Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts resident Trevor Amery is a well-traveled maker. The artist, whose Bemis stay began January 11 and runs through mid-March, has done residencies in Mexico, Hungary, and Finland. He’s completed projects in Alaska, Florida, and many points in between.
After years on the East Coast, he now makes California home, though he’s often just returning from or embarking on a new art-life adventure. This summer he expects to go to China.
Some journeys have proved transformative. In the course of a 2011 Finland sojourn, fate or circumstance intervened to change his practice from painting to sculpture.
He had just left his former risk-adverse life as an admissions counselor at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore to heed the very advice he gave students—to live freely and fearlessly. He’d no sooner broken away from his higher education rut to go to far-off Finland when, en route, all his oil paints were confiscated by airport security.
There he was, adrift in a strange country, unequipped to create in the manner he’d come all that way to do.
“I didn’t have a lot of money to go and buy all new oil paints in one of the most expensive countries in the European Union,” Amery says. “I just had to figure out how to start making.”
Enraptured by the dense forests of the residency’s idyllic rural setting and the ubiquitous, large firewood piles he saw outside every home, he surrendered the idea of painting to create instead in wood. It helped that he had an extensive woodworking background.
“I started splitting wood to understand it as a material. I’d wake up and split as much wood as I could handle, and I learned so much more about it than I ever did working in a wood shop,” he says.
“I started doing these stacked firewood piles. I made a 12-foot tall spinning wood pile on a children’s merry-go-round as a kinetic permanent sculpture. I did a 6-foot by 6-foot by 6-foot cube of firewood on a floating dock in the middle of the lake outside the old schoolhouse I stayed in. I went into town to do woodpiles in urban niches–between buildings and mailboxes–and left them to be reclaimed.”
His “big epiphany” happened paddling wood out to the floating dock in the lake.
“I had this eureka moment of, ‘Wow, this could be my work. I don’t have to sit in a studio illustrating an idea with oil paint. I can actually be out in the world engaging nature and people, having the social aspects I crave.’”
For Amery, the journey in the making is everything.
“I just like process–problem-solving, engineering new solutions, and stuff like that. I do have an interest in DIY culture, which also informs my practice.”
Since Finland, Amery’s gone on to cast pieces of firewood in porcelain stoneware. This summer in Wyoming he taught himself how to make his own charcoal using wood.
While assisting with the setup of a towering geodesic installation there, he salvaged a broken sledgehammer handle made of ash and converted it into a 30-inch, hand-hewn spoon sculpture. He carved a tiny geodesic dome in the bottom of the spoon.
“Function plays a role in the work,” he says. “But this object also now has a really important history to it. I love the kind of shift in value that comes with provenance of objects and materials that I use. Because of a personal story with it, it has this new significance.”
In 2012 he came back from a residency in Hungary only to find himself “back to square one” in his work. Absent a project, he thought long and hard about finally realizing something he always wanted to make: a boat. Made of wood, of course.
“After some research, I set out to build my own Aleutian- style kayak, and I did. I made all the ribs out of green bent branches I cut in the woods in Maine.”
The design for the 17-foot vessel came from a downloaded PDF.
“The first year after I built it, I kind of denied its function. I was more interested in its making, its coming into being, the history of it. I built part of the frame in Maine and then drove it to Michigan, where it spent a year with me as this omnipresent, dope object I couldn’t finish because I didn’t have the space to do it.” he says.
“It hung above me in the apartment making me feel bad for not working on it. I eventually brought it back to the East Coast and then came to California with it, where I finished it. But I was still using it as this studio-exhibition object and skirting its function. Then I decided I have to put it in the water.”
He secured a grant for a performative project whereby he drove the kayak to Alaska to make its inaugural launch off the Homer Spit. He documented the experience with his Mamiya C330 camera.
On-site, he split a log to make his own paddle from tree branches. When the moment arrived to place the kayak in its heritage waters, he was overjoyed this object that traveled so far with him “actually worked great.”
The kayak trekked with him again when he took part in the Performance is Alive satellite art show in Miami.
“I kayaked through the different waterways of Miami to document the coastline and the relationship of these important spaces to water recreation and the city’s economy and looking at how this essentially sea-level city will eventually be underwater.”
He successfully negotiated the voyage only to have curator Quinn Dukes ask him go out again and finish in South Beach.
Tempting fate, Amery recalls, “I went across the channel out into the ocean like a fool. Everything was going fine actually, and then the ocean floor dropped off at this one place that turned the ocean into a washing machine. This wave came from behind and capsized me many football fields away from the coastline.”
He says he thought he was “done for” but was eventually rescued by a jet skier. His kayak and camera both survived the mishap.
“Out of all that came a whole new body of work of wooden wave sculptures I call ‘Capsized.’”
The artist is approaching Omaha the way he does all his residency stops (by ”keeping that opportunity for discovery”).
“A huge part of it is what comes out of the relationships in a place,” he says. “Yes, the landscapes inspire me, but also the people and the conversations.”
This article appears in the March/April 2018 edition of Encounter.