Ekphrasis: AM Radio (Part I)

I suppose what I most want to do is share ideas; or share what I see, and wonder if it is what others see. – AM Radio

The Last Line, self-portrait by AM Radio, July 2010

I’ve come to a conclusion.  For me, AM Radio, has joined the diverse ranks of  Jenny Holzer, Yinka Shonibare, and Andy Goldsworthy in my catalogue of ‘favourite living artists’. Upon seeing his work for the first time, I had the same thunderstruck awe I had seeing theirs, and his oeuvre continues to amaze me.  That said, I shall try very, very hard to be thoughtful as ever here, and not become a saddo fangirl.

My regular readers know that I am interested in art that traverses the boundaries between RL and SL.  With AM Radio, there is no boundary.  His work in Second Life is so very like his ‘real world’ work, and I actually feel disingenuous even trying to make a distinction, particularly on work of this calibre, because doing so implies that SL art is somehow different (possibly inferior), to work done in ‘reality’.  In fact, when browsing AM’s flickr photostream, it is often difficult to tell which of his images are real, which are digital constructions, and which are SL photos.  His visual worlds blend almost seamlessly.

The Little Shapes of Synaesthesia, February 2010.

Take for example his diagrams series, the result of a sketching programme he wrote that ‘allows for a more complex, dynamic brushes’ than Photoshop can facilitate. This series is comprised of digital drawings made entirely from technical diagrams and scientific illustrations. His stunning Iphigenia at Aulis watches the sail to Troy is a composite of these drawings and actual photographs he took.  His flickr commentary explains the process, and asks us to engage with the work:  “The three shots were taken with the camera pointed straight up at a typical mid-western thunderstorm, stirring over. These were the same section of sky, seconds apart. I see alot of faces and figures in the swirls. I noted some of them. Do you see what I see?”

'Iphigenia at Aulis watches the sail to Troy', May 2010. Digital photomontage.

In Second Life, AM’s vision has manifested some of the most visited, most loved sims on the grid.  If you have yet stood in the ethereal, golden light of the aptly named installations The Quiet or The Far Away, waste no more time reading here.  GO. NOW. Then come back and read more.

Perhaps ironically, it was to ‘The Quiet’ that AM took me to have our little chat, sitting in the warm glow of a wood-burning stove in a cozy cabin set in a snowy landscape.  And even though it is a virtual landscape, I couldn’t help but don a sweater over my summery top, between the enveloping atmosphere of AM’s winterscape and his own frosty breath, an attribute of his avatar’s iconography.  The artist is very tall, a fact only accentuated by his other attributes: the greatcoat, scarf, gloves and stovepipe hat – simply adorned with a strip of wheat and two feathers – that are his trademarks.  His statuesque appearance may in fact be somewhat daunting, but I assure you he is one of the most genuine, down-to-earth individuals I’ve had the pleasure of talking to in SL.  He’s also been around for a while, since 2006, so many readers may be familiar with both his artistic work and his background.  But for those who aren’t, he told me a little bit about his early artistic development.

