Amy Crehore has had a long and storied journey as a banjo-playing painter with an illustrious illustration career. Her paintings are award-winning, her music harkens back to a simpler time, she's painted on ukuleles and designed some instruments herself, and her cheeky paintings weave narrative threads of innocence, timelessness and relationships. We caught up with Amy Crehore, who is clearly more than a triple threat, to get the scoop on her latest achievements and the history of her iconic aesthetic, which draws influence from European art history.
Kristin Farr: You seem to be attracted to a vintage aesthetic. What do you think is rich and special about the past that is lacking today?
Amy Crehore: I have always been attracted to old things. It is fun and satisfying to collect things like antique musical instruments and to get to know their history. I even like new items that are based on vintage designs. A hundred years ago or so, there seemed to be more emphasis on craftsmanship and use of quality materials. There was a real desire for beauty and classic design in art and architecture. There were more paintings on magazine covers and beautifully printed, illustrated books. Figurative art was everywhere and not questioned as to its importance. I also really like the jazzy and bluesy music of that era.
Tell us about your band.
We’re called The Hokum Scorchers. I play the washboard mainly, and a little bit of tenor banjo. My husband, Lou, plays guitar and other instruments, including the uke, he’s the true musician and has been doing hokum music (jug band, blues, rags) since he was a teen. It was something we did a lot of during the 1990s, playing at festivals around the northwest and at a few of Ken Kesey’s events (when he was alive). We made a rare appearance at the opening of my solo show, Dreamgirls and Ukes, in Los Angeles nine years ago. Our music is from the 1920s, same era as the antique ukuleles that I painted for that show to accompany my paintings. Some of our early recordings can be found on soundcloud.
Can you describe a specific painting of yours and how it related to your personal life?
I come up with my compositions intuitively by tapping into my own memories of what things look and feel like. Although I will use reference materials sometimes in the process, I don’t use models and I mainly draw from memory. For instance, my memories of how it felt when I was younger and more innocent, hanging out in my own body, being awkward, having relationships or being alone. I’ll use my memory of my cat’s daily poses, my memory of landscapes that I have walked through and places that I have been. I mostly draw from my head and erase a lot, rearranging elements and feeling things out, giving my characters invented bodies, faces, body language and relationships with each other. On canvas, I’ll flesh out my line drawings with many layers of paint until I arrive at a sort of realism. It is an imaginary world and the figures in my pictures are really just symbols of people. Narratives come about during the process of designing and balancing the compositions. What you see in the end is fiction. Although I make use of my own memories and feelings to accomplish the work, it is hard to describe a specific example related to a personal experience.
Why do you paint nude women?
A nude woman has always been a symbol of beauty in art and also makes for a nice design. My approach is classical and traditional, based on art history (more European than American). My girls are just doing their thing, au naturel.
Do you intentionally make your work feel timeless?
I guess I have a natural style without thinking too much about it. But, I also have an awareness of what makes art timeless, and that is a great compliment.
Why is the pierrot clown character one that resonates with you?
In 1984, when I still lived back east in Richmond, VA, I came across a tin type of an ancestor of mine, an actor who was wearing a white clown outfit with a white pointy hat. It looked more elegant than the typical American clown attire. For this reason, I liked it and I made a large canvas of him, not really knowing much about pierrots at the time. I called the painting Banquet Days. It was a lucky painting for me which won a first place award and sold to a collector who later bought more of my work.
Around 1990, I painted a Madonna and child, but I dressed the child in the same white clown outfit. Looking back, perhaps that was my first little pierrot. It, too, was lucky and won first place in an art show. In 2004, I did a whole series of paintings on paper with a small clown character, a naked girl and cats dancing around on stage. The clown had a crush on the girl and I called the series Little Pierrot because it seemed like a good fit, although he wore blue. The series won an award in American Illustration and a Hollywood film director bought one of the originals, so again, the pierrot was lucky for me.
The pierrot character, as a lovesick clown, originated in the 17th century. He was part of the commedia dell’arte, an Italian troupe of players performing in Paris. I have come across many pierrots and harlequins in paintings by some of my favorite painters—Watteau, Goya, Picasso, Derain, Donghi. And there are many examples of turn-of-the-century photographic postcards featuring entire pierrot troupes with banjos. The pierrot (like a clown or mime) is a great symbol of the everyman (as David Bowie said). It’s a classic motif that appeals to me.
Tell us about your illustration career and some of your best highlights.
An early highlight was in 1991. Playboy and Esquire both called me that year, after years of doing illustrations for various minor publications. Kerig Pope at Playboy hired me for two large spreads and Rhonda Rubinstein at Esquire gave me a full page. Another highlight was when my double-portrait illustration of Jewel and Alanis Morrisette for Rolling Stone was chosen for the anthology book Rolling Stone: The Illustrated Portraits. Rolling Stone also bought the original for their collection, so that was a bonus.
What are you working on now?
A few small paintings and some experimental drawings. I am organizing my archives of work, having postcards made, and putting some things in an online shop. We shall see what else unfolds in 2018!