Art & Pie: On making connections, storytelling, and the Professional Life of Amy Evans

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Amy Evans. Photo by Denny Culbert.

 Editor’s note: Amy Evans is a tour-de-force—there’s no way around it. She built the documentary program at the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization whose mission is to document, study and celebrate the food cultures of the American South. She has been published in Saveur, The Bitter Southerner, The Local Palate, and Cornbread Nation 5: The Best of Southern Food Writing. Her paintings have appeared in Southern Living, Southern Cultures, and on CNN’s Eatocracy and the Oxford American blog. She is the brains and brawn behind Art & Pie, an artistic and documentary platform-cum-philosophy. As an artist, writer, educator, and independent documentarian based in Houston, TX, Amy knows a thing or two about poise, balance, and risk-taking. But don’t take my word for it, read on to hear from Amy herself. -AH

Renaissance Woman: Thanks for taking the time to share some thoughts with the Renaissance Woman! Will you introduce yourself and tell our readers a little bit about what you do?

Amy Evans: Hey, thanks for inviting me! I’m honored to be part of this online community of kick-ass women.

Like most folks these days, I wear a lot of hats: I am an artist, documentarian, writer, teacher, and single mama. I don’t have a degree for that last one, but I do have some pieces of paper somewhere that can be submitted as evidence for the rest. Like the BA in Printmaking I got from the Maryland Institute College of Art long ago. Making art has always been a part of my life, and I have been faithfully represented by Koelsch Gallery in Houston since 1997. The University of Mississippi gave me an MA in Southern Studies in 2003. I stuck around those parts for a good while, working as the lead oral historian for the Southern Foodways Alliance, which is where I really built my career. In 2014, I returned to my hometown of Houston with my daughter, and I’ve been freelancing ever since. I’m making a lot more paintings now, doing some writing, and I am a teaching artist with Literacy Through Photography, which I absolutely love. I still do some fieldwork, but right now it’s for a personal project that I hope to complete sometime next year, so stay tuned!

Basically, I am a juggler. I don’t always keep all of the balls—or knives or flaming torches—in the air, but I damn sure try.

“The path of a creative person is never a straight one.”

RW: You’ve held lots of unique and disparate—yet interconnected!—jobs over the years. Will you tell us about that evolution?

AE: Ha, you noticed! One of my high school art teachers told me that the path of a creative person is never a straight one. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have relied on that idea. It has given me room to explore, experiment, and make mistakes—to try new things but also be able to make the choice to walk away. And while the short stint I worked as a valet parking attendant in Savannah, Georgia, may not seem like it has much to do with where I am today, I feel pretty sure that I carry something from that experience with me. It really does all add up.

I never pursued a traditional career path, but I did pursue an education in fine art. After I finished college, I had no ideas and no plans, so I chose adventure. Two days after graduation, I drove from Baltimore, Maryland, to Savannah, Georgia—a place I had never been before but chose based solely on the criteria that it was a small Southern town (I’d had enough of city life, growing up in Houston and going to college in inner-city Baltimore, and I longed to be back in the South). I only spent a year in Savannah, but it was a formative one, let me tell you. I was exposed to things and people and history there that would become relevant much later on as I documented Southern food culture.

After my year in Savannah, I returned to my hometown of Houston. I still didn’t have long-term employment of any kind in mind, so I bounced around and tried a bunch of different jobs on for size. I glazed majolica tableware, bartended, was an office manager for a design and illustration studio, taught art, and waited tables. Then in 2001, what started as another adventure ended up becoming a career.

Seven years in Houston went by, and I knew I didn’t want to stay in my hometown forever, so I looked for a reason to try another place on for size. At the same time, I was digging into some family history and after Googling “Sand Mountain, Alabama,” where my mother’s family is from, I got my hands on a copy of Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington, which ignited a broader interest in Southern culture. I investigated a handful of graduate programs in history and folklore, and then I found the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, which appealed to me because of its interdisciplinary approach to studying the region. I hightailed it to Oxford in the summer of 2001, received my MA in Southern Studies in 2003, and stuck around until 2014. As a grad student, I had an assistantship with the Southern Foodways Alliance, which was only a few years old when I arrived at the Center. I freelanced for them for a couple of years after graduating, and then I was hired as their full-time oral historian in 2005. I can still hardly believe that I was paid to do that work—to travel the South, meeting and listening and learning and eating. If I could have dreamed up my ideal job, it would have been exactly that. It was one adventure after another, and I am so thankful that I really just fell into doing that work. Or maybe it came to me, who am I to say.

Now I find myself back in Houston, where all of my interests and sensibilities have evolved into a very personal way of working. As I mentioned earlier, I am in the middle of a big project that combines art and oral history. In a way, it feels as though I’ve finally landed in the right space. I’m still on that journey, though, and I am certain that the next iteration of The Professional Life of Amy C. Evans will include something new and different. I sure hope so, anyway.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about storytelling.”