AM Radio's 'The Quiet'. Photo by PJ Trenton.
“I suppose my earliest art education, outside of public grammar school was the Decordova Museum in Massachusetts.  I had a an art teacher in middle school who saw that I liked drawing. I don’t know if I was very good but I was trying to express myself anyhow. So she enrolled me in, of all things, a figure drawing class. Which was somewhat the deepend of things. That class was at the Decordova, which is right in the area of the Concord Art Association, which draws both New York and Boston professional artists. So there was a very early mixture into this world that I was lucky to observe. As well, the same area is minutes away from Walden, and Lexington and the North Bridge. I think you can see these foundations in my work even now. Really great area to be immersed in art from an early age. I was lucky to have a bold teacher. One not afraid to put a minor in a figure drawing class.”
'The Quiet', 2008. This sketch inspired the SL installation.
This early training allowed AM to have a good sized portfolio developed by the time he applied to University (don’t get me started on funding cuts for art education these days), and despite nearly being thwarted by a “dimwit guidance counselor” trying to steer him away from art school, AM ended up majoring in painting at the Massachusetts College of Art.  He also had an influential summer semester at the Burren College of Art on the west coast of Ireland. After this he was offered a job designing and painting for a company that built custom furniture in Harvard, MA – a point I found interesting considering his rich, hand-crafted interiors.  However, after the company went under due to a “slimy accountant”,  AM headed to the midwest.  And like all good stories, there was a girl involved.  But we’ll leave that for the film.
The Far Away, by AM Radio. Photo by PJ Trenton.
I was interested to hear about the more personal influences on his artistic development:
Rowan Derryth: Have there been any other artists in your family?  I like to ask this because I often find it runs in families – my grandmother was a brilliant painter, and my Uncle is an illustrator and graphic designer, for example.
AM Radio: My mother, tragically misguided by another evil guidance counseler in High School. I have aunts and uncles with creative ability. I have a cousin who is a graphic designer. It’s interesting because one of my major influences, my grandfather, was not artistic in any sense.  He worked for GE, on the Gemini space program, specifically on the fuel cell systems which provided electricity and water and oxygen.  He was doing alot of the prototype work in his own basement. Which is funny now, cause you really don’t want your neighbor tinkering with hydrogen in his basement.
Rowan Derryth: (laughs) Wow. And the GE logo shows up in your work.
AM Radio: Ah yes the GE logo is absolutely a direct reference. So anyhow, my father was the primary audience for this tinkering, but my father’s interest was more in radios, tube radios. Building them, using them. That later led to an interest in transistors, and then silicon chips. So we always had these interesting things around. Old radios, computers, wires, pieces of radios…
Rowan Derryth: Oh, fun things to take apart!
AM Radio: Well, actually, it was more figuring out how to get a working computer from the parts.
Rowan Derryth: Also fun.
AM Radio: I picked up computer skills there, and also programming.
An AM Radio radio. Photo by PJ Trenton.
Rowan Derryth: So you grew up around all this tinkering – and vintage gadgets. And visually, to me, your work evokes the midwest, where you moved to… How did you get to digital art?
AM Radio: Well, on the old Texas Instruments desktop computer you could use BASIC to add to the character set of letters. I used to make little animations with that capability. Silly things. Like a kid might make a flip book animation with paper and a pencil. So when I moved to Urbana, Illinois, I worked on an online course system. They were having dismal pass rates. So I was on a team which created a course portal for professors and students. We really didn’t know to call it a portal, but that’s what it was. Among the first of its kind. Students could message other students with instructor oversight, there were calendar capabilities, that type of thing. We found that students were lacking the day to day chats such as “do we have an exam next week?”  So the system was built to facilitate communication, and it worked. And I got some notice for it in the industry, and a guy from World Book Encyclopedia called me. I had no idea, but at the time, it was being bought by IBM. I got hired as a photoshop production artist, and ended up becoming an Interaction designer at IBM, and with that is media development and computer programming. I am now a media director. So digital art has always been a part of my work, it happens to dominate my interest these days.
Rowan Derryth: Do your family and friends ‘get’ what you do?
AM Radio: Somewhat, although I am not like the rest of my family, and if I am doing something they might percieve as weird, I don’t think they question it anymore. I certainly have been able to make a living being me, at IBM. You asked me earlier what I wanted to do, and my work at IBM fulfills both the left and right side of my interests.
Rowan Derryth: That is fantastic, you are very fortunate.
AM Radio: I am lucky, no doubt.
'Living off the Land; Into the Sky', self-portrait by AM Radio, 2010
Rowan Derryth: What would you consider your most successful work, in terms of what you have wanted to do?
AM Radio: I do not link the two as a required pair. My favorite work is perhaps my most unsuccessful. I called it Husk Reboot.  It took ideas of the first Husk build, which was the desert, and made it water.  But I think this sim we’re on, The Quiet is closer to what I want from my work and is the most successful in terms of everything we chatted about today. Also I do like to have fun. I have created I think 14 different cars and the airplane… the more left brain interests I suppose.
Rowan Derryth: I went to Superdyne earlier and picked up the roadster you have there [Note: at time of publication, AM has already changed this build – sneaky!]. I am curious though: why the sports car and the sewing machine?  I have my thoughts, but want to hear yours first.
AM Radio: Well the car was part of SL6B, part of a build called 1000 Heroes. At the time though I was interested in graphic novels and comic book styles. And so I wanted to build something that evoked that.  So there’s that. The sewing machine actually goes back to ideas I was fiddling with. The idea then was to be somewhat surreal but imply some intention that seems nearly logical.
Rowan Derryth: Which was?
AM Radio: Simply sewing fabric together.
An early concept of the sewing machine at Superdyne. Photo by AM Radio.
Rowan Derryth: But the relationship between the car and the sewing machine?
AM Radio: Well what’s your take on it as a viewer?
Rowan Derryth: Ok. Well, two machines… one masculine, one feminine, both related to speed, yes? One stationary, one in movement.
AM Radio: Interesting
Rowan Derryth: But the stationary sewing machine crafts an object here which is in movement, and overtakes… It also looks like a huge starter flag.  I don’t think it is a feminist commentary, but I found the juxtaposition interesting.
AM Radio: I can’t say I had any intention other than those were the items that seemed to fit. The space absolutely lacks the idea of refuge, and thats more intentional than the juxtapostion of the objects there.
Rowan Derryth: (nods and grins) I like my interpretation though.
AM Radio: I do to. It’s interesting though my thoughts went the other way. A sewing machine, an industrial item, robotic almost, masculine in appearance as a machine. The car is the opposite, smooth, tapered. I hadn’t thought about it until you mentioned the genders. It is an interesting take on it.
Rowan Derryth: Perhaps in that there is a balance of both. It is historical too though… for the period you are evoking, those objects would have definitely been used by particular genders, generally speaking.
Contemplating Superdyne. Photo by Rowan Derryth.
Rowan Derryth: So what are you working on now?
AM Radio: Well, my work at IBM is cyclical.  I have the good fortune of working on some high profile  museums, non-profits and socially important projects.  I am currently engrossed in coding/programming on a large public data analytics project.  For good or bad, I find very little difference in creating art, or creating code. So its holding my attention at the moment. As for SL, I recently recreated Husk Reboot, and it’s in my picks. I added a new, large element to build. So I have been tinkering with that build when I am in world.
Rowan Derryth: Is that The Ferry?
AM Radio: Yes
Rowan Derryth: I find your vision fascinating.
AM Radio: How do you mean?
Rowan Derryth: Hmm. Well, on the surface, I suppose I mean what you create.  I’m a city girl, right?  The midwest made me a little stir crazy. The expanses of corn fields, the farms… pretty things to photograph, but not really my thing.. I escaped to Chicago a lot… But you transform these things into such alluring objects here.
AM Radio: The objects and spaces are the water and its up to the visitor to swim… Riffing on keats again. I should setup a shock treatment every time I say it.
Husk Reboot, now being reworked at 'The Ferry'. Photo by PJ Trenton.
Rowan Derryth: So… you must know how beloved your work is here… What do YOU think it is people respond to?
AM Radio: That’s a huge question.
Rowan Derryth: (grins) Take your time.
AM Radio: Can a prosecutor lie to a witness? (laughs)
Rowan Derryth: You can try.
AM Radio: Well there’s an academic bit here and more of a human aspect.
Rowan Derryth: Tell me more about the academic bit?
AM Radio: I had been recommended a book by a philosophy professor… The Visual Elements of Landscape. I think it’s worth reading if you’re going to be building a virtual world, and want to understand ideas of what compels people to move through a space as well as dwell. Jakle describes it in his book as Refuge and Prospect. (I later even named a sim The Refuge and The Prospect). The primary idea is that modern people, and maybe that’s a capital M, I don’t know, are in a constant state of tourism. As they drive, as they shop, as they are born, as they die. There is a constant judgement of the quality of not only the experience but the physical surrounding. The book breaks down the elements of a satisfying experience. The key part being refuge, or places to dwell. The requirement is that the place provide safety, or the idea of safety as well as a vista of potential prospects of other places of refuge. Basically we’re looking for strategic vantage points. The noise and confinement of many spaces in virtual worlds provide neither. I believe this is a basic first response to these spaces. The element of safety.
Rowan Derryth: I wonder what an AM Radio residential sim would look like?
AM Radio: Does a society, especially an ever ephemeral idea of a society as in virtual worlds need residential sims? On those spaces are the users still not in tourist role?
Rowan Derryth: Yes, most definitely.  And what need do they [residential sims] then fulfill?
AM Radio: Refuge. Safety. And a vantage point to the rest of SL.
'What Mary Does After Flying Away', 2008, by AM Radio


