Patricia Amlin: Artist-Activist Paints from her Visual Experience
Patricia Amlin stands in her studio on Upper Canyon Road, mixing oil paints on a palette and contemplating her latest canvas. She steps back from the work, an ice-blue landscape of a mountain that is simultaneously representational and abstract. She crosses the room until she finds a spot some distance from her painting, giving her a sense of how she saw it when it first came to her – outside, on a snowy mountain, easel mounted en plein air and ready to capture the best of what nature has to offer.
A painter since she could hold a brush in her hands, Amlin revealed her prodigious talent at the precocious age of ten, when she won a state-wide painting contest that earned her a scholarship to the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago.
Graduating from the Art Institute, Amlin enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, where she studied painting and drawing before leaving to attend the Minneapolis School of Art. Following a professor’s advice that she needed to go back east, she next enrolled in the Skohegan School of Painting in Maine.
There, Amlin was introduced to the New York School, studying under the likes of Max Weber and George Grosz and others. Though Amlin had already had shows in Chicago throughout her schooling there, it was her association with Skohegan that earned her her first New York show at the Midtown Gallery when she was just 21.
That same year, Amlin was awarded a Fullbright scholarship to study at the Art Academy in Munich for a year, though she remained in Europe for almost four years. Upon her return to the United States at the age of 25, Amlin enrolled in graduate studies Syracuse University where she also taught fine art painting.
With her studies completed, she began to follow an ever-evolving pathway whereby her visual experiences of the world would lead her to the next step in her artistic career. It began in the summer of 1963, when a parade of students and activists who were involved in the civil rights movement passed by her doorstep.
“It was the sight of them that intrigued me,” Amlin would say later. “I could’ve read a thousand manifestoes and not been so moved. Everything they had to say to me made me wake up with a desire to right all these wrongs. I could visualize a future where things were different and I wanted to work towards it, right away.”
Thus was born Amlin’s career as an artist-activist, a journey that she would follow throughout the rest of her career. Soon after, Amlin was seen protesting on television and she was let go from her teaching position at Syracuse, so she joined the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project whose purpose was to register as many African-American voters as possible. By the end of the summer, Amlin was among a handful of students who chose to stay in Mississippi to continue the work of registering voters and teaching basic literacy. Amlin also applied for work at a local school, Rusk College, where she was hired to be the chairwoman of the art department.
While in Mississippi, she taught painting, art history and world literature and continue to paint in the hallway of a barracks. As the movement unfolded around her, Amlin had decided that painting was elitist and she opted to be a film-maker instead.
“Film-making provided me with the ability to see people in movement and then follow them with the camera, telling stories about what was really happening in the world at the time,” she said.
She married her first husband while still in Mississippi and moved with him to Berkeley, CA. She soon made a number of films related to the movement, including The Day We Seized the Streets in Oakland in 1968, and The Spirit of the People is Greater Than the Man’s Technology in 1969. But in 1970, Amlin’s attention had captured by a more pressing topic when she visited Tika, Guatemala and saw Mayan ruins and artifacts for the first time.
What she saw in those artifacts led her to a belief that Mayan pottery contained the story of Mayan creation, known as the Popul Voh. She decided that she wanted to make a movie about the Popul Vuh, using the pottery as a vehicle in a full-length animated film. Returning to Berkeley that same year, she enrolled in graduate studies at San Francisco State University, where she earned a Master’s in Cinema. Joining the faculty at SFSU in 1973, it would take twenty years for her to achieve her goal, realized when she made the critically acclaimed animated film, Popul Voh, the Creation Myth of the Mayas, as well as a follow-up film The Five Suns: A Sacred History of Mexico. Both films were highly successful at combining scholarly rigor to the histories they covered with great artistry and beauty in their execution. Both ultimately showed on PBS and on college campuses around the world.
Today, Amlin is embarking on a new stage of her career as a visual artist, one again as a painter. Her canvasses are comprised of two different styles of work that are intended to communicate similar themes – the en plein air paintings that’s she been making for most of her adult life, as well as a new style of painting inspired by a trip to the Amazonian rain forest. Both form offer new ways of seeing and experiencing the natural world.
“I stood on the edge of a natural bridge high above the trees in the rain forest,” she said. “From there I could see a new kind of landscape from above.” This new seeing resulted in her latest series of paintings that express the look of what is below from above. This particular vision gives many of her paintings a “sky’s eye” view of the world from above, resulting in canvasses that offer a cacophony of both abstract and representational viewpoints of the world below.
In her en plein air paintings, Amlin travels to the natural scenes she wishes to portray and labors to capture both the literal representation of the scene as well as the abstract expressionism that the scene offers to her eye and brush. Through both forms of painting, Amlin is trying to communicate the immediacy of nature and the divine intelligence at work behind the design of the world.