Cities in Flight:  Cleveland’s Amy Casey

Barefoot Amy Casey perches on the seat of a high, paint-spattered swivel chair blearily sipping a large cup
of tea. She blinks and smiles, making a nervous attempt to brush bits of fur off her black T-shirt as a bulky
video camera inches closer. It catches her incorrigibly straight brown hair, stark against a luminously pale
complexion. Her glance at the lens conveys subdued hilarity and mild panic; like the camera, she’s trying
to focus. So far it’s been a crazy morning. Half an hour ago an email arrived: CPAC, the not-for profit
Community Partnership for Arts and Culture commissioned by Cuyahoga County to implement
distribution of the county’s tobacco tax dollars, is awarding her one of its new Creative Workforce
Fellowships – basically a gift of $20K each to twenty local artists who survived a rigorous judging process.  
Then promptly at ten o’clock David Barnett of  WVIZ/PBS’s ideastream, followed by cameraman Dave
Staruch and two assistants, ventured up a flight of steep stairs edged with artwork, feline paraphernalia
and random footwear; Barnett is interviewing Casey for a segment on WVIZ’s arts program “Applause”.
Amy hasn’t slept at all, working toward a deadline in the room where she’s now being filmed. A big
drawing board tilts upward in one corner, dozens of itty-bitty brushes are marshaled into empty jars, works
in progress are clipped to every available inch of wall space. This studio is part of a modest suite tucked
onto the second floor of a stubby clapboard house in Tremont. Luckily Amy doesn’t indulge much in
furniture; the place is a tight fit just with art, two cats, and a whole lot of cassette tapes and music CD’s,
plus today’s arts-coverage crew.
The CPAC grant is only the latest of recent coups. WVIZ’s interest follows in the wake of news that she’s
one of this year’s picks for a prestigious Cleveland Arts Prize, due to receive a check for 5K and a medal in
a ceremony to be held on June 25th as winner of CAP’s Emerging Artist Award. Also this month an exhibit
including her works at MOCA Cleveland called “There Goes the Neighborhood” opened on June 5th. Not to
mention two solo shows scheduled for late 2009 and early 2010 at galleries in Chicago and San Francisco.
Casey tends to keep a level head. The CPAC grant in particular will make a huge difference in her life,
enabling her to take many aspects of her art and career to new levels. But probably she’d quit her day job
only if she aced the Super Lotto, and then only after a lot of thought. “I’ve had a job since I was fourteen,”
she tells Barnett in the course of the interview. “I’m definitely a low-key, low self-esteem kind of person;
not that it’s a problem.”  Apparently it isn’t. She speaks quietly and quickly in a youthful, chirpy sort of
voice and looks to be in her early twenties, at most; but a wary confidence in her manner belies that initial
impression; actually she just turned thirty-three. She’s worked at the Cleveland Institute of Art’s
Reinberger Galleries, where the widely known experimental photographer Bruce Checefsky (also a
recipient of a CPAC Fellowship) is her boss, for about nine years. Before that she was a guard at the
Cleveland Museum of Art while she attended C.I.A’s five year program; in between, following graduation in
1999 she worked for a year, again as a guard, at the Terra Foundation for American Art in Chicago.
She’s shown her paintings in a number of venues since her first solo exhibit at Lakewood’s Dead Horse
Gallery in the fall of 2002, but it’s only in the past couple of years that Casey became one of Cleveland’s
most talked-about artists, as she began to attract national attention. Her latest series of acrylic on paper
paintings depicting airborne factories and houses tugged aloft by web-like hawsers, or sky-high stacks of
factories, studded with traffic barrels and swathed in crusty roads or bolts of stockade fencing, strike
chords that just about any contemporary America city dweller can hear. In the context of high-end
contemporary art they also express a formal preoccupation with accumulation (the fascinating
complication of piles of things), common materials (office supplies, DIY stuff, recyclables), and a general
mindfulness of the details of our collective everyday life.  Casey’s own experiences as city dweller,
meditative bus traveler and long-time gallery installer, make her well suited to the task of reassembling
the outlines of her essential subject, which (at least for now) is the urban visual experience. Specifically
she plays with the rustbelt’s twenty-first century curbside mess of neglected infrastructure, dumped in
front of a dilapidated housing market. This could be depressing subject matter, but in her hands pollution
and decay take on an air of quiet delight, as in a fairy tale gone awry; or not so awry, since fairy tales tend
to be horrifying. Giants and evil queens, the fell powers making bad things happen, aren’t included in the
stories she tells, but they’re not far away. Just beyond the edges of the paper something has undone the
world she paints, and is beginning to tug the chaos away, toward the nothingness beyond the frame. There’
s also the possibility that such unseen forces are benevolent, engaged in a whimsical urban renewal
Obviously the prime mover and shaker here is Casey herself, whose good nature is beyond dispute. No one
but a true lover of the frailty of human habitations would paint all those worn bricks, collapsing porches
and the acres of patched asphalt and disintegrating blacktop that surround them, with such
unsentimental affection. Lately each successive work presents a more complex delicacy as mark and
stroke translate hard realities into ever-more nuanced images. Rendered primarily in muted, brown-based
tones, siding and bricks begin to resemble feathers and the ruffled, bedraggled intimacy of sparrows or
pigeons; city birds roosting in a landscape minus most of its land.

