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Viewing the World Through Juvenile Eyes, with Local Artist Amanda Niekamp

Photo of the artist at the Villa Savoye by Thomas Kolb.

Amanda Niekamp is a Vancouver-based painter and illustrator whose artwork generally focuses on architecture. Far from your standard technical renderings, Niekamp’s depictions – informed by her natural surroundings and passions for international design and modernism – are full of whimsy and colour, tangibility and child-like vulnerability.

Her solo show, Procession, will be on the walls of the Slice of Life Gallery from August 25-30. Get to know more about the artist and her process in our interview below, and then reserve your ticket (only $5 each) to check out her new series in-person here.

First of all, please tell me a bit about yourself. What is your background in art and architecture?

I’m originally from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where there are horses, fields and suburbs. To me the prairies are railway gothic, tiny quaint churches, and simple bungalows with a quiet, treasured hiss. It’s a tangible place that formed the foundation for my unguarded artistic style.

How long have you lived in Vancouver, and what is your relationship with this place and its particular design?

I moved to Vancouver 13 years ago to study illustration at Emily Carr. During my undergrad I began working at a modern design furniture store that was frequented by and and worked in partnership with the architecture community. I found my way to different events with local and international architects, and was educated on design history and the relationship these objects have within a space. I became interested in the history and design of Vancouver, the influences of west coast modernism, art decorative styles, and invigorated design. From there, the world of architecture opened up to me and I began to research an array of places across the globe.

The Procession series centres around architecture you explored or saw during the Covid pandemic. What influence (if any) did this context have on your overall creative process and the resulting art?

Through the Procession series I’m honouring places that I’ve longed to see in person. I travelled to Europe during a quiet hum when hardly anyone was travelling, and the architectural spaces I visited were free of the crowds that can take away from the experience. I was able to visualize and value the spaces for what they were without people. The resulting work in this context is the bare bones, the raw structures, materials and landscape. Only the viewer’s agency stands as occupancy.

In part you were on a mission to potentially uncover a “universal language of design that would suit everyone, anywhere”. What conclusions about the possibility of such a thing’s existence did you reach? What new questions or ideas did this quest present to you?

Unsurprisingly, every place I visited was dramatically different. The design language in Spain differs from what you see in France or the UK, and I discovered a variety of living patterns and values that varied from culture to culture. In Barcelona, building permits require a minimum number of daylight hours for residential housing, along with access to outdoor space. Most apartments have balconies and terraces, private green space courtyards or at least a park within walking distance. I saw this in France too, apartments with private interior courtyard or parks, varying in style but with the same shared value. Available green space and access to light is equally important as the amount of space inside an apartment.

The notion and terminology of “Procession” in architecture speaks to thresholds of transition, or liminal space; the passing through. I believe society is constantly working and questioning our human comforts and lowering the thresholds of liveable design and well-being in the spaces we live in. I constantly question North America’s livability…

“Our inspiration well dries up from seeing and experiencing the same places…I think it is important to find new spots, parks or different neighbourhoods and visit them on foot…It’s very important to catch yourself by surprise when you hit these spots. The less research the better. Find a hidden treasure for yourself!”

I love how your SOL bio describes your perspective as being “imperfect and unguarded”. It makes sense to me because, when I look at your work, I see a very sympathetic eye that makes the buildings you depict seem less like objects and more like subjects, as if they were consenting, living things – quite the opposite of what you’d normally associate with the often clinically technical portrayals of architecture in general. What are the visual aspects of a building that inspire you to make it the subject of a painting? What are the unquantifiable (ie. emotional/visceral/personal) elements?

I’ve always loved conjuring places from my childhood memories and that fuzzy or dreamy view of simplicity. I try to grasp the same response and cherish that unguarded perspective when directing or experiencing a piece of architecture. Reading a building and perceiving how it makes me react viscerally through romantic or juvenile eyes.

