Organic Whimsy

"Life is whimsical in the way that it’s always fluctuating and flowing, and this constant motion of molecules is one of the main ideas I’m trying to explore"

Aimee Manion, whose illustrations are featured in Creative Nonfiction #69, “Intoxication,” is a mixed media artist and a native of Pittsburgh, PA. Her artwork is inspired by her interests in organic evolution, music, and symbiosis which she merges to explore the invisible yet vital aspects of life. Explore more of her work at

CNF: What are your favorite artistic mediums for crafting a piece? And are there mediums you dislike working in?

Manion: Water is my favorite medium. Right now, I love working with water-based materials like ink and liquid acrylics. I usually start out pouring watered-down pigment onto the canvas, creating splashes or amorphous blobs. I work in thin layers, letting each layer dry in between.  It creates this amoeba-under-a-microscope effect which I’m obsessed with. I also use a lot of drawing materials like charcoal, Prismacolor Art Stix, colored pencils and quill pens. I guess I’d say that my paintings are really drawings, in most ways. I don’t use oils often — not because I don’t love them, but mainly because of the fumes. I’m sensitive to that stuff, plus I have a hard time not getting paint on my skin… 

CNF: How did you find your “playfully surreal” style and how do you think of your style as being different from traditional surrealism (if there is such a thing)?

Manion: This surreal-biological style I’ve developed started in college. I was working on a double major in Fine Arts and Biological Anthropology, and I started to use my art as a way of processing all of the incredible stuff I was learning about science and biological evolution.  Painting gave me a way to express and interpret what I was learning—a different way to visualize the complex processes I was trying to understand. I did a whole series of paintings about DNA replication. I think my style is not that different from traditional surrealism because surrealism is inherently playful, and also involves curious juxtapositions of forms. It’s a little different because I’m not so much focused on surrendering to my subconscious in order to find inspiration – I’m more of an active-thinking painter. Also, I’m not too interested in stream-of-conscious working (except when I begin)—most of the marks I make are very much planned. 

CNF: Biology and the imaginary intersect beautifully in your work. How do you balance organic and whimsical elements?

Manion: I think that organic things are incredibly whimsical—just look under a microscope. Life is whimsical in the way that it’s always fluctuating and flowing, and this constant motion of molecules is one of the main ideas I’m trying to explore. Biological evolution is so inspiring to learn about because it shows how essentially all living things are connected. We are all made from the same basic stuff, it’s just constantly changing form. And just as our body works to maintain balance within itself, an artist must work to give balance to a painting. 

CNF: Per your website, your “Happy Hills” series—which is featured in CNF #69—is an homage to Bob Ross’s work. How has Ross inspired your practice, and what do you think of his resurgence in American pop culture in the past several years?

Manion: I don’t own a Bob Ross T-shirt, but I do have great respect for the man and his impact on the world. When I was little, my dad (who is a software engineer and also a talented artist), bought The Joy of Painting kit and created all of these beautiful Bob Ross paintings. I’ll never forget watching him paint on stretched canvas, using an easel, palette knives and oil paints — it looked like way more fun than crayons and paper! I was definitely intrigued. Bob Ross shaped my life because he inspired my dad to paint, and having a dad who loves and supports art is the best gift a shy young artist could hope for. As far as Bob’s resurgence, I think it’s wonderful. Although I feel like people are more interested in just watching him paint and listening to his peaceful voice rather than actually following along with a paintbrush. Perhaps people are in need of some warmth and positivity right now, and the nostalgia of Bob Ross gently painting happy little trees brings them joy.

CNF: You also say that music influences your practice. Can you talk about what that means? How do you transform an auditory experience into a visual one?

Manion: I pretty much only listen to classical music, especially in the studio. Something that shaped my love for classical music as a kid was Disney’s Fantasia. In Fantasia, different artists interpret famous classical movements, and there is a part in the film where the animation is completely abstract. Each instrument has its own shape and color, relating to how it sounds.  It starts out simply with the violins making bright strokes across the dark screen, and evolves into an abstract landscape. While most kids probably thought this was the boring part, I loved it. I’ve always loved classical music. And seeing these sounds visualized like that just made sense to me. I thought, “Yeah, the violin sounds like that shape.” I remember thinking that if I were deaf I would have been able to hear the music in a way because of how the artists were able to draw the sounds. That was pretty eye-opening for my young mind, and taught me about the value and potential of abstract art. 

