Amy Casey’s art lifts Cleveland to a higher plane

Story by Carlo Wolff
Photography by Michael C. Butz

A sketch of commissioned piece Casey is working on hangs in her Tremont studio.

A sketch of commissioned piece Casey is working on hangs in her Tremont studio.

“Hanging Forest,” acrylic on panel, 2013, 24 inches by 36 inches

“Hanging Forest,” acrylic on panel, 2013, 24 inches by 36 inches

Casey boils down her interests at any given moment to one or two words, then posts them on sticky notes in her studio as a way to help her focus on those interests in her art.

Casey boils down her interests at any given moment to one or two words, then posts them on sticky notes in her studio as a way to help her focus on those interests in her art.

Nailing down the unique and kindly art of Amy Casey is a thankless task. Best to enjoy it in all its various layers, to let it seduce you with its vitality, to join in the affirmation of the urban evolution that is the storyline in Casey’s ongoing narrative.

Casey brings exceptional, oddly earthy precision to surreal cityscapes teetering on the edge of chaos. By siting her visions on a white background, they pop the eye and ripple the brain. Rarely is surrealism so steeped in street observation, so detailed and so warm.

Casey, who lives in the painterly Cleveland neighborhood of Tremont, is fascinated by the “resilience of life and how we can kind of create places to be. It’s just how we are. We just have to keep adapting to whatever is going on and try to control it.

“So I’m really interested in the idea of no matter what happens, you just keep going,” she says in her cozy, two-story apartment. “If the whole atmosphere changes, I feel like we’ll keep adapting until we can’t anymore because that’s what we do.”

Casey is familiar with the ground and values it, whether in her garden or in the greater neighborhood. She doesn’t drive. She walks, takes public transportation, and bicycles. She observes closely, developing her paintings from pencil sketches that start abstract and geometric and turn into pictures of homes you want to walk up to, then knock on the door and meet the occupant.

Only there aren’t any people. For Casey, the buildings are human in themselves.

They’re also painted in such detail they might make you squint.

“I’m not smart enough to be an architect,” says Casey, an Erie, Pa. native who graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1999 and exhibits her work in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and occasionally, Cleveland. “But I think architects like my work because I blow through (building) codes.”

Her houses hang, “they swing, they’re tethered, they’re on stilts,” she says.

No matter how free their presentation, however, they always seem anchored in reality.

“I like them to make sense – in a way. I don’t like them to be … sometimes you don’t really understand when you’re working on something, you might not notice until later that the scale is weirdly off,” she says, laughing.

Scale isn’t the only thing that’s off. Casey stacks buildings into ziggurats, puts them in slings and in forests, ribbons them into towers. She scrambles neighborhoods, connects structures with corridors, concocts images of them that conjure model train sets.

She cradles cities, as in “Hanging Forest.” She emphasizes certain elements, like the tree lawns in “Treelawns” that look like mouths on the houses, mouths ready to engage you in conversation.

While there are no humans in her paintings, her constructs speak volumes.

Artist Amy Casey

Artist Amy Casey

A decade and some ago, Casey’s paintings featured plantlike organisms and quasi-animals living in decaying urban landscapes. The bad news Casey was reading – like about 2004’s Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina – became too much. Time to turn the tables.

“I was making little creatures before I sort of got into the shifting cities, into new forms, whatever you want to call what I was doing,” Casey recalls. She was depicting “different animals, sort of vulnerable little creatures, living in an urban setting,” but couldn’t figure out why. So her art changed; she effectively shut out the news – Casey doesn’t follow it much now – to focus on the city itself.

Urban life become ever more her subject. And like the city of Cleveland, her art has become sturdier.

Meg Sheehy, co-owner of Zg Gallery, a Chicago gallery that displays Casey’s work every two years, first encountered Casey’s art in 2006 when Sheehy curated an exhibit at the South Bend Regional Art Museum in northwestern Indiana.

At that time, Sheehy says, Casey’s work “was primarily focused on declining infrastructure – roads eroding out from underneath highways, bridges collapsing, houses kind of being neglected, sort of leaning, being bloated, and she was ordinarily painting acrylic on paper.”

The unconventional subject matter and medium attracted Zg. The content was also very timely.

“When people would ask Amy, ‘Are you painting these things because of the real estate market?’ she would say, ‘No, as an artist living in Cleveland, this is not a new situation,’” Sheehy says. Visitors to Zg would “see her work and think she just started doing this because of the national news. She had already been painting that way for probably six or eight years prior to that. She really wasn’t just responding to the national news, she was responding to her surroundings.”

As she still does.

Casey doesn’t see that well (she breaks her glasses regularly), so her art is a way of imposing order. In the artist’s statement on her website, she writes that she has “been in search of a solid ground.”

That quest has been a long time in the making. “It’s not that I was trying to make paintings about them (the tsunami and Katrina) but I just became interested in the idea of something happening and just turning, turning everything that you know on its head and having to deal with that,” she says. She had also started gardening – along with quilting, it’s her favorite pastime when she’s not at the painting that occupies her 50 to 70 hours a week.

As her work “rose,” shedding life forms to focus on structures in a kind of psychic uplift, Casey began tying her buildings to the sky. “You just never see the ground anymore, the background’s always white,” she says. “The ground must be so far below at this point; I’m not really sure what’s down there. But in the meantime, I’ve been taking the structures and kind of creating a ground.

“When the buildings come together, they create a sort of entity. … To me, they’re like communities, they’re like organisms, they’re like growths, they’re like mountains.”

May Casey continue to create mountains for us to scale. CV