On a Thursday morning in late October, I left with my camera and walked the few blocks to visit Ann-Marie Manker at her house in Inman Park.
The building is quite grand, situated comfortably back on the lot with a comfortable and wide Southern-style porch that had been decorated for Halloween. Upon my unlatching of the gate my presence was announced by two pups barking wildly inside. I was greeted at the door by Ann-Marie who welcomed me and introduced me to her furry friends. Inside, the house is just as airy and regal as it would seem from the outside, and I found myself having to reign in a bit of slack-jawed wonderment. She led me past shelves laden with knick-knacks, piles of art books, and down the hall to her studio.
The studio itself is very bright with two walls of windows. There are several working areas, including an easel in the corner, small table in the middle of the main space, computer table, and then a more formal painting desk at the end of the room in front of windows that face out into the green backyard. At once it’s both calm and yet also a busy space, filled with her own work as well as pieces by other artists, books, art supplies, and trinkets.
It’s one of those spaces where every wall and every corner holds something noteworthy. I’m sure that each item has a story and a relevance. Some of the items that she pointed out in particular were totems of her studio, as she referred to them. This included a pair of nunchucks hanging amidst paintings and a rainbow colored shell which sat in the middle of the smallest table upon entering. She explained to me that it would never feel quite right there without that shell on that table, and that in fact there were limits to what else she would allow to be on that table. Though to outsiders these might just seem like objects, to me this indicates the sacredness with which she regards her artwork and process.
We sat together for a while and discussed her career as an artist.
Manker grew up in Southern California, and I asked her about her beginnings as an artist. “I actually feel like I got a late start, I started in high school,” she explained. “I can’t say that I was a young child and knew that I was going to be an artist. It took a while.” It was one fateful art elective that sparked her passion, and she has been making things ever since. The path wasn’t always a clear one, but each step has brought her closer to her goals.
“I kind of didn’t know exactly what to do because- I knew I had to create art, it felt like it was a curse. I couldn’t not paint- I had to do this thing. But what career could support me doing that? So, I guess I went the practical route thinking that teaching would be the way to support my art because I would have summers off and be around art.”
It was a conscious choice, and an important one, to leave LA and move to Atlanta. “It’s a long story, but I picked Atlanta. I felt like as an artist and a teacher I could survive here on my own, financially, all by myself. Versus I felt like if I stayed in LA I’d be too dependent on my parents or it would be too expensive. I needed that freedom, that autonomy from them,” she said.
Ann Marie attended the University of Southern California in Los Angeles where she received her bachelor’s degree, then moved to Atlanta and attended Georgia State University first for teacher certification and then later returned to State to pursue her MFA. For several years she taught first at public high school as an art teacher before transitioning to teaching at the collegiate level first at GSU, then the late ACA, and now at SCAD Atlanta. In total, she’s been teaching for nearly 20 years, and I asked her of the impressions of being an art teacher in those three very different environments.
“I had wonderful experiences at all the places, but SCAD definitely has the resources and funds to have an awesome studio environment for the kids,” she said. “In high school it was really more about classroom management and discipline, and you would go to work every day for those few art students who were really there to do art. That was your focus.”
Surely, teaching at a school like SCAD would be in some ways more rewarding because the students at a prestigious private art school would be more committed than students at public schools, right? “You get all kinds of students, even in a place like that,” she explained. “And you know, really just in life, people born with raw talent, there are fewer of those than the rest who just have to work really hard to get there.”
Not only is Manker a professor at SCAD Atlanta, she is also an exhibiting artist and member of the local art community. Becoming a part of that world was a mostly organic process, she explained. “My experience basically out of grad school- I just started showing and everything sort of snowballed from there.” Manker is currently represented by Susan Bridges at Whitespace gallery, an agreement that she didn’t anticipate but has proven to be a very good fit for her.
It was not only being a participating artist in spaces run by other people that boosted her career, however. Ann-Marie also became involved with running a space herself. “In 2000 I opened up an alternative art space called ArtSpot and that propelled me into the art community which was fantastic. I met curators and artists, and I just knew everyone and organized shows… It was incredible.” She spoke of the successes and struggles of maintaining a gallery in what is now the Sampson Street Lofts.
“In 2003 we won best alternative art space in Creative Loafing,” she told me. “It’s funny now that 10 years have passed because when new people arrive into the art scene they have no idea that was something that I did.” Additionally, Ann-Marie played a role in the first year of Kibbee gallery, wherein she assisted the owners Preston and Ben with curating and maintaining the space. We spoke about balancing multiple pursuits. “I always feel like the art space and my involvement with running a space is what gets sacrificed first,” she said, explaining that she would always need to work and make money and that she would never stop doing her own personal artwork.
“It doesn’t sound like you’re ever going to stop making art,” I prompted. “No, no,” she laughed, “it’s in my blood. But I do think about making changes. Like for instance, I always think of Matisse when he got older… he started doing different kinds of work because he had problems, and I have carpal tunnel now which I haven’t really addressed. I’m like, should I start painting bigger? Looser?”
As it turns out, Ann-Marie has set her sights beyond the 2D artwork she has been known for in the past, and is looking to try new mediums. “I really, really want to get into some sculpture, like textiles and maybe even some video,” she told me, before showing me some work that inspires her by sculptural artist Nick Cave. I swear her eyes sparkled as she told me excitedly that he will be coming to Atlanta next year.
“African ceremonial costumes are what really inspire me,” she said, “because when you put on an outfit it’s like you become a conduit for the higher source… humans can’t pass judgment on their peers but once you put on this costume you become a judge that can get after criminals… but I’m not going from a criminal route, I more so want to create kind of a demon monster type person.” I don’t know exactly what her new works will look like, but I imagine they may incorporate some of the pastel colors and sweet sentiment in dark scenarios that are represented in her current textiles and paintings.
When asked about how she has weathered feelings of negativity or doubt, she told me, “I’ve always been very goal driven. I remember when I was in my twenties that I had this little piece of paper that I kept in my nightstand and it was what my long term goals were. And it was: to teach art, to be an artist, to teach college, and the only thing I have not achieved was to teach abroad. Like, a study abroad program, which I actually could do that if I wanted, but I’m just in a position right now where I’m so happy I wouldn’t necessarily want to leave my animals and husband for too long.”
What a wonderful problem to have, I thought, and I can see why she would feel this way.
You can see Manker’s work in person this week, November 7th, at SCAD ATL’s Open Studio exhibition and view some of her work online here.