Orr Ambrose’s fascination with nature and science has shaped the direction of her art.
by Vanessa Infanzon
When Charlotte artist Orr Ambrose was just 15, she started making annual or biannual trips to tiny Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine. The picturesque island, totaling 1 square mile and accessible only by boat, has long been an inspiration for poets, writers and painters — acclaimed American artists including Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent have lived there. It was here that Ambrose, a landscape painter, began experimenting with abstraction.
But it wasn’t until she established her Charlotte studio in 2014 that Ambrose starting looking toward science — cell structures, atomic particles and other building blocks of nature — for inspiration.
“I started watching YouTube videos about physics,” she says. “They were so amazing to me — learning about black holes and the universe expanding. I found it so inspiring and so magical that I started putting them into my work.”
Ambrose, 48, is Central Piedmont Community College’s abstract artist for 2019. “We seek out professional practicing artists that can inspire our student body, someone they can relate to and admire,” says Megan Boisvert, director of art galleries for the visual & performing arts division at Central Piedmont. “We take into consideration their educational background [and] technical skills in creating to give our students aspirations to continue their education and build their practice. Orr is on an advanced level that will spark the creativity for our students.”
The Houston native grew up in Greenville, S.C., which in recent years has fostered a thriving cultural scene of its own. During her senior year of high school, Ambrose studied ceramics, printmaking, painting and drawing at the Fine Arts Center of Greenville, a specialized school for local students seeking an arts-intensive curriculum. She went on to graduate from the University of Georgia with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in ceramics and painting in 1993.
After college, Ambrose held a three-year residency at Odyssey Center for the Ceramic Arts in Asheville. Though her focus was on ceramics, she also found time to paint. The Blue Ridge Mountains surrounding Asheville provided plenty of inspiration.
“I had a tiny little space,” Ambrose says. “I would put canvases and paper on the wall and paint on them when I wasn’t throwing pots. I painted the mountainous landscapes of Asheville in unusual, bold colors and distilled living objects in the foreground, like trees or people, into stark, oversimplified forms. The paintings were small and rather dramatic.”
For nearly three decades, Ambrose continued her yearly trips to the small island in Maine. “The biggest influence from the island was the exposure I had to living, working artists — probably hundreds of them over the years,” she says. “I was able to see firsthand the many different life choices artists make to allow for painting to be their careers and lifestyles — at all age levels, abilities. I think these examples cemented my determination and courage to remain devoted to and pursue a life as an artist.”
Nonetheless, there have been times that Ambrose has doubted the legitimacy of her profession. She finds hope in other women artists who might be raising families or working other jobs while continuing to practice his or her art.
“In our culture and market system, a person’s value is linked to the economic value of his or her job,” she says. “The judgment of my worth as a human being is tied up in my financial success as a painter. This is difficult because making a reliable, steady and growing income from art sales is reserved for a lucky few and does not necessarily have anything to do with merit. It can be discouraging and challenging to believe in myself.”
But she is always growing, Ambrose says. The black holes, plants, coral reefs, microbes, and geological and cosmological design are part of her practice now. She uses tiny brushes and stencils to experiment with lines, patterns and circles. Her creations are rhythmic and musical.
“My paintings are playful explorations of the structure of nature and the overarching influence of fractal geometry,” she says. “I build an environment much like a landscape and in much the same way atoms build matter or solar systems build galaxies.
“I’ve always been one of those artists that tend to be inspired by things that bring me joy — taking joy in the mystery of the world.” SP
Orr Ambrose’s The Invisible Landscape is on display at the Elizabeth Ross Art Gallery in the Overcash Center at Central Piedmont Community College through Aug. 1. The gallery at 1206 Elizabeth Ave. is open
10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday. It also opens an hour before each of Central Piedmont’s summer theater performances.