Monsters & Marvels
Artist Amelia Kieras invites us into her strange new world
Step one foot inside Chicago artist Amelia Kieras’ Humboldt Park home and it’s easy to see how the place could sustain her. Dappled in sunlight and chock full of records, books, paintings, and old movies, the apartment she shares with her husband seems a treasure trove of creative inspiration. And rightfully so. It’s in this space that Amelia brings to life a million little mystical beasts and creatures—all with just a flick of her paintbrush. Eager for a glimpse of the artist at work, The Urbaness visited Amelia at home to talk imagination, starving artists, and what it’s like to be on the brink of something big.
CAN YOU TELL US A BIT ABOUT THE ART YOU MAKE?
BY LIZZIE DUSZYNSKI | PHOTOS SHUBHA GANGAL
I make artwork that combines drawing and photography. I usually start with a drawing and then scan it and layer photos on top using the computer. I then digitally blend it all together using a tablet and pen. It’s a great way to work—nothing’s permanent, you can go back and forth and play a lot to get that surreal, fairytale quality to it.
I went to photography school and halfway through it I figured out that I didn’t really like shooting. I liked messing with the photographs afterward on the computer. Simultaneously, I was doing these weird doodle drawings for a friend of mine, and every day I would make something strange for her, like angels combined with monsters. Lots of sharp teeth and wings. I made enough of them that the walls were being covered in them. For a final project in my photography program I thought I’d try to make a photograph that looked like one of my weird drawings. I loved the end result and how strange it was. How it seemed like it was telling a mystery.
“Every day I would make something strange for her, like angels combined with monsters. Lots of sharp teeth and wings.”
AS AN ARTIST, WHAT DOES “SUCCESS” MEAN TO YOU?
I want to be able to be doing creative work 100% of the time. And be doing work that I’m really excited about. I have several story book ideas that I’m working on right now. I’d love to flesh those out and actually get them published. So far, I’ve been producing my own books and binding them myself, which is really nice in a different way. Having handbound storybooks isn’t something that many people do. But being able to have them out to a wider audience would be really awesome. Also, editorial work for magazines. It would be really cool to have my illustrations accompany published articles. So, I’ve been working on a portfolio that would help me get those jobs.
Right now I’ve been focusing on establishing myself: Building a greater body of work, going out to festivals to meet people and gain a bit of a following.
WHAT INSPIRES YOUR WORK?
I read a lot. Fiction, fairytales, folktales. Both my parents are scientists, but they’re also religious—intellectually and liberally religious. So they raised me to be curious, to always ask questions. I remember a lot of discussions about the nature of reality. My family can be a little intense [laughter]. So there’s that. And then there’s reading—science fiction and fantasy.
ANY FAVORITE BOOKS YOU TURN TO WHEN YOU’RE IN A CREATIVE RUT?
Yes! My favorite is Watership Down
. I read it every year in the springtime. I love that book. I love Italo Calvino, Kurt Vonnegut, Christopher Priest... he wrote The Prestige
. The movie is fine, but the book! It’s strange and weird and a little creepy and dark. More recently he wrote a beautiful travelogue called The Islanders
. It’s a mystery and love story with science fiction elements. I love things like that; I love magical realism. Where on the surface it looks like a normal story about real people, but then there’s little bits of strangeness thrown in.
“I love magical realism. Where on the surface it looks like a normal story about real people, but then there’s little bits of strangeness thrown in.”
HOW DO YOU STAY MOTIVATED WORKING FOR YOURSELF?
Scheduling too much stuff! There’s no time to wake up and choose to watch a movie instead of working. I have other freelance friends who are ready to go have lunch sometimes and that really helps. There’s a very strong artists’ community in Chicago. When I see the same people at art fairs and they’re doing something new and exciting with their work, it makes me want to push myself to do something new and exciting too.
I’m not going to lie, it’s hard to keep going. But I’m hoping to finish up some new big projects and people are excited about seeing them. That’s a really good way to keep motivated—knowing that people actually care about what you’re doing!
CAN YOU GIVE US A HINT ABOUT THESE NEW PROJECTS?
Yes! A couple picture books that I’m starting to really get into. I also do a calendar every year and I just found a great bestiary online for inspiration. You know medieval bestiaries will list a dragon and then something ordinary like a rabbit. The way they describe a rabbit just makes no sense! They’ll say something like ‘the rabbit can change sex at will, etc.’ just because they had no idea about real science. The description of the whale is all about how the animal sits so long at the top of the water that grass grows on it and sailors anchor their ships to the whale’s back. They’ll build a campfire and that, finally, is how the whale awakes. There are weird stories like that with each creature. I found 12 great creatures and have started to make the pictures for that.
MOTIVATION, OR MORE ACCURATELY A LACK THEREOF, CAN BE A CREATIVE’S DOWNFALL. HOW DO YOU KEEP EXCITING YOURSELF ABOUT YOUR OWN WORK?
Looking at other artwork that’s really interesting. Taking classes. I just finished a comics class at Sputnik’s. The focus was about how to control time in a picture with the way you panel illustrations. I hadn’t done that before so it was a completely different way to look at pictures and storytelling. Being able to control time, I hadn’t really thought about pictures doing that. The class was great, the teacher was great, and being around other students who were all working on completely different projects was really inspirational. Then, of course, reading books. My husband and I listen to lots of podcasts about science. There’s some really cool stuff out there.
YOUR CAREER IS JUST BEGINNING TO TAKE OFF. LOOKING BACK, DO YOU HAVE ADVICE TO OFFER OTHER WOMEN WHO ARE JUST STARTING OUT?
You have to put in a lot more time and energy than you would with a normal 9 to 5. In the creative world, you’re never really off. Most people I know who are making a living doing artwork have four different income streams. They have a lot of different ways of making money with the work they enjoy doing. So don’t limit yourself. It’s really important, too, that you don’t think the work is going to be easy just because it seems like a fun job. In Chicago there are a lot of great resources like the Chicago Artists’ Coalition
. They have an expo every spring and it’s free, they have tons of great speakers offering advice, they do portfolio reviews, a whole range. I’ve gone to that a few years and every time I come back I think, ‘Okay, I can do this!’