Alumni Spotlight: Amy Meissner

July 2, 2014
Amy Meissner

I AM UAA: Amy Meissner. Ted Kincaid/University of Alaska Anchorage.

M.F.A. Creative Writing ’04
Fun Fact: Awarded an Individual Artist Fellowship from Rasmuson Foundation this year.

“Mama, what in this house can catch on fire?” Amy Meissner’s then 4-year-old son, Pelle, asked her. The question sparked a turning point for her as an artist and writer. The question, asked over and over again, became the centerpiece of an award-winning textile piece that hung last fall in The Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, now acquired as part of their permanent collection.

At first Amy answered him frankly: paper, curtains, carpet. She reassured him it wouldn’t happen, but he kept asking.

“I finally started trying to tease out what is it he was trying to ask me,” she explained, “And he said, ‘Well, what in this house can just [snap] catch on fire? Just like that [snap]? Can that lamp just catch on fire?’”

"Spontaneous Combustion" by Amy Meissner

Amy Meissner’s “Spontaneous Combustion,” Juror’s Choice Award, Earth, Fire & Fibre XXIX. The Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center permanent collection. Image courtesy of Amy Meissner.

His clarification triggered her creativity. “I had that moment where I thought can I use it? Can I space it all out and use each square and use these really, really traditional quilting techniques?” she said.

The finished piece, titled “Spontaneous Combustion,” is crafted from heirloom domestic textiles, gifts from Amy’s grandmother and great-grandmother in Sweden. Each letter was hand appliqued. She finished it last July and entered it into The Anchorage Museum’s Earth, Fire & Fibre XXIX juried exhibition, earning the Juror’s Choice Award.

“All through that whole process, the idea of being a mother who is just about to spontaneously combust at any moment, that was layered in there with all these other things,” she said. “That is where I realized, this is actually a direction.”

Evolving as an artist, returning to her roots

In her studio, we’re surrounded by cupboards of clear bins holding fabric labeled blue/green, yellow/orange, black/brown and totes of handmade linens inherited from generations of family. There are watercolor miniatures and stitching samples pinned to the walls, words and phrases on paper tacked in front of a sewing machine, a nearly finished piece exploring the language of pain featuring bits of bone and shell hanging in front of a serger, a beginner’s hand-stitched felt bear quilt (Pelle’s) and a small stack of mending—children’s clothing with brightly colored patches pinned in place, awaiting a needle and thread. Mason jars of driftwood sit off to the side and a cutting table holds plastic baggies of Alaska beach slate, the round kind that’s perfect for skipping, sorted (with the help of 5-year-old Astrid, I later learned) from the smallest discs to the largest.

Meissner "Acquisition of Language"

Detail of stitching and inlaid bone and shell fragments from Amy’s new piece, “The Acquisition of Language.” Ted Kincaid/University of Alaska Anchorage.

It wasn’t too long ago that Amy, who was working as a children’s book illustrator, thought having kids meant diminishing her career as an artist forever. She’d been blindsided by how difficult it was to navigate tight deadlines with an infant.

“I came to parenting later. I was 34 and I’d done a lot of things,” she said. Before she became a children’s book illustrator, she’d spent more than a decade in the garment industry making custom wedding gowns. She earned two undergraduate degree in both textiles and fine arts as well as a master’s degree in creative writing from UAA’s Master of Fine Arts program.

“I was smart and I was going to be able to do this, too!” she said, laughing as she recalled her resolve. “I thought I’d just put my baby on my back and keep painting. It just wasn’t like that. That was a real eye-opener.”

She went from producing multiple books per year down to one or two for a while. And then, slowly, she found her way back to the traditional arts she’d learned as a child: crocheting, knitting, sewing.

Just over a year ago, she realized that the new work she’d been doing with old handmade things and fabrics from Sweden had started to become memoir.

“The themes that I was working with—domesticity and motherhood and fear—these fearful things couched in this warm, soft thing. A quilt is something you think of as being safe. And I realized that I can’t do my work without my children.”

Sometimes you can’t fit the mind

Amy Meissner

Amy shared the stories behind some of her new textile work in her studio. Ted Kincaid/University of Alaska Anchorage.

The last time Amy devoted her creativity to textiles, it was against the advice of two grandmothers. When she was 17, she began designing clothes, a skill that propelled her into the garment industry for the next decade.

“You need to make sure Amy doesn’t sew clothes for other women,” her grandmothers had warned her mother. “It won’t be good for her.” Just the sort of dire warning a teenager needs to solidify her plans to do exactly that.

“It is hard to sew for other people, especially a wedding gown,” she admitted. “There is such an emotional element to a wedding.” Her last boss and mentor, Manuel, had said, “You have to fit the body, but you also have to fit the mind.”

And sometimes, she discovered, you can’t fit the mind.

“I believe strongly that for creative people, really anyone, there’s this need to be reinventing yourself,” she said. “You need to reinvent your art and you need to rethink what you’re doing and why you’re doing it or you become stagnant.”

Don’t worry about the couch

Amy Meissner

A nook in Amy’s studio. Ted Kincaid/University of Alaska Anchorage.

Evolving from custom gown maker to illustrator taught her to recognize the signs of an approaching metamorphosis, which is what gave her the impetus to jump into a new form of textile art.

With the support of the Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Fellowship, she gets to devote 12 months to experimentation with textiles. She laughed as she summed up what that means for her as an artist. “I don’t have to worry about whether or not what I make will match someone’s couch.”

“At the end of the year, I’d like to have a cohesive body of work and do a solo show. I feel like already the momentum…there is not enough time!” she said, smiling and animated. “How can I cram it all in?”

This story written by Jamie Gonzales, UAA Office of University Advancement.

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