From my first conversation with Amira Hegazy, I knew I’d follow her anywhere. During a walk around the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts in late 2015, I found her to be intensely serious and insightful, while also being playful and downright hilarious. Over the years, I’ve come to know her as a unique combination of hardworking and easygoing. I once stayed with her and my now brother-in-law, Jonathan, at their former home in Lexington, Virginia, and she made me feel so welcome I never wanted to leave. Amira is the kind of person who can juggle multiple jobs, teach workshops, run a letterpress business, spend time in her studio, tend to a large vegetable garden, and still find time to take an active role in her community. Below is one of my favorite photos from Amira’s Instagram where she shares behind-the-scenes glimpses of her studio practice as well as thoughts and observations from her day-to-day life.
About Amira Hegazy
Amira Hegazy creates prints, drawings, collages, animations, and interactive experiences that manipulate popular and recognizable forms of image-making to produce art that addresses political and social issues in visually comfortable ways. She currently lives in Chicago, Illinois, though she is a native of Detroit, Michigan, where she grew up between traditional American and Egyptian cultures. Amira's experiences with racial and gender-based discrimination inform her work and motivate her activism. She is an MFA candidate in Printmedia at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She graduated from Washington and Lee University in 2015 with a BA in Studio Art and Sociology and honors in International Immersion. Social science and research continue to be an important part of her artistic practice. Amira works as an artist, letterpress printer, educator, and book restoration technician. She has exhibited her work at the International Print Center of New York, the William King Museum of Art, and other venues internationally. Amira is also the proprietor of Statement Letterpress + Design where she creates custom prints, books, stationary, and editions.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I grew up in Metro Detroit, a little town called Milford. I really hadn’t considered that I might become an artist until I was midway through college. I actually thought perhaps I’d be a poet, politician, or lawyer. I guess I’m a little bit of all of those now but channeling that energy into visual art.
What was your undergrad experience like?
I went to Washington and Lee University intending to study politics. I wanted to go to Law School at the time so my choice of school was catered to that goal. In my first semester, I took a drawing class and realized that while the class was extremely challenging, it was also my favorite. The next semester, I took a figure drawing course and realized that I needed to make art a central point in my education or else I’d be miserable. The next year, I studied abroad in Egypt to learn Arabic and connect with my heritage. All the while, I studied sociology of art and fine art side by side, both informing each other deeply during my final two years in school. I began printing my junior year of college and fell in love with it almost immediately. Even up until my last semester of college, I wasn’t sure if I’d pursue sociology or printmaking post-graduation. Then in the middle of my last semester, I had a really stressful personal crisis and all I wanted to do was make art. That experience opened my eyes to see that I had to make art—it is the only way for me to keep my sanity. I decided then that after graduation I would pursue graphic design and find my way to make a life with art.
What did you do and/or make in the time between graduating from Washington and Lee and applying to graduate programs?
For a minute after graduation I looked for jobs in NYC; I made portfolio books and went around to printing studios, artist studios, and galleries, talking and asking about job opportunities. I quickly realized that, if I moved to New York, I would likely not have the time I wanted to commit to my artistic practice and make a living. Soon after my visit to NYC, a friend of mine asked me to start Statement Press with her. Statement was my life pretty much between undergrad and grad school. It was mostly a letterpress business but we also did digital design work and public events. After the first year of the press, I became the sole proprietor of the business and was able to steer it in the direction that suited my practice. I also kept a garden during those years which was a true delight and inspiration. I mostly grew vegetables and fruit but I also started planting some flowers near the end of my time in Virginia.
My work during that time was very much rooted in the community I lived in. It was inspired by the way many voices in the confederate/conservative South are silenced. I was making a lot of posters that were politically inspired. I helped to organize events to teach people to letterpress print and to empower people to take political action in the community. I was also making small paper dolls with moving limbs. I would create still pieces with them and also some stop motion videos.
Why did you decide to go back to school and how was the application process? Ultimately, what made you choose SAIC as your next step?
