Young artists often wonder whether an MFA education is an essential component to develop a successful career in the arts. For figurative painter Amy Hughes, a Masters degree has allowed her to develop both the technical and practical expertise needed to navigate a sometimes cutthroat New York art scene.
Hughes was born in Leicestershire, a city in the East Midlands of Great Britain, but spent most of her childhood growing up in the rural area of Cheshire. The dreary landscapes of her youth informed her artistic practice, which is often moody and decidedly provocative. Her work is deeply personal and draws on the experience of growing up as an only child: Recent works depict a young girl wrapped in a plastic sheath, bringing themes of female objectification and sexuality to the fore.
Since graduating from the New York Academy of Art, Hughes has been pleasantly surprised to find that the experience has led to opportunities to show her work. This month, Hughes will present “Pure,” a solo show at New York’s Miranda Kuo gallery; she has another solo show slated at The Greenpoint Gallery in Brooklyn later this year. In fact, Hughes has shown steadily since landing in New York for her studies, a move she cites as extremely consequential to her growth as an artist. Here, Hughes reflects on fledgling career, while sharing her insight on the many challenges and frustrations facing emerging artists today.
Amy Hughes’ Early Life and Career
NM: What made you want to become a painter? What was your first experience with art?
Amy Hughes: Actually my earliest memory is an art-related memory! I was always a well-behaved child, but one day at nursery we were making little frogs out of clay and painting them. They provided two pots with two different shades of green to paint them with. Well, I clearly wasn’t very satisfied with the greens we were given, because I mixed them together to make a more realistic “frog-color.” I got into a lot of trouble for it because apparently, I’d “ruined it for all the other children!” I like to think I was just intuitively mixing colors! Even though my parents are not artists, they always encouraged me to be creative and paint, so I think it’s always been there!
NM: Why are you so drawn to figurative painting?
Amy Hughes: For as long as I can remember, I have always been obsessive about depicting the body, particularly my own. Even when it wasn’t “trendy” in the art world, I didn’t care; I just had this innate desire to paint it.
I am just so fascinated by this vessel we were given, this physical fleshy thing that lends itself so well to oil paint. And at the same time, I’m fascinated with the relationship of body and mind, namely my relationship to my body and society’s relationship to it.
NM: What are your inspirations when creating work? How do you apply a conceptual lean to your process?
Amy Hughes: My favorite living contemporary artist is Jenny Saville; her enormous fleshy figurative paintings are so visceral and simply incredible. I admire the way her figures refuse to fit within the constraints of the canvas and art history.
I draw from my own experiences, particularly as a woman, and also from current events happening around the world. We know that our personal experiences hugely shape who we are, just as a large part of it is how society conditions us to view ourselves. My work is part autobiographical and part socio-political.
NM: What steps did you take to achieve this dream?
Amy Hughes: I studied Fine Art at Liverpool Hope University in the UK, but undergraduate courses in the UK these days are largely concerned with ideas and not so much emphasis is put on the technical language anymore. I was largely self-taught technically speaking. So from that point onwards, I made sure everything I did was to further my skill-set whether it was practicing drawing from life or taking the leap to study on the MFA program at the New York Academy of Art.
NM: How has your work evolved over the years?
Amy Hughes: I know my work will always continue to evolve, as my ideas develop conceptually, my technical ability has massively too. Now I try to paint in a way that is in service of the concept, instead of it being the only way I know how. One thing remains though, I have always been painting the human form in one way or another, whether that was more in the literal sense, or painting meat/food acting as a surrogate for the female body.
NM: I understand you’ve won awards for your work. How has winning that award impacted your career?
Amy Hughes: At my Fine Art degree show in 2013, the Liverpool Women’s Hospital (UK) saw my painting and awarded their purchase prize in exchange for the piece. The piece remains in their private collection alongside winners of the Liverpool Biennial, on display in the main atrium. I think that was the moment when I knew I was no longer just a “recent graduate.” Even though I didn’t necessarily “apply” to this particular one, I think it is important to enter competitions because often your work is exposed to a wider audience, beyond that of just the gallery-goers. And prizes can often be cash prizes, which, like grants, are imperative for artists.
NM: Tell me about your decision to move to New York. What was the impetus?
Amy Hughes: Given that New York is at the forefront of the art world, I knew it was where my work needed to be. The MFA program at the New York Academy of Art was such a pull-factor too, because I really hadn’t seen anything like it anywhere else in the world. Their renowned artist-faculty, the emphasis on both the conceptual aspects of your work and the technical by way of rigorous classes, and the fact that their events are such iconic events in the art world sold it for me. I can honestly say it was the best thing I ever did: the NYAA community is truly second to none. Being an artist can be quite lonely at times and having a solid community around you is so important.
NM: Why did you feel it was valuable to get a Masters in fine art? How has that impacted your success?
Amy Hughes: Getting a Masters is a good indicator that you can work and study to a much higher level, and it’s great to have that kind of qualification under your belt. For me, it was much more about the experience and the community.
Navigating Art-Making with Business Savvy
NM: Do you feel that your education has prepared you to manage the business aspect of your career?
Amy Hughes: I think it prepared me a lot for networking, writing grants, and just general administrative tasks that sometimes you can forget about when you just want to make work! At the New York Academy of Art we had a great professional practice boot camp with artist Sharon Louden. I feel you can never have too much business advice!
NM: You noted that you’ve participated in a variety of group shows in New York. How did those opportunities come about? Did you actively seek them?
Amy Hughes: Some come from people seeing my work in other shows, and some still come from open calls/competitions I enter. These days, I only submit work to open calls that I think my work would truly fit in.
NM: Why are you drawn to a career in New York?
Amy Hughes: I think rather like London, it’s at the center of so much that is going on in the art world, and there’s a great variety of work in the contemporary galleries. While living in New York studying and working as an artist, opportunities just naturally continued to present themselves to me.
NM: Tell me about selling your work to Sotheby’s. How did that come about?
Amy Hughes: This was at NYAA’s iconic curated-auction/event “Take Home a Nude” held at Sotheby’s auction house, NYC. I submitted a painting that was selected and it was hung alongside other artists like Eric Fischl and Yoko Ono. Some buyers even fought over the piece, it was such an honor!
NM: What are some of the biggest rewards and challenges facing you as a young artist today?
Amy Hughes: There are never enough hours in the day! I find it hard to manage getting out and attending all the openings because there never seems to be enough studio hours anyway! The most rewarding is without doubt having someone connect and respond to your work in a real emotional way. That is ultimately what we all really want, to feel connected.
NM: How do you balance teaching with art making?
Amy Hughes: I find teaching to be extremely rewarding, seeing the students progress reaffirms a lot of things in your own mind and allows you to return to your own work more objectively too, so I don’t resent the time it takes up at all. To impart your knowledge on to others, in order to broaden their minds, makes it one of the best jobs in the world!
To learn more about Amy Hughes, visit her Orangenius profile.