Energy leaps off the walls and abides in the faces of the artists that fill VSA arts of Colorado/Access Gallery (VSAC) in Denver, Colorado. The artists shift about chatting, drawing, and creating. “We work together on something and then everyone has some time to work on their own stuff,” says Cris Ciani, the program director of the VSAC. There are a few tables and chairs scattered about the long narrow room, and artwork is displayed reverently on every wall. Themes range from “Star Wars” characters done in an Andy Warhol style, to western art, to impressionistic self-portraits, to the side effects of medication.
Huge spectrums of art and life are in this building. The artists tie this place together: they all have disabilities, and they come to VSAC to create and learn about art. There is no censure here, the artists hold themselves to their own standards and grow within a community that fosters creativity. The result is an active and modern art studio that bustles with talent and activity. Here the artists are empowered to create something new, beautiful, and uniquely their own. Then, they are empowered to sell it and begin to support themselves through their art.
Surrounded by a few friends, a small girl in a red hoodie sketches some unfamiliar creature. This is Amie York. Amie, a first generation American, is the child of Cambodian immigrants. She was born in Aurora, Colorado. Art is what she lives for. She has the rare gift of collecting snapshots in her memory of the things she sees and transforming them into her own interpretations of the strange and the familiar.
Amie’s parents don’t speak much English, and she describes her former self as socially isolated and awkward. However, today she is full of energy. She is creative, compulsive, and driven. Her goal is to be recognized by people in her field, not to become a celebrity, but at least known by the people she admires. She works to achieve this goal by learning the skills of artists that she likes and assimilating them into her own distinctive artworks.
Amie is more than an artist, she is a collector and curator of all that she sees. Amie comes out of a culturally mixed background from which she has evolved into an artistically ambitious creator. Her transformation began when as a child she began drawing in the margins of her school notebooks.
Beckoned again and again by her teachers and parents to return to her studies, she always drifted away to sketching the figures see saw in her bold imagination. Eventually, one of Amie’s teachers, with some foresight of her potential, advised her to visit VSAC Access Gallery in Denver’s Art District. “My teacher, back in high school, introduced me to this place because she saw me doing artworks on my notes and my math tests. I just can’t stop doing art,” says Amie.
Amie’s internship with VSAC began to change her as both an artist and a person. “When I came here I was in a shell, very antisocial. Then, after about two years, I began to realize that I had to talk, socialize, and sell myself in order to sell my artwork.” Amie began to socialize with potential customers, but she also became an active and integral part of the gallery and the artistic community. She became a friend and mentor to other aspiring artists at the gallery and got a jumpstart on a promising career.
In 2003, the Smithsonian Institute chose Amie’s work “Weather Change” for an award of excellence and a $2000 prize. She visited the nation’s capital to receive her prize “I didn’t really know what was going on to be honest. I went all the way to Washington D.C. and I’m not much of a plane person. I stayed there for three days, looking at many artworks from artists all over the world. So I started collecting them into my head. It was like oh I like that one—collect. My mind is like a camera.” The piece chosen as the winner was older than the piece she composed for the competition. It is a self portrait of Amie growing discordant animal parts. The portrait brings the fierce and wild side of Amie’s personality to the surface of her skin. Her eyes reflect a colorful mind.
Many of Amie’s pieces combine real and mythological animal species, but her favorite subjects are wolves. I ask her why wolves have become so important to her, and she tells me an amazing story. “In my childhood, I had a pet wolf, or it might have been an Alaskan Malamute. I was going fishing one time with my family, and then my sister and me almost drowned in the water. This stray dog, wolf creature, came out of nowhere. We grabbed onto his fur and he pulled us out of the mud. We had him for a few days, but he was really old and he passed away. I wanted to keep that as a memory so I started to really like wolves and to study and draw them.”
Amie has even used her art as a symbol for the disabled community. In 2011 she was commissioned to draw the National Sports Center for the Disabled Winter Cup poster. In this way, her art speaks for more than just her own experience; it speaks for athletes and artists alike.
Amie’s portraits evoke a sense of adaptation, evolution, and the collection of disparate parts set off in striking colors. This tone is more than artistic style; it is the way Amie approaches her art with an odd combination of competition and collaboration. Her spirit of competition does not isolate her. Rather, she uses her skills to help other artists at the studio. It is their success which drives her to be better. Amie describes it this way, “When I see someone else drawing something well, I get that challenging feeling inside my head. It’s like, I need to challenge you, I need to improve more, how does this person do that? Then I figure it out with my own style. So I like to challenge myself with other people’s art. So the people I look up to that are good, I like to bring myself up to their level or past their level, and then the people that are lower than me, I like to give them advice or show them some of my tutorial drawings. It’s a challenge and competition within my own little self.”
Amie, like most of the artists at VSAC, is considered an outsider artist. She has no formal education from the art world and her pieces reflect art that is a bit outside of the mainstream. However, Amie learns from everything she sees. She is self-taught in the sense that she brings together a variety of forms and skills in her work, but her work is not so much outside of the mainstream as it is right in the middle of it. She soaks up images and information from video games, formal art pieces, and manga art. She is like a lens, collecting rays of light and spitting out rainbows. “Sometimes I stay up all night drawing or playing games. I like to play the games, but I also study them. The artwork, perspectives, and backgrounds of the game are all created by artists and so I like to get ideas from them and study them. My mind is always collecting from the world around me. There are so many cool things going on in there.”
When I leave Amie, she is just getting back to her work. The awkward high school girl is gone. Someone new has come to take her place, and her mind is running like a wild animal.