“Now can I talk with you while you’re doing something?” Barnett asks as he turns to the cameraman. “I
want to get her face as she’s working.” The Canon observes her at the drawing board as she dabs miniscule
particles of paint from a plastic take-out plate. Barnett kids her, “When you’re splashing stuff around like
that, do you know what it’ll look like on the paper?”
“Pre-tty much,” she allows. “You get to know what it’ll do. I use ultra matte medium, which fools everyone
into thinking the acrylic is gouache – not that that’s why I’m doing it. Shininess doesn’t really work when
you’re painting old buildings.” How about those little brushes? “They get down to five or seven hairs,” she
tells him. She jokes about the “action” shots in progress, “Oh My God, she’s painting another brick. Oh –
Oh – Yes! It’s another brick!” Casey usually works in stages, first outlining major features like the
sashaying highways and fences with light pencil strokes, filling them in with semi-transparent washes of
color. Gradually smaller and smaller objects and incidents straggle onto the page. She works on several
pieces at once, but each takes a week or even a month to complete. As source material she uses
photographs she’s taken herself or ones sent by helpful friends. Some are snapped from RTA windows as
she goes to work, others are familiar from the streets that step down toward the Flats, running off from old
avenues with names like Literary, Professor, Jefferson. Few houses in the neighborhood or factories down
the hill have escaped a Casey depiction. As you might expect the house where she lives pops up now and
again, like a secret signature.

When we meet again a few days later I ask how she feels about all this interviewing. “It’s good for me,” she
says, “for my career. I’m a little set aback… It’s frankly a little hilarious to think anybody cares what I have
to say.” In an email she added, “I think the vast majority of artists including myself usually work in a kind
of vacuum of polite disinterest for the most part. Of course most artists of any stripe have a few champions
and the support of a few vocal, kind family members and/or friends, but generally when presenting work,
you can almost hear the crickets chirping, as painting simply doesn’t raise the kind of public attention
that it might have, say a hundred years ago. So my experience of leaving that quiet vacuum if only for
moments has been a bit disorienting. But it’s lovely for the most part. and while I appreciate the attention
right now I would like to point out that I am certainly no anomaly. I was in a group show in a Los Angeles
gallery (POV Evolving) early this year which was curated by a collector in California. And I found that,
including me, there were 4 cleveland area artists in the show - a complete coincidence, all of us arriving
from completely different paths.”

Casey has lived more than a third of her life in Cleveland, but she grew up in Erie, PA. The family home is
in a quiet neighborhood, with a patch of sloping back yard above a shallow ravine and a creek. As you
travel the two miles from there toward the small city’s downtown area the route is soon lined with
decaying walls; empty windows perforate time-abased late nineteenth century manufacturing plants.
Such sights are a fixture of consciousness for anyone living at this end of the northeastern manufacturing
economy’s long ebb. Depression, recession and the lower costs of doing business elsewhere have stripped
the flesh from places like this -- Youngstown and Akron, Cleveland, Toledo and Detroit. Coldly framed for
much of the year by the blank paper of off-white skies they have their own desolate beauty, which many
romantically inclined artists have photographed, drawn and painted. Like them Casey may be a closet
romantic, but generally her practical façade is front and center; her particular brilliance is to snatch all
this visual material up like a child putting away a floor full of toys, stuffing it deftly into pictorial space
with combinatory panache. “There you go,” she seems to say. “All done,” and slams the door.
