In the July 2015 issue of Mosaique Magazine, my friend and colleague wrote and article about my life and work as an artist- a work in progress. My thanks to Andryea Natkin, and to Renee’ Malaval, the editor of Mosaique Magazine, who shares my passion about mosaic art.
Karen Ami: A Passionate Process
By Andryea Natkin
Passion is the word I’d use to describe Karen Ami. It runs through her veins like blood and takes form in her artwork. Through her drawing, writing or printmaking, her ceramics or mosaics when you look closely at her work, you will understand. She lives her life and creates her art with spirited energy and fervor. Her imagery has a direct and intense organic sensuality – it is full of pain and strength, stimulating, erotic and exciting. Ami comes to this passion honestly. There is always debate about nature versus nurture, about how and why we become whom we do. In Karen’s case, her artistic passion is without question… by nature.
Ami’s life has been unconventional, it has informed her work throughout her career. Born in Chicago, Ami was stolen from her mother immediately after her birth by an unscrupulous social worker and sold her to a social service agency. Her mother, Gilda, a holocaust survivor who had recently immigrated to the United States, was traumatized and began a search that lasted 33 years. A lovely Mid-western family adopted Karen and although her adoption was never a secret she did not learn the circumstances until years later. It became increasingly clear to her growing up that she was not like the rest of her family. From a young age, art was the outlet she found to express the longing for things she did not understand, for the beauty that she could not justify through her words. Ami yearned to find her birth mother. It took 14 long, difficult years of searching until she was reunited with her mother who had also been aching and searching for Karen to ‘come home’. This profound reunion became a pivotal event in both their lives. “Finding my mother affirmed that I was exactly who I was meant to be.” says Ms. Ami. This knowing is vital and crucial to Karen’s work as an artist, mother and woman. It a reference point – a source of inspiration she constantly visits and explores: love, loss, connection, separation, longing, pain and pleasure. As an artist, her quest is to make sense of and strive to understand those things she doesn’t.
Ami was trained at The Boston Museum School, Tufts University (BFA, 1986) and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (MFA, 1995) majoring in ceramics and sculpture. She believes that education serves her everyday as an artist because her study allowed her the time and space to explore and develop her personal artistic vocabulary. Her interest in mosaics began with a study trip to Pompeii at the age of 17 and continued later on in her work with clay creating tiles and breaking them. Ami eventually ‘hit a wall’ artistically because American art schools do not consider mosaic a medium – there are still, today, no university mosaic courses offering technical information, direction or guidance (with the exception of the value and place of mosaics in an art history course). Ami sought to know more… creatively, technically and critically from established, trained artists around the world. Her thirst for knowledge about this art form would take her on a journey that would eventually lead her to establish The Chicago Mosaic School in 2005. Today, it is the worlds only not-for-profit school dedicated to the study of mosaic arts. The school has become a center for learned, practicing mosaic artists whose mission is to educate, inform and support the next generation of artists curious to learn and to work in mosaic.
Many things including music, poetry, literature and dance influence Karen’s artwork. As a young artist, she was influenced by pre-Columbian sculpture and Greek pottery; the paintings of Dali, Botticelli, Bacon and especially the Chicago Imagists (including Jim Nutt and Karl Wirsum) as well as popular culture via underground comics such as Robert Crumb. People are often surprised to learn that Karen is a classically trained painter of realism; yet it makes more sense to learn that at 18, she was one of the youngest working artists at DC Comics, an American comic book publisher in New York City. Her current work has gone from full color to black and white. The creations are captivating in their ambiguity and combine elements of drawing, woodcut, sculpture and mosaic through themes of connection, separation and resilience.
She served as the President Emeritus of the Society of American Mosaic Artists (2007-2010) and has curated numerous local, national and international arts exhibitions. In 2014, she was awarded First Prize Professional in the International Juried Prix Picassiette Exhibition in Chartres, France in addition to being given the title of Gran Cavliere Dell Ordine di San Martino, in Udine, Italy for her contribution to mosaic arts. In 2015, her work was featured in exhibitions in Philadelphia, The Museum of Biblical Art, Dallas and the Museo del Fiume in Nazzano, Italy.
No matter what medium Ami chooses, she always works with an idea, goal or theme. It is an organic process of drawing, sketching and note taking- the goal being to distill the focus before the work begins. Once the piece is started there is more freedom, to learn, discover, take chances, make and allow mistakes to happen. This is her practice. She believes that making art, like living a life, is an evolution with revelation and better understanding. It is the act of creating, doing and making. It is the process that is most important. The finished pieces then help her make sense of her world and it is this she needs to do.
Andryea Natkin studied art at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (BFA 1981) majoring in drawing and art education. She is on staff as a member of the faculty and studio management team at The Chicago Mosaic School and works with The Gallery of Contemporary Mosaics as a co-ordinator and curator. She is also the owner of Tiny Pieces – Mosaic Tools & Supplies, Chicago.