Cities in Flight

Up, up and away with Cleveland artist Amy Casey

Amy Casey perches barefoot on the seat of a high, paint-spattered swivel chair, blearily sipping a large cup of tea. She blinks and smiles, making a nervous attempt to brush cat hair off her black T-shirt as a bulky video camera inches closer. It catches her incorrigibly straight brown hair, stark against a luminously pale complexion. Her glance at the lens conveys subdued hilarity and mild panic: Like the camera, she's trying to focus.

So far it's been a crazy morning. Half an hour ago an e-mail arrived: CPAC, the nonprofit Community Partnership for Arts and Culture commissioned by Cuyahoga County to implement distribution of the county's tobacco-tax dollars, is awarding her one of its new Creative Workforce Fellowships — basically a gift of $20,000 each to 20 local artists who survived a rigorous judging process.  Then promptly at 10 a.m., David Barnett of  WVIZ's Ideastream, followed by cameraman Dave Staruch and two assistants, ventured up a flight of steep stairs edged with artwork, feline paraphernalia and random footwear. Barnett is interviewing Casey for a segment on WVIZ's arts program Applause.

Amy hadn't slept at all. She's been working toward a deadline in the room where she's now being filmed. A big drawing board tilts upward in one corner. Dozens of itty-bitty brushes are marshaled into empty jars. Works in progress are clipped to every available inch of wall space. This studio is part of a modest suite tucked onto the second floor of a stubby clapboard house in Tremont. Luckily, Amy doesn't indulge much in furniture; the place is a tight fit just with art, two cats and a whole lot of cassette tapes and CDs, plus today's crew of journalists.

The CPAC grant is only the latest of several recent coups for the artist. WVIZ's interest follows in the wake of news that she's one of this year's picks for a prestigious Cleveland Arts Prize, due to receive a check for 5K and a medal in a ceremony on June 25 as winner of CAP's Emerging Artist Award. Earlier this month, MOCA Cleveland opened an exhibit called There Goes the Neighborhood, which includes her works. And she's got solo shows scheduled for late 2009 and early 2010 at galleries in Chicago and San Francisco.

Casey tends to keep a level head. The CPAC grant in particular will make a huge difference in her life, enabling her to take many aspects of her art and career to new levels. But she probably wouldn't quit her day job unless she won the Super Lotto, and then only after a lot of thought. "I've had a job since I was 14," she tells Barnett in the interview. "I'm definitely a low-key, low self-esteem kind of person — not that it's a problem." 

Apparently it isn't. She speaks quietly and quickly in a youthful, chirpy sort of voice and looks to be in her early 20s, at most. But a wary confidence in her manner belies that initial impression; actually, she just turned 33. She's worked at the Cleveland Institute of Art's Reinberger Galleries, where the widely known experimental photographer Bruce Checefsky (also the winner of a CPAC fellowship) is her boss, for about nine years. Before that, she was a guard at the Cleveland Museum of Art while she attended the Cleveland Institute of Art. In between, following her CIA graduation in 1999, she worked for a year — again as a guard — at the Terra Foundation for American Art in Chicago.

She's shown her paintings in a number of venues since her first solo exhibit at Lakewood's Dead Horse Gallery in the fall of 2002, but it's only in the past couple of years that Casey became one of Cleveland's most talked-about younger artists as she began to attract national attention. Her latest series of acrylic-on-paper paintings depicting airborne factories and houses tugged aloft by weblike hawsers, or sky-high stacks of factories, studded with traffic barrels and swathed in crusty roads or bolts of stockade fencing, strike chords that just about any contemporary America city dweller can hear.

In the context of high-end contemporary art, they also express a formal preoccupation with accumulation (the fascinating complication of piles of things), common materials (office supplies, DIY stuff, recyclables) and a general mindfulness of the details of our collective everyday life.  Casey's own experiences as a city dweller, meditative bus traveler and long-time gallery installer make her well suited to the task of reassembling the outlines of her essential subject —which (at least for now) is the urban visual experience.

