May 16, 2011

Monsters and Whales and Bears, Oh My!

An interview with Amanda Lee James

Part 1 of 2 (link to
Part 2)
Click on any picture to giganticate

Amanda Lee James – where I’ve added ‘Lee’ because Amanda James is apparently a fairly common name – is a young lady – noting she is indeed a lady despite what you might think from a first glance of her artwork (stop giving her a complex!) – that in her own words ‘loves to draw, loves to print and enjoys fine lines and seventies-inspired colours’. Her often meticulously textured designs capture many of the amazing creatures both found on land and in the sea – or perhaps ‘just’ in our imaginations as well.

My impression of a lot of Amanda’s work is that she takes a great big fuzzy ball of shag carpet and twists it around in amazing ways to give a great big bear or other distant mammalian cousin! Her illustrations can appear to be candies combined together (even literally as you’ll see) that leaves one with the impression of floating along underwater in a classic Jacques Cousteau documentary! And who knows: maybe you’ll insist – as my son did AGAIN during the read-out check of this article – that she uses gummy worms to make her stories come to life!! Whatever you believe, you MUST make a bee-line to
her site to check out ALL of these prints in large size to do them full justice!

Key is that this Portland-based (for now) artist also compliments her sublime skills and obvious talents with her uniquely deft touch as a print-maker! Now that’s definitely something you don’t see very much of these days! Ziggy Nixon is pleased to have caught up with Amanda shortly before she heads off on the next exciting stage of her personal and artistic journey!


Hi Amanda, welcome! Can you tell us a little bit about how you became interested in illustration please?
I’ve always been interested in illustration in some form. I wanted to be an animator as soon as I was old enough to know that it was indeed people that created and drew my favourite cartoons. I also wanted to illustrate the back of cereal boxes and draw pictures for books. I’d always be trying to come up with my own little characters and making flip books and that kind of thing.

I first got serious about it when I went to college for art. I feel like it really pushed me to think about art making in a serious way. But about midway through my education, I realised that telling a simple story was more important to me than making some kind of giant political or social statement like many of my peers were into. That’s when I first began identifying with being an “illustrator”.

Later, when I got into printmaking, my interest in narrative grew even stronger because it’s naturally such a graphic medium.

Maybe it just has to do with my exposure to the artform, but ‘printmaking’ seems to be a pretty rarely practiced craft these days. How did your work in this application come about?
I didn’t know what printmaking was until I stepped into my ‘Intro to Relief’ class during the end of my second year of undergraduate school. But I quickly found out that it was a very natural fit for me!

I love making tiny marks and I love repetitive tasks. All of the process that is involved in making images-in-multiples reminded me of drawing different frames in animation. I also loved how tactile the medium was. I liked that every colour had to be done separately and applied in layers.

I think that in a world of iPhones, electronic readers and the Internet, touching paper and applying every colour individually by hand can be really refreshing. I’m also incredibly drawn to printmaking because of it’s such a social art form. I get to go to the studio every day and hang out with a bunch of fun people and make beautiful things! I’ve never felt that kind of camaraderie using other art forms.

If I understand correctly, your work is all done by hand and then you typically produce the final products by silk-screen. Do you also work with computer aided tools at all – even for assistance – or do you prefer the more ‘organic’ approach of pen and/or squeegee on paper?
All of my drawings are done purely by hand. I even use books for my reference material, rather than conduct a Google image search. This is simply because I enjoy the tangibility of flipping through the pages of books.

In the printing process, I do use a copy machine to resize some of my images. I like the ability to see my drawings in a variety of sizes and use blown up pieces for patterned backgrounds. That is the only “technology” that I use while making my prints. I try to keep it as purely handmade as possible.

Speaking of silk-screen, noting my own experiences in the past may have scarred me somewhat, but my recollection is that this can be a difficult process to master. This is true not only in terms of getting colour onto your final material but also in translating your designs onto/into the screens themselves. I would think then that with the amount of finely textured and exquisite detail in your works that this could especially be the case. Do you have to deal with issues like this or has it been a pretty successful tool so far?
I have had a fairly smooth experience with screen-printing.

