Alison Hamil fell in love with creating art at a very early age. She has since earned a BFA in Drawing and Painting from Georgia State University and numerous awards and scholarships, which have made her into the artist she is today. I’ve known Alison for over six years, and have long admired her work. Hamil’s paintings seem to have a life of their own, somehow existing permanently on the paper, and yet moving beyond it to create a story of color and energy that doesn’t end when the piece is complete. I was fascinated to learn about the steps that go into the creation of her paintings. Her process blends together the loose and uncontrollable elements of watercolor, with the preciseness offered by digital editing tools.
I sat down with Hamil in her home studio in Atlanta to speak in detail about how she creates her art, the struggle of being an artist, and what really makes her happy.
AAR: Give me a brief history of how you began your art career.
Alison Hamil (AH): In first grade, I went to the High Museum with some friends. There’s a Monet painting there, it’s part of the permanent collection, and we all sat in front of that and sketched it with pastels. Out of the whole school, I won first place in an art competition with that piece. So, I think it started there. Also, when I was in third grade, I learned how to draw cartoons and Garfield. I was obsessed with Garfield. I would draw Garfield on everything. I thought I was going to be a cartoonist for a while, but then I took ceramics in high school, and just loved it. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do; I just knew I wanted to be some kind of artist or designer.
AAR: What or who has been the biggest inspiration for your art?
AH: My Grandmother. She’s also an artist, and has always encouraged me to pursue my passion.
AAR: What three words would you use to describe your art?
AH: Organic. Colorful. Alive.
AAR: I knew you used watercolor and ink, but I never realized there was a printer involved. Talk me through how you create those.
AH: I’ll show you how they start. I sometimes use a type of paper called Yupo Paper, it’s a synthetic, plastic material. I really like it because it doesn’t absorb water at all. So, first I pour water on the paper, and move it around. Once I get the shape that I want, I pour paint into it. Then I let the water evaporate, while I move the paint around. Depending on the paper [Yupo or watercolor], the type of paint or ink, it will do different things. So with the way that the water molecules dry, it makes all these really neat shapes with the ink. It almost looks like magnetic lines. Then after it dries completely, I go back into with colored pencils and pens and whatever else.
AAR: But the work isn’t complete at this point?
AH: No, I scan it and use Photoshop to make it transparent. Basically you can think of it like the painting is now on a piece of transparency film. I’ll take two or more of those and duplicate them. Then I flip them and turn them, until I like the composition. Then I’ll print it on watercolor paper and draw or paint back into it. I emphasize the areas that I think are more interesting. This is a piece where I used that process. It's funny because it’s not as complicated as people think it is. I think that’s part of the appeal, “How did she do that?” (Laughs).
AAR: What is your favorite tool?
AH: I have two! I bet you’ll have other artists who will pick this one—a kneaded eraser. It’s the best invention in the entire world. You can make it into any shape and get so much detail. You can dab it, to just take off a little bit, and make an area a little bit lighter. It’s almost just as useful as a pencil, you add with the pencil and subtract with the eraser.
Then my watercolor pencils. I’m a painter, but I’m also a stronger drawer. I’m very detailed oriented, so the watercolor pencils let me draw a painting. You draw like you would with a regular colored pencil, but then you go over it with a wet brush, and it turns into paint, right on the paper. Watercolor is very loose and sloppy and you have to let the water do what it wants to do. Then I can go back in with the control of drawing, and bring out the shapes and give it some depth.
AAR: What initially drew you to create symmetrical works? What about a piece being symmetrical, or having a duplication of patterns, appeals to you??
AH: I kind of came across it by accident. I was in school, and had taken some graphic design classes. I was pretty good with a computer, and I realized that I could use those skills for my art, because the computer is just another tool, it’s another medium. So, I did a small abstract watercolor, scanned it in, and was just messing around in Photoshop and I did the symmetrical thing. I was like, “Whoa! This is really cool!” I think it’s something about the tension between the looseness of the watercolor, and then the really tight symmetry, it’s almost life-like.
Also, I love people’s reactions and hearing them tell me what they see in each painting. It’s almost like The Rorschach Test, everyone sees something different. A lot of times, people will see something, especially body parts, and think I did it intentionally, but it isn’t intentional at all.
AAR: I know I’ve looked a few and thought I saw a vagina in them.
AH: Before I did the Affirmation Series and the set of Compositions I have listed with AAR, I was painting body parts, so that was a big influence, but I never painted genitals. The look and feel of flesh, and the body, comes across really strongly in my work, and I think people subconsciously want to see what they see. I can definitely understand what Georgia O’Keefe went through. I don’t think she really intended many of her paintings to look so vaginal, but again, I think people just want to see that. I think it’s hilarious, and I just decided to go with it. The one I did with four panels (pictured below), looks very labial. The whole time I’m working on it, I’m thinking it’s more of a heart, but then I step back and I think everyone is going to think, “Wow, vagina.”
