year is to keep the momentum going in any way possible. In the past that has been by putting things on my calendar that I have to do in a limited space of time, like an installation-driven show. I find site-specific work exciting because I get into a making mindset that I can’t get into any other way than by being in a place for a week and starting with just the materials and then having to do it.

I really thrive on those injections of energy throughout the year—they buoy other kinds of making. The improvisational nature of my installation work, in particular, generates so many ideas—I find my mind going in all kinds of directions while I’m moving and drawing at such a rapid pace, and in such a physical way.

Now I have kids, so I have to be a little more choosy, in terms of not being able to always go away [to do residencies and other professional opportunities]. I try to have one or two projects a year. 

Aside from that, during the school year, the dream is to have at least one day a week as an uninterrupted studio day. It doesn’t always work out. Sometimes it’s half a day or two halves of a day or late in the evening or early in the morning. I squeeze things in at odd hours, make notes or sketches during meetings.

I’ve just gotten off of sabbatical, which was a moment, like summers usually are, that allowed me to drill down. This time it was particularly important as my sabbatical project is a major departure from my past work.

 

Installation view of solo exhibition at The Studios of Key West, spring 2022
Diving In, 2021, mixed-media dimensional collage, 8 x 10 x 1 inches
It's all your fault, 2019, ink and collage on cut and folded paper, 11 x 14 x 3 inches. Photo credit: Joseph Hyde

Tell me about your sabbatical project, this collaborative project with Adam. How did the project come about and how did you divide up the work to make it happen?

We’re working on a graphic memoir; he’s writing, I’m drawing. During the pandemic, Adam started to concertedly research and write about his life. It was largely born out of becoming a father for the first time, I think.

He never knew his own father—his dad was an engineer in the Royal Iranian Air Force, and briefly came to the US in the ‘70s for training as part of an agreement with the US and Iranian militaries (which were friendly at the time.) That’s where he met Adam’s mom—on an Air Force base. What he knew about his father and his father’s relationship with his mother was based solely on what she told him and tempered by what his stepfather considered acceptable for him to know. So what Adam knew was minimal, and a bit misleading.

Regardless, in Iran, the Revolution took hold, the Shah fell, the hostage crisis happened, the Iran-Iraq War broke out, and the subsequent souring of US-Iran relations put an end to any hope he had of ever returning. Adam just assumed his father had died in the war.

At some point, while he was doing this excavation of his father and meditation on how that reality of his existence reverberates through to our family life in the present, he gave me a short piece to read, a fragment really. It struck me as incredibly visual—I saw it wholesale in my head with images, and I asked if he’d let me try to draw it. He agreed, and we were both pretty excited by the results. From there came the idea to develop this into a full-length graphic memoir. 

The script is about 80% done, and the stylistic approach is pretty well evolved at this point. That took a long time. There are about 60 polished pages with a lot more to come. Our process is very back and forth—when I draw things, that suggests edits to him, and vice versa. It will be some time before we reach the finish.

We’re still processing some of the absolutely bonkers things that have happened since Adam actually found and contacted his father two years ago. And things are still developing on an almost day-to-day basis—there’s a new revolution breaking out in Iran right now, and it obviously directly affects this massive family that, for the past 45 years, he didn’t know he had over there. Setting aside the fact that this is something so personal to us that we’re obviously invested, I’m absolutely fascinated by this story. And, this way of working just feels right. It’s the most excited I’ve been about a project in a long, long time.

Amanda Burnham in her studio, photo by Justin Tsucalas for BmoreArt Issue 14

You mentioned you’re a runner. Can you talk a little bit about how long you’ve been doing that? Does it have any influence or impact on your practice or is it just something you do for your health?

It’s very important to my practice. It’s very important to my mental health, too. I started around the time I moved to Baltimore; I didn’t want to pay for a gym membership and I also don’t like going to the gym; it’s so hermetic. I used to say I didn’t like having a studio for the same reason—I much preferred drawing outside because the studio felt so still and closed off. Before I moved here, when I lived in New York, I did all my drawings in places I could linger, just in coffee shops or restaurants or anywhere that they wouldn’t kick me out. When I am in the studio, I’ll play podcasts, or have a baseball game on in the background. Sports are nice to have on because they don’t demand too much of you, but I find the ambient crowd noise and the rhythms of play comforting and stimulating at the same time.

Anyways, I started running, and then I continued, because it fit nicely with my addictive personality, but it wasn’t actually bad for me, like so many addictive things are. And I needed to do something to be a healthy person mentally. I found that it was the most effective thing for that—not only does it calm me down and make me less anxious, but it creates so much space to think. As I got into it, I found that I loved picking routes at random, guided simply by a desire for novelty—I’d seek out streets I’d never turned down or compelling things to look at. And in so doing, I’d find things I wanted to come back and draw.

