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Amanda Dunbar

interview by Douglas Eby

Acclaimed in her teens as a prodigy, Amanda Dunbar's paintings have been compared to Monet and Renoir. An accomplished landscape painter, she also creates a wide range of abstract, figurative and conceptual art. In addition to painting, she works in stone lithography, copper plate etching and wood block.

She has studied at a number of schools, has a degree in Art History (BFA with Honors and Distinction), has had multiple solo exhibitions, and her work has been selected by a number of museums and corporations. She is one of four 2006 inductees to the Texas Women's Hall of Fame.

Though concentrating on painting, Amanda finds that photography can be “a great tool to help an artist compose paintings and also to help capture fleeting images for later reference."

She notes, "In learning to capture and create art photographs, I learned how to think about two-dimensional images differently. Capturing a three dimensional idea on a two dimensional surface can be very challenging, and looking through the lens of a camera can sometimes make that process easier by giving an example to consider.”

She points out that a “mechanical flattening of space is always different than actual observation and working from life. I think having a combination of various types of reference material can be very beneficial and stimulating to any artist.

"I do believe that photography, however, can be somewhat misleading in its representation of the world around us. It cannot capture exactly what one sees or perceives with ones own eyes.”

Amanda is a “firm believer" in the benefits of formal education: "I have always loved school and the discipline that goes along with it. In regard to my study of art history, I found it a tremendous advantage to learn about and grow from artists that came before me.

“I believe it is extremely difficult if not impossible to advance forward until you understand the past. I believe that studying about and from other artists has helped me become stronger and more diverse in my own work."

She thinks formal education is "like acquiring tools for a toolbox. The more tools you have, the more you can create or build. One does not necessarily have to agree with or adopt every theory that is presented in an academic setting, but I believe it is always beneficial to be exposed to different opinions and different ways to work.”

In her article Creativity, The Arts, and Madness, psychologist Maureen Neihart writes: “Since the time of the Greek philosophers, those who wrote about the creative process emphasized that creativity involves a regression to more primitive mental processes, that to be creative requires a willingness to cross and re-cross the lines between rational and irrational thought.”

Asked about whether she uses “irrational thought” or perhaps a more “primitive” emotional state when painting, Amanda says, “To answer this question, I will need to use quotation marks to differentiate various words that are subjective and usually controversial in their use when it comes to art.

“To begin, the word ‘primitive’ in the art world is a loaded word with multiple uses and connotations. For the last few decades, artists (particularly visual artists) have taken that ‘primitive idea’ quite literally, and traveled to ‘more primitive’ cultures, or attempted to ‘regress’ to the mentality of a child to deepen the scope of their art so that is was not so much of an ‘academic’ process, but rather one ‘truer’ to one’s own self.”

She notes there are “endless” examples, including Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky, and others, and adds, “I do believe that there is something ‘irrational’ to the creation of art. What I mean by this is that there is something unexplainable to the scientific mind that drives an artist to create.

“Art is not created by a formula, nor is it something that can be completely learned. One can certainly go to school to learn how to draw and paint, how to build bronzes or even how to talk about the work that one creates from academic settings. But ‘real’ art is something much deeper and personal than that.”

Amanda says she would not use the word “primitive” with regard to how she creates: “Creating artwork is an act of blind faith - not only faith in yourself as a person and your abilities as a craftsperson, but also faith in the act of creating. Creating art is not for the fainthearted. It forces the artist to confront the reality of failure moment by moment.

“As artists, we use not only our technical abilities to execute our work, but also all of our mental capacities,  our spirituality, and at the same time we must make that leap of faith (that we all struggle to articulate) every time we begin our work.

"Some would consider this ‘irrational’. Why put yourself through all that agony for something that may or may not ‘pay off’ at the end? In my opinion, the answer is that it satisfies that innate and unexplainable yet powerful drive to create.

"It is that meditation or connection with the ‘greatest creator’ which requires sophistication to understand. Each dedicated artist hopes to one day hold a key to help unlock the door to that significant creation that changes the face of art or perhaps even allows the world a glimpse or a new perspective of itself."

She says this is true for her, too. "My spirit and soul are fulfilled by working up the courage to sit at the easel, meditate and paint. To many this is ‘irrational’ but I do not believe it to be primitive at all. I believe it takes a sophisticated rather than ‘primitive’ mind to accept a challenge of that magnitude.”