Colour is a huge influence on me. I either seek it or create it. It acts as life or energy in a painting, and ultimately the foundations of a building or piece. Almost distinctly I seek out attention grabbing aesthetics such as patterns, sculptural installations or prominent landscape designs in a place. These parts become the core essence. Where colour lacks, I will accentuate or add it in. Take brutalism – the shapes and structure are elaborate and broken down to bare materials, and not decorative design. This is the point where I reinvent or add a new light to the raw structure.

Which is more difficult for you, beginning a new work/series of works, or knowing when to finish? Why?

Probably when to finish. I can become very excited with a place or series and delve in pretty quickly. It can be hard to trust minimalism in work, and I often contemplate the Mies van der Rohe dictum that ‘Less is More’. I am constantly criticizing whether the essentials portrayed are strong enough, so I try to sit with the piece and take my time rather than work quickly and overemphasize.

How much of your process is focussed on research, thought and planning, and how much is devoted to the actual creative process and execution?

The execution and creative process definitely takes precedence. I’ll discover a piece of architecture or a place of wonder through a book, and meddle in with my paint colour bank, source photography and further information pretty quickly. I don’t replicate pieces in exact perspective or colour value, but enjoy experimenting and playing with changes in colour. My goal is not realism or to be an architect. I am much more in the process of finding where I stand or feel in the place through painting.

Gaudi, photo credit Thomas Kolb.

Do you ever feel uninspired by your West Coast surroundings? If so, how do you manage to stir up the magic again?

We are creatures of habit and we often solely frequent our neighbourhoods on the day to day. Our inspiration well dries up from seeing and experiencing the same places. I think Vancouver and larger cities on the West Coast can also be very uninspiring as we see heritage buildings disappear. Gentrification is at large, and our historic places become sparser. The city’s identity is constantly evolving.

I think it is important to find new spots, parks or different neighbourhoods and visit them on foot. Often I will bring my film camera with me and end up on a path or a road I do not know anything about. It’s very important to catch yourself by surprise when you hit these spots. The less research the better. Find a hidden treasure for yourself!

What is the most beautiful piece of architecture/space in Vancouver, in your opinion, and why?

I am not sure if it is the most ‘beautiful’ piece, but I am most enamoured by the Pink Palace apartment tower in West Vancouver, with its pepto-pink concrete and white patterned railings. I became captivated during a walk-by in my undergrad, and it became my very first architectural painting subject. I discovered the apartment complex was heavily influenced by MiMo Architecture (Miami Modernist Architecture). This movement added themes of glamour, colour, and fun material excess to otherwise boring and stark minimal places. The MiMo movement drastically changed how I viewed colour and form. Sadly the Pink Palace is set for demolition near 2026 – so please go visit it!

What about your least favourite?

My least favourite building in Vancouver is Vancouver House, the new neo-futurist residential skyscraper finished in 2020. I guess the design is based on a triangle that rises from the ground and gradually transitions into a rectangle as it ascends to the top. The box-shaped balconies are supposed to represent a honeycomb texture. I am not a fan of skyscrapers in general, but this one especially bothers me as it obstructs the view of the mountains so perfectly. The materials are so reflective and distracting. The design is screaming for attention in all the incorrect ways.

Lastly, what is the space/building anywhere in the world that you have yet to visit, but that you know you MUST, and why?

The number one building I want to experience in my lifetime would be the Muralla Roja (The Red Wall) by Ricardo Bofilll. He is my absolute favourite architect. La Muralla Roja is a housing project located within the La Manzanera development in Spain’s Calpe municipality. A series of violet and indigo coloured interlocking stairs, platforms and bridges transforms the skyline like a labyrinth. The various colours painted on the outside surfaces are intended to give a determined relief to all the distinct architectural elements, according to their structural functions. The place looks like candy. I can also imagine David Bowie throwing a really great party there…

See more of Amanda Niekamp’s work and travels by following her on Instagram @acniekamp.

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