In the studio with Amber Larks, an oil painter whose work explores the metaphysical and unknown with nods to science fiction and surrealism. We met with Amber to tell us more about growing up in Los Angeles, their greatest influences, and what inspired them to first pursue their artistic journey.
When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?
I come back to a specific moment in kindergarten. Our teacher had our class do an art project where we had to glue flat pieces of colored tissue paper onto cardstock to create a mosaic. Instead of gluing my pieces flat, I ended up scrunching them up into little 3D flowers to glue on. Everyone finished before me and went on to play while I was the only one still left at the table. It probably took me four times longer to finish my piece than everyone else and no one understood why I spent so long working on the project when I could be playing. This was my first memory of seeing myself as an artist. I wanted my work to be different and stand out.
Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?
I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles. I am mixed race (half Chinese and half Ashkenazi Jewish) and was not raised religious. Growing up, I commuted to schools outside of my neighborhood where the majority of my peers were from affluent backgrounds that were unfamiliar to me. A lot of my childhood, I felt like I didn’t fit in whether it was how I looked, lack of religious views, or socioeconomic status. These experiences made me question a lot which helped form my world view. When I paint, I’m trying to make sense of questions like perception, identity, belonging, purpose, and existence.
Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice artistic work?
I was very fortunate to have parents that encouraged art. My father is an artist and my parents fostered my creativity early on. I remember they would tape butcher paper to our hallway so my sister and I could draw on the walls. Art was something I always loved, so I took as many art classes as I could in school. In highschool, I got really into photography and that translates into how I paint now. Photography changed the way I view the world with lighting and composition. However, I never went the official art school route and am mostly self taught. I’m still learning my way through trial, error, and experimentation. My peers, family, friends, and everyone who connects with my work inspire me to keep painting.
A critical moment in my art journey was signing a lease to my first art studio in Seattle two years ago. It helped me believe in myself and my work and commit to growing my practice. At the end of that year, I was also published in ArtMaze Magazine, a publication I really admire. I’m constantly my own worst critic, but getting into that publication reassured me I was on the right track.
What’s the message of your work? Where do they come from?
A lot of my work revolves around the human condition and everything that comes along with that. My work intersects themes of the human condition, science, science fiction and the metaphysical. I’m inspired by these fields because of the possibilities they hold. For me, art is a way to make sense of and appreciate everything, especially the questions that I don’t have answers to.
I would describe my aesthetic as a dream that feels somber and melancholy but also like a warm hug. It’s unfamiliar but nostalgic. It’s soft, moody, welcoming and colorful. If it had a sound, it’d be a mixture of a shoegaze and dream pop song. My aesthetic is pretty much how I subconsciously visualize things in my head and those descriptions fit who I am as a person as well. Art really is an extension of yourself.
Who & what are your greatest influences?
I have so many. A lot are from my childhood. I loved the artwork in 90s/00s animated tv shows like Sailor Moon and Pokémon. My younger sister and I would also always watch fantasy Barbie movies, specifically Fairytopia (no shame!). Sanrio characters and Disney animations, specifically Pocahontas, were influential to me. I would watch the SciFi channel with my dad a lot too, so science fiction plays a huge role in my art. Right now, Carl Sagan is one of my greatest conceptual influences and inspirations.
My Southern California roots and heritage influence me on a personal level. I feel, in a sense, that my Chinese ancestors tried to assimilate to US culture and blend in (or maybe that was a pressure I felt growing up or both), so I love exploring that side of my identity and culture. Throughout the years, I’ve also been learning more about my Ashkenazi Jewish background and family which has been inspiring.
Lastly, René Magritte and Georgia O’ Keeffe have always been day one artistic influences to me. Seeing “The Son of Man” and “The Lovers” as a kid had a strong impact on my art. Georgia O’Keeffe was the first woman artist I learned about which was hugely inspiring. I loved how different her work was from the other male artists I was learning about at the time. Her work transported me to a world where art could be feminine and “pretty”.
An unexpected source of inspiration?
What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?
I hope my work brings a sense of enchantment. A lot of modern day existence is mundane and art is an escape from that. I want my work to inspire questions, new perspectives, and exploration of the unknown. I also hope it connects with others on a personal level of shared human experience to encourage empathy and environmentalism.
My work stems from the subconscious but almost always keys into the human condition in some way. I’m always keeping in mind what the work symbolizes conceptually. However, I mostly think about the audience when I’m thinking of titles because they really are like the cover to a book. Titles have a lot of influence over people’s perception of a piece. I want my work to express and share what I’m feeling but leave enough room for interpretation so others can make it their own too.
What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic?
Getting an art studio was a critical moment. It let me do whatever I wanted in whatever style I wanted. Having a private space with room to get messy was a door I had never opened before or had access to. It led me to finding my style, workflow, and creative purpose. It made me question what I wanted to say with my art and how I wanted to express those messages.
My art has evolved both aesthetically and conceptually. I started out with more figurative works, but now I’ve been going a bit more abstract which has been fun and different from anything I’ve done before. Conceptually, I’ve gone deeper into themes that I’ve previously explored. A lot of the experimenting I do is without intention. It normally comes from not knowing how to do something artistically and then trying my best to do it. This leads me to both good and bad accidents which leads to growth. Experimenting is necessary for growth and a constant reminder that things don’t have to be perfect, which I need to remind myself more often.
What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?
Inspiration is the biggest catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work. This seems to be a huge self help area in the art world- I’ve seen so many articles on “how to stay inspired” or what to do to get out of an artistic rut. But I think most lack of inspiration is caused by burnout. I don’t think creativity is pure when it’s forced or when there’s applied pressure. For me, I need to be well rested to create good ideas. I need time to decompress in order for my mind and imagination to have the ability to roam. If I don’t have this space or time, it’s almost impossible for me to be creative and think of worthwhile ideas. If an idea seems too forced, I can’t be excited about it. I know I have a good idea when I can’t stop thinking about it and visualizing it. I get antsy and need to get myself to the studio so I can get it out of my head and onto a canvas.
On an art practice level, I need complete privacy and a good chunk of time to create so I don’t feel rushed. I recognize these conditions are privileges and not everyone has the ability to always have them. Actually, a lot of the time, I do not have all of them. But if it was an ideal world, those would be my ideal conditions.
Tell us about the inspiration behind your works?
“Steady as the Sands of Times, Breeding for Our Family Lines” is the result of music and songwriting inspiring me. It was fall in Seattle and I was listening to Daughter’s “Doing the Right Thing”. This is one of those songs that tugs at your heartstrings in the most raw and bittersweet ways. The whole song is beautiful and incredibly moving. I don’t want to give the song and story away, but when Elena Tonra sang “We are built for reproduction”, my mind immediately visualized a scene of an endless desert with a monolith made of stacked eggs towering over the viewer. It represents the human condition and the stark realization of life and mortality; how we continue our family lines and how our individual lives make up our entire world yet feel insignificant in the grand scheme of time.
Something in the future you hope to explore?
It’s difficult for me to predict what I’d like to explore artistically because inspiration often happens in the moment. However, I would love to learn more about physics and astronomy. I’m fascinated by the relationship between art and science because I believe they are two halves of the same coin in trying to understand our world and beyond.