In the beginning there was quite a bit of experimenting. It was hard to find the right screen mesh count to produce highly detailed images while still letting enough ink through to get a solid line. I also struggled with finding a copy machine that would consistently have enough toner to get the image to transfer correctly.

Despite those factors, I think that it performs better than any other medium for my images in its ability to hold crisp detail and print bright colours.

Is silk-screen a costly approach to reproduce your limited prints or is that manageable?
Silk-screen has been perfectly manageable for my prints. I can reuse the same screens over and over again so in large part my only costs are paper and inks. At this point it’s more affordable for me than going digital.

I also love using this medium because it doesn’t produce as much waste as etching or relief and I can use less toxic water-based inks.

I found the following statement very interesting: ‘The beauty of repetition is something I’ve constantly been intrigued by.’ Why do you think that you are so attracted to repetitive and such finely defined patterns?
It’s hard to say. As far as making repetitive patterned works, I think that I have a bit of an obsessive personality. I find repetition to be extremely comforting and meditative.

I’ve always absent-mindedly doodled little patterns. So in this body of work I’m learning to control the doodles and build up form from them. As far as repetitive detail as an aesthetic, it’s just something that has always drawn my eye.

In the same section on your home website, you said ‘... I started to question if something conventionally ugly could become beautiful if it were repeated and patterned.’ What is your conclusion so far to this ‘theory’? Do you ever have a piece where you just have to kind of break away and say ‘no, that’s not working’?
I typically always try to finish any drawing that I start because I don’t usually like them until they are completely finished. So it’s really hard to tell what’s working or not early on.

Still, like anyone I have a lot of drawings that end up “not working” and I typically just don’t end up turning them into prints. But pieces of them can become useful as backgrounds for more successful drawings. To answer your question, so far the theory has held pretty true as far as directly repeating a small and simple pattern.

Lately, I have been experimenting with random clusters of small patterns to make a bigger irregular
tessellation of sorts. A lot of these haven’t been as successful but I’m still working on it.

I’m also wondering if you have an affinity for other materials that have perhaps influenced your style, ranging even from ‘classical’ wallpaper patterns or even yarn?
I’m pretty sure I have an affinity towards almost every material. I love the look and feel of different textures and objects. I like that the same shapes can look completely different depending on their materials.

The yarn-like textures I use remind me more of worms – but I suppose yarn kind of looks like colourful worms anyway. And yes, I have a strong love for classical wallpaper.

one reviewer phrased it, your work is ‘meticulously textured’ and to me there certainly does NOT appear to be any evidence of you taking ‘short-cuts’. With that in mind, how long does it take you to create a piece? Does the amount of attention it takes just exhaust you sometimes?
A drawing will take me anywhere from 12 to 60 hours depending on the scale and how detailed it is. Sometimes – especially if I am working towards a deadline – this can be a bit exhausting but typically I find it very enjoyable.

To manage everything, I try to break the drawing up. If I feel that I am starting to get burnt out on a drawing, I switch to printing for a while. My printing process is very fast and physical so it’s really a good contrast to the drawing. They kind of balance each other out.

Continued in
Part 2

Monsters and Whales and Bears, Oh My!

An interview with Amanda Lee James

Part 2 of 2 (link to Part 1)
Click on any picture to entkleinen

Amanda, you’ve listed some of your inspirations as old children’s books, Japanese woodblock prints and illustrated animal encyclopaedias, as well as having an interest in creatures and places you’ve never seen. What are some of your other inspirations for your unique style? You’ve mentioned the cover of the Beatles’ album ‘
Revolver’ which is what I though of right away when first seeing your work!
Funny you mention that because my mom is a huge Beatles fan! We actually had a Beatles room in our house!

In fact, ‘
Yellow Submarine’ is probably one of my biggest influences for colour choices and a few of my patterns. It’s an absolutely beautiful and inspiring film for me. I grew up amongst many of their collectable figures, plates and records so I think I absorbed a lot of those colours and styles from that era.

