New York City is made up of two kinds of people. The first are the immigrants who come from all over the world to settle on the island’s crowded shores. Perhaps they’re escaping the religious persecution of their home country, or are driven by financial motives, hoping to build a better life for future generations of their families. As a result, Manhattan is in a constant state of flux, continuously remolding itself to reflect the Chinese, Italian, Irish, Greek, and Middle Eastern, cultural traditions of the foreigners who come to call the island home. Then there are the natives. These are the people whose parents and grandparents have spent their whole lives in one of Manhattan’s historic brownstones or prewar apartment complexes. They’ve witnessed first-hand the drastic transformation – and in some cases, the gentrification – their neighborhood has undergone over the decades.
Artist Amy Wilson is part of the latter group. “My parents moved to the suburbs, which is what a lot of people did in the 70’s and 80’s. I spent a lot of time in the city though, because my grandparents lived in lower Manhattan,” she tells La VOCE.
After graduating with a Bachelor’s degree from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan (which is where she currently teaches), and a Master’s degree from Yale University, she immediately married and moved to Jersey City with her husband, an art critic. While in school she trained in sculptural work, but once she moved into her new apartment, Wilson had to try her hand at different artistic forms. “At Yale I had this really fantastic studio, all the students do. It was literally bigger than any apartment I’ve ever lived in on my own. I had to drastically scale down what I was doing once I graduated because I just couldn’t afford a space like that,” she explains.
She started painting in watercolor, and began creating miniature landscapes that, from a distance, seem wondrously whimsical. Young girls (blondes, brunettes, and redheads), all dressed in pink and blue and purple sundresses seem to happily, blissfully frolic about them. A closer look, however, reveals that these light-hearted scenes are darker than they appear. Sometimes these young girls play together peacefully; other times they’re being strangled by leafy vines, watching one another tear the organs out from their bodies. The scenes are laced with powerful commentary about current events, both from the headlines and from the private thoughts that race through Wilson’s mind. “It’s all very narrative, all very personal,” she says. In some ways, several of Wilson’s colorful miniature creations are self-portraits. The recurring image of the young girl is actually a representation of Wilson herself. “These characters are all extensions of myself,” she ex
plains. “I always think of it like this: I was an only child and I was incredibly lonely. I always had these imaginary friends that I would have conversations with.”
Wilson has also created large-scale works. “One thing I want to mention is the program through the Downtown Alliance,” she told La VOCE. It’s an organization that works to improve Lower Manhattan’s Business District by providing marketing, security, transportation, and streetscape and design services to the residents, visitors, and businesses of lower Manhattan. When they are heading a construction project and have to put up scaffolding for a long period of time, rather than leave an eye sore for passersby to wince at, they commission artists to somehow embellish the scaffolding. “They were building a playground downtown and they commissioned me to do this piece around it. When they finished building and took down the scaffolding, we removed the tarp, cut it up, and made it into tote bags so that we could recycle it,” said Wilson.
Most recently, Wilson has set her sights on a different artistic medium: lacework. Though it’s something she’s been focusing on for the past year, the artistic form isn’t new to her. “My grandmother was very insistent about knitting, crocheting, and sowing. These were very important things. It was like she was teaching me a trade. I was taught it at such a young age that it’s like knowing a language,” she says.
Wilson has taken the medieval craft of lacemaking and added a modern twist to it. Her unique process involves the combination of traditional handwork combined with digital technology. The artist begins by drawing an image and then superimposing a grid over it. She then photographs each square of the grid and uploads the images to her computer. Next, she retraces it on the computer screen, assigning different stitches to each of the patterns. This is where the technology kicks in. An embroidery machine, similar to a 3-D printer, is plugged into the computer. The images are printed out on to a water-soluble material, which the artist describes as being “really gauzy.” She then reassembles each part of the grid so that it mirrors the original drawing. Finally, the pieces are stitched together by hand and the final product is soaked in water. Once the gauzy material dissolves, only the lace remains.
Wilson’s knack for working with needle and thread has not only resulted in the creation of intricate lacework compositions, but by sharing her talent she has also stitched together the history of New York City’s past and fashioned a bond between city’s diverse inhabitants. This past year Wilson collaborated with MoreArt, a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote public art and educational programs via alliances formed between artists and their communities. When the organization approached Wilson about a project involving two groups of senior citizens, one located in Chelsea, and the other in Greenwich Village, Wilson knew she wanted to do something related to sowing. “I had this idea of doing quilt-making,” she said. “I was going to talk to these two groups of seniors about their relationship to the neighborhood and how it had changed during the time that they had lived there, about gentrification, about the improvements, and about things that they didn’t like about it.” The project was called Disappearing City and the idea was to create collages on fabric that would then be sown together and preserved in the form of quilts.
However, “some people didn’t want to do it,” said Wilson. She found that the group of women that met in Chelsea wasn’t interested in topics like gentrification, or discussing the transformation of the neighborhood. “They were women from other parts of the country that wound up in New York later in life. Relating to this idea of the changing city wasn’t palpable to them,” she said. Their quilts reflected their personal stories, each square representing the victories, struggles, and sweet memories of their own life journeys. Some brought in personal items, such as their children’s clothes, which they cut up and incorporated into their quilts. “They loved showing each other pictures of their grandkids and telling stories,” recalled Wilson. There was a real sense of community that was established among these women who all came from different life paths.
The group of women who met in Greenwich Village, on the other hand, responded well to Wilson’s original plan. “They were extremely plugged into this idea of a changing neighborhood. Most of them had very deep roots in that neighborhood, and had lived there for at least 40 to 50 years.” Perhaps they witnessed the closing of a family owned coffee shop they walked passed every day, only to see it be replaced by a Starbucks, or watched as they bulldozed through the neighborhood’s barbershop, only to see a state-of-the-art apartment complex rise up in its place. “They had seen all these changes happen,” she said. Rather than include personal mementos into their quilts, they printed on to fabric different images of things around the city that they wanted to include in their collage. “We asked them what kind of images they would like to see in the quilt and they’d tell us, ‘the way Washington Square Park used to look compared to what it looks like now.’”
Though there is an undeniably personal aspect present in Wilson’s work, the programs she has participated in evidence that she has also been successful in using her artistic talents to beautify New York City neighborhoods and encourage a greater sense of community among its members.
Watch the video about Disappearing City>>