Seeing stars: Kathleen Amt

Seeing stars: Kathleen Amt
Kathleen Amt, Zodiac Game detail

While unfamiliar to many today, Kathleen Amt was a notable figure in the early years of polymer art.  During the late 1980’s and 1990’s the Washington D.C. area was an important hub of polymer discovery.  Amt was very much a part of the local polymer community, which among others also included Kathleen Dustin, Nan Roche, and Lindly Haunani.

Amt initially stumbled upon polymer.  As the director of the Arts and Crafts Center at Fort Belvoir in northern Virginia from 1980-1987, she was looking for family friendly materials when she came across the original white version of Polyform’s Sculpey.  However, it was not until she happened to meet Kathleen Dustin in the fall of 1988 that she realized its potential.

By the late 1980’s the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, Virginia was host to many galleries and artists.  After an injury precluded her from continuing in her ceramics studio, Amt turned to book arts and graphic design.  A long time artist member of the TFAC, in 1974 Amt helped to start the Fiberworks gallery located on the main floor of the Torpedo Factory building.  She returned to the gallery in 1987 and found herself across the hall from where Kathleen Dustin had a studio and was working with polymer.

This was the beginning of Amt’s decade of polymer.  Once she had grasped the basics, she transposed many skills from her years of experience with books, paper and ceramics to polymer.  Inspired by seeing ancient, colored glass beads at the Freer Art Museum in Washington, D.C., her familiarity with concepts of neriage and millefiori in porcelain through the art of Jane Pieser, helped her to understand the mechanics of caning.  Amt quickly became an expert.

Word of Amt’s cane work spread.  She was asked by knitter and author Lee Andersen to illustrate a series of three books about intarsia knit patterning.  For this project, Amt produced eighty different caned borders directly related to the knit patterns featured in the books, all published in 1990*.   Some of these same canes subsequently became the end papers in Roche’s seminal work, The New Clay of 1991.

Amt, K. Zodiac game
Kathleen Amt, Zodiac Game

Amt often designed her canes around a theme which then frequently evolved into a series of related motifs.   As a child she was intrigued by the constellations in the sky; this passion carried over into the regular appearance of celestial imagery in Amt’s art.  She created a complex Zodiac series, which became a game as well as an assortment of smaller scale, wearable pieces.  The characters from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland are the basis for another extended thematic group.  Mermaids, fish, and circus figures comprise yet other cane groups, which Amt repeatedly combined together in different ways.

Amt, Kathy: Sea Life book- Front,  c.1995         Amt, K.:  Sea Life book Back cover, c. 1995

Kathleen Amt, Sea Life Book, front (L) and back (R)
1993, polymer, paper, closed:  3 3/4″ W x 6 1/8″ L  x ~ 1″ D

Her experiences in fabricating with paper enabled Amt to create many books of polymer as well as various other structured forms. In addition to her Zodiac game set, she constructed a number of elaborately ornamented polymer boxes, some toys and time measuring devices such as clock faces and sundials.  Many of these incorporate multiple cane patterns or modeled sculptural elements.  Perhaps it was her on-going fascination with books, that lead to the inclusion of words or even lines of text regularly throughout her work.

In 1998 Amt left polymer and returned to paper based arts.  Her last major cane series was based on Greek imagery related to the myth of Bacchus.  Today, Amt’s work can be found in some of the earlier publications on polymer, private collections as well as several museum collections.

*Lee Andersen,  Extraordinary You: Knitwear Designs for the woman with extra; Reflections of You: Designer sweaters for children, and You and Yours: Contemporary sweater designs for men.  all from Vibrant Publishing, New Zealand, 1990

I cannot remember a time in my life that I wasn't interested in looking at art, talking about art and the making of art. In 1990 I earned a Phd in art history at the University of Maryland. My first experiences with polymer clay were in 1992, but I consider my real work with the medium to date from 1999.