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The Working Class Vol. 01, A O Hamer

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The Working Class, a new series by The Underdog Co, is a collection of interviews with wave-makers across various industries. Each volume allows the audience to get to know a working class dreamer—how they ended up in their craft, the process of growth, challenges, and what motivates them to continue in their pursuit of substance and success. 

This month, I got to sit down with visual artist, Aramis "A. O. Hamer" Hamer. The Chicago native moved to Seattle, Washington three years ago to continue her pursuit of a career in Nursing. Paradigms shifted and Aramis transitioned into becoming a full-time artist. Since embracing her passion for art with confidence, A.O. has garnered quite a bit of influence, exposure and admiration within Seattle's creative scene. In Volume One of The Working Class, we get a closer look at how she's made it happen, as well as some experiences she's had along the way. 

I know you went to Bradley University to study Nursing. At what point did you change courses to pursue art, or was that something you wanted to purse all along?

I definitely don’t think I wanted to pursue art growing up. My mom even has letters from when I was in school. They said, "What do you wanna be when you grow up?" I was six years old, and I said, "A nurse." My mom was a nurse, and she cared for people. I love my mom; she’s great so I definitely always looked up to her and wanted to be like her. So I felt that’s why I went into Nursing. Also, being a caring person and definitely loving helping people, it just felt right. From the perspective of art, I feel like I didn’t think about it because I thought that it wasn’t possible. I thought, "Ah well, that’s like in the movies and magazines". I just thought that was something that wasn’t a reality for me. So I pursued medicine in college.

It’s funny because there were a few people who knew I was creative and had this artistic style. And there were some people who didn’t know at all. I remember painting in the living room of my dorm. It was nothing to write home about, but it was interesting because one of my advisors found out I could paint. He wanted to commission me for a painting. He was going through a tough divorce and wanted me to do this painting for him so I did it. It was like 36x48. The damn thing was huge and I charged him like 80 bucks (chuckles), and he thought that was steep. I was like cool. So I did a little bit of art. Whoever came to our apartment saw that little paint corner. They’d be like, "Ah, snap! You paint?" So then I started painting a little bit more during college. I graduated with the nursing degree and kind of dropped it. Moved into a separate apartment that had some space. I wanted to designate this space for my art because it was something I still wanted to do. But at that time, I was actually pursuing a Master's to become a Nurse Practitioner with a cardiovascular specialty. A lot of people in my family had heart disease, high blood pressure, all these issues. I was like, "Ok, how can I help more specifically?" So I was studying for my Master’s for about a year and half. And also working in ICU and people are dying. Like, dying. I’m coming home crying at 21, fresh out of college, and my patient just died today. I remember coming home to [my husband] Andy like, "Babe, this ain’t it. I gotta figure something else." I felt like I was missing folks. How can I get them before they die? How can I get them before they’re in this chronic state? I wanna do something more preventative, more holistic. I started looking at programs and I found Bastyr out here (in Seattle). I did a 2-week program with them to become a Naturopathic doctor and I loved it.

I came home and was like, "We’re moving to Seattle." He was like, "Ok let’s do it." I came here and the city was full of art. There are artists everywhere and murals. In Chicago, you can’t even buy spray cans. Out here, you can just access spray cans. In the Chi, you can’t. You don’t have access. You have to go way out into the city. Everything's locked down and gated. It’s a whole different level because they have a serious graffiti problem. So it was way different. Here, I felt like it was embraced. There was this creative culture that inspired my work more and I started painting again. I was at Baster for a year and four months. I distinctly remember Andy and I sitting on the couch. Because I had to prepare for next quarter and I was like, "Babe, I don’t wanna go to school anymore. I wanna pursue my art." I remember being so afraid to tell him that because we'd just uprooted our life to come to Seattle so I could pursue natural medicine. Herbs and burning of sage, you know. So I was like, "How do I hit him with this?" And he was like, "Cool, Babe. Do whatever you feel you gotta do." I was like, "For real? Okay, okay." But I still worked as a nurse, working at Northwest Hospital. I had transitioned to being an IV nurse so I wasn’t seeing folks dying. I just had to come put in the IV and dip out. While still having my studio at Gasworks gallery. Really, the shift happened coming to this creative space in Seattle. I was seeing more artists, and seeing more full-time artists that were actually doing it. I was like, "This might be possible. Alright, let’s give it a try."

  

You said you feel like Seattle changed the course for you. Do you feel like you'd be on the trajectory you're on now if you hadn't moved?

