Show Us Your (Gallery) Space: Behind the Scenes with Amz

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In Show Us Your Space, we visit with various Redbubble artists in their workspaces to see where and how these talented folks create those amazing things that they create.

In this installment, we break from our regularly scheduled showing of spaces to visit with the very talented Amz for a behind the scenes look at her GALLERY space.


When I met Amz Kelso in the back room of one of Melbourne’s design and illustration gallery institutions, Off The Kerb, it’s a glaringly bright white summer day and the sunlight is reflecting off her artwork as if it’s about to start a fire. Her bright matte pink frames are offset by her liberal use of hologram paper, which she is admittedly “obsessed” over. Obsession is a word we used a lot when I dropped in and chatted with her about materials, 1950s films and of course, (one of Amz’s greatest loves) unicorns. Amz has  a body of work that re-appropriates traditional gendered child-like symbols (such as the unicorn, for girls) to create a thoughtful body of feminist work. Amz took the time to give me a guided sneak peak into her latest work and to talk about myths, materials, and the story of how her grandfather used to grind his own teeth with a metal file.

Amz herself. Photo by: Beth Caird

Beth: Did you study art? 

Amz: I studied at Preston MIT in the illustration course, it was one of those weird things when you get…you get into a course and everyone is like you, and it’s like you’re home. Everyone got along so well and it just kept getting better. That was years ago now, in 2010, but I’m still friends with those people and we go to each other’s opening nights.

Beth: What was your education like?

Amz: When I went and did it I was doing mainly digital illustration. I did everything in Photoshop which is the majority of my RB stuff. Now it’s mainly traditional hand-drawn stuff. All my teachers were like, “Photoshop is great, but if you can’t do it on paper…” so I learnt to do it in Photoshop too and was like, “alright, alright, I’ve got to do that.” It’s good now, it’s good. It was two years long. It was good too because I went from only looking at styles of illustration I really liked to seeing a whole range of different stuff. My friend Shannon, he does a lot of graffiti style stuff, so I got really into Nitra and Arise and now I’m doing a lot of skateboard art which made me branch out.

Beth: How long have you been on RB?

Amz: It’s been a while…I think just as I got out of my illustration course I started, it’s been a while, yeah it would’ve been about four years.

Beth: So tell me about your obsession with unicorns?

Amz: I’m obsessed. It’s just… unicorns. I have so many tacky op-shop statues. Now my family knows if they see any unicorn statues to buy them for me. I love it. I love tacky stuff. I’m obsessed with “The Last Unicorn.” That old ’80s film, it just stuck with me.

Beth: It’s amazing the childhood things that stay with you, I remember watching “Fantasia” and “Beauty and the Beast,” doing a similar thing.

Amz: Yeah, it’s stayed with me forever, it’s amazing. I remember being four and it being my sisters birthday. I had to choose one video for her birthday and I chose “The Last Unicorn” ‘the unicorn one,’ I had no idea what it was at all. I woke her up at dawn on her birthday and gave her the unicorn video, I think I actually put it on her face. We watched that every two weeks when we were kids.

Photo by: Beth Caird

Beth: It was so fascinating when news reports came out about the North Korean regime publishing information about the North Korean unicorns, as if they’re these mythical, magical creatures we still idolize or hold onto as adults, as if they’re powerful for everyone. 

Amz: It’s so good! [pointing to a pink unicorn piece] Yeah, like this unicorn is amazing, I found this at the Coburn Drive In market junk sale, it used to be a clock. It was so ugly. It was shiny metallic silver, but I painted it matte pink. The actual shape of it… I fell in love with it and was like, ‘ohhh it’s a unicorn!’ It looked horrible. But matte pink it looks awesome. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it except keep it.

The item formerly known as a unicorn clock. Photo by: Beth Caird

Beth: How did it go creating the work for this show?

Amz: I’ve done heaps of group shows, and curated a lot of shows. For Melbourne-based emerging artists I curated a whole lot of group shows over the last few years. I liked the idea of getting together a group of emerging artists and keeping the costs as low as possible. There were so many friends of mine that were illustrators that thought, ‘there is no way I could do a show,’ as they thought it was too expensive, or they have trouble applying for shows. So we just decided to go for it and do it ourselves, we only did group shows and none of us did a solo show. Until right now!

Beth: Congratulations!

Amz: The last show I did was at No Vacancy and I was curating 25 people and trying to organize them. We had 200 people come to the opening night and were in a Melbourne newspaper. I wasn’t stressed at all, but to do this solo show I’ve been weeping!

Beth: During install? That’s when I have a weep.

Amz: No! It’s been the few days before! I was weeping, thanking people for covering my day job! It was fine the week leading up to it, but just the last few days have meant I’ve been crying!

Beth: How’s the balance been your day job and illustrating been? 

Amz: I don’t have any great secrets… I guess when I decided to do a solo show, it hasn’t felt like work, of course it’s work but it’s good work. When I decided to do a solo show I knew I had to do it on something I was obsessed with, so I decided on unicorns.

Photo by: Beth Caird

Beth: I love the intersection between tackiness and art, kitsch work can be very effective, especially the meeting point of high and low brow. I like how your work bridges kitsch-culture. 