CNF: Creative Nonfiction #69 explores the topic of intoxication. Does intoxication have a role in art, do you think? And can art itself be a form of intoxication?

Manion: There is definitely the stereotype of the intoxicated artist, the drunk writer… and it’s true that creative people are at higher risk of having depression and substance abuse disorders—there are a lot of studies about this. For me, I prefer to see clearly while I’m creating my work. Even though it looks spontaneous, most of my work is really controlled and planned. And being sober helps me make better decisions and have better control of my hands, which is pretty important. Don’t get me wrong, I think that being intoxicated can be greatly inspiring, too! Intoxication can help you let go of your inner critic and access a state of creative flow. It can also allow you to loosen up in social situations and connect with people more fluidly. Every person is different in their relationship to intoxication. Some people can maintain the balance and others find moderation impossible. I’m a bartender, so I get to see the whole spectrum of people’s relationships to intoxication. And that’s what it is, a spectrum.

CNF: You mentioned that you are building an art studio in a 120-year-old house in Bellevue. What is it like to design your own artistic space? Is this project as much of a creative endeavor as your paintings?

Manion: I’m used to being crammed into a spare bedroom, so designing my own studio is a dream come true. We have 3000 square feet, with 10-foot ceilings, so there is plenty of room for me to expand and paint big — finally! Restoring an old house is definitely a serious creative endeavor and I love it. I’m most excited about designing and building new stained glass windows (they were all removed and sold by the previous owner), restoring the beautiful oak double staircase, and making some unique tile mosaics. My husband is super handy and really creative too, so this house will be a work of art when we are done with it.

CNF: Your bio mentions that you also work in fiber art, portraiture, and antique restoration. Are there any other ways that you express yourself creatively?

Manion: Creativity plays a lot of roles for me. Fiber arts help me relax—I can spend hours in a peaceful knitting meditation. As an introvert, that is very healing. Creativity is also a way I connect with my friends. We love to get together and have “studio time” where we all bring different projects and just create whatever we want. We’ll make statement jewelry pieces from wire and beads, or wrap coasters out of rafia and rope, all while we sit around talking and laughing. My best friend Steph always reminds me that it’s important for artists to just “play” sometimes—not everything I make has to be sold or successful.

CNF: How has living in Pittsburgh influenced or affected your artistic practice?

Manion: Pittsburgh is a really great place to be an artist. The city is big enough that there are lots of opportunities, and small enough that you can actually get to know a lot of people within the arts community. I got my start by winning the emerging artist scholarship for the Three River’s Arts Festival in 2008, which allowed me to participate in the arts festival for free. Every year they select several local emerging artists and give them a free booth—it’s an incredible opportunity for local artists. I made so many connections with people during the arts fest—it totally jump-started my career. I’d also recommend joining the (free) Pittsburgh Artist’s Registry. It’s for artists of all types, and I’ve actually had some great opportunities come from being on this registry.

CNF: Where can readers find more of your work?

Manion: Currently I have some prints and original work for sale at Small Mall in Lawrenceville. It’s a fantastic and unique local art shop owned by Casey Droege, a Pittsburgh arts advocate. I’ll have some original paintings displayed in a new Wyndham Tryp hotel that is currently under construction in Lawrenceville. There is a 17-foot mural inside of Bill’s Bar & Burger (in the room with Mr. Roger’s puppets!) that I painted, and I created the artwork for Off the Hook in Warrendale. Since I’m mainly focused on getting my studio/house finished, I’m not involved in many shows right now. But once I get back to business I’m pretty confident you’ll see my work all over town.

About the Author

Leah Stauber

Leah Stauber is an intern at Creative Nonfiction. She enjoys reading and writing creative nonfiction, fiction, and dad jokes. She is a Fleetwood Mac enthusiast, and hopes to write something publishable at some point in her life.

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