Except that Casey is very much not a child, and her motives aren’t merely a matter of admiration for
texture or atmosphere. Mainly, she is too pessimistically kind to pronounce facile judgment on the post-
apocalyptic scenes she depicts. If anything, she’s trying to shore up her native landscape, proposing
impractical solutions (what else?) to insoluble problems. ““I use my painting partially to feel like I have
some sort of control,” she tells Barnett. “The houses were falling down at one point and I thought if there
were more ropes they’d still be connected to something…” These latest attempts at rescue developed from a
long series of anxiety-ridden paintings completed between 2004-6, where demonically fecund, pointy
blue plants take over inner city scenes, climbing tall buildings or dragging down telephone poles. Those
in turn were a sequel to the less specific predicament of small, misbegotten creatures who hung onto their
lives in the shrinking margins of impending doom, scurrying in the shadow of vast toxic factories. Amy did
what she could for her people. “Following an absurd kind of logic I put them on stilts, I put them on strings
– whatever would get them out of there.”  At this point they seem to be gone; but they must be hiding. After
all, they’re vestiges of the artist herself, twisting into the crannies of the picture plane like aberrant loops
of genetic material.
At an earlier stage bemused rabbits and pigs, also stand-ins for Casey and her circle of family and friends,
populated her work. When I first met her nine years ago, not too long after she got back from Chicago, she
was beginning to build fifty-odd frames for a series of four inch square acrylic on paper studies she’d
started during her year working at Terra and living in a cramped basement apartment. Based on photo-
references they displayed much of the mesmerizing skill of her current work, though the subsequent
decade of constant practice has pushed her abilities farther and farther as well as transforming her
imaginative range. Each incorporated a figure based on a ceramic rabbit, a childhood tchotchke, which
witnessed the changing scene around it with an unchanging look of dumbfounded amazement. Much of
the city dweller’s pedestrian world found its way into these diminutive works – window displays at a shoe
store, street scenes showing lonely corners, leaning telephone poles next to sleazy bars, vegetables for sale
in front of a bodega somewhere. In one the rabbit is about to climb onto a Greyhound bus; he’s seen from
the back, or in profile in a bathroom, or peeking at laundry drying in a back yard. Amy had painted
doorways, roadways, reflections – a small world of visual references -- all rendered in finely modulated
grisaille. At a distance they appeared to be old Kodak snapshots.
I was impressed. At that time I’d been asked to be part of a selections committee for a projected show at
MOCA; Checefsky had recommended Amy as a candidate. The show was cancelled as it turned out, but I
thought I’d have a look at Casey’s work anyway so I kept the appointment. She was staying with a friend in
a house on the west side. When she came to the door I thought she was someone’s young daughter; she
looked about thirteen years old to me, but the child said she was indeed Amy Casey. Actually twenty-four
at the time, the artist was ensconced in two upstairs rooms – one serving as studio and the other packed
with everything else, including herself and her cat Wanda. After seeing the new work we looked through
literally hundreds of slides from her years at C.I.A. In some she was preoccupied with strongly patterned,
repetitive motifs juxtaposed with a piggy-bank sort of pig – bold, flaringly colorful smaller works somehow
related to Persian miniatures or even tantric art. Earlier she’d been fascinated by old women. All of it was
remarkable work, I thought. In the months and years that followed we became friends.

Amy has three older siblings – two brothers and a sister; then there’s her fraternal twin, Beth. As Amy
remarks in a biographical statement on her killer website,, “I was cowboy to
her Indian.” Their mom, Audrey Casey, concurs: “They did everything together; Amy was the ringleader.”
From the start it was obvious they were gifted. Both taught themselves to read before they were four years
old. “She and Beth would make up little plays they’d perform for me. She was always artistic about
everything. She wanted a cabbage patch doll, so she made her own out of paper and stuffing.” Casey
laughed when I reminded her about this. “I made little animals and things all the time out of bits of fabric
and whatever was around. I‘ve always been a compulsive maker.” she recalled. She did well in her studies
and her artistic talent was noticed. After a year in basic art classes, her teacher Mary Pat Haven
encouraged her to start classes in the School of Performing and Visual Arts, a school-within-a-school at
Central High School in Erie. There she studied under Kenneth Kopin, one of those rare teachers who
instill confidence as well as knowledge. “Kenneth Kopin made me believe in myself. For a shy kid like I
was, completely unsure of myself, he made a world of difference, whether that was through the example of
his own passion for the arts or his not so subtle maneuvers to push me into an arts arena.”   Kopin entered
Amy’s work into the running for a spot at the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts, held in a
summer session on a college campus in Erie. It was there that she encountered  a great number of
students unapologetically excited about art, and began to see a life in the arts as something actually
possible. Also during her high school years Casey went on a field trip with class members to the Cleveland
Museum of Art. It was her first visit to the city. She was much taken with the place, but mainly its full-
service, world-class Art Museum knocked her out. She was inspired to apply to the Cleveland Institute of

This past Wednesday I paid another visit to Casey’s place. We sat in a back room office / packaging area.
