Amazing Calgarians: An Afternoon with Amy Dryer

CBW-Amy Dryer

I meet Calgary artist Amy Dryer at a loading dock in a back alley. There are two giant garbage dumpsters between us, and an army of grey porta-potties, protected by a grey chain-link fence to the right.

“’I meet Amy Dryer between two dumpsters in a back alley’ is a great lead,” I tell her. She laughs. “I wanted to give you a unique experience,” she says. I scale the loading dock, and follow Dryer into the old brick building, and then up five flights of cement stairs, into her studio.

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And something magical happens.

Spaces don’t just reflect the people who live in them, work in them, love them—they become part of them, so intertwined with each other, boundaries, identities blur. Architects know this—homemakers know this. People who’ve lost their homes, their space, know this. As I walk into Dryer’s studio, I feel I am walking into her.


Does she feel this? I’m not sure: she certainly feels immense love and affection for her place-space. Pride. Here are old canvasses, stacked, filed, rolled. Here are work-in-progress canvasses, drying, resting, maturing. Here are pride-of-place works, finished, pulsating, boasting. Here are a couple of shy ones, peeking out from behind bigger brothers and sisters. Here’s a commissioned piece, to which she must say good-bye…

And here are the tools of the trade, paint brushes, dozens, hundreds of them—mostly fan-shaped, mostly made of pig bristles—Dryers shows me why she loves them, how she uses them, what’s so special about them—hold one this way, and it’s as delicate and precise as a pencil, hold it this way, and it’s bold, fearless, wide… And palettes, dozens and hundreds of used palettes, cardboard-that-used-to-be-egg-cartons transformed into hexagons of colour. “Why do you keep them?” I ask. She looks at them with the same affection she has in her eyes when she looks at her work—and her brushes. “They’re beautiful,” she says. She’s thinking, one day, she might do some type of bigger art piece with them… but in the meantime, they just are, enough, on their own: a record of her process, each palette a beginning of a painting.

CBW-Amy Dryer-rough drafts

“They’re your rough drafts!” the writer who I am says. She nods.

She tours me through her work. The striking canvasses she produced during her spring trip to the Yukon. Talks about the unique quality of the light there—the experience of living and painting in “eternal day.” I ask about the Frida Kahlo-inspired portraits that peek out at me from this corner, that wall. The Mexican-artist is a “true inspiration” for Dryer—her talent, her drive, her determination, her relationship with, reflection on her broken body, immense pain, how her art-and-creation enabled her to leave her body, while simultaneously acknowledging it…

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A freshly started canvas distracts us from Kahlo—or maybe, more accurately, makes a bridge. “This is how I start,” Dryer explains. There is just… colour. Pattern. Thick, broad, bold. Reds and blues dominate. Splashes of muted yellow. “I love cadiums, cobalts,” she says. That’s why she almost always works in a mask. “The dangerous colours are the best colours,” she smiles. “But I try to be responsible, take care of myself.”

So. The background. And then what? Then… well, creation. And the “what” varies, of course, depending on “what”—and from whom—she is creating. Commissioned pieces, requested portraits may come from photographers, sitters, sketches. They may be a little back and forth with the client at the beginning in the process.

Other pieces come from experience, feeling, desire—something remembered, something pursued.

(Here is a stop-motion video of Dryer’s attempt to capture her process: Amy Dryer Banff Centre Stop Motion Video.)

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What I’m supposed to be doing, during this interview, during this afternoon, is distilling Dryer’s success formula. Why is she successful, why is she important—why is she one of Calgary’s Top 40 Under 40? What has she achieved? I’m supposed to look for… metrics. Price tags. Volume. Exposure. All that stuff.

I don’t wanna.

I want to look at her paintings.

There are a few—the series of paintings in which Dryer explores her grandfather’s dementia—that I want to walk into.

There are others that want to make me want to dance. Weep…

Later, Dryer tells me about her favourite commissions. The time she painted a portrait of a family friend, as he passed away.

“I visited the family regularly and sat with them, while they sat with him, at his bedside. I did sketches of the family, while they talked to Billy and held his hand, wanting to capture the generosity of both him and his family.  Later, I did a portrait of him in my studio, working from a variety of photos and drawings.  In the portrait, he is vibrant, his blue eyes sparkling. When I brought the portrait to the family, Billy gave me the ‘thumbs up’  for the piece, as he lay in his bed. He was unable to speak at that point in time.  We all cried while standing around his bed, the painting propped up beside him.” Amy Dryer

Painting a couple, “live,” during their wedding at the River Café patio.

“They asked if I would capture something about them during the wedding – it would be up to me what that would be!” Amy Dryer

A portrait of a woman she had never seen, that would be her 25th anniversary present from her husband, painted from his description of his wife and a handful of photos—effectively recreating for him a memory of a scene from the couple’s youth.

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“I do a lot of personal paintings for people that capture significant and simple moments in time,” she says.

Those the commissions most significant to Dryer—and to the people who commission them. For me, it is the Dryer-as-Kahlo self-portraits that draw me in, repeatedly, constantly.

And also, the floor. Old wood, splattered with paint, an art work in and of itself, a record of everything that’s ever happened here.

“I love my floor,” Dryer says.

“You love this space,” I echo. She nods. The space is her. And I am inside it.

Writing about others is always… such a tricky thing. Writing about issues, developments, events—analyzing trends—that’s easy. Writing about people, for me, always feels like… a violation. It is intimate even when it’s consensual—when they want it, when they ask you in. It is difficult. Suppose I get it wrong? Suppose I miss the point? Suppose, what’s really important here is the floor—but I write about the light in the Yukon and the portrait of the twins?

I don’t think the canvasses painted in the harsh Yukon, and the incredible portrait of twins—another commission, almost finished, of simple-but-critical moments in time—exist separately from the floor… the egg carton colour palettes…

I leave Dryer with too much data in my head. And too many pictures in my eyes. I don’t know how to tell this story in words—much less the scant 300-400 words I have. I would prefer to tell it in pictures.

To me, the picture of Dryer’s studio, tells the whole story:



And each of her canvasses and studies speaks for itself (for her):

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And only, if I only what I’d write would read like this:

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Instead, I need to distil the experience down to… achievements. Accomplishments. Impact. Influence.

I try to do that here: Amy Dryer, Avenue’s Top 40 Under 40.


It doesn’t really do the experience justice.

Perhaps this does, though: I come back from Amy Dryer’s studio, to the space-that-is-me, but in which I haven’t been able to work, at all, since it’s been rebuilt after the flood, and I start to sketch. Not with pencil or charcoal or paint. With words. Her profile… but also… a bit of an action plan… an idea of how to shake loose of my Lost Year

I go on The Banff Centre website… and I see… possibilities.

And I think… that to be an artist (writer?) in Calgary is a really, really wonderful thing.

“I had initially bought into the myth that to succeed as a Calgary artist, you really had to leave Calgary,” Dryer says. London, Paris, New York. Even Toronto, Vancouver. And she’s left—followed up her ACAD degree with a stint at the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland, got her BA on Canada’s East Coast. But she’s always come back, and it is in Calgary that she has flourished, creatively, professionally. “In any of those places, there is such an established culture, style,” Dryer says. Hierarchy, even? “As a newcomer, you have to find a way to fit into what already exists.” The advantage of Calgary’s comparatively a-historical art scene is that “you are free to be who you need to be—free to create the style, scene. And to lead, even at an early stage of your career.”

– Avenue: Top 40 Under 40,Class of 2014