99 pictures of sound on the wall

"Depot Road," by Amy Stacey Curtis.
Depot Road," by Amy Stacey Curtis.

A talk with Amy Stacey Curtis


By Michael Townsend


If the sound of Amy Stacey Curtis’ mad laugh – and the nine-inch-square charcoal and graphite drawing that visually captures it – doesn’t grab you, maybe the sound/picture of her refrigerator running will. Or the sound (and Curtis’ visual representation of that sound) of her cat eating, or the cutting of an apple, or Commercial Street traffic. 

These are just a handful of the “99 Sounds” Curtis has compiled for her new interactive show this month at the June Fitzpatrick Gallery on High Street, where visitors borrow a portable CD player, pick one of 99 CDs off the wall and listen while viewing the accompanying drawing just above it. The show is a lead-in of sorts for Curtis’ fourth biennial installation, “SOUND,” slated for 2006.


To hear the sound associated with the image above, click here


We talked to her (via e-mail and in person at the gallery) about her methods, her reasoning and her plans for the future.

The Bollard: Your installations are concerned with the themes of experience, movement, change, sound, light and time. Are these just principles of energy and physics that obsess you, or are they elements of a more personal philosophy? Or both?
: During each biennial cycle, I am exploring a balance of chaos, order and repetition — the three of these things together, for me, representative of everything, the whole. In the end, [I hope] my exploration of this balance is thorough, the total of all the biennials’ imagery a cohesive whole or opus.

Chaos, order and repetition, together, form a language I feel resonates physically, emotionally, culturally and spiritually within and around all of us. This balance is a reflection of everyone, all experience, all matter, all time, and it generates dialogue about overlapping themes such as mathematics, science, environment, religion, philosophy, sociology, the arts, routines, cycles and rhythms. 

My work is also self-portraiture. By presenting these concepts in the audience’s physical space and making them interactive, I can begin to convey to an audience how everyone affects everything, and everything affects everyone.

Order and chaos are universal polar opposites. Where does repetition come into the equation?
Chaos and order are conveyed through repetition; they’re opposites, but almost synonymous. Repetition started out being intuitively interesting to me. It was something connected to my own personal experiences. When I see like objects, it’s very moving to me on a deep level. Probably if another artist were to do chaos and order, they would do it a different way.

Science and math seem to be ingrained in your work, but on a more personal level that doesn’t consider formulas, theories, proofs and so on.
When I moved to Maine in 1986, I was 16 and interested only in mathematics. Through the support of Maine art teachers, my career path shifted from engineering to visual art. However, I would continue math education in college, with statistics and calculus. A more intuitive understanding of math and physics continues through my work.

In fact, one of my pieces, ‘Fragile,’ is being used in a high school math textbook, for the introduction of matrices and linear systems!

Your concepts seem intricately thought out, yet their execution relies on spontaneity.
Actually, there is just as much control (order) as there is spontaneity (chaos) while I do each repetitive task. There is chaos, order and repetition in my process, too.

Are you obsessive/compulsive?
No. I really like what I’m doing, and I find repetition in the kind of work I’m doing is very meditative. I listened to each sound over and over again, then drew a literal interpretation of what that sound ‘looks’ like. I started with simple, consistent sounds like the refrigerator; I had no idea how I could do the more complicated sounds until I had done the first ones.

Your drawings here are like mental waveforms (electro-mechanical, visual representations of sound). Would you be interested in seeing the actual waveform of these sounds side-by-side with your interpretations?
If you want to experiment and output waveforms to compare them to what I saw in my mind per sound, you are welcome to. Sure, it would be interesting. I am just not going to do it myself at this time, as each biennial— what these drawing support — is 22 months of work, and I do not have time.


The waveform of "Depot Road."

Do you find that drawing and painting aren’t expressive enough? What drives you to create ‘experiential’ art like ‘99 Sounds’?
The drive behind my work is the connection I might achieve through conveying the balance. Audience is an important part of the equation. Without the audience’s participation, my work is unfinished.

Part of this connection is an implied trust, as I invite the audience to touch, move, maintain, change, to be inside, part of, or in close proximity to my work.
Interactive art is kind of new for audiences around here. They don’t have a lot of experience with it, and there aren’t many Maine artists doing interactive [work].

Why do you think people connect so readily to your work?
I’m trying to visually present patterns of order, chaos and repetition that are within all of us. That’s why people are connecting on a wide range of levels, from, ‘I can’t believe you pulled this off,’ to people literally moved to tears. People have written to me months after seeing a show to try to put in words how they felt, how it affected them. I’ve deliberately made the work to connect with people.

Some might say your pieces are like science experiments. What have the experiments shown you from your past installations, and what are you learning from this show?
A lot of them are like sociology experiments, seeing how people interact with the work. At most openings, people aren’t really looking at the work, they’re mostly socializing. June told me that this is the first opening where most people were totally engaged.

I’m really having fun watching people interact with this work. I’ve been told that my work makes people slow down, become more aware of their body movement. You’re aware of you, in relation to space.

So, are all 99 sounds for sale?
I wanted to make them so that if people saw something they wanted they could just grab it. The one-and-a-quarter-inch pieces are $50, the three-inch-squares are $100 and the six-inch-squares are $200. But people should know that even if I sold all 99 pieces in this show, that would still only provide one-third of what it will cost to do the next biennial.

By the way, what’s the significance of all the nines? 
For my first solo-biennial exhibit, the number nine intuitively felt like the correct number for a small number of repetitions. For example, if I wanted a participant to repeat doing something enough times to make an impact, nine times seemed like the smallest number of times to make the impact I wanted to make. And nine elements felt more resonant than eight or ten.

After the exhibit, many wrote to me to convey some of the significances of the number. For example: the nine Muses, triple goddesses. This information validated my intuition, and I continued to integrate the number nine in all the work. And, I may be doing nine biennials total. It depends on how I feel after the sixth (TIME in 2010). The seventh, eighth and ninth, respectively, would be SPACE in 2012, MATTER in 2014, and MEMORY in 2016. 



Curtis’ exhibit shows at June Fitzpatrick Gallery, 112 High St., Portland, through Sat., Nov. 26. Gallery hours are Tues.-Sat. noon-5 p.m. and by appointment. For more on Curtis’ series of exhibits, see amystaceycurtis.com.

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