Amz: The majority of my work is a lot of feminist work, I try and commentate on how women work in society. I also love unicorns, so I wanted the unicorns to meet up with these feminist ideas. I like unicorns and their similarities between how we view women. Unicorns are elusive and are “magical” and they are symbolic of chastity and pureness. It’s a good vehicle to translate the ideas and expectations and projections onto women about how they should behave. Unicorns are a good way to look at the ways we tell women to act, when in reality we can mostly do what we want now, it’s 2014! We shouldn’t be putting up with these ideas about how to act, so I wanted to marry these two things together.

Beth: So you re-appropriate these chaste, childish symbols? 

Amz: Yeah exactly, and I also wanted to re-use these unicorns that are only given as symbolic gifts or presents to this idea of “wholesome” virgin women, as if virginity is something great. It’s great to flip that on its head and re-purpose it.

Photo by: Beth Caird

Photo by: Beth Caird

Beth: I had a pink My Little Pony toys growing up and they are messed up, it was bright pink and I think it was just a horse, not a unicorn, but it had really, really long hair, like a woman’s hair. It’s as if they’re sexualized.

Amz: Yeah, those horses also have long fake eyelashes and often their legs are posed to be sexual. They have their booty sticking out. They’re like Bratz dolls, but horses. These gendered products are everywhere, all the time, like toy vacuums and toy kitchens. And in my head, I’m just like, “Noooo!”

My little brother is turning 20 this year and he just doesn’t care about gender, or he does and he’s into andgrogony. He’s really into David Bowie, and a lot of great musicians. He’ll wear make up and put on a dress and think he’s working on the idea that it’s not shameful for men to wear dresses. I think it’s good to make a big deal out of how great and relaxed he is about it because other people do care, and they do make a big deal out of it.

Beth: What are your skulls made out of?

Amz: Resin. I sculptured a unicorn horn out of femo and then I cast it with silicone and then I’ve done a whole bunch of resin skulls. Two of the unicorn skulls are sprinkles in resin, and some of them are pearescent pigment. Some of them are glow in the dark pigment, there’s a lot of glitter, and that skull is made of tiny scraps of cotton thread. There’s dandeloin flower skulls and flower skulls. My original plan was to make a full-scale unicorn skull, but just curing it would’ve taken more than a week. But one of my good friends make resin furniture, on an industrial scale. So we’re going to collaborate and make a full-size unicorn skull out of an antelopes horn and a sheep skull. It’ll take ten kilos of resin, it’ll be so heavy and so great.

Photo by: Beth Caird

Photo by: Beth Caird

Beth: What reception from adults have you received about these new works?

Amz: A lot of good feedback. I really love Frida Kahlo’s work so I wanted to create work with heavy symbolism. I used a lot of passionfruit flowers, and when I was researching unicorns found that the unicorn is a symbol of passion. I also use a lot of moth motifs, in some folklore when a moth lands near you, it’s a symbol of a lost family member coming back to you. And for example I also paint a lot of unicorn beatles. I often use dichroic paper so the pigment changes colour from different angles. I love the way light changes pigment from different angles. I’m obsessed with holographic paper and anything that reflects light. Hologram everything. Hologram life.

Photo by: Beth Caird

Photo by: Beth Caird

Beth: Speaking of folklore, did you have any influential myths or children’s stories that have affected your work?

Amz: Yes! My grandparents are from Slovenia and immigrated here and read me so many stories that are Slovenian folk tales when I was little. One that really influenced me was a Ukranian story about a little girl who was so sad all the time, she used to sit by the river and cry and cry and cry, so much so until the freshwater river became salty. Mermaids in the river noticed the river becoming salty and they felt the salt from her tears. So they came up to her and asked her what was wrong, and she said that nothing could make her feel better and nothing could make her laugh anymore. So to help her they began to tickle her and tickle her, and they didn’t stop, and kept tickling her until she couldn’t breathe anymore and she fell into the water and drowned.

Beth: Woah!

Amz: Yeah, I know, Mermaids are evil! The moral of the story was to pull your socks up when you feel glum and don’t sook! It was like telling kids to stop crying and don’t be sad and just get back to work. The majority of the stories were just telling kids to not complain and work more, which was really brutal and intense as a kid. But that was what it was like when my grandparents were growing up. My grandfather’s head is all flat at the back because as an infant he was strapped down on his back a lot and left so his family could go and work, that was normal for them, this expectation that you just worked and worked. It was normal practice, that was the babysitter. It was brutal, hardcore. He also used to file his own teeth, he never went to the dentist. He used a file in the garage to file them, he wouldn’t go to the dentist, they were so little and stubby and straight.

Beth: Oh yeah I’ve heard some stories from Slovenia but uh, that’s intense! You use a range of materials, what’s your favorite? 

Amz: I used to absolutely hate Guache, but now it’s all I use! I use it in all of these new pieces, I’m obsessed with using Guache and watercolor. That’s what I use mainly now but I wanted to especially with this show, use a lot of feminine craft work, so I used embroidery and lead lighting. I like trying everything. I do lead lighting as well.

Photo by: Beth Caird

Photo by: Beth Caird

Beth: Yeah what lead is that? What lead grade?

Amz: It’s copper foil instead of lead, because the lines are so thin.

Beth: And lastly, if you were sent off to Alcatraz what three art supplies, or what three things would you take with you?

Amz: That’s so hard! “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” the 1950s film, it’s like one of the Dracula films. And Guache, and a watercolor sketchpad. I hope I don’t have to go though, but if I do I am all set. As long as there’s a DVD player.

Photo by: Beth Caird

Thank you to Amz for taking the time out to speak to us about her work. You can check out more of Amz Kelso’s profile here to support her work.

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