In terms of children’s books, two of my favourite illustrators are
Mercer Mayer and Maurice Sendak – but there are far too many amazing illustrators I enjoy and respect to even begin naming them all. We have this absolutely huge bookstore here in Portland that’s just a few blocks from my apartment and when I need inspiration, I just go downstairs to the children’s section and get lost for a couple hours.

Speaking of influences, am I correct in assuming that you also have a particular affinity for the sea and the amazing variety of life that it holds? I really enjoy your work here and I think that some of these pieces are among your strongest!
I love sea creatures. I think that sea exploration is infinitely more interesting than even space exploration. And for a long time, I wanted to be a marine biologist in addition to being an animator or illustrator.

I get seasick though... so I switched my focus to recreating and celebrating these wonderful creatures in my art. I also reference sea creatures frequently because stylistically they lend themselves well to my art. Sea creatures are naturally so patterned and unusual and full of artistic opportunity!

Your shop is also filled with lots of goodies. I’m curious though as to why you almost always print ‘varied editions’ even changing (slightly?) the placement of the animal or even the colour schemes?
I print varied editions mostly for two reasons:

First off, it’s nice to enhance the individuality of the print. More traditional editions of prints naturally have some variety because they are handmade, but I try to further enhance this by having a variety of placement and colour. I think that a print can be as individual as a painting and that they should be valued equally.

Secondly, I get bored making the EXACT same image over and over. Changing colours helps keep my eyes fresh and allows me to explore more in the printing process.

Last year, your design for the album cover of ‘The Angry Orts’ was picked one of the
best 90 album covers of the year by redefinemag. Congratulations! How did you get involved in working with a band on this cover and how did the overall design ‘process’ differ vs. a piece you do on your own?
I got involved with
the Angry Orts project through somewhat of a fluke. Their guitarist’s girlfriend played flute with me in our high school’s marching band and remembered that I did art. They contacted me and I showed them my latest work, the animal series, and we began the collaboration.

I think that the design process for this project was very similar to my normal working methods. The key differences were making more stopping points to check in with the band and taking into account that it would be reproduced digitally and that it would have to be shrunk down considerably.

I loved this project though and the Orts made some amazing merchandise out of the nautilus drawing. It was exciting to see my work in so many other mediums, like earrings, shirts and that kind of stuff.

Now I’ve got to spend a moment or two on your
mixed media ‘bathroom’ set which included scale, medicine cabinet and yes, toilet. Again, if my homework is right, you made these by ‘applying’ a mosaic of different materials (Twizzlers, Lifesavers and marshmallows among other items) onto a Styrofoam form. I guess my question is simply: good heavens, what ever prompted you to do that? It’s fantastic, yes, but wow, definitely unique!
This was the most stressful project I have made as of yet. It is also one of my favourites.

It was actually a whimsical approach to dealing with eating disorders. It was all about overindulgence, obsession and image. I am not sure where the exact idea came from but I have long been obsessed with the candy forest room in ‘
Willy Wonka’ so I would say that’s a definite inspiration.

I originally wanted to do an entire bathroom scene, complete with a bathtub, but quickly learned that candy is very expensive and that this type of sculpture is very time-consuming. It was my first time working in three-dimensional form and my first time working with candy and acrylic simultaneously. And as I was to find out, acrylic dissolves many candies into a brown mushy goo!

Looking back on this though, I can definitely see it as a precursor to my current work. In a way, I am now creating pen-line mosaics instead of candy ones.

You’ve also recently shown not only an affinity for the undeniably confirmed life-forms on our world but also both some unconfirmed (as of yet) and even monstrous creatures. Can you explain your interest in the more imaginative side of your ‘
animal’ or even ‘monster’ prints?
Most recently I have started to experiment with completely separating myself from reference material. As a result, I started to make more imaginative creatures. They are naturally the best subjects for this type of experimentation because there is no concrete definition as to what they should look like.

