Interview with Amy Lowry: Painter, Illustrator, Author, Mosaic Artist

Pepper Plant
Chili Peppers. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Amy Lowry, a painter, illustrator, children's book author, and mosaic artist, reflects: I always knew I was going to be an artist. Growing up, I was the class artist. I carried sketchbooks everywhere I went. After graduating from college, I moved to New York City and worked in a variety of jobs while maintaining a studio in my apartment. I never went to art school, but took classes at the School of Visual Arts and the Art Student's League. I married in 1982 and moved to Beijing in 1990 with my now ex-husband. It was right after Tiananmen Square. We lived in China for 4 years, and it was there that I studied scroll making and learned traditional methods of working with rice paper using wheat paste, ink, and gouache. I moved to Chicago in 1994 with my three daughters and have been here ever since.

ArtStyle: Do you consider yourself to be a painter or an illustrator?

Amy Lowry (AL): I often feel that I wear two hats because illustration is a whole different way of approaching art. You have to think about it, especially for books, in terms of the layout and organization. When I paint, I don't think about it. I just paint, and it's the same working with mosaics.

ArtStyle: How did you become affiliated with Ann Nathan Gallery?

AL: I had just moved to Chicago from China. I was walking around River North, and went into her gallery because I knew one of the artists there and we got to talking. There was a China connection because her daughter runs an Asian arts gallery in Bucktown. I mentioned that I had some paintings and she said bring them in, so I did. I got a phone call from Ann two days later. She said, “How much do you want for these pieces? I have someone who wants them all.” She gave me my first show in Chicago.

Fuschia. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: You recently did a show with Thomas McCormick Gallery about endangered species. How did that theme come about?

AL: The show was called Results. It was in conjunction with the Cool Globes Project. If you Google “endangered species global warming,” the Web Results are staggering — over a million hits. I spent a lot of time researching those results, and illustrated them with paint, graphite, and mosaic.

Cool Globe
Cool Globe. Courtesy of the artist.

I did a globe this past summer that was sponsored by Marshall Field V; it’s about conservation of rain forests. It featured trees and falling leaves, and was right in front of the Field Museum.

Results Panel
Animal Grid. Graphite and gouache on Japanese paper,
mounted on board, 22” x 22”. Courtesy of the artist.
Polar Bear
Mosaic Polar Bear. Courtesy of the artist.

For the Results show, there was a grid of 24 paintings of endangered plants and animals, flanked by 2 graphite drawings that featured 7 different species of penguins and a tableau I called The Last Supper. I also made a life-size polar bear out of mosaics. The grid and polar bear are going to go to the Peggy Notebeart Nature Museum in about a month. Results was a wonderful show.


Amy Lowry Demonstrating Painting on Rice Paper

ArtStyle: How do you do your illustrations?

AL: It depends on whether I'm doing illustrations for a book or putting them on a board. For the most part, I use traditional Chinese materials: rice paper, wheat-based glue, sumi ink, and gouache.

Book illustrations have to be flexible because the printing process is such that the drawings are wrapped around a drum and scanned. I work with rice paper on felt and paint the image directly onto the paper. It's virtually impossible to draw on rice paper because it's so delicate. Once the piece is finished, it has wrinkled naturally and needs to be flattened in a process called Biao Huar.

What you do is turn the painting over on a horizontal surface and apply a wheat-based glue to the back. It's like working with wet toilet paper. Then you take a sheet of white rice paper that's slightly larger than the wet paper, put it on top, take another brush and smooth the wet paper out so the papers stick together. You apply glue to the edges and then carefully pick it up and put it on the drying board, which is vertical. The drying board is similar to a Japanese screen door, made out of paper and wood, with a frame and paper pulled tightly over it. When you put wet paper on the drying board, the paper dries taut.

ArtStyle: How do you mount rice paper on a board?

AL: I gesso the board first and let it dry. Then I put wheat-based glue on the paper, pick it up, put it on the board, and smooth the paper with a stiff brush. You can make the glue with flour and water or buy it at Pearl Paint. It comes in powder form and is available in both wheat and rice starch.


Persimmons. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: What are you working on in terms of your oil paintings?

AL: I'm moving forward with the same theme of endangered species. In the course of my research, I found that even everyday house plants such as cyclamen and orchids — plants that we love — are endangered, specifically by global warming, pollution and habitat loss. So I'm doing a series of these botanicals. They're looser, less illustrative obviously than the illustrations, and I think they're sexy.

ArtStyle: How do you start your painting process?

AL: I start with a reference — for these oil paintings, I need to have a live image. When I illustrate I can work from photographs, but not paintings. In this case, I'm painting an orchid [in the process of painting in her studio]. I use charcoal to sketch it out on the canvas. I use a colored ground on the canvas because I don't like working on a white surface, let it dry, and then make a drawing in charcoal. What's nice with the soft charcoal is that if you don't like it, you erase it. I don't think about it too much. I just do it. After that, I work on getting the blocks of color down.