Most of the nuts and bolts of Casey’s career are here – rolls of bubble wrap, single-edged razor blades,
sheets of cardboard, all kinds of tape scattered on a tough gray carpet; she quickly and expertly built a
small box from scratch as we talked. But the PC by the window has proved to be her most valuable tool.
Several years ago, with virtually no knowledge of  website building, she downloaded Yahoo’s Small
Business site-building software and read the instructions, then set to work. With the help of a low-rent
digital camera and editing tools included in the Microsoft “Paint” program Amy gradually assembled a
website that she constantly updates and revises. At one point the title page showed a collection of her
warped creatures loitering in front of Casey’s Bar, the family business which was still located downtown
during her childhood, across from the Erie Art Museum on State Street, as it happens. When you punched
in her web address some of her otherworldly figures appeared, jerking around slightly in response to the
cursor; they served as links. At first nobody noticed the site, and then, suddenly, they did. Various art
blogs snatched her images; excited blogosphere commentary ensued. It also helped that the popular
quarterly New American Painting accepted her work for publication in the summer of 2007 (she’ll also
appear in this year’s Midwest edition).  Best of all, and fatefully, she had landed a reputable Chicago dealer
– the Zg Gallery – earlier that year, after participating in the South Bend Museum of Art’s highly selective
Biennial exhibit. She applied after noticing the two jurors were from an interesting-looking Chicago
gallery. “I thought I’d be rejected, but at the same time I had this fantasy that leapt ahead: they were going
to call me up and say, ‘Your work is the best in the whole show.’” And that’s exactly what happened. Zg
asked her to be part of a group show that summer, followed by a solo show in the fall. Then came calls from
galleries in Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as other fortuitous connections and commissions.
Ascending alt. country idol Neko Case saw her work in an issue of New American Paintings and asked to
use some of her work for the liner notes of her CD “Middle Cyclone” released last year by ANTI-Records.
And last April an email arrived from the office of the Op Ed page at the New York Times, wanting to
reproduce a picture of a nest of homes listing precariously on rickety scaffolding, to illustrate commentary
on the burgeoning housing crisis.  In the meantime other publications and semi-punk art markets that
coexist with more highbrow stuff have become intrigued with her boundary-crossing imagery. Last year
she was featured in Hi Fructose, the lavishly produced magazine of alternative sensibilities (think
moribund children and twiggy princesses). Amy was pleased if a little surprised by this. But as she knows
well from her work at Reinberger Galleries, Clive Barker-ish installations and Little Pony-inspired videos
are commonplace at art school BFA shows these days; cultural categories are toppling as quickly as the
housing market.
Balanced between an ultra fine-art background and an attraction to the pleasures and powers of
illustration, Casey makes her sure-footed way above the shambles of postmodern artistic manners in work
that not only depicts but seems itself like a breathless high-wire act. What she hasn’t done is follow any of
the usual formulas for art world success. She hasn’t gone to grad school, she hasn’t courted major galleries
in New York, she hasn’t worked as an assistant to a famous artist. She’s just worked very hard and
consistently, while keeping her day job and taking the bus to get there. It hasn’t exactly been an overnight
success story, and it’s all still a work in progress. “I’d like to be optimistic,” Amy remarks a little wistfully.
But hope and passionate interest in the world burn in everything she does. Her work insists on the
importance of ordinariness, on the ways that all humble, mortal things, furred and feathered, weather-
worn, warped and sagging, are combed by the crosswinds of a time. Her paintings are refuges, but still
aren’t safe, nor meant to be, since the giants and queens, our potencies, as big as terror and as roomy as
courage, are also there, stretching and changing the space we thought we knew. Casey’s art whispers
truths about the tensions and transformations of the heart.
douglas max utter
Amy Casey, "Begin Again" 2009,
acrylic on paper