We originally posted this blog in April of 2020, early on in the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was later published in the Summer 2020 issue of The Iowan Magazine.
Amy Worthen is a well-known Des Moines printmaker, scholar in the art of printmaking, and Emerita Curator of Prints at the Des Moines Art Center. Her engravings, often architectural in content, combine humor, history and a dedication to expressing the full effect of the printmaking medium. Amy splits her time between Iowa and Italy, and we were curious what life has been like for her over the past few months during the COVID-19 pandemic.
View of Amy's Venetian apartment terrace from her neighbor's home across the canal. Photo by Philip Tabor.
Olson-Larsen Galleries: How long have you been splitting your time between Iowa and Venice, Italy?
Amy Worthen: I began splitting my time between Iowa and Venice on a regular basis in 2004, but for many years before we moved into our own apartment that we bought, I had been spending long periods of time in Italy.
OLG: Tell us about a day this time last year spent in your Venetian life.
AW: In April 2019, I was in Venice and was busy finishing two engravings of the Iowa State Capitol to be used by the Iowa Economic Development Authority as gifts for foreign trade delegations. One of the images was Celebrating 100 Years of Women’s Suffrage in Iowa. I was spending a lot of time at the studio of my edition printer, Roberto Mazzetto. At home, I was drawing the wisteria on the terrace of my apartment, something I do every year. Personally, I was still adjusting to the death of my husband, who had passed away less than a year before, and was uneasily anticipating our impending wedding anniversary in April.
OLG: We always enjoy seeing the lovely mix of masterful architectural rendering and whimsical flora and fauna in your work. Walk us through your typical process and timeline from initial brainstorming and sketching to finished prints.
AW: I draw with India ink and watercolor in bound sketchbooks. Subject matter might be historic places drawn on site, things in my house, or plants growing in my garden. Recently, political rallies during the run-up to the Iowa Caucuses have been a subject as well. Out of the hundreds of drawings I make, something might seem promising as the basis for an engraving. If I have a commission (such as recent projects for the State of Iowa, and ISU), I make many drawings and do research about the subject. Anything fanciful comes out of something I have learned about the history of the place. Once I have a final (ink) drawing to work with, I make a tracing of the general outlines with a 6B (soft) graphite pencil on tracing paper. I coat the copper plate with either dilute hard ground or white wax; place the tracing face down on the plate and roll it through the etching press. The graphite transfers in reverse onto the coated plate. I then take a dry point needle and lightly incise the outlines of the design. I remove the wax and then begin to engrave. It may take a month or more to engrave the image. I take many proofs along the way. I can draw on the proofs in order to consider what to do next. I finally end up with a finished engraved image. Then it is time to experiment with inking, wiping, and paper. Either I print in my studio in Des Moines or, for large editions involving texts and folders, Robert Mazzetto in Venice prints the edition.
Amy's kitchen work table looking out to the terrace
OLG: Do you expect your current, isolated mode of working to influence or change your artistic practice once life is back to normal? Have you noticed that you’re more or less productive or focused right now?
AW: I am being very productive right now making drawings. I arrived in Venice in early February with one drawing project to complete and I got right to work. I also am working on a research paper on a 15th-century Venetian scholar monk to present at a conference in December 2020– if the conference will still take place.
Once the virus arrived in Italy, public life started closing down. On February 29, Carnevale was ended early, and within a week, Venice became empty and silent. Official lockdown began in Venice on March 8. Since then, we can only go out for essentials, and must carry a document declaring identity and purpose of the trip. Otherwise, we are limited to a distance of 200 meters (263 paces) from home. Masks and gloves are to be worn in stores. Only food shops and pharmacies and a few public offices such as post offices are open. I should emphasize that despite the terrible toll coronavirus is taking on Italy, I feel very safe. People are taking the restrictions and distancing seriously.
Amy getting ready to go to the market
Detail of Amy's engraving, "Terrace View - Rio Ponte Sant' Agostin"
Amy masked and ready
...The lack of distractions, such as the inability to go to museums, exhibitions, libraries and archives, or to meet friends, makes me focus.
I knew that my drawings are a record of this historic time. Currently, I am drawing rosemary, a kumquat tree, and wisteria, the views from my terrace, and the shadows of plants. I drew my dining table set for a Passover Seder celebrated with others connected on Zoom. I make notes on the soundscapes - right now mostly the call of gulls, the ringing of church bells, an occasional voice. The sloshing of water in the canal when a rare boat goes by. My awareness of the news of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths is always present. One day, I made a very bizarre drawing and then wondered - and wrote on the drawing - what if this is the last drawing I ever make? (It wasn’t.)
Every morning, I get up and feel eager to begin work. I keep thinking I should start engraving a plate but am not ready to commit to that yet.
Amy printing in her Des Moines studio
Worthen, "Sotoportego de la Scuola", engraving
Thoughts about the future:
Because of the isolation, feedback about my art via social media has become more important to me. Two friends suggested that I post my rosemary and wisteria drawings to a botanical drawing group on Facebook. I joined the group and in only 24 hours my first post received over 1,200 reactions - likes, loves, etc. I now understand that the desire to accumulate likes can feel like a drug.
I am hoping that shifting our lives and art to social media will not ultimately affect people’s desire to be in the presence of and possess original art.
OLG: You raise an interesting point. It has been so encouraging to see how people have found virtual ways of staying connected and create a sense of community online amidst these challenging times. As a traditional art gallery that has represented yours and other’s artwork for 40+ years, we have had the unique challenge and pleasure of adapting in order to bring art to new audiences through digital platforms. While the changes have not come without uncertainty, we maintain that experiencing original artwork online will not replace in-person interaction nor become a surrogate for pride in ownership.
Now, three years later, Olson-Larsen Galleries is proud to be exhibiting a selection of the drawings that Amy Worthen creating during the pandemic in Venice.