Painter, printmaker, and weaver Emma Amos was born and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. After attending segregated public schools there, she enrolled in a five-year program at Antioch University in Ohio. She spent her fourth year abroad at the London Central School of Art, studying printmaking, painting, and weaving. After her year in London, Emma went on to have an illustrious career, working in various teaching roles, making prints, sewing, weaving, quilting, and doing illustrations for Sesame Street magazine. She also developed and co hosted Show of Hands, a TV crafts show. Emma has won numerous prestigious awards and grants, and her work has been exhibited internationally.
We were so grateful to have the opportunity to speak with Emma and find out more about her time at the London Central School of Art, as well as her remarkable career since then…
When did you realise you wanted to pursue art, particularly printmaking and weaving?
From a very early age, all I did was draw and paint. My parents always encouraged me so there was no other thought in what I could do. When I was a little girl, being an artist was the only thing I ever wanted to be. I first learned printmaking at Antioch College in Ohio, and then took real classes in London.
What were you doing before your first trip to the London Central School of Art? And what made you want to travel so far to London in particular?
I was studying at Antioch College where we were encouraged to work over the summers, or certain periods, So I got to spend time in New York and Washington. They also allowed us to take time off to pursue other studies, and for me there was no question about going to London to be an art student. I spent my fourth year of Antioch in London. Eric Newton, the art critic, said there were three good schools in England, and Central School of Art was one of them. My father wanted me to go as well. He came and visited me, and we went on a break to Italy, which was wonderful. I had real art classes, with all these painters around me, and that is where I started printing. I took a lot of classes in etching there, as many as I could.
After a year and a half in London, I went back to Ohio and graduated from Antioch and then returned to the Central School of Art to get my diploma.
What happened after you graduated from London Central with your diploma in etching in 1959?
I went back to Atlanta for my first solo show there. Then I was fooling around for some time with not much more to do and my parents actually suggested that I try moving to New York, which I did. In New York, I first started teaching at the Dalton School, as an assistant teacher. They didn’t pay well, but I made good friends there. Then I wanted to put my experience with textiles, which I had learned in England, to work. I worked with the famous textile designer Dorothy Liebes, who hired me for the quality of my etchings. After a year or so, I went back to school, getting a Master’s Degree from New York University, while continuing to work as a weaver. There I met Hale Woodruff, who remembered me from when I was a little girl when my mother tried to get him to teach me. He apologised for being so reluctant years before and really started to mentor me. He very much liked the prints that I had done in England, and asked me if he could show them to this group called Spiral. It turned out that they invited me in, and I was the only woman and the youngest member.
I got married to Bobby Levine and had two children, Nick and India. It wasn’t easy to keep up with everything. I kept working at the Printmaking Workshop with Bob Blackburn. When my kids were a little bigger, I was teaching weaving at a school called Threadbare on Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village. I did “Show of Hands,” a TV series for WBGH in Boston, and that was a lot of fun. I co-hosted it with a colleague, Beth Gutcheon. We did shows on woodworking, on stained glass, on weaving, quilt-making and clay – it was great.
I got a studio back in SoHo (New York), and there were many exhibitions. I started teaching at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University in New Jersey, a drive from my home in New York. I taught drawing, painting, and printmaking, and had the chance to teach and mentor many promising young artists during my time there. I retired as Professor after 28 years, and after having served as Chair of the fine arts department.
All through the 1980s, I got more connected with women artists. I did a series of works on women, especially on women artists, they are too powerful to ignore. I got a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art in 2002, and another from the Georgia Museum just this past week; there were some Fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, and a few others. I got to spend time in Italy a couple of times, first at Bellagio through the Rockefeller Foundation, and then at Civitella Ranieri Foundation. I was an artist in residence at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and later became a Governor on the board. They still keep me there, as an Honorary Governor.
What was it like being educated in the segregated school system? And how do you think it has affected your work?
My parents were so solid that I was able to get around anything, really. We were part of a special group – they owned a pharmacy and a drugstore. My grandfather was already the first registered black pharmacist in Atlanta. My brother Larry and I were always able to get pretty much anything we wanted, and my parents didn’t let us be any pissers. I went to a segregated high school in Atlanta. And the colleges around there— Atlanta University, Spelman, Morehouse— had wonderful people. I was completely surrounded with black intellectuals. I didn’t know I was a black artist until many years later. I became aware of being identified by race when I attended college in Ohio, because this was a mostly white college.
Tell us about your experience being the youngest and only female member of Spiral, a group of black artists that included Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, and Charles Alston.
Being a member of Spiral was great – it was a big political thing. They seemed to be very happy with me being there. They considered me to just be a part of them. They didn’t think like, “Let’s get another girl to join,” or anything like that. They were never disrespectful, and that was really nice. I was just like a part of them, and they were all much older than me. I’m not sure they invited other people by looking at their work, but they wanted to make sure I was a real artist and not a dilettante or something.
What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
So many good things have happened – I had a good chance of following my dreams, and nobody tried to knock me out. That was a good deal. Going to the Central School of Art in London was unbelievably wonderful – I got to meet so many people, and we got to hang out in the museums, and I learned so much. Then, being a part of Spiral. Later, I joined some other art groups, like Heresies and other women’s art groups. So many things. As I started teaching at Rutgers University in 1980, I had many colleagues who were wonderful artists, and my students always taught me so much.
Where do you find your inspiration today?
I love all kinds of art. I am still doing what I always wanted to do, and so that’s what keeps me at it.
There are lots of good things happening at the moment, including your work being shown in the Whitney Museum and the British Museum. What are your plans for the future?
Trying to make people understand the good things you can do, like art. Nothing is as interesting to me as making art, so I want to keep doing it. I am always thinking about art and cannot imagine living without making something. It has always been a pleasant thing that my folks let me do that.
This profile is from a combination of archival material, previous interview, memories of what Emma told her studio manager of 10 years, sourced material, and paraphrased conversations with Emma Amos in the past few weeks about the subject of each question.