I also found that the pace of running was this perfect balance—slow enough that you can take things fully in, fast enough that you can take a lot in. I love the way I’ll find myself focusing on something during a run, and will get to see it in contrast with a steadily shifting ground as it comes into and then out of view. This has had a lot of impact on my compositional aesthetic, my reliance on collage.

Do you pursue any other hobbies? Do you think that these hobbies have any influence or impact on your work or do you view them more as a stress relief or way to unwind?

I watch an inordinate amount of sports. I’m a sicko for any kind of athletic competition. I will absolutely mainline the Olympics whenever they are on and do nothing else until they are over. I love the storylines, the intensity, the community. Love, just love a stadium, any stadium. Sports are how I best connect with my family. 

It’s definitely in line with the kind of choices I make in my work if I think about it—my preference for big loud things, for contrast, for crowds, for creating ridiculous parameters for making some huge thing and then having to pull it off. Every time I manage to finish an installation it feels like a successful Hail Mary. 

Do you have a favorite local restaurant or a go-to order? What is it?

We get the Idlewylde Family Tour with a bunch of sides and extra pita at Villagio Cafe on York Road probably once a month. That place is great. 

I’m also a huge stan for pineapple and jalapeño as pizza toppings. These are elite pizza toppings. Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it! We get it from Homeslyce, mostly. Oh, and I’ve recently discovered palak paneer pizza at Charles Village Pizza & Subs, and it’s life-changing.

If anyone has a non-Chipotle mission-style burrito place in this area that they’d recommend, please tell me. There was a burrito cart called Roomba years ago when I lived in New Haven, and I still have dreams about it. I would give anything to get my hands back on one of those burritos. God.

 

Self Care, 2021, mixed-media dimensional collage: ink, watercolor, acrylic, digital, 26.5 x 20 x 1 inches. Photo credit: Joseph Hyde

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 and work to achieve it?

Realize that you are doing your work when you are living your life. You’re thinking about your work even when you’re not making it, and the things you do, the people you spend your time with, will bleed into and inform that work. Lean into that, make time where you can, and don’t be hard on yourself when it feels like you could be logging more studio hours. Sometimes good work can take years to germinate, and that’s okay.

I discovered relatively early that I liked teaching, and that it generally energizes me rather than draining me. In weighing the (financially difficult) decision to go to graduate school, the thing that clinched it was that I knew it was necessary to teach in higher ed, and I wanted a chance at that stability, as well as that relative flexibility, intellectual challenge, and community. This was before the financial crash in 2008, and if I had it to do again today, I’d make a different decision—the academic job market is so precarious. 

It’s not selling out to want stability. It’s necessary to have any kind of headspace to make things. Having that headspace is such an immense privilege, and the idea that somehow sacrifice and total commitment to the practice are necessary to making art seems to me an idea perpetrated by gatekeepers who never had to worry about where their next rent check was coming from in the first place. 

How do you give yourself the freedom in the studio to make decisions? Your work is so improvisational.

I rely upon drawing because it’s an instantaneous portal to the most wonderful, generative mindset. I can fall into it with no preparation or planning and do anything! Now that I’m working with digital tools as well, I can preserve things at a certain state if I feel like it, which creates even more permission to mess around and try things. That’s what I love about collage as a strategy: nothing is ever failed. There’s this mess of a piece up on the wall behind the door of my studio right now. I don’t like it, but I know that maybe in five years I’ll know what to do with it, and it will hit me suddenly—just snap into place. That’s why my walls are so maximalist, why I save everything. I like having things up around me—being able to walk into my studio and go, oh, now, I see it. Knowing that nothing is ever failed. It’s just gonna take a form that I don’t know about yet.

Do you believe in astrology and if so, what insights can your signs give our readers into your personality and mindset?

Lol, no. It’s tempting to lightly troll my (very rationally minded, scientifically trained) partner and act like I do, though! I’m a Leo and I have no idea what that means. I’m fiery or something? 

What are the last three emojis you used? Have you given up emojis?

No, I will never give up emojis, just like I will never give up animated gifs, and that’s how you know that I’m old. The last three emojis I used are the 😬 gritted teeth/yikes emoji (which I use probably 27 times a day) the 🤷‍♀️ lady-shrugging emoji, and the 🏈 football emoji (yesterday was Sunday, what can I say.)

What would your teenage self think about the direction of your life so far?

I think my teenage self would be pleasantly surprised, albeit shocked that I ended up doing something that requires so much interpersonal interaction and performance! I was cripplingly shy as a teenager. 

I wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self to chill the hell out, and maybe encourage her towards some better habits. But one of the nice things about having a happy present is that you can rationalize every mistake or cringey thing you ever did as being an unavoidable step towards the life you currently appreciate. 

 

"Interdependent." Installation view of a site specific work made for the True/False Film Festival at the Orr Street Gallery, Columbia, Missouri, winter 2022

Art images courtesy of the artist. Photo of the artist by Justin Tsucalas for BmoreArt.

This story is from Issue 14: Environment, available here.

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