Vermont Arts Council

Both Scientific and Mystical

“My husband and I have traveled widely…”

So opens Amanda Amend’s artist statement for “Viajes (Travels).” It’s true; the couple has covered some ground. All over the U.S. and Europe. North Africa. Central America. But when you talk to Amanda about her watercolors, you hear of another journey: her move away from the Pluperfect Subjunctive.

Nine years ago, Amanda was teaching Spanish. She remembers being “totally engrossed in teaching at the time.” She was also ready for change, describing her career as “having a ‘been there, done that feeling.'” While sitting on a swing at the Burlington waterfront one day, she was struck she needed something else to do.

“I saw some people scuba diving; I think they were collecting water samples or something. I realized, like a bolt of lightning, ‘they don’t care about Spanish grammar!'” Most days, it seemed Spanish grammar was all Amanda cared about. She remembers thinking, “I need a hobby. I need to branch out. I need to think about something besides the Pluperfect Subjunctive.” In other words, “My head was totally in a microcosm, and I needed a macrocosm.” On a whim, she took an introductory course on drawing and painting taught by Robert Huntoon. She was entranced.

inside of studio

You Can Do That?

Another lightning bolt thought came during her third ten-week session. A fellow student asked Amanda if she painted between classes. Amanda recalls the jolt. “You can do that?” Now she laughs at her response. All she needed was permission to start “playing around with (painting) at home.”

She began to make drawings and watercolors on the dining room table. Painting was a hobby, then more. It became an idea for something to do in retirement. She and her husband converted a room in their home “when it became apparent that I was serious about this and really needed the space.” She knew, because “the process had become so encompassing.”

Far away from, “You can do that?” Amanda can explain exactly how she does it. She is immersed in the craft. She is making paintings of landscapes and birds, barn boards and windows. And clouds. “I’m a cloud person,” she says.

Not a Waste

Watercolors are hard. There are a lot of variables and details to understand before the paint will begin to do what you want. “The magic of watercolor happens when you work on wet paper,” but the paper is drying “with each minute that passes.” Paint diffuses through the paper at different rates. Some pigments are transparent, some stain. On one particularly frustrating day, Amanda heard herself think, “Wait a minute. You know how to do this; you’re a violinist.”

“I realized I intuitively knew how I could put this together.” She explained, “When you’re a violinist, you spend hundreds of hours just practicing bow strokes. You spend hundreds of hours practicing just fingering, then putting those together in a coordinated way. Then, those physical skills are put into a complex whole – a piece of music. A phrase fits into a larger section of music, which then has to fit into an even larger section of music. The dynamics, the key of the piece… all of that equates to painting. The key equates to color choice. Dynamics equate to values. That whole piece about the technique – putting the left hand and the right hand together is about how wet is the paper, what brush are you using, what brush stroke are you using?”

watercolor painting

Amanda went through “stacks and stacks of paper” until she figured out how the medium worked. “I would try different papers — try them at different degrees of wetness. I would try all these variables. Slowly, through practice, experimentation, and imagining how things would build up… I figured out how to make a painting work. I don’t think I could have done any of that had I not had all those years of methodical training in music.”

Amanda was once a professional musician, but doesn’t play violin anymore. When she shared with a former teacher that “not a moment was wasted,” he said he has heard that before.

Beyond Technique, It’s Spiritual

Once the paint will behave, there are other considerations. Amanda talks about those. “Composition is huge.” Of course she mentions clouds, noting, “Every place that’s dark establishes a value pattern. The composition of that value pattern has to be strong.” What she wants to make clear is this: “It’s not random! …the practice for each painting is for me to decide ‘what do I want to elicit from the viewer? What do I want to capture or suggest? Why am I painting it? And what colors will best evoke that? What paint properties will I want to use?'” With specific effects in mind, Amanda works thoughtfully.

What She Wants

Amanda can say exactly why she paints. “Living in a state of wonder, exploration, joy, and reverence for the beauty of the world around me is where I want to be.” She found the thing she was looking for. “It does exactly what I wanted it to do that day on the waterfront. Painting connects the inside world — emotions, musings, insight — to the outside world, and the connection is very deep in both directions. My world is twenty times bigger than ever because of the play between the inner and outer.” She believes that learning to paint is really learning to see. “I had never seen; I never looked so deeply before as when I started wondering how to paint what I was seeing. It’s both a microscope and a telescope.”

I tell her looking at “Rock Pond Triptych” makes me feel peace. She’s excited. “That’s what I want it to do!” She’s happy about the connection. “People do respond to my work. It’s exciting to see they are getting the mystery that I see in the world. …what I’m trying to do is blur the edges between the physical and the spiritual.” She adds, “It’s both scientific and mystical.”

See what you find and bear witness to Amanda’s journey. The show is in the spotlight gallery from now until August 26. The opening is July 7.

More about the exhibit
Watercolors by Amanda Amend

Susan McDowell

“On the River”