Take one look at Amy Casey’s paintings, and you might be inclined to ask, “What are you doing in Homer?”
Most of Casey’s work centers around cities. She paints houses tightly packed, in a way residences seldom are in Homer: piled up on each other, winding up into the sky on stilts or hanging down in nets, surrounded by ribbons of roadway, wound together with strings.
Casey, 39, is this fall’s Bunnell Street Art Center Rasmuson Artist in Residence. Hailing from Zygote Press in Cleveland, Ohio, she’s in Homer until Nov. 15. She graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art with a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting in 1999, and since then has spent most of her time working as an acrylic painter and printmaker in the middle of bustling Cleveland.
So she gets the irony of her situation.
“My work is extreme dense urban with little patches of nature coming in, and this is the total opposite of that. This is green, natural locations with little tiny bits of city thrown on,” she says.
After more than a month here, she’s still overwhelmed by the space and quiet in Homer, and finds it amusing when people complain that the town is becoming too populated. She says she’s awestruck by the peninsula’s natural beauty. She doesn’t drive, and walking to the end of the Spit one day she couldn’t quite get over feeling like she was inside a postcard.
Casey has been making an effort to immerse herself fully in her surroundings. That’s been important for her work, because despite the fantastical feel of her paintings, nearly every single building she depicts is one she’s seen in real life.
At home, she has hundreds of photos of houses categorized in boxes: left- or right-facing, two floors or three or seven. When she comes up with the idea for a piece, she selects the houses she wants to use and makes detailed drawings and models of them before she starts painting. Some of her works are huge — up to 60 inches by 40 inches. Intensely detailed, they’re labors of love: a 22- by 30-inch piece took her 90 hours.
In a new environment, Casey’s main project here has been a material-gathering effort.
She’s invited anyone in the community to schedule a time to sit down with her at her work space inside Bunnell and tell her about their house. Then she uses the description to make a painting of the house. In return, she asks that the other person make their own piece of art to leave with her. Their work doesn’t have to be impressive; in fact, she says she likes when non-artists sign up because she enjoys seeing what people can do when given the chance to make something.
“I realized thinking about coming here I don’t know that much about any of these places, so I thought this would be a super awesome time to find out some stories, you know, since I’m here and kind of immersing myself in a totally different environment,” she says.
For Casey, the project has introduced another contrast between home and Homer: a self-described introvert, in the city she worked alone in her studio with only her cats for company. Now in small-town Alaska, working just inside Bunnell’s front door, she’s getting used to constant companionship.
“I guess because I’m such an insular person, the idea of community becomes more important because you really have to sort of find your own community when you’re working by yourself or you kind of start to lose touch with reality,” she says. “I’m interested in how connections are made and the defenses you create sometimes to protect yourself and how that can keep everyone else out.”
In Homer, she says, community is more tangible than it was in Cleveland. Even when your neighbors aren’t as close by, she thinks that somehow the smaller population makes it harder to forget about them.
While Casey’s paintings feel whimsical, many also feel urgent; the houses could topple at any moment.
That’s no accident. She’s always felt she has to protect the implied people inside her painted houses from impending disaster: interconnectedness in a community both provides security and new challenges.
“You think about in the city how much you may not know your neighbors but you depend on them to come home and mow their lawn and take care of their house and feed their kids, you know, and when they stop doing that it creates this huge problem,” she says.
She started painting city scenes around the time of Hurricane Katrina.
“So the work became kind of a cause and effect: what do we do to save ourselves? And the obvious answer to me at the time was to put everything on stilts. So that worked for a while, and then I realized that stilts don’t last forever,” she says.
When the economic recession of 2008 hit Cleveland, Casey had recurring nightmares about watching all the buildings around her crumble to the ground, so she strung the ones in her paintings up in the air. She painted safety nets underneath them. She built bridges between them, and ribbons made of brick. It was what she calls her ”three little pigs” period.
“A lot of my work is sort of about adaptation and the magical way that humans have of always figuring out some kind of plan,” she explains. “Like, you’ll have some kind of inhospitable place where it doesn’t make any sense to live and you’ll have someone there being like, ‘I will make this work.’”
That description fits few places better than Alaska. And here, adaptability has become Casey’s middle name: she’s a city gal exploring small-town world, a introvert reaching out.
So while looking at her paintings might at first suggest that Casey’s presence here is a contradiction, she says being in Alaska is also a natural expansion, a study in balance and in growth. She’s not sure how it will affect her art, but that’s part of the point — allowing herself to fall from the towering cluster of houses into a sea of trees, and seeing that it all turns out okay.
To schedule an appointment for a house painting exchange with Casey, call Bunnell at 235-2662.
Annie Rosenthal can be reached at email@example.com.