Amanda notes there are also social aspects of being talented and an artist. “There are always going to be people that feel another person’s success and/or talent somehow lessens their own validity or ability. It can cause insecurities in others.”

She thinks the biggest challenges she has faced from having such success at a young age have been “due to people, most frequently adults, who have various insecurities within themselves or had ulterior financial motives where I was concerned.

"Thankfully, I have more good to report in this area than bad. I have always had many friends, but it has always saddened me that there are inevitably going to be people that choose to have disdain for young success and go out of their way to make life more difficult or attempt to profit from it.”

She admits to having endured some of this, and adds, “Artists are inherently sensitive and emotional creatures. This is compounded when that artist is in childhood or adolescence. The very characteristics that are needed to create art can make hurtful issues even more difficult to deal with in children.

“When I was younger, some unfair and difficult issues affected me deeply as a person and as an artist. I have been fortunate though, to have a solid and loving support system. I expect these types of circumstances will surface periodically throughout my career. I am much better prepared to handle them now.”

Amanda finds as she matures, she is becoming “more and more grateful" for her earlier difficulties and challenges. "They give me a clear vision and foundation to stand on in regard to who I am as a person and who I am as an artist. I know where I firmly stand in regard to running an ethical business, where I stand in regard to social conscience and how I wish to live my life.

“I am grateful to have learned early that one always has a choice as to how to respond to negatives. In other words, ‘I choose my battles.’ My experiences have given me considerable strength and taught me how to surround myself with the people and creative energy that matters most and enables positive growth in us all.

"The rest, I discard as it bores me and takes up valuable time that I don’t choose to spend focused on such things.

“This is the most valuable life lesson I have learned and one that some people will never learn. Artists must develop a thick skin and acquire resolve to successfully remain working artists throughout their lifetime. I was just younger than most and had to develop my thick skin a little faster and earlier than most.”

She finds it is sometimes hard to maintain a routine for creating: “There are always things that take my focus to the exclusion of everything else. I have a bit of a tendency to have a ‘one track mind.’ I also travel frequently which can upset my routine. I do, however, entertain a little ‘ritual’ before I begin to paint. I make myself a cup of tea or coffee, change into my paint clothes, and turn on either some music or an audio book.

“I then attempt to tune out the outside world for a while. I am most in tune with my art in late evening working well into the night. I am less distracted and feel more peaceful at that time of day.”

She adds that when feeling happy and spiritually connected, her art “takes care of itself. A special mentor of mine gave me a copy of The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. I try very hard to live by these agreements. They work!  I am also inspired when I read about other artists.”

She feels it is important to to respect the dignity, spirituality and humanity of both subjects and viewers of her work. “I do it with human dignity in mind. I intuitively create images that do not demean women as is common place in art. I do not break up or exploit their bodies. I apply the same respect to men, children and other living creatures.

"I do not use religion or political views as controversial points in my pieces either. I do not feel the need to create bizarre or edgy conceptual shock art. I am quite capable of doing so but feel it is perhaps a bit over glorified, overdone, and for me personally, redundant. 

“I am driven to explore subject matter that I find much more universal, meaningful and interesting.  This may stir some critics to call my work ‘commercial.’ I am rebelling in my own way by challenging those ideals and asking the question, ‘When did beautifully conceived and executed art become any less legitimate?’ I believe that art is communication. Many people are drawn to the work that I do and I therefore have the luxury of not compromising my artistic aesthetic to suit the viewer.”

Amanda thinks painting allows a “sensual catharsis” and may sometimes express ideas or feelings in a more powerful way than talking, writing or other forms of communication.

“But it also means that I lose myself in the process of creating art,” she explains, “and that is what really helps me work through my emotions. Creating art helps me to relieve tension and anxiety by bringing feelings, good or bad to the front of my mind where I can work them out. I find more peace through the process of creating than I do in the finished image or painting.”

With the help and support of her family, Amanda opened Galerie Papillon in Dallas, Texas. “I wanted to open my own gallery to showcase my work in exactly the way I wanted and I also loved the idea of exhibiting the work of other artists that I enjoy and respect. The gallery has affected me as an artist by forcing me to be a lot more efficient with my time and to hone business skills in order to run the gallery properly.

