By Regina Connell.
I know it’s not always true, but when I think of things handcrafted, I think of the solid, the durable, the unmoving: the object. I don’t think as often of more kinetic, sculptural work, though obviously, plenty of it exists in the form of things like mobiles and more.
So I was surprised to find that the ruggedly elegant sculptural works of Amanda Salm got under my skin. Amanda, who uses horsehair she stitches strand by strand, makes pieces with a strong graphical sensibility to them, a certain audacity that makes me feel that this is work I could not only respect, but live with.
The pieces are both modern and timeless, perhaps because they tap into something profound and elemental in each of us, something that lies beneath the surface.
What really got me interested in Amanda though, were the words at the top of her site: time, history, engineering, nylon, imagination, horsehair, natural dyes, netting, observation, coiling, alchemy, patience, design, weaving, shape, sculpture. What a combination. Pick any three and they’re fascinating enough.
Amanda hails from a line of artists from the SF Bay Area. She grew up in Palo Alto and, unsurprisingly, she spent a lot of time learning about art and creating it in school. (Remember when schools offered art classes?)
She wound up going to the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York for graphic design, but realized after two years that she wasn’t exactly feeling it. So, she began to wander over to the textile program just down the hall. She was immediately entranced by all the yarn and looms.
Ah, serendipity. How often we hear that… but it’s the brave who listen to that urge, rather than succumbing to what they think they ought to do.
So Amanda changed a to weaving and textile design major, concentrating on surface design. She also took some basketry courses along the way.
So what happened next? I was doing production fabric painting for industry, but I got disillusioned by it, so I started my own business in Hawaii designing, dye printing, and vat dyeing cotton fabric. I also drafted my own patterns for men’s and women’s clothing and did the majority of the sewing. But I burned out and returned to the Bay Area, settling in Santa Cruz, making tufted raffia rugs part time, which I sold through Virginia Breier Gallery in SF.
Then how did you make the next shift? I wanted to get back to working in 3D, so I experimented with many different types of basketry and materials. I started dating a former cowboy, which led me to horsehair.
That’s a new one! Yes, I was intrigued by the hitched horsehair work and ended up ordering one pound of tail hair from a resource listed in the back of one of the books I had checked out of the library. The hair comes all clean and bundled and is sold in quarter to five pound amounts in various natural colors. I still order it from the same place up near Seattle—sort of a cowboy/western supply place called The Hitching Post.
Being a dyer since my school days, I knew that natural dyes worked best on protein fibers, and I had been experimenting with resist dyeing silk scarves with natural dyes, so I started dyeing the horsehair with the natural dyes. This led to also growing many of the plants that I dyed with, including about three different types of indigo and madder root, which have to stay in the ground for three years before harvesting the roots for dyeing.
What happened to the cowboy? I married that cowboy who is a vineyard manager for 3,500 acres of wine grapes in the Salinas Valley.
How would you define your work? The words at the top of my site are sort of the essence of my textile work. I spend a lot of time observing and storing things in my brain, usually from nature. Lines and negative space are the elements that I am most attracted to, I think harking back to my youth spent with type and paper samples, sheets of Letraset, design magazines, etc. that my mother dealt with and had around for me to use. I still love type, calligraphy, and graphic illustration.
Coiling horsehair? Painstaking doesn’t even begin to describe your work. Patience is a trait I seem to have been born with, and I actually enjoy (and sought out) work that would slow down my approach to production.
What about engineering? Engineering comes into the equation by way of weather. I learned, after a few years of having work in a Philadelphia gallery, that horsehair is affected by humidity just as human hair is. I realized that when my work was in that environment, they lost much of their structural integrity, so have had to reassess shape, dimension, structure, size, etc. when designing my work.
Since no one else does work with coiled horsehair on the scale and with the type of coiling I do, I have had to chart my own path with what the material is capable of doing. I love the material for its versatility and luster, and though often discouraged at the state of textiles/basketry, am compelled to continue.
What inspires you? Swimming is a big part of my life. Water in its many manifestations and, in particular, the ocean is my primary source of inspiration. From the patterns on the bottom of the pool on a sunny day, to the thin layer of ice that freezes on a stream, to dew drops on a spider web, the patterns of foam on the surface of the ocean at the surf line, microscopic diatoms, and the strange deep sea life all serve to stir my imagination.
A couple of years ago, while swimming through kelp and looking down, I realized that it reminded me of letterforms and that maybe there was a story written there. This is how the Wavelengths series began, looking at the giant bull kelp and making variations on the swelling and narrowing of this long linear form and how [everything] interacted together with shape and negative space.
What I want people to think about are the feelings I have about the ocean/water. Whether it’s about a design element, such as Black Sand with its look of water reflections, or Cluster, which was based on a sea slug egg case, or the strong shapes of the wavelength pieces. There is a great NASA video—there is a link on my information page—that shows the worlds currents as they travel around the globe. I think it is amazing that on a given day when I swim in the ocean here, that water will travel dimensionally around the globe and at some point many years later, I may unknowingly encounter that same water again while swimming in the same place.
What’s next? I have a drive to get to the essence of ideas, to continue to simplify and get to the bare bones of the work. I use a single technique, single material (predominately), and only occasionally, use a needle and pair of small scissors. I have not dyed any horsehair for a while now, and am working toward just using black and white and red. And in making simple but interesting forms, sometimes in multiples, [I can] explore the ideas that swim around in my head. I find I can be much more creatively challenged and the work more satisfying by implementing self-imposed limitations.
Images courtesy of Amanda Salm.