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Amber Vittoria Wants You To Define Femininity

The NYC-based illustrator is a champion for the everyday woman, representation in media, and body hair

All photos courtesy of Amber Vittoria

If you’re in the streets of New York City, look around and you might see Amber Vittoria’s fluid, colorful figures gracing the screens of the digital kiosks on every corner. The images are only up for a few seconds before they move on to another (far less exciting) screen, but the boldness and energy of “City of Women” — Vittoria’s piece commissioned by LinkNYC — stays with you even a few blocks later.

This is precisely the goal of the 28-year-old illustrator, who uses color and form as a way to draw in viewers in hopes of spurring deeper discussions about women and femininity. Body hair vaguely reminiscent of rainbow sprinkles (who wouldn’t want that!) and flowing limbs that end in varnished digits are among the exaggerated features that Vittoria embraces in her work. Even her Instagram presence is strong; her feed is a vibrant celebration of the female form.

“A majority of my content is around that idea of showing women how they really are,” said Vittoria. Growing up, she remembers visiting art museums where most works were by male artists, women were portrayed through the male gaze. The lack of representation and a skewed depiction of women left an impression on Vittoria, who was inspired to push the art world in a different direction.

Post-graduation, Vittoria worked as a web designer for Victoria’s Secret before going to an ad agency, where she became an art director. However, the lack of freelance work and autonomy in projects left Vittoria feeling unhappy. “I took a hard pivot,” she said, finding a 9 to 5 design job at Avon that gave her an enormous amount of time back.

“I started illustrating more heavily, putting my work out there, and leveraging Instagram specifically to build an audience,” said Vittoria, who is now her own boss — she decided to go freelance full-time this past December.

“I’ve really been able to build up a huge client list and make all this really beautiful work that’s relatable and impactful to women,” she said. Vittoria’s clients are impressive, including The New York Times, Gucci, and Teen Vogue, and it’s easy to see why people love her work.

New Stand: Being a woman in the art world, does it affect your work in any way? Has it affected your journey to becoming successful?

Amber Vittoria: Definitely. I feel like growing up knowing that I wanted to work in art somehow, going to art museums and galleries and exhibitions and seeing the majority of artwork created was created by a male artist was definitely impactful to me because where am I? Who’s representing who I want to become? And on the flipside, the majority of the work that I saw, especially in classical art museums, depicted women, but they were also depicted by male artists. So for me, it just felt so inaccurate. Women aren’t just sexual or just maternal. There is so much more to who we are and how we look, and I just felt like there was such a disconnect.

NS: What does femininity mean to you? I remember reading somewhere that that’s really a focus of your work.

AV: For me, the definition varies from person to person. However you feel most confident, that’s femininity. So if you are the type of person that gets up in the morning, puts on jeans and a t-shirt, pulls their hair back — like me, most days — and we feel feminine, then that’s femininity. If you want to get your nails done every week, which I also do when I’m not painting, that’s also femininity. If you love to shave, or you love not to shave, both of those things are femininity. It’s really just showing a breadth of what femininity can be — there is no hard definition. It’s really personal.

NS: I love your use of body hair in your pieces. I feel like it’s so taboo and recently I met a lot of people who don’t shave their legs, don’t shave their armpits and I was like “why do I even have to shave?”.

AV: Same. For me, I’ll shave whenever my legs start to get itchy or it dries out my skin, and I’ll shave and moisturize. That’s what works for me, and that’s a beautiful thing that I think society is incrementally catching up with — the idea that women don’t have to all fall into one bucket. So hopefully the work I make, and the work that other female artists make, becomes more present in art museums, in society, and in media, and will continue to incrementally grow and stretch the definition of what it means to be a woman.

NS: In a lot of your works, you take body parts that are typically sexualized and you turn them into not objects. Do you think you’re reclaiming them in a way?

AV: I hope so — I love that! I’m gonna use that, like “I’m reclaiming everything.”

NS: When I see your stuff, I’m like “that’s what she’s doing!”

AV: And that’s what my aim is. I love when people comment, especially since most people see my work initially through Instagram. I love when people comment that a piece reminds themselves of themselves. Even though my color and form are a bit exaggerated just to pull the viewer in and talk about topics that are a bit more serious in relationship to women, the idea that someone can relate to it is so important to me, just because I feel like that’s lacking for a lot of women — myself included.

NS: Do you feel like your work or style has changed at all ever since the election, with women speaking out and the Me Too movement?

