Artist and Independent Curator Amelia Toelke on Recontextualizing Tradition & Female Role Models

Posted March 18, 2016 in Blog


Amelia Toelke, “Light & Shadow, Part I” (detail), 2012. Photo by Jim Escalante.

Have you been following #5womenartists? In honor of Women’s History Month, Houston Center for Contemporary Craft (HCCC) joined The National Museum of Women in the Arts in a social media campaign to raise awareness of women artists. This week, HCCC’s Curatorial Fellow Sarah Darro asked Amelia Toelke, the co-curator and featured artist of At Your Service, a few questions about her work and influences.

Sarah Darro: You have worked within numerous traditionally bounded disciplines of fine art and craft (jewelry, metalsmithing, sculpture, ceramics); how have you been able to transcend these institutional distinctions and how has that influenced your work?

Amelia Toelke: I studied metalsmithing and jewelry as an undergraduate and this training continues to influence the way I approach each project I undertake. Jewelers are trained to think about every detail—with the back of a pin being just as important as the front, for example. We study the long history of functional and decorative objects and embrace their inherent qualities and imbued meanings.

Though my current work often ventures into other disciplines, I remain invested in material, process, and all the small bits and pieces. I carefully consider each facet of an artwork and integrate the techniques I use (sometimes learning new ones), the materials I choose (at times reaching outside my comfort zone), and the concepts I am conveying. In this way, the diverse disciples of art, craft, and visual culture, are threaded throughout my work and I draw on their histories to create contemporary significance.


Amelia Toelke, “Light and Shadow, Part 2.” Found plates, faux gold leaf, 2014. Photo by Scott Cartwright.


Installation view of “At Your Service” featuring Amelia Toelke’s “Light and Shadow, Part 2.” On view February 5 – May 8, 2016 in the Main Gallery at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. Photo by Scott Cartwright.

SD:  You’ve said that growing up in small town upstate New York has inspired your interest in adornment and the material landscape. How has living and working in Chiang Rai, Thailand for the past two years influenced your practice?

AT: Living in Northern Thailand has been an inspirational boon. The rich decorative culture of the Thai landscape has reinforced the direction of my work, supporting my interest in the global history of adornment and the shared understanding of visual language. There is a deep connection between art, craft, religion, and community that is prevalent in Thailand. This has created a culture that even in a contemporary, digital world not only reveres its artisans and craftspeople, but allows them to earn a living.

My current practice often combines a digital component or an outsourced industrial process with handwork. Parallel to this is the way contemporary Thai artisans utilize modern equipment, materials, and processes and integrate these tools into traditional craft. There is a harmonious quality to this union. New materials allow for things like hand-sculpted architectural ornament to last longer while processes like CNC routing make it possible for a temple to afford elements like decorative molding on a new building project. I realize now that tradition is not a static concept. I am interested in exploring this idea further and feel that a hybrid practice is able to reflect the evolving role of the craftsperson in the world today.


Amelia Toelke, “Voici/Voila.” Powder coated steel, copper, chain. 2010. Photo by Nic Wynia.


Amelia Toelke, “Voici/Voila” (detail). Powder coated steel, copper, chain. 2010. Part of “Taking Shape: Celebrating the Windgate Fellowship.” On view May 30 – August 30, 2014 in the Artist Hall at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. Photo by Logan Beck.

SD: Do you have a female role model that has inspired you and your career? If you do, how has this person influenced your life? 

AT: I am fortunate to have many positive female role models in my life and that this list continues to grow as I meet more women doing amazing things. I am also fortunate that I have an older sister who I not only like a lot and consider my best friend, but who continues to be a lifelong inspiration.

Arielle is an extrovert. She is confident, a natural leader, a stand-out-in-the-crowd-look-at-me-star. When Arielle makes a decision she does not waver or hesitate. She puts one hundred percent into everything she chooses to do, whether it is her career, a hobby, or even a chore. And to top it all off she is insanely talented. Mostly self-taught, she has worked hard to create the career she wants and she currently has as professional makeup and special effects artist. As a classic introvert, I have always marveled at the ease with which my sister moves (or at least appears to move) through the world. I admire her work ethic, her will, the way she pushes herself and says yes to even that which seems out of reach. I am forever learning from her. If I feel stuck, insecure, or anxious, I channel her strength, her courage, and her fortitude.

As children we were always creating together. From making our own restaurant complete with daily menus, to doing entire photos shoots with makeup, costumes, and backdrops, we learned how to brainstorm, work from nothing, and cooperate with others. This experience has led me to seek out collaborative opportunities and to truly enjoy group ventures. As adults we still work together and build on our shared interests and passions. I am grateful that I can continue to share my life with my sister and grow alongside her.

About Amelia Toelke
Amelia Toelke earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the State University of New York at New Paltz in 2005 and received her Master of Fine Arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2011. In 2006, she was awarded the prestigious Windgate Fellowship and for three years between her degrees, she organized and ran a shared studio and community gallery space in Kingston, New York. In 2015, she completed a visiting artist residency at Lanzhou City University in China and has recently moved back to the United States after living in Chiang Rai, Thailand for two years. Toelke has exhibited her work internationally and she continues to explore her interest in collaboration and public art through outdoor installations and curatorial endeavors. For more information about Amelia Toelke, please visit

At Your Service, the exhibition co-curated by Amelia Toelke and Niki Johnson, features Toelke’s piece, Light and Shadow, Part 2. This exhibition is on view February 5 – May 8, 2016 in the Main Gallery at HCCC.

We’d love to hear from you!
March is Women’s History Month and everyone is talking about #5womenartists, from press coverage by the Huffington Post and the Atlantic to Instagram and Twitter posts by art museums, libraries, and galleries around the world. Join the conversation! Who are your favorite women artists and why? Comment below, or send us an email with your response. You can also tweet us @CraftHouston, or share images of female artists who inspire you via Instagram!