Hamilton’s variegated colors of 2020

In assembling her exhibit, titled “[SUB]LIMINAL SPACE,” Ashley Hamilton has been making sense of the turbulent year of 2020. Through more than 100 pieces, Hamilton has put together the rather colorful work she made about her emotional experiences last year in response to the pandemic and the loss of her mother.

According to Hamilton, all the pieces in the exhibit are one body of work, although the large-scale paintings are also a project on their own. On the surface, intensely vibrant colors stand out alongside an abundance of rainbow iconography. Hamilton said she loves how the simplicity of a colorful arch can signify so much all at once, and the rainbow has appeared in her work for many years.

“I’ve always been fascinated with semiology and signs and all the different connotations that one symbol can hold,” Hamilton said. “I think I was first interested in the history of the rainbow as a queer person, and I used to make rainbow paintings around Pride Month every year.”

Hamilton said the rainbow motif made its way back into her work in 2020 after she read an article in the beginning of the pandemic about children all over the world making rainbow paintings and putting it in their windows to signify “hope.”

“I felt incredibly connected to that idea of ‘holding onto hope’ during a time of panic, anxiety, fear and grief,” Hamilton said. “After seeing my 2020 work, a friend texted me, ‘The rainbow is everything: a bridge, a portal, a spectrum, a symbol of dissent, a promise, an act of unapologetic defiance against the status quo.’”

Under the surface, however, this body of work all started when Hamilton abruptly lost her mother in January of 2020.

“She was my favorite person in the world, my best friend and my family’s matriarch,” Hamilton said. “My whole world felt uprooted and there is a void in my heart that will never go away. The only way I know how to deal with such a profound loss is to paint my way through it.”

Knowing that her mom loved her extremely vibrant paintings, Hamilton said she focused on those as a way to make her proud in her honor.

“By using such a vibrant palette last year, it made me feel some moments of joy through the pain,” Hamilton said. “In a time of emotional darkness, using bright colors almost tricked my brain into feeling some happiness, and it was very healing for me through this time of grief.”

Once the pandemic hit, she said her own emotional turmoil quickly became a time of collective grief and anxiety for the world,¬ and so she continued on this path of creating and sharing moments of joy through vibrant color.

Just as her painting practice helped her work through 2020, Hamilton said she thinks people realized the importance of art in society to comfort and heal during the isolation of quarantine.

When it comes to people viewing her work, Hamilton said the personal nature of her work can make her feel vulnerable, yet this vulnerability has led others to identify with it.

“I’ve found that others who have experienced major loss this year have connected to my work differently than the average person,” Hamilton said. “Perhaps, it’s some sort of collective consciousness between those of us who are grieving.”

According to Hamilton, she’s had this desire to artistically express herself since her earliest childhood memories. She went to an art-centric high school in Nashville and continued her art education through college. She received her bachelor’s in drawing and painting from the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga and she spent a year studying abroad at Queensland College of Art in Brisbane, Australia, where she focused mainly on printmaking and installation.

Hamilton said she has been showing and selling her work for around 12 years. In the years she couldn’t manage to do it full time, she took jobs that were related to the arts in one way or another, such as artist assistant, gallery curator and artist in residence.

Since she was a teenager, Hamilton said she has had a rigorous studio practice, and she is always working on 20-40 paintings in all sizes and multiple projects at a time. At the moment, she is working on a series of almost-sculptural “grungy” pieces, hundreds of the “rainbow/portal” paintings similar to the work in the show and a dozen large-scale paintings.