Interviewsand Articles


A Conversation with Ama Torrance: Without A Recipe

by Richard Whittaker, Sep 1, 2022



Going beyond the known territory may only take walking a few extra blocks. It’s an absurdly low bar, but realizing this—then taking an interest in it—had a lot to do with the pandemic. Walking outdoors still seemed pretty safe, and soon I was making a practice of it. The discovery of these sculptures is one of the more charming finds that followed. Coming across a huge bunny was startling—and the bunny wasn’t alone! There were several other outsized animals scattered around this elegant place. Who made them? Two large dogs persuaded me that opening the gate to go knock on the front door wasn’t a good idea. But I was so curious I walked past the place many times over several months hoping to catch someone in the yard. I asked people I ran into if they knew who made the animal sculptures. One woman told me the artist’s name was Ama. Hmm. Exotic. The name conjured someone from India or another distant place—and there was Amma, of course, the hugging saint. As time passed without even a glimpse of the mysterious maker, fantasies appeared. This artist probably had a far-flung customer base buying pieces for parks, playgrounds and the gardens of well-to-do folks. I figured she was doing a good business.
     Then one day, as I was walking in her neighborhood (which was always a treat because of its beauty), I spotted a man in a security car. I’d seen him before. On a sudden impulse, I walked over and asked if he knew the person who made the bunny sculptures. He did. I introduced myself. “We’ve seen each other before, haven’t we?” Yes, he’d seen me walking my dogs. His name was Jeff.
     Knowing it was a long shot, I pulled out a copy of works & conversations and described what I was doing with it. We chatted a bit, and then I asked if he’d be willing to give the magazine to her the next time he saw her. He said he would, and we parted. 
     Long story short, a couple of weeks later I had a letter from Ama Torrance along with a contribution for the magazine. I could hardly believe it. Not long after that I spotted Jeff, walked over to his car and thanked him for his selfless generosity. The genuine smile that came over his face was just another blessing in the lengthy trajectory of how this interview came to be.—R. Whittaker

works:  What was your impulse for the animal pieces?

Ama Torrance:  I started making sculpture with ceramics in the late 1980s at Laney College.

works:  What prompted you to start with ceramics?

Ama:  I don’t know. I didn’t want to paint. I wanted to make sculpture.

works:  So you had some ideas about art already.

Ama:  Oh, yeah. I’d done a lot of art before then. I went to the Art Institute [SFAI] and did a lot of undergraduate work. Then I spent several years being a seeker, soul searching, and living in various ashrams and Zen centers. I lived at Esalen for a while.

works:  And when would that have been?

Ama:  In the late ‘60s, early ‘70s—those sort of lost years.    
works:  Were they really lost?

Ama:  Well, I don’t know. They were kind of foggy [laughs]. I lost the thread of making art. I got more involved in the spiritual and psychological realm when I was at Esalen and, from there, I got into working in community mental health.

works:  You must have had some sort of…

Ama:  I had no formal training for that. I just did it. One of the guys from Esalen, Sam Myerson, knew something about a place in Walnut Creek. I was living in Berkeley at the time, so I went over there and somehow got a job as a mental health worker. It was the early ‘70s and everyone was very idealistic. I mean, there were a lot of us who had degrees in psychology, and people like me who thought we knew something, but really didn’t. Then I did get a master’s in psychology, but by that time I was disillusioned with individual psychology, and was more interested in organizational systems. Working in mental health was so sad, and I saw a lot of failure of the conceptualization of psychological issues and solutions.

works:  So what was the focus your Master’s degree in psychology?

Ama:  Organizational psychology and theory, organizational development.

works:  Did any of the spiritual traditions that you brushed shoulders with have an impact?

Ama:  I think they became part of me, but I don’t - I’m not a traditionalist. I don’t really stick with the rules of anything. I can’t follow a recipe in a recipe book. I have to do it my way. So I get the basic tenets of how things work, you know. If you want to make banana bread you look at a bunch of recipes and figure out how everything works together and then you make it however you want to make it.

works:  I understand that because in the last year I learned how to make scones, and the moment I understood the fundamentals—I mean you can just throw the recipes away.