AV: I think I’ve become more bold talking about more serious topics, and I’ve been really fortunate to work with brands and editorial publications on those topics. Specifically, last December, the New York Times magazine came out with an issue called “She Said”, and they commissioned several female artists, designers, and illustrators to make artwork about sexual harassment in the workplace. So just having opportunities like that is so important, because it puts it on a national scale of how important these conversations are.

In terms of my style, I would say that I’ve shifted more not because of content but because of media. I recently bought an iPad Pro, and I’m starting to experiment with digitally painting and playing around with that type of process so I can travel and learn more from women all over the world and have that impact my work. Whereas my process of drawing and printing and scanning is very limiting because you can’t drag a printer and a scanner everywhere. So starting to evolve in that way affects my style more. But in terms of content, in regards to everything going on in the news, I would definitely say I’ve been more emboldened to talk about topics that are a bit difficult for people to discuss.

NS: So, going back to your LinkNYC piece. Did they reach out to you? Because that’s how I first saw your work, on the kiosks.

AV: So two years ago when they first popped up around the city, I emailed them, and they quickly got back to me like, “We love this idea, but we’re so new that we’re still figuring out what these even are,” so then I would just keep note about what kind of content they were sharing on kiosks. A few months ago, I noticed they showed artwork from an artist who created a book about New York City, so I emailed them back and they were like, “If you have any work that’s related to New York City let us know.” So I made three really quick, colorful portraits of three different women that inspired me who were just walking down the streets of NYC, and then they started showing them.

NS: How do you feel seeing your work around the city?

AV: It’s fun. When I first saw them, I threw my phone at my boyfriend and was like “TAKE A PICTURE” because I would always miss it. But it’s really fun, and I love all the people that have reached out to me because of it. It’s been really wild. And a few of my artist friends are also gonna start having their artwork on there too, which is really exciting, so be on the lookout.

NS: What’s the most exciting collaboration you’ve done?

AV: One of my favorites is a collaboration with Otherland, a Brooklyn based candle company — woman-owned. We created a candle together where I created an illustration, and Abigail — the owner — created the scent inspired by my work. That came out a few months ago, which is really fun.

Another great one I did about a month or two ago was with Gucci. They commissioned 15 female artists to talk about coming of age and blooming for their perfume launch, which was really wonderful. It was in an Instagram carousel form, which is something that I haven’t done in terms of storytelling. That was the one part of the brief that they had us do and everything else was up to us. I loved that you can get a little deeper than having everything layered in one image, since it forces the layers per image as you scroll.

Then — it comes out in a month — I’m collaborating with Tidal. They’re a New York City based flip flop company. We did three illustrations for flip flops around the idea of being too hot in New York City, with the idea of what being hot means in media and society, but also literally being too hot.

NS: So it sounds like you’ve worked with a lot of fashion brands. Is that something that you’re drawn to or just a coincidence?

AV: I’m definitely drawn to it because fashion designers are so inspiring. Being able to make art that’s on a moving being is tough, because that’s a gnarly canvas to work on — especially expecting the unexpected when someone wears or moves in it. Also, for me, the portrayal of women in fashion definitely needs a lot of growth. So me putting everyday women in clothing that is a little bit more high end, is where I feel the fashion industry needs to go with their own advertising. So it’s really nice that they see that and understand that and agree with it. The incremental change within the perception of women in fashion is really exciting.

NS: The bodies that you’re drawing are definitely not what the fashion world’s ideals are, and it’s nice to see that changing.

AV: Hopefully that will be the ideal soon.

NS: There shouldn’t even be an ideal!

AV: Exactly! The ideal should be not having an ideal.

NS: Are there any other upcoming projects you’re working on?

AV: I’m just working on some personal projects — the summer slows down a little bit which is nice, so I’m taking the time to explore my own personal work and getting that out there.

NS: Last question. If you had to commission one person to create your portrait, who would it be?

AV: That is a great question! No one’s ever asked me that question before. If I had to commission someone — can I say a few people? I would say Dana Schutz, Jenny Saville — both are painters, both are incredible. And I’m trying to think of someone who doesn’t do painting to commission a portrait. I would probably ask Allison Bamcat — she’s an illustrator — just to see what she would make in terms of what a portrait of me meant to her.

NS: Okay, this is my final final question. You said you wished interviewers would ask “What did you eat last?” but I just watched you eat it! [It was a sandwich from Smile To Go.] So, what was the last thing you ate before this?

AV: My mom made banana bread, and nut free banana bread is not hard [Vittoria has a nut allergy] but there are ingredients made in facilities with tree nuts, so my mom goes above and beyond to make sure there are no traces at all. So it’s really good. That’s what I had for breakfast — just a slice, not the whole thing.

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