After working for a few years teaching, doing book restoration work, and running Statement Press, I realized that teaching brought me the most joy and felt extremely productive as well. I want to teach college or perhaps at a non-profit organization and I knew that I had to have an MFA to achieve those goals. I applied to a lot of schools; the application process took a long time. The hardest part was writing so many different statements for all of the schools and trying to decide on the curation of my portfolio for each school as well. Each school has its own interests and trying to figure out what those were and if those aligned with my interests and goals wasn’t easy. They’re not always forthcoming about what they’re looking for in an MFA candidate. I was accepted to a few places but ultimately I chose SAIC because I felt like they truly wanted me there. They were also able to provide me with the most funding. I didn’t want to accumulate a ton more debt so funding was a really big selling point for me. During the interviews, I also just felt welcome there—it was good vibes. Like the time flew in the interview, it was like we could have kept talking happily all day.
How has it been going since moving to Chicago?
Moving to Chicago feels like coming home in a lot of ways—it feels right, like stepping onto a path I strayed from in Virginia. My partner Jonathan and I are really comfortable here. We love living in the city. Readjustment has been a little hard financially since Jonathan and I are both freelancers. We only now feel like we’re getting up on our feet again.
What is attending SAIC like so far?
At the end of last semester, one of my professors said to me that if I didn’t feel like I wanted to drop out, I was in the rare minority… he was right, honestly. SAIC is rigorous and relentless; the critiques are constant and they demand a lot of us while letting us map our own direction and fail on our own as well if we misstep. I’m grateful for the difficulty though and that’s one of the big things I wanted out of school: a challenge like the real art world. By taking the commitment to go to such a well-known and highly regarded program, I knew I was telling my professors that I do indeed want to be an artist and make my life with art. It’s like each semester has a year’s worth of failures and successes crammed into it. My second semester just started and I’m feeling more confident and ready to take on the challenges.
Do you have other responsibilities outside of school and your practice?
I work at the Joan Flasch Artist Book Library at SAIC doing restoration work on their collection and in the reading room. I also have a teaching fellowship through the school so I help teach an undergraduate capstone course. I also am beginning to teach bookbinding at Spudnik Press. On top of all that I still run Statement Press, though it is not as robust as it was before school. I’m trying to decide on the future of my business at the moment actually.
When and where do you find time and space to create?
I am lucky to have a studio in downtown Chicago at SAIC. I don’t have a press in the studio at the moment but I have access to equipment and specialized studios at the school. It’s kinda like Willy Wonka’s candy factory with all the possibilities and options. I have studio classes where I make work but I also try to dedicate at least thirty hours a week to my own work aside from class projects and collaborative projects. Right now, Thursday is my studio day where I don’t have work or class and I just spend ten hours in my studio working.
What are you finding most challenging right now?
I keep feeling like I’m already so close to the end of my degree and that stresses me out. I want to make the most of it so I’m trying to do as much as I can but that burns me out quickly. I’m trying to learn how to balance my time as a student and my time outside of school with my partner and my friends, and work as well I guess. It kind of feels like a heaping mess at times.
What is driving your artistic practice currently?
To be completely candid, I’m trying to figure that out. I’m working on developing a sustainable and autogenerative process. That is to say that I am trying a lot of new things right now and doing a lot of writing about what is most important to me, what brings me joy, and what excites me to get into the studio and put in hours. I’m compelled by the concept of failure as success or perhaps an alternate type of success, thus freeing myself of the expectations of linear timelines and rigid creativities. I think that’s what graduate school is good for: formulating a practice that can transcend stress, negativity, and burn-out to really become part of daily life.
That isn’t to say I’m not thinking of some specific principles currently. I realized that I like to work within prescribed social systems to find avenues of subversion. In a way, I am interested in pushing and queering systems to reflect a more broad or alternate view of that system. I’m thinking a lot about Muslim refugees and American nationalism, perhaps how those things could align. I’m thinking more about climate change as well and the subjectivity of truth.
Are you working on any new projects? If so, what is your most recent work about?
