By Amy Borkwood
Amy Belanger is a multi-talented artist, working with everything from embroidery to jewellery to printmaking. She lives and works in Halifax, but you can find her work all over Toronto: necklaces at Heart On Your Sleeve, “Canadian Ragdolls” at the Souvenir Shop, or online at Toronto-based goodEGG Industries. We chatted recently about her work and practice, and what has been inspiring her lately.
MONDO: Can you tell me a bit about your background in the arts? I know you went to school at NSCAD, and the first time I saw your work was at the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition this summer. Can you tell me a little more about you and your work?
Amy Belanger: Well, I could go back as far as decorating pumpkins at my birthday parties and feeling like I had an exceptional talent over my five-year-old companions. Soon after those youthful days I was in university for environmental resource studies. I had some great experiences in high school, and after that I travelled and worked on farms. Ultimately, this changed my perspective. I became and remain interested in working as part of a community. There are thoughts that a person is educated to improve herself and therefore become a valued citizen in society; or, conversely, that she can be educated in a community- and society-oriented way to make for a better individual. Both are important. Community involves food, culture, music, and arts. This is where I thrive as an individual…and why I decided to pursue art. I studied textiles at Sheridan College and at NSCAD University in Halifax. I am living in Halifax particularly because there is such an active group of people working for community efforts, at the amazing farmers’ market, on independent projects, and in the scattered little galleries across town.
MONDO: I’ve seen your gorgeous hand-embroidered black-on-white pieces, and your jewellery is all over Toronto. You’ve noted that you’re now working on silkscreened posters and postcards. Can you tell me about all these different projects? What draws you to each new medium? And how is it that you’ve got such diverse, incredible skills?
AB: I was talking with my friend Jordan MacDonald about the work he was doing in ceramics and at the time he was being secretive about his project. I said “Are you not ready to show us your work because you’re too far from finished? Are you still in the development stages?” His reply was that he tries to always be in the development stages. I like that. That’s the best way I can attempt to explain why I enjoy working with a variety of materials and subjects. They all influence the other, the last, or the next. The posters and postcards involve silkscreening images that have been compiled in my sketchbooks. While working on the embroidery pieces that you saw at the Outdoor show, I started collecting sentences or things I would hear on the street, and writing them down as a way to reactivate my mind in the midst of all the time-consuming stitching. This collection turned into something like found-word poetry, I guess. It’s still something I’m playing with — in the developing stages, so to speak. The jewellery you mentioned…are necklaces made from broken tea cups and saucers. Similarly, they started out as a diversion project, using the glass studio at Sheridan to figure out how to make the pendants, while I was in my final year studying textiles.
AB: I have had a lot of time to think about what these pieces mean to me, but I still find this a difficult question to answer. I started filling up pages of my sketchbook with lines and mark-making. This felt foreign and exciting because, although these marks are familiar, they are less distinguishable or relatable to our everyday experiences. The connection to landscapes was from looking out the window of the plane. The fields and rivers made up similar patterns. It was interesting to talk to people at the Outdoor show during this time because people, instead of having personal connections [to the work], made many references to traditional craft and art: Inuit stone carving, Maori tattoos or tribal tattoos, Japanese landscapes, Indian traditional quilting and henna to name a few. The use of line is so prevalent in traditional work. It is a different kind of expression that escapes the physical reality in some way, like matter being broken up into molecules and atoms. I also enjoyed pretending I was a Mayan weaver or visiting an African tribe. The intricacies, simplicity, and universal quality are sometimes devalued or lost in our culture. I found these works so exhausting, but at the same time they are calming and reassuring. There is more to see than what is tangible, decipherable, and right in front of us — and although it’s always in-process, this is what these pieces are about for me at the moment.
MONDO: Why textiles? How were you originally drawn to that medium?
AB: I was working at a summer art program for kids called ArtsKool (good name) after my first year at university for environmental resource studies. I worked for my high-school art teacher, and it was her and a friend and co-worker that convinced me to check out the Craft and Design program at Sheridan College. I think there was less than a month left before fall classes started so I took the first two studios available, which were textiles and ceramics. I really had no idea what they entailed, but I fell in love with textiles immediately! The splashes of colour all over the walls in the mixing room and sinks, the patterns layered all over the drop cloths, the versatility of the material, and their origins and history. Yes, love! Prior to this, my experience with textiles came from an interest in fashion and cultural dress. I used to make a lot of my own clothes and always enjoyed hunting through second-hand stores for interesting finds and fabrics.
MONDO: I’m really interested in your community involvement. Do you consider yourself to be part of an art community, a craft community? How do you combine working as an individual on your own projects with being a member of a specific community?
AB: I am often so inspired by the talent and great work in this little city. A few weeks ago, there was an event called Nocturne, an evening art event. It was fantastic. These are the events that I get most excited about and would be strong in any city. There was so much collaboration: from the event organizers, the individual galleries and participating artists, to the public transportation (free — with art and music en route). Every gallery was full and just walking down the street would take you to another installation, performance, or music in the street.
My involvement thus far includes attending events and being enthusiastic and participating in local crafty fairs. I would definitely love to be more involved in these events — which might involve showing my work here in Halifax. Currently I’m bartering, silkscreening for a local artist, Michelle St. Onge, in exchange for a beautiful textile space. It’s a great opportunity and definitely makes me feel like I’m a part of this craft and art community.
MONDO: Whose work are you influenced by? Which local (Halifax) artists are you interested in right now?
AB: These people are all fantastic: Chris Foster, Lydia K, Laura Dawe, David Harper, Picnicface (comedy team).
MONDO: Are there any other mediums you’re interested in trying out?
AB: All other mediums! I would really like to build a house (cob or straw or wood) actually!