ArtStyle: Have you always painted botanicals and nature themes?

AL: I've always done scenes from nature, either imaginary or real landscapes. I'm drawn to the forms in plants. The endangered species theme is new. I like art that has an edge to it. My hope is that the viewer looks beyond a painted botanical and becomes aware of the message.


Mosaic Cake
Mosaic Cake. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: Why did you decide to do mosaic cakes?

AL: I had fun with these. I've always been attracted to mosaics and a couple of years ago, I was driving down Ashland Avenue and I saw the Chicago Mosaic School. I decided to take a class. So I started working with it and the energy there was wonderful. And from there I made my first cake, which was an anti-war piece. On top of the cake is a bed of dolls' hands which hold a big rose, a luscious pink Capodimonte rose. There's a little green toy solider next to it. Letters on the cake say “bring me home.”

The idea for this particular cake came in response to a gallery that was looking for submissions for a show called Misuse — taking a recognizable object and giving it a contradictory meaning. By choosing the form of a cake, I invite the viewer to be attracted to a familiar item that is most often associated with joy, comfort, and celebration. Upon closer inspection, the viewer realizes that these cakes are not meant to celebrate, but to mourn. Ironically, this piece was turned down by the gallery, but sold to a really wonderful collector in Chicago.

The cakes I'm working on now are meant to draw attention to the plight of species endangered by global warming. The more research I did on this, the more unbelievable things I found out, and the more passion I felt to bring this to the public's attention.


Book Cover. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: When did you start writing and illustrating your books?

AL: I always had an interest in childrens' books. When I lived in New York, I put a portfolio together, and I would visit editors and was continually rejected and it was very discouraging. Then I moved to Beijing with my husband and two toddlers in 1990.

The initial adjustment was very hard. I spent a lot of time in China with not much to do. You move there and suddenly you've got a cook, a driver, someone taking care of your kids — which may sound like heaven, but the reality was that I was by myself all day long. I couldn't speak the language. I couldn't drive. I was marooned way out by the summer palace, which was an hour from the city, and it was not a good time for me. But it was character building. I pulled myself up. I became involved with a group of other expatriate women, and we'd meet once a week.

My best friend was Chinese. She was in the Cultural Revolution and survived it, and she knew a lot of Chinese artists. I started hanging out with them, watching how they would paint. I was fascinated. They were part of what's called The New Literati movement — using traditional materials to produce non-traditional subjects accompanied by nonsensical poems.

Up until then, I had been doing stiffer oil painting and some landscapes and kind of dark images. I fell in love with the work of these artists, the materials, and the minimalism of their paintings.

It took me about a year to learn how to work with the rice paper. It was so discouraging because it tears so easily. I had a teacher who didn't speak English and I didn't speak Chinese, but together we figured it out. He'd come twice a week, and we would spend hours making scrolls. It was wonderful.

Over the course of 4 years, I continued to work on my portfolio with “classical” illustrations for children on western paper. At the same time, I began to build a whole new body of work on rice paper.

ArtStyle: Did you show your work in China?

AL: I did. At the time, my name was Poole (I still publish under Poole), and I had one show in Hong Kong and an exhibition at a branch of the Beijing Art Museum. I produced a catalog from that show, which ultimately launched my publishing career.

By the time I moved back to Chicago, I had what I thought was a reasonable portfolio, which had a variety of children’s illustrations. I made several trips to New York to meet with editors without success. After rejection upon rejection, I thought forget about the editors, I'm going to go to the agents because that's the way to do it. I would send out printed samples of my work with a self-addressed postcard that was stamped on the return with 3 check boxes: yes, I would love to see more of your work; no, sorry we're not interested at this time; I do like your work and please keep me on your mailing list. At some point I began to include the catalog from the Beijing Art Museum of my “grown-up” work, and almost immediately got a phone call from George Nicholson of Sterling Lord Literistic in New York saying “I love your work. Let's have lunch.” Boom, I'm on the next plane to New York. Great guy. Great agency. He says, “This is wonderful. This is what you're going to do. You're going to play the China theme. You're going to come up with a story. You're going to research something, and you're going to illustrate it, and we're going to sell it.” And we did. We came up with How the Rooster Got His Crown. It's all set in China.

The Pea Blossom
Book Cover. Courtesy of the artist.

My latest book, The Pea Blossom, is a lesser known Hans Christian Anderson tale that I rewrote and set in Beijing. It actually got a full page review in The New York Times, which made me very happy.

ArtStyle: Are you working on any books?

AL: I am. My editor is very excited about incorporating images from the Results show into a book.

ArtStyle: What else have you been working on?

AL: I just finished a mini-globe of what I did during the summer. It's at a show at the Melanie Cooper Gallery. Twenty percent of the sales go to the Cool Globes Project.

ArtStyle: What do you want to do next?

AL: I want to do something abstract. There's no subject. It's all about pattern and colors. I love a good abstract painting. It just takes you into it. It's very hard to do.

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