Emma Amos was a postmodernist African-American painter and printmaker.
Amos was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1937 to India DeLaine Amos and Miles Green Amos. Amos took an interest in art at an early age, creating “masses of paper dolls” and learning figure drawing from issues of Esquire and the art of Alberto Vargas, was painting the figure by the age of nine. Her mother had aspirations of Amos studying with Hale Woodruff, but he did not accept many private students and left the area before she had the opportunity to study with him.
At eleven, Amos took a course at Morris Brown College, where she worked on her draftsmanship and took note of the work that African American college students were producing at the time. By high school, Amos was submitting her work to Atlanta University art shows. She graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta at the age of 16, and applied to Antioch College, because of their progressive policies.
Her father exposed her to black intelligentsia; Zora Neale Hurston frequently visited and W.E.B. Du Bois once called on the family.
Amos studied at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, at the Central School of Art and Design in London and at New York University. While at Antioch, Amos worked for half of the year, and studied for the remainder. She worked in Chicago, New York, and in Washington, D.C., which enabled her to visit galleries and museums, which had been less accessible in Atlanta. Her fourth year at Antioch, she went to England and studied at the London Central School of Art, where she learned to print and etch under Anthony Harrison, and began to paint with oils, which she had not done before. Amos received her BFA degree from Antioch in 1958, then went back to London for her degree in etching, which she received in 1959 after two years of study. The following year Amos moved to New York City to start working with two printmaking studios. Later on, she received her MA at New York University (NYU).
Amos moved to New York City after feeling stunted by the slow movement of the Atlanta art scene. Amos was not expecting the level of racism, sexism, and ageism that she encountered upon moving to New York. Galleries would not accept her under the premise that she was too young to show, and studio teaching jobs rejected her on the grounds that, “We’re not hiring right now”. Amos was told by both Cooper Union and the Art Students League that they were not hiring after she applied for a teaching position. The difficulty of entering work into galleries led her to teach as an assistant at the Dalton School where she met artists and was introduced to the New York and East Hampton art scene, where she experienced difficulty showing her work in a “man’s scene.” It was also around this time that Emma Amos began her career as a textile designer, working for the weaver and colorist Dorothy Liebes, where her designs were translated into unique carpets.
In New York, Amos joined the printmaking studios of Letterio Calapai (a part of Stanley William Hayter’s Paris Atelier 17) and Robert Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop. Despite the difficulty African Americans face in entering the art scene, as there is often a lack of access to dealers and curators, Amos persevered and received her M.A. from New York University in 1966. While at NYU, she became reacquainted with Hale Woodruff, who was a professor there at the time.
At the age of 23, Amos had a meeting with Woodruff for a critique of her prints, and he told her about Spiral. The group was a collective of approximately fifteen prominent African American artists, founded in 1963 by Romare Bearden, Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, and Hale Woodruff. The group was interested in discussions of Négritude, a philosophy born out of opposition to French colonialism and centered around encouraging a common racial identity for black Africans around the world. Spiral was formed out of the Works Progress Administration and the Harlem Renaissance. Woodruff took some of her work to one of their meetings at their rented storefront, and the members of the group liked her work enough to invite her to join as their first and only female member. Amos thought it strange that no other women artists were asked to join the group, even though they were acquainted with the members of Spiral.
Amos felt that joining Spiral would be useful because she did not know many artists in New York at the time. Amos worked full-time as a designer during the day, and studied full-time in the evenings, and made time to paint on the weekends. In May 1965, Spiral rented a gallery space at 147 Christopher Street, where the group had their first and only exhibit. Amos displayed an etching entitled Without a Feather Boa, which has since been lost. This etching was a nude self-portrait bust that depicted Amos “staring indifferently at the viewer from behind a pair of dark sunglasses.” Prior to Spiral, Amos was resistant towards the idea of “black art” and galleries that only showed work by African Americans, but she came to understand that these were often the only options available to black artists at the time, and also learned how to integrate race and sex politics into her work without her work becoming dominated by the process of political engagement.
Spiral stopped meeting shortly after 1965, when rising rent prices lost them their gallery and meeting space on the Lower East Side. During the 1970s, Amos went on to teach textile design at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts, weaving on her own looms at Threadbare, a yarn and weaving shop on Bleecker Street and thrived as a weaver due to the propagation of weaving and fabric art within the Feminist Art Movement.
Amos originated and co-hosted Show of Hands, a crafts show for WGBH-TV in Boston in 1977-79, and later became a professor at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University.
Amos died of complications of Alzheimer’s disease on May 20, 2020, at the age of 83.