I don't feel I'd be on the trajectory that I am because Seattle provided a lot of opportunities for me to be creative safely. For me to experiment, and for there to be support and backing for what I'm doing. I also feel like being in Chicago, that creative voice was getting louder. I'm not sure the path would've been the same, but I know that I probably would've done art. I knew something had to change. You go to a new place and it's like, "Alright, I see it now." It's kind of difficult when you're in a space that you've been in your entire life. It's hard to feel that shift or to have those changes. Also, one thing I wanna do is to go back to Chicago and dive more into that creative art space. Because Chicago is a very creative city. We would go to art shows all the time. We would have creative experiences, but I feel like coming here and seeing people doing it who were kind of like every day people helped. Versus Chicago bringing this big show in from New York, these big, fancy artists. In seattle, it was like here's everyday folks. They're paying rent for a studio, they have shows, and they have clients. That was more accessible for me. So it just felt more attainable.

 

It sounds like you're saying disrupting your comfort zone was an integral part of your choosing to embrace your artistic side.

Yeah. I have to contribute some of it to Nursing, too. I feel like I have a  trifecta experience. Whatever that scripture is, "For such a time as this," I feel like it was just the timing. Everything just worked out so perfectly for me to be here in this moment. Even from my past experiences. From Nursing, seeing people dying. Now i'm evaluating life, what I want to do and how I want my days to look. Do I want to come home crying and dealing with all this weight? I felt Nursing was also that catalyst for me to find gratitude. To find what I want to do because I see that life is short, and this [wasn't] doing it.

You'd said earlier that you found yourself in this world, negatively impacted by the amount of death around you. In your art, I've noticed that there's this otherworldly, cosmic, intergalactic alternate universe almost of beings that seems to be a common theme. Is that an intentional way for you to create a world you wanna be a part of, or is it just a figment of your imagination?

That's super intentional. I'm so over this world. [My friend] Kamari did a performance piece. It was in her new book. She did the poem at a book reading a few days ago. It was talking about "the middle" and these people who don't feel human, but also feel like they aren't part of this world. Sometimes, I feel like that. I feel like I'm not from this world. I feel like creatives are already in their own little world, in this separate cosmic space. At the same time, knowing that I am of this world. We all are. We are all so significant, but also so insignificant. I think what frustrates me about the world, society, pop culture, everything, is how we are so egocentric. We're so 'This is so important. This matters so much." We've created so much drama around all these [insignificant] situations, but we just discovered ice on Mars. There are bigger things going on in the universe. We're one small planet in this grand scheme of things. I'm gonna play with that world because that world seems more fun and free. That just makes more sense. So I literally painted a work called Ice on Mars. That was when NASA released that they'd found ice on Mars. And I was like, "Alright, martians. Let's head over there if there's water and oxygen and ice. Hell, we out." But also with hip hop and chains, it was like ice and bling. A play on words. Being in that high galactic cosmic space, but connecting to relevant pop culture. I like to have a string between the two.

This alternate universe. I definitely see the juxtaposition of hip hop influence and the essence of trill. This galactic, fantastic space. I've also noticed themes of blackness. The women in your paintings are definitely reminiscent of black features. The aura of trill itself is all about blackness. How would you say that shows up in your work?

I feel like it shows up in just about all of my work. That part is actually less intentional because it's a reflection of me. My art is a reflection of me. Being a black woman, I'm gonna relate to those topics, look in the mirror, and project that back on the canvas. But even exploring that more, I find a sense of pride putting ourselves in these places of fine art. One of my old biz cards said "fine art meets the streets.' Now I kind of don't like that, but I get where i was coming form. [Fine art] doesn't have to be what people say it is. From that whole cosmic space, from hip hop and black womanhood, I realize just through art that i can create my own world. What do I want that to be like? I want it to be crystal pussies and purple black women and gold chains and crazy shit. Literally, the canvas is like one big lab for me to experiment and have a whole lot of fun with it. The more I learn about our history, the more I self-identify with begin a strong black woman. It's like there's not 'but.' There's no flaw in us. The more I embrace that, the more I realize we are magic. And black girl magic is real. it's real. I'm telling you. Put a bunch of black women in a space together and you'll be like, "Mm! The energy is right." So I'm feeling like some of those energies.  Our roots in Africa and my upcoming trip to Ghana. The Motherland of resources, of diamonds and crystals, gold, and alchemy. This is real, real. So I'm dual-sided brain. Right side and left side. Medicine and art. The science and the creative aspect. Taking it to the fairy dust and pixy dust and cosmos. But also, when you break down some of this alchemy from the carbon and pyramids, it takes it to another level of being real. You're able to take something that feels good and something that's so subjective and see it in this objective form. There's actually data behind black girl magic. It's actually real.


You are obviously at a point in your artistry where you're making waves. Inarguably catching some momentum. Has that momentum affected your artwork? How is that affecting your process?