Ama:   Exactly. Exactly. And then you start experimenting with it, with different flours and [laughs]…

works:  [laughs] It’s great fun. But what you’re describing—and I relate to this going back pretty far—what is it that gives some people that confidence, if that’s the word. What makes some people want to do it “my way”? Have you had any thoughts about that?

Ama:  No. Maybe it’s an inability to follow authority. I mean, there’s nothing romantic about it. There are good things and bad things about it. It’s being independent-minded, I guess. At Esalen I saw so many different kinds of spiritual traditions, because it’s such a melting pot there. It’s pretty hard to believe in a lot of these things, you know. There are lots of charlatans out there.
      I used to do a lot of tai chi, which I thought was a good meditation, and good for the body. Then I found that tennis was more engaging and social. You have to be just as focused and your mind has to be just as quiet, or you miss the ball. It depends on how you approach things—not so much what you do, but how you do it. If you think of it as having a laser focus, then your mind has to be just as quiet. Right?

works:  I guess. I mean, what is a laser focus? What is it that makes it possible? I know we’re off on a bit of a tangent, but I think it’s interesting.

Ama:  It is an interesting tangent.

works:  Our culture puts a lot of emphasis on getting answers. Maybe it requires something like a laser focus. On the other hand, we’re not so interested in questions. But I’ve noticed that if I really have a question, it puts me in a state of openness waiting to see if something is going to appear.

Ama:  I think it’s very individual. In all of that seeking, some of the people I thought were really great, in the end, were the Tibetan Buddhists. Do you remember who Chogyam Trungpa was?

works:  Sure.

Ama:  Very irreverent. Really fabulous. He talked about “spiritual materialism.”

works:  Yes. He was not a fan of it.

Ama:  No. And he gave us that term. His idea is that it’s where you find it. And I think so much of Tibetan Buddhism is in that tradition. You just have to look, and there it is. So it’s how you approach everything. Learn the fundamentals, and there it is.
     It’s sort of like the recipes. Learn the basics, and there it is. You can make it! Right? You know how an egg works with flour. You can do it. Right?

works:  [laughs] I’m happy to let that sit there. I’m not too worried about staying within the lines.

Ama:  Clearly not! Because you haven’t.

works:  Well, yes and no. My mother was very concerned about staying within the lines. My father was not. But that’s another story. So it’s a mix.

Ama:  So, after doing a lot of this psychology stuff, I started making art again. Actually, I was in a PhD program at UC Berkeley in the Education Department. It was about organizational theory. I took a lot of courses in political science and anthropology. I just thought it was fascinating. I really liked it. But when it was time to get a thesis and find somebody to help me get out, it was really, really hard. Anyway, that went south. And one of my good friends—after all that went south—did this ceramics class with me at Laney College. So I started making art again. 

works:  You started at Laney?

Ama:  At Laney!

works:   I love that [laughs].

Ama:   I love Laney! In the Ceramics Department, Laney was just brilliant. You could do whatever you wanted. Nobody ran roughshod over you.

works:  Okay. And you started in ceramics.

Ama:  Yes, in sculpture. I’d never made sculpture before that.

works:  What was that like for you just suddenly making sculpture?

Ama:  Oh, it was fun! Totally fun—and very easy. Sculpture has always been super easy for me.

works:  You have a good connection with your body and motor skills.

Ama:  Yes. It’s easy for me to make things and have them look the way I want them to. It’s just totally fascinating. And ceramics is so easy to fall in love with—because of all the natural elements, the heating and… I mean, everything about it is kind of a miracle. The glazes are a miracle. It’s really endless and fascinating. I had so much fun playing with it.

works:  I love your description, and how everything about it is a miracle.

Ama:  Everything is a miracle.

works:  Including the cracks and glazes that go wrong [laughs].

Ama:  It’s like… It’s volcanic. It’s ancient. And I liked all the high-fire stuff. But I never did porcelain. I never did anything dainty.

works:  No daintiness [laughs].