  1. YAY AM!!!
    Wonderful interview! Bravo!!!

    So difficult to put his works into words and you both have done a beautiful job of expressing the magic. I, too, believe AM to be one of my most “favorite living artists”.

    I can’t wait for Part II.

  2. What a wonderful insight into one of our favorite, and most unique, artists. I’ve been a fan for years, and this is a refreshing look at the man behind the avatar. Thank you for all the fun AM, I can’t wait to see what’s next!

  3. Good Ol’ AM… the man knows his space and how to express it so others can feel it as well. Growing up in the midwest, like AM, where the sky is at least fifty percent of the landscape, I know how difficult it is to make that interesting. AM does it as well as anyone and better than most.

  4. AM Radio’s installations in Second Life are the first place I take newbs whom I occasionally take under my wing. They come in thinking ‘game’ or the inevitable ‘sex’ & I show them ‘The Far Away’ or ‘The Quiet’. Without fail, they go away with a different understanding of the possibilities of virtual worlds.

    For myself, the works evoke the surreal realities of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings. Held by the light over the old locomotive (or radiating the light in a moment of ecstasy, depending how one sees it) reminds me of ‘Christina’ alone in a vast field, the farmhouse far away… that moment of /intimate/ solitude that draws the viewer in & haunts her, even after she has gone away & left the vision behind.

    Thank you, Rowan, for this thoughtful interview & some revelation of the character of the favourite artist of so many people in SL.

    1. Thanks everyone for your lovely comments. I knew I was certainly not alone in my love of AM’s work!

      Gia: I’m so glad you mentioned Wyeth! Make sure to ‘tune in’ for part II of this interview, because we discuss Wyeth (you might be surprised, in fact) and other influences/inspirations as well. In fact, I MAY have to quote you!

      1. I give you my permission, Rowan, to quote me for the purposes of this blog. 😉

        And I look forward to Pt 2!

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