Right now, I have two projects that I’m embarking on. I’m still in the generative/exploratory phase of both of them so I’m hesitant to put too many words to them. I’m exploring gardening as a transcendental spiritual process, linking cultures and religions. I’m doing a lot of research about Islamic gardens and the symbolic and literal allusions to gardens in the Quran. I’m thinking about Islamic art principles and how those can be more welcoming to female sacred experiences.
I’m also beginning a writing project around cultural displacement and multicultural experience. I’m writing poetry now dealing with those themes, and rather than writing them in English, I’m transliterating the writing into Arabic. So, when read aloud, the text sounds like an accented English but is written in the Arabic alphabet. I’m hoping to turn this work into either a series of prints or an artist book… but I’m a far way off of that right now. I’m just writing and practicing my Arabic calligraphy for the moment.
Who or what do you find interesting or inspiring right now?
Here’s a short list of things that have inspired me today:
The fresh dusting of snow
The young boy who stole a banana from the coffee shop
The thought that everything that is dead now will grow green again and I’ll forget the feeling of bitter cold
What has been the most surprising part of your art career thus far?
Honestly, the most surprising part of my art career is that I am an artist. I never dreamed that I would be, that I’d have the courage even to pursue art or that I’d be so passionate and empowered to make it.
Who or what is distracting you or taking up your time and energy?
Everything… but really, gosh, I have a hard time staying on task. I fall down Google search holes for hours. I have a lot of draining stress around inadequacy and my work not being enough. I’ll sometimes spend so much time thinking about what might go wrong with something, or why it might be bad, that I don’t make it or I’m too exhausted afterward and discouraged that I just sleep. I’m trying not to do that but it’s hard to avoid.
Where have you received the most support for your career as an artist?
I’ve been so fortunate to have an incredible mentor at the beginning of my career: Leigh Ann Beavers taught the first drawing class I took that inspired me to keep pursuing art. She has become my close friend and a huge source of emotional and creative support for me. It’s hard being far from her now but I know that she is only a phone call away if I need her. She showed me what living an artful life can be like; not just artful as in creating artwork but also in approaching life as something malleable, beautiful, and endlessly full of possibility. My partner Jonathan has also been an incredible support in every way. In rough times, he supported me and has always encouraged me to pursue art against all odds and through every obstacle.
What are your favorite and least favorite parts of being an artist?
My favorite thing about being an artist is that I can wear whatever I want—or do whatever weird thing—and as soon as people know I’m an artist, they just treat it like it’s normal. I get a kick out of that all the time. It’s just so funny, as if artists are some strange hybrid that are so different from the rest of the world… I also love the printmaking community and how welcoming it is. My least favorite thing is financial instability and applying to grants, residencies, and exhibitions. It’s a constant hustle and it’s exhausting.
What are you hoping to learn or achieve in 2019? Do you have any long-term future goals as an artist or maker?
I’d like to develop a consistent studio practice this year that doesn’t feel like I’m constantly starting from zero. I’d also like to get deeper into my current projects in anticipation of graduating in 2020. I’d love to get gallery representation and have a consistent exhibition practice. I want to teach college art as well in the near future. I think I’d like to do some travelling to residencies and other opportunities when I graduate with my MFA. I hope to transform Statement Press into more of a publishing press than before and just do artist books and broadside publishing rather than commercial print work. However, that’s not very sustainable, so I’m still figuring that out.
Do you have any advice for fellow makers at a similar stage in their career? Or those just coming out of undergrad?
The best thing I did after undergrad was wait and explore the world of possibilities for living. There are so many routes to joy and a good life. I think when people get out of undergrad, they feel so much pressure to embody their prescribed idea of success, which is often grad school. I think it’s important to go to grad school when you really feel like you’re ready and it’s necessary, not just the logical next step.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received is that if a project is stuck—or even if it’s going well but doesn’t have that spark to it—just throw a wrench in the project. Probably theoretically—or literally would work just as well (laughs). Really, just think of the weirdest thing or the thing that scares you the most and go do that, see what it does to you and how it changes the work, then move forward from there.
A huge thank you to Amira for sharing her work and wisdom with Form and Space. I highly recommend checking out more of her series 45: 45 Posters in 45 Hours About the First Year of our 45th President which can be found on her website.