“We are nothing but body so far as nature is concerned. Nature’s values are bodily values, human values are mental values”
(Becker 31, quoted by Amanda Lilleston at her Colby talk).
Two and a half years ago, Amanda Lilleston joined the Colby faculty to teach all levels of print and digital media. She is the perfect professor of studio art in a liberal-arts setting. As an undergraduate at Colorado College, she majored in Biology, but took quite a bit of sculpture (which makes sense since woodcuts are one of her preferred mediums). This scientific background is key to understanding her work—both as an artist and as a teacher.
As MAJ settled on “Macro/Micro” as the topic for the Spring 2020 issue, I immediately thought of Amanda for my Colby column. I vividly remember the “job talk” she delivered on campus, exactly three years ago. Indeed, and right off the bat, she declared that her work is shaped by a desire to understand biological processes and see the human body as a complex ecosystem.
In that talk, Amanda showed examples of artwork that influence her, presenting a varied list of artists who explore themes of the body and of mortality—and even of decomposition, as in Sally Mann’s series on donor bodies. Lilleston finds inspiration in artists who focus on the changing nature of the body, as when Jenny Saville shows how the flesh behaves under pressure.
At some point, Amanda Lilleston trained in Wilderness EMT. As a medical responder in the field she had to think about the human body in a manner completely different from that of an artist. Similarly, she became aware of the gap between anatomical diagrams and the reality of a dissected body.
The bodily dimension is central to Lilleston’s work and guides her medium choices. For instance, she sees a “membranous quality” in the Japanese Gampi paper. This type of support is crucial to her working methods. She starts by producing several copies of a print which she then cuts and collages with wheat paste. The bits bond together with the Japanese diaphanous paper, although not in a completely cohesive manner, as she combines extremely colorful elements with others that are black/white (or blue/white) from old anatomical illustrations or even photocopies.
Whether of her own design or appropriated from scientific books, the collaged elements come from nature. Elements observable with the naked eye merge with organic tissues requiring dissection, and others are seen through microscopic magnification. We thus have, if you will, not just the macro and the micro, but the macro, micro, and very micro! We see elements taken from botany (here an helliconium flower, there poppies or grapes), combined with histology-type tissue, such as pancreatic, lung, or bone tissue, and cellular views. These elements, disparate in origin, bond with the paper and generate new relationships. In so doing, they remind Lilleston of epigenetics, in which phenotypes may change without involving alterations in the DNA sequence and, as a result, they allude to yet one more level of magnification, beyond the cellular one, all the way to the DNA.
The fluidity of this combinatory modus operandi holds meaning for Lilleston, which she sees alluding to the body’s constant physiological changes—whether the organism is healthy, traumatized, or decaying. Her scientific background, combined with the visual acuity developed as an art student, allows her to observe changes, for instance, in how the skin is altered when embalming fluid is injected, in the range of colors that fat tissue shows below the skin’s surface, or in the difference in color of oxygenated blood or not.
Lilleston constantly makes connections between her handling of medium and body’s life. The collages reflect organic processes, in which accumulation occurs, for instance how plaque builds up on artery walls. There is also an emotional dimension, as she sees a link between body and mind, between scientific observation and experiential artistic practice. But science is never too far removed, as Amanda is aware of the field of biological psychology. Ultimately, she aims at uncovering systems. For her, art functions as a means of thinking visually, further closing the gap between science and art, between what we like to perceive as rational knowledge and artistic expression. Lilleston further links the micro and the macro—and whatever might exist in between—as she tries to capture how the body, organs, and cells have “been honed and shaped by pressures and environment”: how the very small bears witness of much larger forces.
Her artwork reaches yet another dimension as she sees her prints (and the body as well) as landscapes. She draws parallels between the artist’s mark-making (an essential step in her printmaking practice, as she starts with charcoal drawings on the board) and the marks left on organisms by biological processes. Biology (and art) create a narrative of sorts, extending a story line in time– past, present, and future–with the marks becoming clues of how life has been lived and determining the body’s future in health, sickness, or decay. Amanda states that she sees “bodies as living transcripts of our encounters with the world.”
Recently, we met in the printmaking studio at Colby and I asked her to reflect on her work and her teaching, in particular within the framework of MAJ’s theme of Macro/Micro. Amanda noted how she works on a large scale, and yet presents her viewer with histological elements seen under intense magnification. She noted how installation has become important for printmaking practice and we had the occasion to discuss how such a way to approach prints revises the medium’s history, when prints were meant to be viewed in a private manner (individually or with just a few friends), not displayed vertically and framed on a wall, to be seen in a more public way. Ultimately, as mentioned above, Lilleston’s major goal is to uncover and create relationships. For instance, she explained that in her Bangor studio, she likes to have “everything out at once” so she “can continually” relate the growing body of work to the piece she’s actually working on.
For Amanda “printmaking is an inherently interdisciplinary medium” (she holds an interdisciplinary MFA from the University of Michigan’s Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design) She hopes that her students are driven by curiosity, as she is, pointing to one of her prints inspired by a kidney, marveling at nephrology. This is directly reflected in her teaching, as she welcomes in her classroom students with a diverse range of interests, and sees printmaking as a profoundly transformative practice.
As she thought further about her pedagogical work, Lilleston stressed how she insists that students connect art to their other academic pursuits. This strategy goes well beyond making a studio art course accessible to more students. It is, in fact, as I declared when we chatted, “the right thing to do in a liberal arts context!” Lilleston readily acquiesced, exclaiming, “that’s why I wanted to teach at a liberal arts school.” This is, of course, exactly what she does in her own work, as she constantly relates her studio practice to larger, scientific fields, such as biology, botany, anatomy, histology. As a matter of fact, Lilleston goes so far as telling her students: “if you are not making connections, you are missing out”—“it’s a waste.” It yields more than interesting artwork making the example of a student who might be a psychology major, she expressed her belief that such a creative pursuit could lead to a better understanding of the field of psychology.
Connections are the linchpin of Lilleston’s pedagogy, and not only in bringing the other academic backgrounds to the printmaking studio. She stressed that she asks her students to be thoughtful about their choice of medium and of their approach (and other issues, for instance, to consider the ecological impact of a given medium). She wants her students to become aware of how a narrative shapes a body of work and how they position themselves in a conversation with other artists, past and contemporary, thus bridging their own work and the larger art historical narrative.
As Amanda talked about her work as an artist and a teacher, I realized that beyond melding macro and micro, of exploring biological beings in all their density and all their behaviors—be they chemical, physical, or behavioral—she creates works that touch upon many of the important developments and concerns in today’s art world: medium specificity, materiality, the body’s physicality, and personal narrative. As a pedagogue, Lilleston’s work is a wonderful example of how artistic practice can create bridges across the academic curriculum, while also imparting to students truly transferable skills.
Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press, 1973.
“CRE Fellow 2013: Amanda Lilleston.” Second State Press. http://www.secondstatepress.org/amanda-lilleston
Lilleston, Amanda. Printmaking Candidate Talk. Colby College, Waterville, Maine. 28 March 2017.
Plesch, Véronique. Conversation with Amanda Lilleston. Colby College, Waterville, Maine. 4 February 2020.
Image at top: Amanda Lilleston, 4 February 2020, Colby College, Waterville, Maine (photo: Véronique Plesch).