Specifically, she plays with the rustbelt's 21st-century, curbside mess of neglected infrastructure, dumped in front of a dilapidated housing market. This could be depressing subject matter, but in her hands, pollution and decay take on an air of quiet delight, as in a fairy tale gone awry — or not so awry, since fairy tales tend to be horrifying. Giants and evil queens — the powers that make bad things happen — aren't included in the stories she tells, but they're not far away. Just beyond the edges of the paper something has undone the world she paints and is beginning to tug the chaos away, toward the nothingness beyond the frame. There's also the possibility that such unseen forces are benevolent, engaged in a whimsical urban-renewal project.

Obviously the prime mover and shaker here is Casey herself, whose good nature is evident in her brush strokes. No one but a true lover of the frailty of human habitations would paint all those worn bricks, collapsing porches and the acres of patched asphalt and disintegrating blacktop that surround them with such affection. Lately, each successive work presents a more complex delicacy as mark and stroke translate hard realities into more nuanced images. Rendered primarily in muted, brown-based tones, siding and bricks begin to resemble feathers and the ruffled, bedraggled intimacy of sparrows or pigeons: city birds roosting in a landscape minus most of its land.  

"Now can I talk with you while you're doing something?" Barnett asks as he turns to the cameraman. "I want to get her face as she's working." The Canon observes her at the drawing board as she dabs miniscule particles of paint from a plastic take-out plate. Barnett kids her, "When you're splashing stuff around like that, do you know what it'll look like on the paper?"

"Pretty much," she allows. "You get to know what it'll do. I use ultra matte medium, which fools everyone into thinking the acrylic is gouache — not that that's why I'm doing it. Shininess doesn't really work when you're painting old buildings." How about those little brushes? "They get down to five or seven hairs," she tells him. She jokes about the "action" shots in progress: "Oh, my God, she's painting another brick. Oh — oh — yes! It's another brick!" Casey usually works in stages, first outlining major features like the sashaying highways and fences with light pencil strokes, filling them in with semi-transparent washes of color. Gradually, smaller and smaller objects and incidents straggle onto the page.

She works on several pieces at once, but each takes a week or even a month to complete. As source material, she uses photographs she's taken herself or by helpful friends. Some are snapped from RTA windows as she goes to work, others are familiar from the streets that step down toward the Flats, running off from old avenues with names like Literary, Professor, Jefferson. Few houses in the neighborhood or factories down the hill have escaped a Casey depiction. As you might expect, the house where she lives pops up now and again, like a secret signature. 

WHEN WE MEET AGAIN a few days later, I ask how she feels about all this interviewing.

"It's good for me, for my career," she says. "I'm a little set aback. It's frankly a little hilarious to think anybody cares what I have to say." In an e-mail she added, "I think the vast majority of artists including myself usually work in a kind of vacuum of polite disinterest for the most part. Of course most artists of any stripe have a few champions and the support of a few vocal, kind family members and/or friends, but generally when presenting work, you can almost hear the crickets chirping, as painting simply doesn't raise the kind of public attention that it might have, say, a hundred years ago. So my experience of leaving that quiet vacuum if only for moments has been a bit disorienting. But it's lovely for the most part. And while I appreciate the attention right now, I would like to point out that I am certainly no anomaly. I was in a group show in a Los Angeles gallery (POV Evolving) early this year which was curated by a collector in California. And I found that, including me, there were four Cleveland area artists in the show — a complete coincidence, all of us arriving from completely different paths."  

Casey has lived more than a third of her life in Cleveland, but she grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania. The family home is in a quiet neighborhood, with a patch of sloping backyard above a shallow ravine and a creek. As you travel the two miles from there toward the small city's downtown area, the route is soon lined with decaying walls. Empty windows perforate time-abased late-19th-century manufacturing plants. Such sights are a fixture in the consciousness of anyone living at this end of the northeastern manufacturing economy's long ebb. Depression, recession and the lower costs of doing business elsewhere have stripped the flesh from places like this — Youngstown and Akron, Cleveland, Toledo and Detroit. Coldly framed for much of the year by the blank paper of off-white skies, they have their own desolate beauty, which many romantically inclined artists have photographed, drawn and painted.

Like them, Casey may be a closet romantic, but generally, her practical façade is front and center. Her particular brilliance is to snatch all this visual material up like a child putting away a floor full of toys, stuffing it deftly into pictorial space with All-American, Dr. Seuss-meets-Rube Goldberg-meets-Edward Hopper combinatory panache. "There you go," she seems to say. "All done," and slams the door.

