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Amze Emmons on Forging Opportunities Through Nontraditional Projects

With a strong background in drawing and printmaking, Philadelphia-based artist Amze Emmons spent his early career running a rather unconventional project for an artist. As one of the founding members of Printeresting, a blog launched in 2010 to highlight the most interesting printmaking artists of the day, Emmons and his collaborators built a loyal following of fans who checked in regularly to read their insight into the somewhat obscure medium. That experience led to new opportunities for Emmons, who was frequently invited to curate or comment on shows throughout the country.

Most recently, Emmons was a fellow at the Philadelphia Center for Emerging Visual Artists (CFEVA), where he is currently showcasing a body of work in addition to teaching at the Tyler School of Art. Here, Emmons weighs in on why its important for artists to build up their networks, and look to other creative projects as a jumping off point for their artistic careers.

NM: Tell me about your career trajectory.

Amze Emmons: I got my bachelor’s degree from a small liberal arts college, Ohio Wesleyan University, and spent a few years after school living in Columbus, which in one respect was a great place to be an emerging artist because rent is cheap, but not so great for connecting to larger community of artists. I decided to get an MFA because I was interested in thinking about the context of my work in a more professional way.

I studied printmaking at Iowa and my actual thesis piece was a billboard project. I found a small side street in Iowa City, where a billboard blocked the view of the houses. I figured out the logistics of renting it for a month and made a drawing of what the street would look like without the billboard and had a large printed version of the drawing installed. This kind of public art is often called, ‘plop art’, a creative act dropped into the middle of public space. I was interested in seeing what world would look like with a drawing on a billboard and I wanted to the billboard and neighborhood to be visible in a different way to residents and passersby.

After graduate school, I spent a little time in New York mostly working arts administrative jobs, but this was 2002 and the economy in the city was not in good shape.

So I started pursuing teaching jobs, and after some moving around I’m now an associate professor at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia.

NM: What kind of work do you make today? Are you a full-time artist?

Amze Emmons: I don’t think my work easily fits into any one category. A lot of what I make are drawings, prints, and some installation and paintings. The fine art prints I make are often combinations of etching, screen prints, woodcuts and lithography. Often times I like to employ printmaking techniques in my drawings and paintings, and vice versa. So the work doesn’t fit into a particular category. I’m usually interested in whichever medium will make work I want to see.

The content of my work comes out of a practice of walking and documenting the city. For years I’ve been investigating architecture and place, while thinking about power and agency. Lately, I’ve been trying to present evidence of local cosmopolitanism and tracing the history of material culture objects.

Being an artist is one of my full-time jobs, although it’s not the one that pays my rent.

Amze Emmons
“The Invention of Tradition” (2017), courtesy of the artist.

NM: You have been the recipient of several grants and awards. Can you give us some insight into your best practices for finding funds? Where do you source opportunities and what goes into your application?

Amze Emmons: Websites like NYFA, CFEVA and others sites serve as hubs for finding grants and residencies. These sorts of grants usually are organized locally or nationally. The local grants often involve partnering with a local institution. So being present in your local scene and making connections with not just granting organizations, but other groups that support the arts is very useful.

The key with all of these opportunities is to think of applying as part of your job as an artist. You should apply for these things with no expectation that you’ll get any of them. The odds are always slim, but if you don’t apply the odds are zero.

NM: Tell me about your recent fellowship with CFEVA.

Amze Emmons: I started hearing about CFEVA shortly after moving to Philadelphia, but I wasn’t eligible to apply for fellowship until recently, for various reasons they evolved the definition of what an emerging artist should be. I looked into applying about two years ago. I was lucky enough to be selected and I’m now finishing up my two-year fellowship. During the first year I was awarded a small grant that I put towards supplies. During the second year, you can apply for a special project. Most of the fellows have an exhibition in CFEVA’s gallery or one of the spaces they partner with. I opted to exhibit in their gallery in the Barclay building. CFEVA does many things in Philadelphia, specifically for the fellows they help network with each other, arrange tours of art fairs, set up situations where you get behind the scenes access to larger private collections, and organize group exhibitions around the city.

NM: Why do you think it’s important for artists to apply to these types of programs and grants?

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Amze Emmons: Well, I think artists apply for grants for three reasons: First, the money. Most of us don’t make a living off selling work. The money helps buy equipment or pay for studio rent or framing. Another reason is prestige – most of these programs are often adjudicated by a group of people who have some level of expertise, so beyond money just receiving a grant indicates your work has been judged worthy. Lastly, you and your work are promoted by the granting organization and sometimes the art and local press.

Amze Emmons
“Mattress” (2015), courtesy of the artist.

NM: Why do you think it’s important for artists to build their networks?

Amze Emmons: In business a lot of people network because it can lead to opportunities that are lucrative, but in my experience the arts work in the opposite way; networking often revolves around sharing opportunities and generally being generous toward fellow artists. The art world as a business is a lot like professional sports – 1 percent have huge financial success, and the rest of us make our art and receive modest successes and failures. If you move past the competitive nature of that business model, what is left is a community of people who care about the similar things. And other artists are the people who will come to your openings, give you feedback about your work, that community is where your life as an artist happens. So networking in my experience has revolved around sharing and making opportunities for my fellow artists

NM: What drove you to found printeresting.org? How did you get it off the ground?

Amze Emmons: I worked with two collaborators on that project, RL Tillman and Jason Urban. Printeresting came out of a larger conversation we were having about the kind of arts writing that was and wasn’t happening in the fine art print world. There were only one or two publications covering prints, and most of the writing was about artists who were long dead, already well established, or about the print publishing market. So we decided to create our own venture to fill that gap. None of us had any training at running a publication.

