Maria Amalia is a storyteller through her papermaking practice

Maria Amalia tells stories of home, immigration, memories and shared journeys within the community.
Maria Amalia in her studio standing in front of pieces of paper
Photo by Nikki Hansen

Becoming an artist was not on Maria Amalia’s radar. Growing up in Honduras, she drew with colored pencils and paper, but it was never more than something fun to do on the side. In high school, she took a graphic design course and knew it was something she wanted to pursue, but her teachers told her she should focus on a career using math instead. This led her to consider architecture, something her parents supported because it was viewed as more of a “professional career.”

But as soon as she came to the United States and started school at Judson University in Elgin, Illinois, she switched right back to art.

“It seems like I’ve always been running from art, but art keeps coming and chasing me back,” Amalia says.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in general art and a minor in visual communication in 2006, she worked in design and product development. That brought her to Madison — where she lived for four years as a kid before her family went back to Honduras — in 2010 to work at Serrv International, a fair trade-focused nonprofit. Amalia says it wasn’t until she started her Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison that she considered herself to be a full-time textile artist.

Amalia is a papermaker, which means she prepares pulp from fibers to create individual sheets of paper. She crafts abstract pieces using the wet paper to form a collage. “One of the beauties about papermaking is the transformation that a fiber goes through,” she says. “When I make artwork, the materials that I use and the process that I use is very important to me, so that it complements the end result.”

Amalia got her MFA in fiber arts, and it was a class on papermaking that pointed her toward her specialty. Her adviser, Mary Hark — a renowned papermaker in her own right — urged Amalia to continue pursuing the practice.

Maria Amalia weaving paper with thread

Photo by Nikki Hansen

“With papermaking, I can make as many mistakes as I want and start over without any judgment,” Amalia says. “It’s just a beautiful medium to be able to just feel freedom.”

Almost all of Amalia’s art connects with the theme of home or what home means to her. While her art is largely abstract, Amalia wants to tell stories based on her personal memories of growing up in Honduras, time with her grandmother and her connection to Costa Rica, her mother’s birthplace.

“Paso del Tiempo,” or “Passage of Time,” is inspired by her grandmother’s life, as well as the weathering process that happened to her house in Honduras. When her grandmother’s health started to deteriorate, she wanted to die in her own home. Amalia says she hadn’t been back to her childhood home or her grandmother’s home in 10 years. The walls outside of both buildings had peeling paint, mold or oxidation, but Amalia says she fell in love with the beautiful colors, textures and nostalgia. “All of the stories [were] embedded in those walls,” Amalia says. “Abstract, it’s not a literal thing so when I started making a lot of my work, it was inspired by that. So you’ll see my work that feels kind of, like, decayed — it feels like ripped, it feels like peeling.”

Along with “Paso del Tiempo,” “Memories of Home” was inspired by the stories of immigrants, the places immigrants established in America and the former home of a German immigrant in the Halfway Prairie Wildlife Area. “Memories of Home” was composed of 50 little houses representing each state.

memories of home with earrings made of paper

Photo by Nikki Hansen

When not creating on her own, Amalia also has a socially engaged art practice that allows others to participate in the art-making process. One of her first collaborative projects was “Soñé una Milpa” with J. Leigh Garcia. The two artists spoke with 10 Latina immigrant women, then created pieces based on the women’s stories.

“The minute you share your story with somebody, you are no longer a label, you are no longer just a number; you become a person, a human being. When somebody is able to see you as a human with feelings and emotions and stories and memories that you can relate with one another, then that’s when the walls begin to come down,” Amalia says. “The difficult walls are the ones that are in between us now in our communities right now. And between all of us there’s so much polarization because of assumptions. … We can start tearing those assumptions down when we start to get to know one another for who we are and give each other a chance.”

Amalia is the first artist-in-residence at Pinney Library, and her current large project is a collaboration with the community. Over the summer, adults and kids stopped by the library to learn how to make paper. Those individual works will become the raw materials she plans to turn into a larger piece inspired by “journeys.” She also had some visitors write biases, prejudices and negative experiences on strips of fabric that will be cut up, transformed and used within the pulp to make sheets of paper.

Until the Pinney Library project, Amalia’s work largely centered on the feeling of loss — the loss of her grandmother, of her home and of herself when she became a full-time mom after graduating with her MFA. When spending more time outdoors with her kids, she fell in love with Wisconsin sunsets. Instead of loss, Amalia says these sights inspired hope and looking forward.

That’s what led her to the Pinney Library collaboration, which focuses on everybody’s journeys and tries to instill a sense of hope despite COVID-19, the nation’s political divide or other negative circumstances. She says she wants it to reflect “finding common ground through our shared journeys.”

sheets of paper drying

Photo by Nikki Hansen

Over the fall, she’s been using the raw materials, ripping them up and collaging. Next, she plans to gather a group of women to embroider the piece and talk about their journeys. By the time it’s complete, many hands will have been involved in the process.

“I want to focus on the journey that the paper itself took,” Amalia says. “It went through kids’ hands, it went through adults’ hands. It went through all these processes to get to the final result.”

Amalia also sends her paper to a group of resin jewelry makers in Mexico to construct earrings she designs. Some of the funds she gets from the earrings are used to order more earrings and support the smaller makers — many of whom she met while working at Serrv.

When she’s not making art herself or taking care of her 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, she’s teaching and inspiring the next generation of artists as a part-time art educator at Lighthouse Christian School.

Pouring color on the paper

Photo by Nikki Hansen

“I see children as my research lab,” Amalia says. “I would rather look at kids’ drawings all day long than go to an art museum full of all the master artists, because kids’ drawings have this authentic line and coloring to it that’s very hard to replicate once you’re an adult. That joy and excitement that they bring into the table when making art is something … hopefully I aspire to get back to one day.”

Find Maria Amalia:
Facebook: @mariaamaliawood
Instagram: @mariaamaliawood

Maija Inveiss is an associate editor of Madison Magazine.

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