Except that Casey is very much not a child, and her motives aren't merely a matter of admiration for texture or atmosphere. Mainly, she is too pessimistically kind to pronounce facile judgment on the post-apocalyptic scenes she depicts. If anything, she's trying to shore up her native landscape, proposing impractical solutions (what else?) to insoluble problems.

"I use my painting partially to feel like I have some sort of control," she tells Barnett. "The houses were falling down at one point and I thought if there were more ropes, they'd still be connected to something." These latest attempts at rescue developed from a long series of anxiety-ridden paintings completed between 2004 and 2006, where demonically fecund, pointy blue plants take over inner-city scenes, climbing tall buildings or dragging down telephone poles. Those in turn were a sequel to the less specific predicament of small, misbegotten creatures who hung onto their lives in the shrinking margins of impending doom, scurrying in the shadow of vast toxic factories. Amy did what she could for her people. "Following an absurd kind of logic, I put them on stilts, I put them on strings — whatever would get them out of there."  At this point, they seem to be gone; but they must be hiding. After all, they're vestiges of the artist herself, twisting into the crannies of the picture plane like aberrant loops of genetic material.

At an earlier stage, bemused rabbits and pigs — also stand-ins for Casey and her circle of family and friends — populated her work. When I first met her nine years ago, not too long after she got back from Chicago, she was beginning to build 50-odd frames for a series of four-inch-square acrylic-on-paper studies she'd started during her year working at Terra and living in a cramped basement apartment. Based on photo references, they displayed much of the mesmerizing skill of her current work, though the subsequent decade of constant practice has pushed her abilities farther and farther, as well as transformed her imaginative range. Each incorporated a figure based on a ceramic rabbit, a childhood tchotchke, which witnessed the changing scene around it with an unchanging look of dumbfounded amazement.

Much of the city dweller's pedestrian world found its way into these diminutive works — window displays at a shoe store, street scenes showing lonely corners, leaning telephone poles next to sleazy bars, vegetables for sale in front of a bodega somewhere. In one, a rabbit is about to climb onto a Greyhound bus; he's seen from the back, or in profile in a bathroom, or peeking at laundry drying in a back yard. Amy had painted doorways, roadways, reflections — a small world of visual references — all rendered in finely modulated grisaille (monochrome). At a distance, they appeared to be old Kodak snapshots.

At that time, I'd been asked to be part of a selections committee for a projected show at MOCA. Checefsky had recommended Amy as a candidate. Ultimately, the show was canceled, but I thought I'd have a look at Casey's work anyway, so I kept the appointment. She was staying with a friend in a house on the west side. When she came to the door, I thought she was someone's young daughter; she looked about 13 years old to me. But the child said she was indeed Amy Casey. Twenty-four at the time, the artist was ensconced in two upstairs rooms — one serving as studio and the other packed with everything else, including herself and her cat Wanda. After seeing the new work, we looked through literally hundreds of slides from her years at C.I.A. In some. she was preoccupied with strongly patterned, repetitive motifs juxtaposed with a piggy-bank sort of pig — bold, flaringly colorful smaller works somehow related to Persian miniatures or even tantric art. Earlier she'd been fascinated by old women. All of it was remarkable work, I thought. In the months and years that followed, we became friends.  

Amy has three older siblings — two brothers and a sister. Then there's her fraternal twin, Beth. As Amy remarks in a biographical statement on her website (, "I was a cowboy to her Indian."

Their mom, Audrey Casey, concurs: "They did everything together; Amy was the ringleader." From the start, it was obvious they were gifted. Both taught themselves to read before they were four years old. "She and Beth would make up little plays they'd perform for me. She was always artistic about everything. She wanted a Cabbage Patch Doll, so she made her own out of paper and stuffing." Casey laughed when I reminded her about this.

"I made little animals and things all the time out of bits of fabric and whatever was around. I've always been a compulsive maker." she recalls. She did well in her studies, and her artistic talent was noticed. After a year in basic art classes, her teacher, Mary Pat Haven, encouraged her to start classes in the School of Performing and Visual Arts, a school-within-a-school at Erie's Central High School. There she studied under Kenneth Kopin, one of those rare teachers who instill confidence as well as knowledge.