I put a lot of policies in place. I've been out here for 3 years, and I've been really going hard for 2 years. I'm still pretty fresh at it, but in the beginning, I was saying yes to a lot of stuff. People want you to do all of this. Paint this random stuff. I found out I didn't have the time to do it all. So I started being really intentional about the s tuff that I am able to do. I started saying no to a lot of stuff. I still say no a lot. It takes away space from what naturally comes out of me. I need time to do me. So I can't do some shows or go to this thing that's not aligned with my vision. I started being really intentional about where I see myself longterm. And stuff that doesn't align with that just can't be a part of it. With a lot of the momentum, it gets frustrating, too. You're like, "Oh man, do I have time? I gotta do this. Gotta do that. I started getting really organized and nipping shit in the bud.

You said something really important. I think artists often have a hard time coming to terms with saying no. It sounds like you've found that balance. Saying no requires a certain level of confidence. Was it difficult to find the balance for you to find that confidence?

I had to learn the hard way that when you say yes to a lot of things, it puts you through such an emotional frustration. You're like, "Why did I do this?" But then we say yes again. And you go through it again. So you finally wise up and you're like I have complete control over how my process will be. I don't have to accept anything that I don't want to accept. Everybody has their opinion, too, right? I shut down commissions after people wanted me to paint all this random stuff. And I'm like, "Have you looked at the stuff I paint?" And the answer was no. I felt like sometimes people were asking for all these random works. I don't think people always understand those distinctive columns that artists are in or whatever category or element you're in. I need to be happy during this process. I know whenever I'm not happy painting something or when it's a forced space, it doesn't come out right. But it took a little time. What's different now is they're bigger clients who are willing to pay more. So [the question is] do I really want to turn away a couple thousand? Things start to look different when you have difference circumstances but I try to keep that as separate as I can. When you start thinking about needing money or making certain connections, that's when you start operating from an inauthentic space. So yeah, it's taken time. I still have to think about it. It'd be hard to turn away a million dollar contract. As the contracts get bigger and commissions get broader, it'll definitely be hard.

I appreciate your honesty. That's a lot of why I respect you. We've talked about how you ended up here. Your openness. How disrupting your comfort zone opened up a new world of opportunity and ultimately changed your life experience. We've talked about your value, your perspective of the world, and we've talked about saying no. If you were to say to yourself 5 years ago, "This is what life is about. This is the most important thing for you to carry with you through the next phase. What type of advice or insight would you give yourself?" [The point of my question is to encourage other people, too. What drew you into Seattle's scene was the fact that these were regular, everyday people. So if you're talking to those people who may just be starting, as a person who's garnered some influence and is climbing the ranks, what type of advice would you give to those people, as well as yourself 5 years ago.] 

Protect your energy. You have to build a shield around yourself—not in negative way of keeping people out, but from the space of cultivation. We literally have the power to create our lives. I believe that whole heartedly. That's what I write on my vision boards; speak intentions and manifestation. Knowing that power, knowing that we have to cultivate the energy around us. We have to curate people who enter our space, art that enters our space, opportunities, business folk. Everybody isn't out here to see you win, but a lot of people are struggling with a lot of stuff. I remember the poster I bought in college. It's an image of an iceberg where the top is what you see, and there's this whole mass underneath. Every single person, we see a smidgen of them. There's so many layers though. You have to protect yourself from certain situations while still cultivating what you need. Through it all, you've got to have yourself. I think in our society, it's so wrong to be selfish. I have to have that balance. Whenever we feel like we're doing other people favors for the sake of our mental health, peace or sanity, we're hurting ourselves. We're the most important people to ourselves. We are literally our own ecosystem, our universe. We have to protect our energies, especially as creatives. That is our source of everything. You gotta hold that and keep it safe. I'm selling one of my pairings, and I'm sad to see it go. It's called Break Free, and it was inspired by Kendrick Lamar's "To pimp a butterfly" album. I saw an interview where he was talking about how artists are typically exploited. Like, "Go sing. Dance." Artists are exploited and drained, and then their creativity is gone and they feel empty. And now society's moved on to the next best thing. But now, there's just this person who's just a shell and empty. No one's gonna protect you like you. You gotta protect that. If I didn't have my art, I'd be crazy. So knowing that that's so important to me, I don't want anybody to try to taint that.

For people who'd like to find you, what are your social media channels?

You can find me on the 'gram, which is @mis_liberation. My website is aohamer.com, and my Facebook artist page is A O Hamer.

Any final words for the people?

Thank you. I'm honored, Jess, for real. I'm honored that you're creating this space for folks, and also providing this level of transparency of the hustle and the grind for people. People don't see that. We all go through these ups and downs. It doesn't make you less. It doesn't make you better. It just makes you a part of the struggle, and you gotta trust it. You know, so keep on moving through it.

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