Amelia Butcher on Wedding Dresses, Cake Decorating and the Joy of Drawing Death Rituals

Photo of Amelia by Liam O’Brien

There’s something so humorously sinister about Amelia Butcher‘s illustrations and sculptures. The perpetually scowling (mostly) women characters adornin her pottery could just as easily inhabit some morbid Roald Dahl universe; you could also imagine her creepy interpretations of traditional feminine trappings on the set of a Tim Burton film. Butcher is a member of the Dusty Babes Collective, an art group she helped form in 2013 with her Emily Carr peers, all of whom virtually lived in the school’s ceramics department. The young artist, who spent her formative years divided between BC and Peru, now currently lives adjacent to the Collective’s studio in Surrey. Say hello to Amelia Butcher…

Where do you live and what makes it home? I live in Surrey right now because I’m lucky enough to live in a little house right next to the Dusty Babes Collective studio. It’s all very temporary (we rent from a developer) but it is such a privilege to walk fifty feet to the studio and have my friends working so close by. I can hardly believe it.

Your neighbourhood haunt? Surrey/White Rock has great thrift stores. There are like five in a row and you can do a sort of pub crawl between them on a Saturday morning. But, you know…sweaters instead of beer.

How did the Dusty Babes Collective come to fruition? I think we were just the people who were in the ceramic studio the most at the end of art school. Ceramics is a really equipment-heavy, space-greedy practice so we wanted to connect to share resources. We were really encouraged by the great faculty and knew we’d need each others’ support after we graduated. Also we’d bonded over ceramic heartbreak.

What is the best thing about sharing a studio space with the Dusty Babes women? Best thing is access to all these smart people who can give great critique and load a kiln for you. Worst is the rats!

You’ve done illustration for everything from pickle jars to zines…If you could create/illustrate the branding for anything/anyone, what or who would it be? I’ve just been reading this amazing book that’s all about death and burial rituals around the world, and it has all these pen-and-ink illustrations of casket handles, the wire structures for floral arrangements, pet tombs and these really sculptural Balinese coffins. I am just consumed with jealousy at the woman who got to draw all that stuff.

If you could create ANYTHING with your own two hands, what would it be? I think clay is the quickest access to “create anything” you could ask for. Right now I’m desperate to make a candelabra, but for birthday candles. Kind of creepy and cheery at the same time. I have it all laid out it in my head but haven’t had the moment to do it.

If you weren’t an artist, what path would you take? Midwife. When I was a kid I would have said travel agent.

Name your three favourite artists of all time. Can I name a whole civilization since they didn’t sign their work? Moche ceramics are amazing. Also Aubrey Beardsley and Lynda Barry.

Your last unexpected or unusual source of inspiration? I went wedding dress shopping with my soon-to-be sister-in-law and, oh my god, wedding dresses are so cool. They are so elaborate and beautifully crafted. There was not a single one that I looked at that wasn’t glorious. They’re at this bizarre intersection of temporary and forever, youth and maturity. I’ve been thinking about them for weeks.

Guilty pleasure? Cake decorating videos on Instagram.

Favourite cake flavour? I’ve started adding herbs to vanilla or lemon cake, like rosemary or sage or basil. Very nice.

A bad habit that you refuse to quit? Biting my nails. I know it’s disgusting but, what, am I gonna get a manicure? You need that outlet for when the Skytrain shudders and stops moving.

What’s your spirit animal? Labrador retriever.

Favourite dish in Vancouver? V3, salt and pepper crispy tofu at Peaceful Restaurant.

Your three favourite things about Vancouver? Sunrise Market, diversity, Stanley Park.

If you had the power to cast any spell, what would it be? Sha-zam! You can talk to dogs! Sha-zam! The dogs can talk to you!

What is the surefire thing that cheers you up? Coffee. Just black drip coffee. From the gas station, whatever. It’s family and home and hopefulness.

Your biggest pet peeve? Eating sounds.

A ritual of yours? Making pizza and watching X-Files with my friend Angela. Once a week if we’re really living our best lives.

Tell me a joke. What’s brown and sticky? A stick.

What scares the hell out of you? Getting dumber. I feel like I need every neuron I have.

The biggest risk you’ve ever taken? Going to art school.

Something that you’d like to change about Vancouver? More affordable housing for everybody, starting with our lowest-income and homeless neighbours first.

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The (mostly) women that you illustrate are very expressive…What’s the story behind these characters? How much thought do you put into what the characters are feeling and thinking when you’re drawing/creating them? It’s getting more common to see women of all sizes and colours represented in our media, but they all seem to be pretty and happy. Like, okay, you can be fat, but you’d better be friggin’ adorable too. Girls have to be allowed to be surly and angry and sneaky and ugly. There’s just so much stuff to be angry about. Anger is important. That’s why I draw them.

What was your favourite picture book as a child? Capyboppy by Bill Peet.

Favourite scary story? I found this thread online of parents talking about things their kids had said about their past lives. Like, “before you were my mum I lived in a grey house and died in a car crash.” There were loads of them and they’re so scary and so interesting.

What’s your relationship with witchcraft? I’m mostly interested in the history, and how the witch figure is depicted in pop culture. Something so interesting happens when women get to be a little creepy. I’ve also adopted this witch character I like to draw – she goes around lighting things on fire. I know there are people who identify as witches and with witchcraft for many many reasons and that’s cool. For me it’s more about this story that was used to both celebrate and control female power.

A lot of your sculptures/ceramics address objects of femininity, often in a morbid, creepy or unsettling way. Can you tell me more about this? I have this mindset that the objects I make are artifacts, like in a museum. And that artifacts tell you what was most important to their user. So I always have this intention to make artifacts that represent the experience of a really particular user – maybe myself or an imagined character. I created objects for the vanity of a lady writer in the Middle Ages (who I made up). I wanted them to be imaginative and creative and weird, for a time when women were likely punished for being imaginative and creative and weird. So those had to be a little unsettling, because I was deliberately trying to unsettle this picture of a tidy little vanity with pretty things on it and your idea of who would use those objects. As for morbidity, sometimes being female-bodied really reminds me that I’m an animal and that reminds me that I’m vulnerable and mortal and that I’ll die one day. So I connect femaleness and femininity to death sometimes.

What is your favourite/least favourite thing about being a woman? Friendships with other women. It’s really fun to hang out with women. Sometimes we even talk about being women. It’s very meta. I hate that so many women in the world are still so disadvantaged because of their gender…feels like in a lot of places, “woman” is this multiplying factor that makes conditions like poverty and violence worse. That sucks.

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