We started with research, we spent a lot of time looking at things and poking around. We ran an unpublished version of the blog for several months before launching it to make sure we knew what we were doing. We were interested in expanding the discourse, so we looked at what was being written about print in design and tech blogs, since they were often talking about print in another context. We were just at the beginning of a graphic design love affair with hand-printed materials. Also, a great deal of painters at the time were using stencils and printing on canvas, and no one was thinking about this work in terms of printmaking. We were also committed to calling attention to artists who weren’t being written about.

The site slowly grew in popularity. We ended up with a small army of volunteer writers who would cover local exhibitions around the country. At a certain point, the whole thing flipped, where the curators and publishers started looking at what we were doing. We were invited to curate a lot of exhibitions and events. We used those opportunities to model ideas we were interested in and to call more attention to emerging artists.

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“Game Theory” (2017), courtesy of the artist.

NM: That’s incredible growth for an indie publication. Did you ever expect it?

Amze Emmons: No, I mean we honestly didn’t think anyone would pay attention to what we were doing. In the first six months, we had 100 people reading the blog in a week’s time. By the time we were winding down, we were getting 30,000 readers a month and regular translation into a dozen languages. For printmaking, that’s huge.

We didn’t so much start out with a plan, as a loose mission; Printeresting was really a generosity project organized around paying attention to the interesting work happening within our community and actively trying to find the edges of what could be part of the conversation around printmaking. The fact that we got attention for doing it was amazing.

NM: How did you make that growth happen? Are you still running Printeresting today?

Amze Emmons: It was a different time, almost 10 years ago. So at the time, it was all through word of mouth, there was no way to easily cross-market anything. We just started a blog and sent an email to 50 friends that we knew in the field that were scattered around the country. As we wrote about artists and found readers, they would let other people know what we were doing. The timing was great because the community was quite hungry for new voices and they wanted to see what was happening.

Eventually, we stopped the project because blogs were getting overtaken by social media, we were more interested in writing long-form essays rather than short posts, and ultimately it was a volunteer project and it was becoming more and more like work.

We stopped blogging in 2015, and organized a different type of project in October of 2016. We tried to take what we liked about blogging and curating and expanded it to capture a deeper attention from our audience both local and online. We organized a month-long confluence of events called Ghost. We started a satellite website and all the writing was focused around a particular topic. Ghost is print jargon, meaning the second print pulled from a matrix, but we were interested in it as a concept, as a jumping off point. We produced about 10 events on that theme working with artists around the country and Europe aimed at regional art audiences.  And we produced an artist book with still more arts writing and creative projects. It was an interesting shift because blogging has a fast food relationship to readers and with Ghost, we were shifting to more of a fine dining. It was a crazy project.

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And this past year, we also just organized a publication/exhibition called COPYING, investigating the question of copying; it was an exchange between a dozen artists in U.S. and Slovenia.

At this point, the Printeresting project is basically wrapped up. We still have a large online archive for the website that has a great history of seven or eight years in contemporary print, and that archive could really use a permanent home.

Amze Emmons
“Street Life Flatpack” (2015), courtesy of the artist.

NM: What are you working on now?

Amze Emmons: My solo show Root Cause Analysis just opened in CFEVA’s gallery. The exhibition includes a new series of drawings and prints. This work is based off of walks around Philadelphia looking at sites of improvisation and exchange.

Besides that, I’ve been organizing an annual conference at Tyler called Print Think. We’re starting to decide if we want to host it again. I was also commissioned to produce an edition for the Print Club of New York in the coming year.

NM: How do you land most of your commissions? Do you pitch frequently?

Amze Emmons: In my experience most serious commission requests have come to me based on people being aware of what I do. In terms of preparing, I actively exhibit my work, put my art on social media where I think it will be well received and try and be a good citizen in my own community. I’ve been making art for a long time and its only recently that things have started to regularly come to me in this way.

NM: What are some of your goals with your work?

Amze Emmons: Mostly, I would just like some more time to work. When you’re first starting out, you have a lot of time and no attention. You can make really big ridiculous things but no one notices. Now, I have a fair amount of attention and much less time to actually things. Most of the work I make these days is already earmarked for a venue or in response to an opportunity, which is a very different way of working than when I first started out. I’d like to be able to experiment more and find new venues that put my work in front of new audiences.

NM: What’s your best advice for emerging artists?

Amze Emmons: Often times when you’re just starting out you’re interested in what other people can do for you. But in my experiences, no one has any reason to stop what they are doing to attend to your needs. I advise flipping the paradigm and asking yourself, ‘What can I do for my community? How can I develop networks of mutual support?’ Galleries and grants – that’s all about competition that you don’t have control over. You do have control over going to openings, organizing shows of artists you like, finding ways to review each other’s artwork. If you lead with an interest in community and generosity, you won’t be bitter and you won’t have alienated all your peers.

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About the author

Nicole Martinez

Nicole is the Managing Editor of Publications at Orangenius. A veteran arts and culture journalist, her work has appeared in Reuters, VICE, Hyperallergic, Univision, and more.

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  • Thank you for this interview. I am an emerging artist in the Denver, CO area, always looking for art business advice. It’s great to hear reinforcement like this. Sometimes it feels like all this time I’m spending on meeting artists, exhibiting for free, etc., might be time better spent making. But, I’ve been putting myself out there more and more and it’s already lead to some exhibition opportunities I wasn’t expecting. I can only imagine that those exhibitions will lead to other opportunities down the road. It’s great to know that I’m actually doing some of the right things. It’s easier to be patient knowing that!

    • Opportunities don’t always present themselves right away! It’s important to stay the course and trust that your work and your place within the community will only grow in prestige over time. Good luck!