“I have had the opportunity to learn a lot about the business of art, which is something that most artists miss out on due to fear of the word ‘business.’ Knowing more about my field has only enhanced my desire to be a part of it, and to leave my mark on it.”

A strong concern for social issues affects not only what she paints, but also what Amanda does with some of the proceeds from the sales of her artwork.

“I have been exceptionally fortunate in my life, and I feel that part of the reward of my success is the opportunity to help with so many important causes. I was raised with the philosophy that if you have a gift, you have the responsibility to do something positive with it.

“This is something I have tried to be true to throughout my art career. I began painting as a child and it was natural for me to want to help other children. Several of my painting images stem directly from my belief that innocence and life’s small miracles and joys should be celebrated.

“I love to take ‘ordinary’ subject matter and present it in a way that causes the viewer to pause – whether that is to reflect on one’s own memories, or to consider the joy of one’s own children or grandchildren etc. Either way, the viewer takes a few moments to remember what makes life beautiful and worth living. In my opinion, that is one of the greatest achievements an artist can attain.”

Amanda says she advises young artists to seek out schools, mentors, and tutors: “Absolutely! It is always beneficial to view things from different perspectives and feedback, whether you agree with it or not, is fabulous because it forces you to look at your work much more objectively. It is fascinating when someone discovers something in your work that you never realized was there, or can perhaps see through a nagging technical problem.

“Good mentors and teachers are the best coaches to help maximize your potential. Schools allow you access to people and facilities that ordinarily would not be available - things like printing presses and kilns. Schools also give you the opportunity to exchange ideas with other student or faculty artists of varying skill levels and backgrounds.

“I found working at school and conversations about art with peers greatly stimulating. I plan to be a student for the rest of my life and hope that I will never stop learning and growing.”

Commenting about making her first paintings. Amanda recalls being “lost in the process. I was just having fun and I didn’t know if it was any good. One of the best parts about being an artist is that so much of the process can be energetic and playful.

"I get so much joy from working at my art and painting that I am never worried about losing a sense of play in my work. Playfulness is what keeps an artist motivated to keep working, even though it is sometimes a grueling process. I think it is incredibly important for people to truly enjoy what they do. It is the key to success.”

But, she adds, “What a lot of people do not realize is that a professional artist does not wait ‘to be inspired’ to work. Work begets work, and even the most mundane tasks in the studio can spark an idea. I’m not sure there is a ‘right’ emotion. The process of painting is meditative to me. That part of my brain that seems to be constantly whirling in circles over other aspects of my life, gently becomes quiet through the process.

“It takes concentration and focus to create my best work. When the mind is focused on trying to work out my next brushstroke, there isn’t any room for worries and somehow they get worked out. This process is also aided by my work space.

“My studio is my sanctuary and people are rarely allowed to enter it while I work, or even when I am away from it. It is an intensely private, personal and sacred place for me. Somehow, my mind and body recognize when I am in my space, and that it is time to create art. The rest of my life just has to wait.”

Being successful has enabled Amanda to do what she loves to do for a living. “It has allowed me freedom from worry about having another means to support myself.  I am grateful every day for this and will remain so for the rest of my life. Being successful also means that most of my time is spent either in the studio, or working with some other aspect of my business.

“Because I devote so much time to the studio, I cannot help but think that this time has made me a better artist. At the very least, it has helped me to achieve my artistic goals much faster. There have been times that the studio came before anything else, and I have been called a workaholic on more than one occasion in my life.

“I prefer to call it discipline but appreciate that I can become quite focused. Sometimes I just can’t relax and focus on other things if I have a particular project that I am excited to finish."

She believes that over the past few years she has achieved a "healthy balance between my work, business and other aspects of my life. Family and cherished friends will always come first, followed by art then business.”

"I adore my life. I am extremely blessed.”

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Amanda Dunbar was born in 1982, in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, and became a naturalized US Citizen in 2002. Her travels and art studies include USA, Canada, Mexico, England, France, Italy, Fiji, Brazil.

book: Guided by Angels: Divinely Inspired Paintings

by Amanda Dunbar

See a gallery of her work on her site amandadunbar.com

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