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It’s not often that Amy Friend goes out and photographs what she calls ‘the real world.’
Instead, the associate professor in the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts works hands-on to interrogate a medium, experimenting with both digital and analogue images.
One of Friend’s signature styles is hand-manipulating vintage photographs in a way that rescues and revives them, exploring what’s visible and what isn’t, such as in her series Dare alla Luce. She likes to think photography as a material that is alive with possibility.
Her work has been selected three times as one of the top 50 photographs in the juried Critical Mass International Photography Competition, and she’s exhibited in more than a dozen countries, including Spain, Greece and Korea.
The inspiration for her Vestiges series can be traced to being surrounded by family possessions, the outcome of being from an immigrant family who lived through the Great Depression and threw nothing away.
“The deceased occupied a place in our home and everything had a story,” Friend wrote in her artist statement for Vestiges, a hauntingly beautiful photograph on fabric of her grandmother’s — to her, nonna’s — nightgown in the Algoma Central Lobby of the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre (PAC).
Her grandfather’s (nonno’s) dreams of becoming a professional dancer never materialized due to life’s circumstances, instead working in construction to help provide for his family, who left northern Italy for Canada. Her family history and the stories passed among them is a reoccurring source of inspiration.
“The nightgown appears to be dancing, so I found it suitable for the space,” says Friend of Vestiges in the downtown St. Catharines location. “I think of this space as a makerspace of stories. My grandparents danced together; this was a small part of their history, so I touched on that secret history. Theirs is one little story among many in the space.”
She says one of the most fulfilling things about her work is developing pieces for specific locations. A particularly rewarding experience has been Rodman Hall, where she experimented with new materials, including a 40-foot long photograph on silk.
That work became part of the stage design for musician Diana Krall’s world tour.
“Having the intimate setting of Rodman Hall and working with curator Marcie Bronson provided fertile ground for this artwork to develop, which ended up on the world stage,” says Friend. “This creative process in your own community format says something about where seeds start and offers a spotlight to what we are doing as artists here in Niagara.”
Another one of her pieces, Our Little Dancing Girl, Evelyn, Age 9, is the product of collecting photographs on the internet that strangers pawn off for next to nothing. The photograph had “Our little dancing girl, Evelyn, Age 9” scrawled on the back, evoking a curiosity about an unknown, individual history.
“Even though I wouldn’t say my images tell a concrete story, they are constantly referencing things we don’t know,” she says. “It’s the unknown aspects of making an image that directly intrigues me.”
“In this series, I’m not only interested in making artwork, but making and thinking about what it means to take a photograph, to lose a photograph; an image that belonged to someone else,” says Friend. “It’s a conversation I’m constantly having through photography: making and investigating what it can and cannot express.”
Another thing Friend considers paramount to her work as an artist is teaching.
“I’m engaging with the idea of creative practice and getting students to dig into the act of play,” she says. “It gets us out of what I call the treadmill of production. Some of my best work has come out of completely screwing things up.”
While she loves seeing her students succeed, the most important lesson she hopes they learn is to embrace “epically failing.” Without it, Friend says, we lose the imperative experience of disappointment and working to solve creative problems.
“My experience at Brock has been wonderful,” says Friend. “I’ve had incredible opportunities. We continue to have a vision in what the School could and should be, and the potential is incredible.”
One of the biggest changes with working she’s noticed isn’t just within Brock, but the art of photography itself.
“It’s much more immediate,” says Friend on integrating photography into our everyday lives. “We always have images close by. We scroll through photos on phones and other devices. There is a different type of interaction. It still has a place in our lives.”
One thing that will never change is the human ability to respond to art in a unique way. She was reminded of this in February when taking her young daughter to the PAC for Family Day, which included various activities, such as crafts and therapy dogs.
“I pointed to Vestiges and said, ‘You know, your mama made that,’ and she glanced at it and said, ‘Yeah, okay. Where are the dogs?’ It was humbling and funny, but there was also a sweetness to her response,” says Friend. “Maybe at some point this image will be significant to her and maybe it won’t. We all have reactions to art and each is a unique interaction that tells us something about ourselves and who we are at that moment.”