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artist interview – amy claire mills' 'unsolicited advice!'


Sydney artist Amy Claire Mills makes immersive works that challenge everyday ableism. For her current exhibition, Amy turned the microaggressions she's dealt with her whole life into soft and frilly objects of beauty. She tells us more below.Hi Amy, tell us a bit about your current show ‘Unsolicited Advice!’ What’s the concept behind it? ‘Unsolicited Advice!’ draws on a lifetime of awkward, insensitive and unsolicited advice people give me after they learn that I’m disabled. The installation deconstructs these interactions, amplifying all the cliché, thoughtless advice disabled people are accustomed to hearing, and highlights the absurdity of our need to save, change or fix disabled people.

Ableism is actually very pervasive and entrenched across our society. As a disabled woman, my right to body autonomy is taken away with these everyday microaggressions. People want to cure me or “make my life better” but they don't understand that I actually love my life how it is. Sure, sometimes it’s hard, but it's made even harder by people who want to change who I am, instead of accepting and loving me. I subscribe to the social model of disability, which states that disability is caused by the way society is organised, not by a person's impairment or difference. 

Why did you choose cushions and quilts to convey your message? As a disabled woman, one of the safest and most comforting places is my bed. I mean, who doesn't love to cuddle a soft pillow? I’ve spent a lot of my life in hospital beds, and if you grow up there, you learn to craft – that’s basically all hospital school is (no shade, I loved it!). So I began to see this project as an extension of craft, and being a source of comfort.

Although soft and delicate, quilts have the ability to hold our emotional weight. Visually the frills, excessive trim and sequins represent the noise of unsolicited advice. It can be very overwhelming to have these interactions daily. I once missed my bus home because a group of people stood in front of me and shared their opinion on my health. 

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Have you always worked with textiles? What draws you to the medium? I’ve always been drawn to textiles, but in the past, my art practice was primarily centred around photography and performance art. While I was at UNSW doing Art & Design, I took a few textile courses led by really amazing artists. From that point on I was hooked (pun intended)! I’ve also had the privilege of collaborating with fellow disabled artist Bailee Lobb. She taught me so much about textiles and the basics on how to sew. 

Textiles as a medium are really appealing because of their tactile nature. As adults, we stop relying so much on our touch sensor to be able to explore things. Running my hand over different textures brings me a sense of euphoria and allows me to play and explore freely.   

Can you tell us a bit about the process behind making these works? I start every quilt with sketches and thinking through colour palettes. I’ll find a fabric I become obsessed with and then the whole quilt will develop from there. There’s often a lot of trial and error when making – I will frequently sew something down, sit with it and then start to hate it and totally destroy it. I'm definitely a perfectionist, and this can be to my own demise. 

I also work alongside a beautiful and helpful teacher: my partner’s mum. She donates her time to teach me different quilting techniques as I was unquestionably a novice at the start of this project. Finally, with my art practice, I feel it's very important to think through how the artworks impact our environment. Each piece in the show is made from predominately recycled and reused materials. I think the show became so visually strong because I was able to find unique, discarded fabrics.
What was the biggest challenge in making these? Time! This exhibition took about eight months of work, and I was probably putting in at least 20 hours per week on top of my other two jobs. Sewing takes a lot of time, especially when done by hand. I also don't think people really understand how physical it can be. After making all day, I have to spend a lot of time stretching at night to be able to work the next day. 

Where do you find visual inspiration? I am fascinated by anything extravagant and over the top. I love films like Strictly Ballroom, The Fifth Element and Barbarella. The costumes, sets and colours in these films are just magic. I love the idea of pushing boundaries and finding ways to break with tradition. I also enjoy a good treasure hunt and spend hours at op shops. Just being in spaces like that with such an eclectic mix of things gives me inspiration. I also want to acknowledge that I surround myself with amazing disabled advocates. These awesome people are doing the hard work to dismantle ableism and my work is a testament to them. 

Where can we see more of your work? My current exhibition 'Unsolicited Advice!' is on at Firstdraft in Sydney until February 14th. I also have some new work coming up that was commissioned by Firstdraft for an emerging artist showcase at Carriageworks. If you want to know more, you can follow me on Instagram @amy_claire_mills