RW: Is your work as an oral historian/folklorist/documentarian connected to your work as an artist?

AE: Oh, absolutely, because, at the end of the day, it’s all about storytelling. But it took a while for everything to come together. I was an artist long before ever conducted an oral history interview. During my twelve-year career with the Southern Foodways Alliance, I continued to make art and, eventually, elements of my fieldwork began popping up in my paintings. Since leaving the SFA, I have been able to devote more time to painting, and now the opposite is true: my paintings are inspiring new fieldwork. I think it has taken having this experience from both sides for me to see how these two parts of my work life are interconnected. Now, it all seems so obvious.

RW: Do you have a favorite interview you conducted?

AE: I’m pretty much a broken record when it comes to answering this question. People who know me and are familiar with my work will recognize the name Unk Quick. Unk is a retired oysterman in Eastpoint, Florida, and I interviewed him way back in 2006 as part of a project to document the seafood industry in and around Apalachicola for the SFA. Unk was a lot of things: an unexpected interview, a wealth of information, and a kind and generous soul. We’ve stayed in touch all of these years, and I count Unk and his wife Gloria as family. I last saw them in 2014, and I wrote about that reunion for The Bitter Southerner.

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Unk Quick in Eastpoint, FL.

“Always asking questions has served me well and resulted in some surprising connections.”

RW: What’s the best oral history question you’ve asked?

AE: I don’t think I can zero in on a single question. Instead, I think that always asking questions has served me well and resulted in some surprising connections. Because when I consider this outside of an oral history context, I think about my tendency to chat up just about everyone I encounter over the course of a typical day and how those simple interactions can become so much more. Take, for example, when I moved back to Houston with my daughter and visited her new dentist for the first time. I happened to mention that we had just moved from Mississippi, to which the dentist then shared that his father-in-law, who also lives in Houston, is from Mississippi. It turns out that his father-in-law, Bobby Joe Moon, is part of the story of Chinese immigration to the Mississippi Delta, a subject we documented during my time with SFA. This simple conversation over a dentist’s chair led to my interviewing Mr. Moon just a couple of weeks ago for a story I’m writing for Mississippi Folklife.

RW: What’s the best oral history response you’ve gotten?

AE: There are many but, as with most things, the most recent experience comes to mind first and this one, again, is tied to Bobby Joe Moon. When I met with him for an interview a couple of weeks ago, our time together began with meal. Mr. Moon and his wife Jeannie took me to lunch at a Chinese restaurant near their house. We got to talking about Chinese food in Houston, and I mentioned that I grew up eating at Swan Den, a little restaurant near the house where I grew up that closed long ago.  I did a painting about the Swan Den in 2015 as part of a series called “My Houston.” I had barely finished talking when Mr. Moon told me that he is good friends with the son of the now-deceased couple who owned the Swan Den. “Willie and Helen Lew’s son?” I said. I knew their names because I had included them in the title of the painting. Mr. Moon connected me with their son Leone later that night, and we shared stories about his family and the restaurant. It was the most serendipitous moment. I still can’t believe it.

That didn’t necessarily come out of an oral history interview, though. I can say—and this may sound like I’m avoiding the question, but I’m really not—having people sit across from me for an interview is always the best response. I am amazed at how giving people are and how they are so willing to share their lives with a stranger. Part of that certainly has to do with the fact that, for the most part, I’ve interviewed people in the restaurant industry—people who are used to interacting with the public and making connections through food. But I will always attribute at least part of that to my mantra, which is that you get what you give. 

RW: How did you get started as an artist?

AE: Well, I think my parents were both frustrated artists. They each had an interest and some talent, but family and societal expectations dictated that they focus their energies elsewhere. So when I exhibited a similar interest, they supported it, maybe even pushed me a little. I can always remember drawing and painting, but it wasn’t until I auditioned for the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA) that I realized that I might actually be an artist—or even could be one. HSPVA was an amazingly inspirational and nurturing space for creative kids of all kinds, and it really gave me the confidence to pursue art. From there, I went to Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), where I ended up feeling a little bit lost. In high school, I considered myself a painter, but when I declared painting as my major at MICA, I found myself in a very large, patriarchal, ego-driven department. It didn’t take long for me to seek solace in the tiny, quiet printmaking department, where I found kindred spirits, inspiring mentors, and individual support. College was my experimental phase as an artist. I got to play with different mediums, explore imagery, and have the freedom to just make things. The problem with majoring in printmaking, though, is that when you finish school, you have to walk away from all of that fabulous equipment. After I graduated, it took me a while to get back into art making. When I finally did, I went back to painting, and I’ve been painting ever since.

