The Artist Next Door: Chris Ams

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Chris Ams graduated in 2007 from Oakland University near Detroit with a degree in fine art and a focus on illustration.

Then he became a musician.

“Music brought me to New York City in 2010,” says Ams. “I was playing in a jazz/funk/soul band and teaching art when a friend convinced me to move to Brooklyn. I’d only been to New York once, for a quick trip, but I decided to take a dive.” Soon after the move, he and his band released an album, Chris Ams & the Favorite States.

But there was never a question that art would remain part of his life, says Ams, who moved to Beacon two years ago and is one of the three organizers (with Darya Golubina and Evan Samuelson) of Beacon Open Studios, which will take place this year from July 22 to 24.

“Creative freedom is something I’m very invested in,” he says. “I did some random freelance design gigs, working in publishing, film, even some theater where I had to build puppets.”

Ams’ drawings — a sampling of which can be viewed at chrisamsart.com — often depict fantastical worlds inhabited by creatures and the nature-filled environment they dwell in. With some, it’s difficult to intuit whether they were created digitally or by hand, but most suggest a narrative. He has carved out a reputation as a children’s book illustrator.

“Some authors come to me with a specific style in mind,” he says. “I assume they like my style, but, still, it’s their baby: They have an image in their mind of what they want it to look like. If they don’t have a mental image of what a creature looks like and they hand over the reins, I approach it as a collaboration. I want to guide the ship but never would discredit anyone else’s vision. At its best, we come to a mutual decision that we’re excited to show to the world.”

He says that the whimsy of his illustrations for children “stems from being a kid falling in love with artists like Chris Van Allsburg, who did Jumanji, and other literature and children’s stories. As I got older I focused on fine art, but a piece of me has always enjoyed exploring a side of me that is not always serious and realist.

“As artists, people judge your work based on three seconds of looking at it, so with most things I want to come across as creatively consistent, being open to different ideas and influences. It can be a challenging balancing act to update one’s portfolio to reflect a continuous evolution.”

During the decade he spent in Brooklyn, Ams says he felt a nagging need for the natural world. “I found myself reaching for the one single leaf outside the window in the city,” he says. “I missed nature a lot and, probably because of the disconnect I had with nature, and knowing how the natural world can inform art-making, I started doing a lot of fine art, nature-themed pieces.”

For years, Ams and his husband, composer Will Reynolds, had been coming to the Hudson Valley, considering it as a future home. The pandemic gave them the assist in making the move to Beacon in July 2020, along with Cosmo, their 7-year-old, 80-pound German shepherd/lab mix.

Ams, a former instructor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History, continues to teach online. “A lot of people feel a healing capability to art-making work, focusing on creative freedom and getting in touch with feelings that are not able to be vocalized,” he says. “I do a Sunday morning Zoom class in self-expressive painting and the students are forming their own community, connecting with each other.”

He connected with Golubina soon after the move, hoping to get involved in Beacon Open Studios. When the pandemic prevented it from happening in 2021, they volunteered to help Beacon Arts “build a platform and add a music component. We brought in the River Valley Guild, which focuses on artisanal products; they are offering some outdoor space for artists who may not have their own studio to show their work. We got accepted into Upstate Arts Weekend.

People here have so many visual influences, and it’s a cool, energized community,” he says. “We’re so excited to showcase the talent up here in a way that stands out.”

Although art is front and center, music is still a part of Ams’ creative life. On July 8, he will be playing an acoustic set with guitarist Emilio Tostado at Reserva, on Main Street in Beacon. Ams says he is a contented Brooklyn-to-Beacon transplant. “I’m super grateful to have landed in such a beautiful place,” he says.

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