"Kenneth Kopin made me believe in myself," she says. "For a shy kid like I was, completely unsure of myself, he made a world of difference, whether that was through the example of his own passion for the arts or his not-so-subtle maneuvers to push me into an arts arena."  

Kopin entered Amy's work for a spot at the Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Arts, a summer program held at Erie's Mercyhurst College. It was there that she encountered a great number of students unapologetically excited about art and began to see a life in the arts as an actual possibility. Also during high school, Casey went on a class field trip to the Cleveland Museum of Art. It was her first visit to the city. She was taken with the place — especially its full-service, world-class art museum. She was inspired to apply to the Cleveland Institute of Art. 

MOST OF THE NUTS and bolts of Casey's career are in her studio — rolls of bubble wrap, single-edged razor blades, sheets of cardboard, all kinds of tape scattered on a tough gray carpet. She quickly and expertly built a small box from scratch as we talked. But the PC by the window has proved to be her most valuable tool. Several years ago, with virtually no knowledge of website building, she downloaded Yahoo's Small Business site-building software and read the instructions, then set to work.

With the help of a low-rent digital camera and editing tools included in the Microsoft Paint program, Amy gradually assembled a website that she constantly updates and revises. At one point, the title page showed a collection of her warped creatures loitering in front of Casey's Bar, the family business that was still located downtown during her childhood, across from the Erie Art Museum on State Street. When you punched in her web address, some of her otherworldly figures appeared, jerking around slightly in response to the cursor; they served as links.

At first, nobody noticed the site, and then suddenly, they did. Various art blogs snatched her images; excited blogosphere commentary ensued. It also helped that the popular quarterly New American Paintings accepted her work for publication in the summer of 2007 (she'll also appear in this year's Midwest edition).  Best of all, and fatefully, she had landed a reputable Chicago dealer — the Zg Gallery — earlier that year, after participating in the South Bend Museum of Art's highly selective Biennial exhibit. She applied after noticing the two jurors were from an interesting-looking Chicago gallery.

"I thought I'd be rejected," she says. "But at the same time, I had this fantasy that leapt ahead: They were going to call me up and say, 'Your work is the best in the whole show.'"

And that's exactly what happened. Zg asked her to be part of a group show that summer, followed by a solo show in the fall. Then came calls from galleries in Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as other fortuitous connections and commissions. Ascending alt-country idol Neko Case saw her work in an issue of New American Paintings and asked to use it for the liner notes of her most recent album, Middle Cyclone.

And last April, an e-mail arrived from the office of the op-ed page at the New York Times, wanting to reproduce a picture of a nest of homes listing precariously on rickety scaffolding to illustrate commentary on the burgeoning foreclosure crisis.  In the meantime, other publications and semi-punk art markets that coexist with more highbrow stuff have become intrigued with her boundary-crossing imagery. Last year, she was featured in Hi Fructose, the lavishly produced, West Coast magazine of alternative sensibilities (think moribund children and twiggy princesses).

Amy was pleased if a little surprised by this. But as she knows well from her work at Reinberger Galleries, Clive Barker-ish installations and Little Pony-inspired videos are commonplace at art-school BFA shows these days; cultural categories are toppling as quickly as the housing market.

Balanced between an ultra-fine-art background and an attraction to the pleasures and powers of illustration, Casey makes her sure-footed way above the shambles of postmodern artistic manners in work that not only depicts but seems itself like a breathless high-wire act. What she hasn't done is follow any of the usual formulas for art- world success. She hasn't gone to grad school, she hasn't courted major galleries in New York, she hasn't worked as an assistant to a famous artist. She's just worked very hard and consistently, while keeping her day job and taking the bus to get there.

It hasn't exactly been an overnight success story, and it's still a work in progress. "I'd like to be optimistic," remarks Casey a little wistfully. But hope and passionate interest in the world burn in everything she does. Her work insists on the importance of ordinariness, on the ways that all humble, mortal things, furred and feathered, weatherworn, warped and sagging, are combed by the crosswinds of a time. Her paintings are refuges but still aren't safe, or meant to be, since the giants and queens — as big as terror and as roomy as courage — are also there, stretching and changing the space we thought we knew.

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