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“Sharing pie is a perfect metaphor for sharing stories.” -Amy Evans

RW: Why pie?

AE: Why not? Okay, well, when I joined Twitter in 2011, I thought long and hard about a username. I didn’t want it to be my given name for some reason—or maybe my name was already taken (there are a lot of Amy Evanses out there, believe it or not). Instead, I landed on a name that was a combination of two of my favorite things: art and pie. I used @artandpie when I joined Instagram. And then, in 2014, I resigned from the SFA, relocated to Houston, and set out to establish myself as a freelance artist and documentarian. Again, I thought long and hard about how to brand myself and cycled through many different ideas. But then I figured, why fix it, if it ain’t broke. People already know me as @artandpie on social media, so why not capitalize on that? But then I knew that I had to explain the “pie” part of the equation. When it came down to it, I realized that sharing pie is a perfect metaphor for sharing stories. As I was working on my website, I stumbled on the most amazing quote about Studs Terkel’s work, found a Walker Evans polaroid of a partially eaten blueberry pie, and I realized that the pie connection was there all along.

RW: What are some of the themes/issues/topics you tackle in your work?

AE: The only thing I feel like I tackle is laundry. My work has never intentionally been about addressing issues or solving problems. Instead, all of my work is steeped in history and nostalgia, and it’s the storytelling, more than anything, that resonates with people. I feel like my work is about witnessing and recording and documenting and, to me, that’s important. This is, of course, true in an oral history context, but what’s been really wonderful to realize is that I continue to do this with my art, creating visual documents of people and their stories, whether real or imagined. One of my favorite projects I’ve done in the last couple of years is my series of paintings called Saltville Stories. For years, I made paintings of these imaginary women and their quirky lives. And then my mentor-friend Ronni Lundy old me about the Saltville Centennial Cookbook, and I ended up making a group of paintings based directly on the women featured in that book. Ronni wrote about the evolution of this project for Southern Cultures recently. So, when considering a project like that one, I see great importance in bringing those women back to life and sharing their stories with a new audience in a unique way.

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“VIRGIE’S SIX BOYS LOVED HER FROZEN CHEESE SALAD” Inspired by the Saltville Centennial Cookbook

RW: Tell us about your artistic style. From where do you draw inspiration?

AE: Well, there are the stories, but my artistic style is what I’d call vintage-obsessed. I love scouring junk shops and antique malls for quirky, old-fashioned objects to depict in my paintings. From old cans of hairspray to dried up bottles of mint extract, I go crazy over things that should’ve really ended up in the trash. My house is dotted with such finds (the can of hairspray is in my medicine cabinet, and the bottle of mint extract sits on my kitchen windowsill). Sometimes I rotate things in and out, or I’ll pass on a certain something to a friend, once it’s found its way into a painting. All of these odd little trinkets have their own story when they come to me, and I try to bring part of that to life in my work. Really, I’m just a sentimental fool. I’m also obsessed with color, and my paintings definitely reflect that.

RW: How has your work changed over the years?

AE: As far as my paintings are concerned, I think that it’s only been in the last ten or so years that I really feel like I’ve landed on a way of working that feels natural to me. I might attribute that to the storytelling; the timing certainly reflects that. But I can remember the moment that it all came together as I was working in my studio in Mississippi around 2006. What I was doing was basically painting still lifes of these vintage objects, arranging them in odd ways, and I started adding narratives, which changed everything for me. I’ve been pretty much working from that same place ever since. Something that hasn’t changed is that I’ve always painted on wood. I think that’s a holdover from my days as a printmaker and working on plates, whether made of wood, metal or stone. And I like creating objects; sturdy squares and rectangles that can stand alone and aren’t especially precious. I think, too, that all those years of creating reams and reams of works on paper, I consciously began making work that doesn’t necessarily need to be framed.

RW: If you could give an aspiring artist one piece of advice, what would it be?

AE: Collaborate. Collaborate. Collaborate. Art-making is generally a very solitary enterprise, and it’s awfully easy for artists to get lost in their own heads and locked in their studios. But I have enjoyed working on some truly wonderful projects that were borne out of collaboration, and I would encourage others to do the same. At first, it can kind of feel like your sixth-grade teacher is making you work in a group, something I think we all found cringe-worthy as kids. But really, when you get to choose a collaborator, exciting things can happen. Working with people in other disciplines, bouncing ideas off of them, and getting a different perspective on my own work has proved both rewarding to me personally and very beneficial to my work. So seek out the people with whom you feel a kinship and consider possible connections. An opportunity for collaboration might not be immediately obvious, but it could show itself to you when the time is right.

Find more from Amy at http://www.amycevans.com/.