Ama:  No daintiness. So I really enjoyed making ceramics. I did body parts and, I think, the usual stuff. When people start making ceramic sculpture I think they do a lot of the same things. And then, I just wanted to work bigger. But it’s too hard to work big in ceramics like Viola Frey did or what John Toki does. I didn’t want to do that. Mel and Leta Ramos were friends from tennis, and Mel introduced me to a sculptor friend who was working in foam and fiberglass. I’ve forgotten his name-—Steve Akana, maybe. So I started working with foam and fiberglass and it was so great because you could make anything big, and it didn’t break or blow up! This was in the late ‘90s or early 2000s. I started making sheep, I think, and tigers. Some of those tigers over there are from then. Animals. I always made big animals.  Then I started making the big bunnies. And there was no reason for it. There was no particular thought about it, like what they meant. It was spontaneous.   

works:  Looking at the painting, I get a sense of—like was there a joy in it?

Ama:  Yes. A joy. That’s what I think of all this work. Everybody who walks by here says “Thank you so much for the sculpture! It puts a smile on my face.” I say, “That’s the idea.”

works:  That’s beautiful. Coincidentally just yesterday I had a conversation with someone I met out walking. She wanted to talk with my dogs. So we got into a conversation and, you know, I’m interested in conversations.

Ama:  I know. It’s great that you are.

works:  Anyway we were talking, and I asked her if she ever walked beyond the known territory. She liked that and said there were several walks she liked to do. So I asked, “Have you ever seen those big bunny sculptures? She lit up. “Oh, yes! I love those!” she said. I said I’d be talking with you the very next day and she said, “Please tell her I love them!” So there’s an immediate confirmation.

Ama:  It’s such a kick, right?

works:  Of course! If I make something that I love and then someone else loves it, too… I don’t know if it gets much better than that.

Ama:  That’s what I think! It’s such a kick. I mean, when people are happy—and the kids play on it. If I see cars stopped and the kids looking at it, I stop the car and say, “You can play on it! As long as you don’t sue me.”

works:  I know, that’s the scary thing. But that’s great.

Ama:  It’s so fun! What’s better? I mean, being in a museum wouldn’t be any more fun than that—especially if people can’t play on the things. Not that it keeps me from envying artists who have a big career.

works:  [laughs] This is why I do the magazine, in a way. That is, to get things on the record where people, as far as I’m concerned, are talking real sense.

Ama:  Yeah. No art theory. I hate art theory.

works:  I read somewhere just recently that the postmodern critique is creating mental problems. I find that easy to believe. It steals ways of believing in a sense of beauty, order and mystery as being part of something fundamentally real. 

Ama:  Exactly. It’s horseshit. Intellectual vampirism. It’s awful.

works:  Well, we don’t need to go there. I’d say that I’ve found speaking with artists can often exemplify something pointing in another direction—not a theoretical thing, but something experienced directly.

Ama:  Well, that really is my goal—just to put a smile on people’s faces. That’s a great goal, right?

works:  Well, I’ll tell you something that made a big impression on me when we met and talked the first time. You took me outside and showed me a little diorama you’d put outside on the bank by the sidewalk. Kids from the neighborhood had been coming and interacting with it, bringing new pieces to put with it, and playing around with arrangements. And you were so happy about that.

Ama:  Yes. I just put one out over there [points]. Kids are starting to do things with it today. That’s what I was doing this morning, playing with these two kids at my studio. They were taking all this stuff from my studio and making these dioramas. It was so fun.

works:  So the kids made their own arrangements?

Ama:  Yes. I just gave them a blank canvas. At my studio, there are shelves and shelves and drawers of stuff. I was thinking we would make something, and they would put it out in the neighborhood. But they had so much fun they didn’t want to do that. They wanted to take it home and put it in their bedroom and play with it some more. These are kids who are five, six and seven. It was just so beautiful. Did you see this one? Look at those giraffes by the pool! Isn’t that hilarious?

works:  And there are all these ants out there, too. It’s sort of like freeing up the sand tray and giving it back to the world.

Ama:  And I’m not analyzing it like a sand-tray person would, you know?

works:  Right. In any of your time in psychology did you do any sand-tray work?

Ama:  I had a friend who did sand tray, and I tried that once or twice. You’d have a troubled kid in school and have them do sand tray.

works:  And in good hands, that can help.

Ama:  Yes, I agree with you.  ∆

Photos by Richard Whittaker

See more at Ama's website     


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.    


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