Growing up in a family of three sisters, with a strong mother, Amanda Downs admits to feeling a bit envious of her younger sister.
“Erin’s very adventurous. When we were growing up, she could get away with things my parents would never let me do. I admired her. She would do things – even though she wasn’t suppose to,” Downs laughs.
That rebellious spirit shows up in the portrait that Downs painted of her sister, Erin Early. She calls the artwork, featured on this issue’s cover, “Sibling Rivalry.”
After graduating from Bethel College in 1996 and being away for a few years, when Downs moved back to Minnesota in 2000 she began painting the portrait of her sister. It was a good way to reconnect after not seeing each other for a few years.
“She’s a good model. I like her energy. She’s so funny and always has an interesting hair color,” Downs says. “We’re very close.”
At the time, her sister had a Mohawk, lots of tattoos … and big boots. In the portrait she seems to be saying: “Get up. Stomp. Be wild. Join in. You can do it, too.” The boot is big, but it is her face that draws the viewers’ attention.
“It’s hilarious,” Downs continues. “As the painter, I’m in control of the image, but she’s really in a powerful position, at a great angle above me, with that boot.” Naming the portrait “Sibling Rivalry” adds an edge of gentle humor.
Fantasy and realism
Downs discovered early on – as a kind of quiet, shy, introverted kid – that other kids would look over her shoulder to watch her draw. Drawing became an easy way for her make connections.
While growing up, her mother was a strong presence in her life and very encouraging of Downs and her sisters to become strong, capable women. While viewing some movies was not allowed, when it came to reading books, the girls could read whatever they wanted. Downs is a voracious reader yet today. Comic books, science fiction and fantasy are favorites. And now, with her own daughter, she’s reading Pippi Longstocking. The fictional characters often influence her artwork.
While she likes to paint portraits with oils, Downs also creates colorful illustrations and pen and ink drawings, often of images from her reading life. Just for the fun of it, she’s done illustrations for Neil Gaiman stories, “not because someone commissioned me to do it, but because I enjoyed the stories so much,” she says. “It’s a way to put what was in my imagination out into the real world.”
By nature Downs is a busy person. “I don’t sit around much,” she says. She’s married, has a ten-year-old daughter and a two-and-a-half-year-old son, and works full-time for a mortgage company. “Life is never boring. I like having a day job. I feel like I’m better at time management because of it. It makes me more mindful of how I spend my time.”
Art as a connector
Downs considers her portraits as “positive realism.” She likes to look at people, to see and explore who they are. “I like individuality. I want to show what’s best in people, their energy, the warmth of human experience,” she says. “There are so many nuances. Small details matter to me. It’s fascinating to focus in. You get to know a person when you’re painting them.”
She believes art can create understanding and connections among people. “Portraits humanize people – people you might not otherwise look at. Art is a powerful tool for building up and supporting each other.”
As with the portrait of her sister, Downs says, “She encourages and supports me. She’s so strong, in some ways, bigger than life. She is definitely her own person. I hope the painting encourages others to be strong, too.”