AAR: So with that four piece one, did you print those on canvas?
AH: I learned how to make a wrapped canvas, but instead of canvas, it’s watercolor paper. So those look a lot different, because I had to soak the paper after I printed on it.
AAR: You were named Creative Loafing’s Best Emerging Visual Artist of 2013, Reader’s Choice. How did you feel when you received the honor? How did it grow your audience?
AH: I was completely surprised! I was not expecting it at all. My friend Rachel called me the morning that paper came out, and said, “Oh my god! You’re in the newspaper,” and that’s how I found out. It happened around a time when I had been out of school for three years, and had been working really hard. It’s difficult just being in your own room, and being so isolated from the rest of the world, and not knowing if what you’re doing is being noticed or if people even care. So, for something like that to happen, it helped encourage me to keep going and to know that I’m going down the right path.
AAR: Making a living as an artist is hard. How do you find the motivation to continue creating?
AH: I feel like this is something no one talks about and I feel like it something that needs to be talked about more, especially in art school. The business of being an artist is really hard.
I’ve taken a break from applying to things. I’ve kept working, but I’ve taking a break from being a part of the art world and really pursuing things. I’ve had sold several pieces at the Hambidge auction over the past few years, so I’ve still been out there and kind of involved, but I haven’t been pursuing it very hard. It’s also really hard to find the time, because I’ve got to make a living. Until you’re in the galleries, selling your paintings, you’re not really making money for all this work that you do. I decided a year and a half ago to start working in web marketing and I have a job working for a marketing agency. So now I’m at the point where I’m over committed, and I only really have the time to make a little new work.
AAR: Since 2011, you’ve been working on a series of mushroom paintings. Do you often draw inspiration from nature?
AH: I am very much inspired by nature. I’m really drawn to the feeling and texture of flesh and body parts, mushrooms and sea creatures, all the different shapes. Everything I do is inspired by nature.
Joseph and I started foraging mushrooms together and I just became obsessed with all the different species, and learning about them. The mushrooms are just the fruit, they’re the reproductive organ of this body that lives underground, it’s this whole network. There are species of mushrooms, I think one species in Oregon is the most massive organism in the world. Its mycelium extends for miles and miles and miles, it’s kind of like a web or network of roots. A lot of species of mushrooms have a symbiotic relationships with plant species and they rely on each other. For example, the mushroom’s mycelium will extend out further than a tree’s roots can reach, so it brings in all these nutrients that the tree might not otherwise be able to access. Fungi are more closely related to animal species, than plants. They actually breathe oxygen just like we do. Mushrooms are absolutely fascinating, and there are so many different species and types and they all look so different. Some look like flowers and some are ugly. It’s a never ending world of exploration. I’ve painted so many though! I think I might take a break for a while. At one point I said I was done, and then of course two weeks later I’m here painting another one. (laughs) I can’t say I’ll ever be finished.
AAR: Your mushroom paintings were featured in the “Chefs, Shrooms, and Champs” event hosted by the restaurant STK. Your husband, Joseph, was also a part of the event. What was it like working together?
AH: It was a neat experience. The event featured four Atlanta chefs, and because the manager used to work with Joseph, and knew Joseph foraged, he thought it would be cool to bring him together with other chefs and do a mushroom thing. Foraging for mushrooms and cooking them together is something that we have bonded over, and always done together. We found pounds of morels this year, which was really exciting. Joseph pickled some of them and he served those on top of cured trout with a garnish of wood sorrel, which we also foraged. It was so good. My paintings were on display during the event.
AAR: What is your favorite gallery to visit in Atlanta and why?
AH: So far, Beep Beep Galley has been my favorite. I always love the shows that they have there and the artists they feature. Sam Parker’s Retrospective. I bought one of his pieces. It’s in my living room.
AAR: If your art were a film, which film would it be?
AH: Jam Band music video. Or 2001 Space Odyssey, like at the end when he’s going through the black hole, the trippy part.
AAR: What is on the horizon for Alison Hamil?
AH: I really love doing graphic design, and want to start doing more package design, like t-shirts and merchandise.
Honestly, I just love doing murals. It’s my favorite thing to do. I get to paint something, maybe not permanent, but something that will be in a space for a long time. I get to be around people, which is big for me. I get a lot of exposure. When I’m in my studio, I’m all by myself. Painting murals present the opportunity for me to get a lot of exposure and to make people happy. I’ve decided that’s my purpose in life, to entertain people and to make people feel good.
That's a wrap!
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