Q&A with 2019 South Florida Cultural Consortium Fellowship Winner Amber Tutwiler

Amber Tutwiler

The South Florida Cultural Consortium (SFCC) Fellowship Program offers the largest regional, government-sponsored artists’ grants in the U.S., awarding $15,000 and $7,500 fellowships to resident visual and media artists from the counties of Broward, Martin, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach.

Amber Tutwiler is one of two Palm Beach County-based artists who won this prestigious fellowship in 2019. Her work is currently on display in the Council’s Sallie and Berton E. Korman Education and Training Center (ETC).

Can you tell us, briefly, about your background and your career as an artist?

Amber Tutwiler (AT): I grew up in The Acreage, and was fortunate enough to have a really encouraging art teacher as early as elementary school. He convinced me to apply to Bak Middle School of the Arts. I was so lucky to be able to attend both Middle School of the Arts (as it was called at the time) and Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts, so my training really began there. I actually started out as a dancer (hence the desire to continue to work with performance), but later switched to visual art in tenth grade.

I attended Massachusetts College of Art and Design for painting, Florida Atlantic University for psychology and received my Master in Fine Arts from Florida Atlantic University in 2017. Since graduating, I’ve had a residency at Armory Art Center, started H/OURS Collective (an artist collective), assisted in curating six shows with the collective, and have had two major performances with Ballet Florida. Now, I am a Visiting Instructor at Florida Atlantic University teaching painting, drawing and sculpture.

Give us a short description of your process: from the first idea/inspiration to the final touch.

AT: It really depends on the medium, but a good portion of the work starts with photography. I take a series of photographs of my own body in bed; I usually frame the body ambiguously, so it is uncertain as to what you are looking at. To further obscure the image, I upload the photographs and rephotograph them again right from the computer screen.

After I select a few photographs that I gravitate toward, I work in Photoshop, further fragmenting and editing the image. I make a lot of variations of one image—for all the hundreds of Photoshop files made, only a handful have made it into the world as paintings.

As far as the display goes, it depends on the image. Many of the works have sculptural elements; the sculptural design sometimes comes from the image, or inversely, sometimes I make the sculpture and make the image specifically for it.

My practice does vary—I’m always trying new things, from sewing to laser etching to sound and video. The collaborative performance pieces with Ballet Florida have a much different process; they require so much more writing, discussion and 3D modeling so that any conceptual or design issue is solved before hiring the dancers.

A lot of what I do is trusting a feeling that is hard to describe. If it is too on the nose, I avoid it. 

Who are some of your artistic influences (dead or alive)? 

AT: Oh boy—so many! I suppose I’m a bit more interested in younger, contemporary and very much alive artists nowadays. Chloe Wise, Rachel Rossin, and Anne Imhoff regularly inspire me for so many reasons.

But the heavy hitters, especially when I was younger, definitely left a huge impression: Jenny Saville, Marina Abramovic, and Ana Mendieta really got me thinking about the female body in ways that still matter a great deal to me.

All that being said, my friends and teachers are by far my biggest influences. Working alongside so many talented and thoughtful artists and friends has shaped me visually, aesthetically and conceptually. They continue to inspire me.

What’s next for you and your work?

AT: I’m not 100% sure yet (but who is, right?). At the moment, my plan is to finish an installation and exhibition at ArtsUp! in Fort Lauderdale, titled “Chandelle,” which opens in January 2020. From this installation, I plan to collaborate with Ballet Florida on our next production in the same space, which debuts sometime in late April or May 2020.

I will continue to make work—that will never end. I have a series of works in the studio that are in their early phases that I’m pretty excited about.

That being said, I wish I could tell everyone that the life of an artist is hiding away in our studios for months on end (that would be a dream), but there are so many things to consider: jobs, finances, and access to resources. I am keeping my radar on, thinking a lot about financial stability and, of course, trusting my intuition along the way.

Being in the early stage of my career, there are still many directions that I could go in. I love college-level teaching, and plan to make it my full-time career—but when that will happen, I’m not so certain. I have definitive goals, but there is not necessarily one path to achieve them.

I’m at a moment where I’m allowing some of the unknowns be just as they are, and I have to be okay with it. In the meantime, I’m doing as many studio visits as I can, and applying to residencies and, of course, more grants!

How does it feel to be one of Palm Beach County’s 2019 Cultural Consortium Fellows? 

AT: It is such an honor! I had it on my radar for the past couple years and, while I didn’t necessarily think I would get it, I had it on my goal list. It happened much sooner than I thought. It has helped tremendously—more than I can even express.

This answer is short because it is simple: I am so thankful for everything that has come with it. I’ve made some new friendships, I’ve shown work at MOCA North Miami (one of my goals), and I was able to make some much needed purchases that I otherwise would have not been able to make. It’s just wonderful.

Anything else you’d like to communicate to the Cultural Council, its members or other artists in the community?

AT: Art changes life. The thing that people don’t realize is that I don’t think I’d be this person without it. I wasn’t born into the arts (unless some distant relatives count). Being exposed to the arts has fundamentally made me the person that I am, despite some significant challenges.

It is so, so very important to continue to support artists locally. And not just by buying beach scenes and pretty flamingos (I love you, Florida, but I’ve seen one too many of these kinds of paintings). I dare our community to support younger artists that make work that isn’t considered traditionally pretty—work that challenges the norm and/or reinvents technology’s purpose.

This is the kind of future for the arts that I hope we can embrace locally. Diversity, inclusion and progressive thinking is what will lead us to a healthier relationship with our bodies, technology, our landscape, and our changing climate. It also radically changes our social structures in positive ways.

I encourage you to buy a work from a local artist that forces you to pause with empathy or with insight. Buy it because it moves you, even if you can’t describe why. Go directly to the artists—not all of us have gallery representation. Ultimately, while grants like this change lives, there are so many artists right here that need just a little bit more support to continue to do what they do best: make work.