A dot may seem a small thing to build a career on, but Amy Lin has a single-minded determination to make it happen. In the past two years, the 27-year-old Fairfax resident has drawn tens of thousands of them, arrayed in organic-looking tangles or machinelike repetitions amid vast white spaces.
“Some of my friends might say I have an obsessive personality,” Lin says. If that is the case, it’s a quirk she’s comfortable sharing with a roomful of complete strangers: The 10 new works on display in her second solo show, “Obsession,” at the District of Columbia Arts Center in Adams Morgan, contain approximately 12,000 color-pencil dots in total. Separate Worlds, which sold within minutes at the exhibition’s opening reception on Friday, Dec. 14, features hundreds of meticulously drawn blue and pink particles packed together in two masses; it could be a cosmic explosion, a religious symbol, or a chemical reaction under a microscope. Like many of Lin’s other works, the choice of colors was determined by her mood.
“I have a preference for certain colors and color combinations, but it changes over time,” Lin says. “The colors were much brighter and cheerier in my first solo show.” Over the past six months, however, her hues have become more subdued—a shift Lin credits to a short bout with depression. “I think each piece captures a certain time period of my mental state,” she says.
When Lin originally stumbled onto the dots by accident in 2004, her mind was working in a completely different direction. “I wanted to write and illustrate a [children’s] book, but I didn’t have a good story idea,” she says. “So I essentially drew my characters in random scenes and tried to concoct a story around the random images.” While working on a scene of a little girl and a bear tumbling down a hill, Lin drew three red dots that were supposed to be apples. “When I draw representations, it’s not very accurate. My apples were literally three red dots,” she says. It would prove to be the only enjoyable aspect of an otherwise painful artistic exercise.
“I latched onto this idea of these three red dots, and I couldn’t get enough of them,” Lin says. One month later, she completed her first work, a spray of red particles.
Each drawing takes Lin between 30 and 100 hours to produce; sometimes five hours a day of filling dot after dot, a paper towel under her hand to keep any oils from tainting the background’s pristine whiteness. “It’s really hard to plot things out in advance,” she says. “I just eyeball it.” Thinking only five or six dots into the future, and with no rough draft to guide her, she regularly finds the strands wandering in unanticipated directions.
“Sometimes it’s a neutral change, sometimes it’s positive, and sometimes I can’t live with it, and I start over or move on to something completely different,” Lin says. “There have been a few drawings in the scrap bin…[s]o far, I’ve been pretty lucky in that most of the discarding has happened within the first 10 or 15 hours of drawing.”
Lin—who has no formal art training and holds a day job as a chemical engineer—says that, once finished, the designs often remind her of constellations. Anne Collins Goodyear, the show’s curator, has a different interpretation. “Amy’s drawings recall something of ancient philosophy: the human attempt to assess our relationship to the microcosm and the macrocosm,” she says.
Goodyear, 36, first saw Lin’s work while serving as a jury member for an exhibition more than a year and a half before she agreed to curate “Obsession.” “The repetition of such a delicate touch is what ends up giving her drawings such a powerful effect,” she says.
It’s a touch Lin has had plenty of practice developing. In May, she had her first solo show, “Affinity,” at an on-campus gallery at Northern Virginia Community College; the exhibition featured 23 works and a grand total of 35,000 dots. Since then, Lin’s dots have led her as far as the Abington Art Center in Jenkintown, Pa., and Duke University’s Louise Jones Brown Gallery in Durham, N.C., for out-of-town exhibitions. Where they will take her after “Obsession,” however, is as uncertain as the next series of twists and turns in one of her drawings—which is exactly how the artist likes it.
“The process of having little or no preconceived plan lets more of my subconscious influence the work,” she says. “[I]t’s more interesting for me, because the final result is a surprise.” —Nick Kolakowski
“Obsession” is on view from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, to Sunday, Jan. 14, at the District of Columbia Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW. Free. (202) 462-7833.