If you stopped into the Weirton Area Museum and Cultural Center on October 26th and attended Halloween at the Museum, you’ve likely already discovered the work of artist and illustrator Amara Letts, who is based in Weirton. From her linework to her symbolism, Amara’s creations are both beautiful and thought-provoking. SoulFireWV had a chance to talk to Amara about her background, inspiration, and future projects.
Soul Fire: Could you share a little bit about your background? Were you born in Weirton? If not, where were you born, and what brought you here?
Amara Letts: I’m originally from Moundsville, WV. I initially moved to Weirton after my first marriage, and I did move away to live in Wheeling and run a tattoo business there. I lived in Martins Ferry, and then Barton, OH, for a while. I have always liked moving and experiencing new places and new people, so for years, I was a bit of a nomad. When the opportunity presented itself to buy a house here in Weirton, it wasn’t a difficult decision. I have a cute, shabby cottage, my own separate studio space, many loving friends, and I’m close to both Pittsburgh and Wheeling.
SF: I know that you have worked as a tattoo artist. Did you work independently or were you part of a shop? And were you entirely blackwork, or did you use color? What was your specialty?
AL: Yes, I was a tattoo artist for 16 years before retiring. In that time, I owned 3 shops and worked in many different places in the tri-state area, from Moundsville to Pittsburgh. I worked in both black and grey and color, and even if it was possible to select a specific type of work in this area, I think that it would have become tedious if I hadn’t been able to learn many different styles. If I had to choose, I would say that I was happiest when doing any type of portrait work, and I also loved the bold, black lines and rich color of American and Asian traditional styles.
SF: Did you have a tattoo mentor, or is there a specific tattoo artist (or artists) whose work you especially admire?
AL: I learned to tattoo here in Weirton, actually, at a place called Brothers Tattoo, which is now closed after many years. It was a very self-driven apprenticeship, which really worked well for me. I didn’t really have a mentor, but there are some artists that I admire. Juli Moon, who works in Lynn, MA, and Cindy Ray, a pioneer female tattoo artist who worked in Australia in the 1960s.
SF: What is the principal medium in which you currently work? What drew you away from tattooing and into works on paper and comic books/graphic novels?
AL: I’m a traditional media illustrator now, mixed media with an emphasis on ink and watercolor. Although I loved my time as a tattoo artist, my real dream was always to be a comic book artist and illustrator. It’s common in the tattoo industry that an artist might have to retire because of spine issues, or carpal tunnel. Fortunately for me, my hands are still healthy and strong, but my spine could no longer tolerate the work. Instead of being discouraged, I took my retirement as an opportunity to reinvent myself in a way that aligned with my true love of comics and graphic novels. So it was less being drawn away, and more having an excuse to return to myself.
SF: Your imagery is beautiful. Can you explain what inspires your symbolism?
AL: I would say that the main theme of my work is finding beauty in darkness. I draw my inspiration from my own strange dreams and nightmares, and from folklore and mythology. I call my work “Pagan Pop Art” because I think that we are all drawn to magick, and we all need a way to express the side of ourselves that wants to connect with our primal nature. We watch horror movies, because I think that we like testing the limits of our fear and imagination. And we love to have an excuse to be our ghoulish selves on Halloween, because it makes us feel powerful and free. So if I can create a piece of art, even as small as a sticker, that can appease that aspect of human nature, I feel fulfilled in my work.
SF: Is there a particular artist or group of artists whose works have influenced your artistic process or imagery? And whom do you identify as your favorite artist(s)?
AL: So many artists have influenced my work. I definitely consider myself a lover of all types of art, so my influences are really varied. William Blake is better known for his poetry, but I was enamored by his visual language from the first time I laid eyes on it. I also love traditional media comic book artists like Jean Giraud, aka Moebius; and the ink work of the Fantasy artist Frank Frazetta has really influenced my own ink work. I’m also inspired by the dreamlike compositions of Frida Kahlo and the poise of Japanese Ukiyo-e. Egyptian and Celtic figures are in mind as I pose my own figures.
SF: Since the holiday season is approaching, do you have any upcoming events that you’ll be part of, where readers can find your works? And if not, how can readers purchase your pieces?
AL: I usually have a definitive schedule of events for spring and summer, but autumn and winter are more relaxed. I always keep my social media followers updated on when and where they can find me, but you can always find my work for sale at my Etsy shop, which is located at: etsy.com/shop/conjurearts/.
SF: Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers?
AL: Yes, I’ll soon be releasing a special set of four 24-page comics based on my first 100-page graphic novel, Electric Alice. For those who haven’t read it, the premise is a science fiction adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. The issues will include new scenes and artwork not available in the original graphic novel. A digital copy and merchandise are also currently available through Etsy. Also being released this month through my publishing company, Conjure Arts, is a secret project code named ORC. I can’t reveal too much about it at the moment, but I can say that it will be a series based on a fairy tale, with a sci fi fantasy feel. For those who would like to stay updated, you can follow me @amara_art_official on Instagram or like my Facebook page at facebook.com/conjurecomics.