I find doing this coupled with a lack of reference material to be really liberating because there are truly no boundaries. At the same time, they are some of the most challenging works for me because it can be very hard to get a concrete enough vision in my head in order to transfer it to paper.

I often like to share some of my research with my kids (Jr. age 10 ¾ and li’l Miss, age 7 going on 17), if for nothing else to get them to turn off the TV for a few minutes. In the case of many of your pieces, my son truly enjoyed the subject matter (esp. bats, anything with tentacles, etc.) and texture (I think his words were ‘oh wow, worms!’). My daughter seemed less excited and even issued a slight ‘ooh that’s yucky’ for a couple of images. Still, she’s young and has very little disposable income so I wouldn’t worry about it!

That having been said, there does seem to be a lack of ‘Barbie aesthetic’ if you will to your art (to be bluntly sexist, it can be argued it’s not terribly very ‘girly’ I guess, where I note my daughter’s room is indeed filled from floor to ceiling with Barbie, Hannah Montana and more... sigh, where did I go wrong?). Is this choice intentional or has it just kind of turned out that way?
This choice was not intentional. Maybe is has to do with my growing up as kind of a tomboy?

I don’t personally see my work as masculine, but I have noticed that many people are surprised to find out that my work is made by a woman. When I go to craft fairs, my boyfriend is kind enough to come along and keep me company behind the booth. Despite the huge “Prints by Amanda James” sign on the front of the booth, nine times out of ten people assume that he is the artist and direct their questions to him.

Sometimes I can find this a bit frustrating ... but for the most part it just leaves me perplexed.

Your work is offered in a variety of forms, including fine art prints and stretched canvases, iPhone Cases, ‘skins’ (for laptops, i-Pads, -Phones, and –Pods), tee-shirts and also hoodies. Is there an avenue that you haven’t offered yet where you’d like to see you work appear?
People are kind of afraid to touch prints. As such, I’d like to make something that people would touch.

With this in mind, I’d really love to illustrate a children’s book. I’m actually in the very beginning stages of working on one written by a friend. I think that books are absolutely wonderful little objects because people interact with them and flip their pages.

Finally, just from your list of exhibitions in 2010, it looks like it was a busy year for you. What’s coming up in 2011 and beyond?
I have a solo show coming up at Mag-Big here in Portland that I am pretty excited about. It’s going to kind of be my ‘Farewell to Portland’ show because I am planning on moving across the country to go work on my MFA in printmaking this fall. I have always lived in Portland so I am extremely excited to start working and living in a new community.

Right now, I am still not sure where I am going to exactly – but I do know it’s going to be at least 2000 miles away! And I can’t wait! (ZN: see update below!)


Amanda Lee James grew up in the picturesque if not often soggy realm commonly known as Portland, Oregon. At last glance, she can still be found working out of her downtown studio apartment which she shares with a, quote, wonderful guy named Ian and three cats, Ghostie, Spooky, and Whisper. She is nearing any moment now the finish-line for getting her Bachelors in Drawing and Printmaking from Portland State University.

Afterwards, she will pack up cats, guy and her assorted collection of fuzzy and squidgy friends in print and head off to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to attend graduate school at LSU. We hope for her sake that she knows what TRUE humidity is like!

Amanda’s work is filled with an obvious sense of her love to draw and print things that make not only herself but others very happy. She has a knack for furry creatures, friendly monsters and tentacled beasties of all shapes and sizes! Her work is filled to the brim with overlapping and painstakingly detailed patterns and she confesses as well to wanting to see just how many different lines and shapes she can get onto one piece of paper.
We wish her all the best of luck and success in her on-going travels and hope that Cajun Country treats her with all of it’s famous Southern hospitality indeed!


Shops :


All pictures, videos and other media are used with written permission of Amanda Lee James, including all current or previous business affiliations related to same, or are available in the public domain (noting copyright and other restrictions, accordingly). No further reproduction or duplication is permitted without contacting the artist directly.

Some pictures have been modified slightly or combined only for the purpose of space limitations. In all cases, we invite you to visit the artist’s site(s) for more!