Thief & Bandit

by | May 13, 2009 | ART

Amie Cunningham, a Richmond transplant, and the mastermind behind the inimitable Thief & Bandit clothing and jewelry line, is a busy girl.

Amie Cunningham, a Richmond transplant, and the mastermind behind the inimitable Thief & Bandit clothing and jewelry line, is a busy girl. When we met up with her at her studio space in Scott’s Addition she was preparing herself for a two month stay in Germany with her husband Johnston. Greeted by Leroy, her 60-pound Great Pyrenees Sheppard, at the door we poked our heads in, we were immediately submerged in the surrounding creativity and eager to ask questions.

Hunter Rolfe: Where and how did you get your start?

Amie Cunningham: I was born in British Columbia; there are native reserves all over the place. My family was strict Catholic, but we lived around all of these different reserves and I was always fascinated by natural history museums of the aboriginal people. I felt such a disconnect there between my upbringing and what was going on around me, but I was always really fascinated by it.

One year when I was a little girl I spent the summer at my aunt and uncles house in the middle of nowhere in British Columbia and wasn’t getting along with my cousins that well, and my aunt gave me a book of 18th century fashion. I drew from it everyday and that’s how I started making art, because of my aunt. I just drew and drew and decided then that I wanted to be a fashion designer. In high school I really got into painting. We lived in such a small town though, so none of the bands that all of my friends and I liked would tour anywhere near us. So I started painting t-shirts, copying Sonic Youth album covers and making t-shirts for my friends. That was sort of my first t-shirt fashion thing.

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Karen Seifert: Did you end up going beyond high school for art?

A: I decided the best thing would be to go to art school, at McMaster’s University in Hamilton, Ontario. I loved it. I loved every second of it. I wanted to be around people like myself, and every assignment I was given I was super excited about, and knew exactly what I wanted to do.

K: Did you ever experiment with different mediums in school?

A: My thesis show in graduate school I tried some film work with sculpture, I ended up getting slammed in the critique for it so after grad school I kept thinking to myself whoa what do I do now? This graduate teacher I had, who was a huge inspiration to me, said to me at one point, “What is it that you loved doing when you first starting making art? And do that.” 

K: So what did you do after school, how did you end up in Richmond?

A: Johnston and I moved up to my parent’s cottage in Canada for two years, there was no running water, but it was really beautiful, and we had a space to work.
We moved here because Johnston got a job at VCU teaching sculpture. Then someone randomly asked me to be in a fashion show, and I kind of reverted back to high school days and started painting on t-shirts again. I had so much fun doing that.

H: You are an artist in so many other mediums do you feel your painting and illustration affect the outcome of some of your clothing and jewelry and vice versa? 

A: I never really felt there was a huge connection between art and fashion before, but now that I’m doing it I feel like the fashion stuff I’m doing is starting to inspire my sculpture and the sculpture stuff I’m doing is starting to inspire the fashion. I’m really into letting the medium influence the outcome of the piece. I want the garments to be inspired by the method of actually making it. I think it’s important to say I want each piece to be unique in it’s own way.

H: The patterns and designs in your garments are really distinctive, what is your inspiration?

A: Everything. But, aboriginal and Indian designs mostly. I love Matisse; he’s one of my favorite artists, and Picasso. I love Matisse’s patterns and his airy style, the real graphic sensibility of his work is really awesome. I’m inspired pretty much by everything though.

H: I know you do a lot of your own screen printing, can you describe the process?

A: I start with books and books of different patterns, mostly geometric and sixties styles, I’m really into the bold psychedelic stuff. I do a lot of quick ink drawings, then I scan those into my computer and in Photoshop make my own patterns out of them. In Photoshop I’ll figure out the different layers, a lot of this part of the process has to do with computer techniques. Then I get my screens burned from a jpeg file, I have a friend that burns them for me. Once I get the screen I print it on t-shirts and fabrics and whatever else people give me.

K: There are plenty of other artists doing screen prints on t-shirts and such, what makes yours different?

A: A lot of other artists rely on getting a consistent registration, they are really looking for that perfect registration where everything is on point, but I like that things are kind of off, it gives it a really handmade quality. I think that’s really important and that’s what makes my work unique because it isn’t factory made and everything is hand printed by me and it’s a lot work, a lot more work than people think it is. But, the overall outcome is very unique. You asked earlier where my press was, I had this huge factory press in here, and honestly and it was almost was a hindrance to my process. I taught myself how to screen-print even though I went to school for art I never took a printmaking class. I kind of came up with my own method of printing and registration method, I also use stencils that I cut out of Mylar. It never lines up perfectly but that’s what gives it that edge.

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H: Where did the name for the line come from and what does it mean?

A: I feel a bit like a thief, and I suppose a lot of people feel that way in a sense, as if they can’t take imagery from this or that because it’s sacred. In a way I’m really paying homage to it and expressing my love for it and hoping that because of the way I use it people realize it’s for inspiration. You can steal whatever you want, but if it’s verbatim it’s not going to be interesting and unique to your own style.

K: Is the jewelry a newer endeavor?

A: That’s what I really loved as a kid, going to the bead store and making jewelry. My grandma still wears a pair of earrings I made when I was 10 years old. Mostly I can’t always afford to buy the things I want to wear, so I just make it. I also realized that I can use the t-shirts that I’ve fucked up, I slice them up and stretch out the fabric and make these tubes that I use in the jewelry.

H: Is there one thing you’ve achieved you never thought possible?

A: Teaching. This is my first semester teaching at university or college level ever, I was a teacher’s assistant in undergrad but I didn’t have any real authority or come up with a curriculum. I got hired and honestly didn’t know if I would feel successful doing this. My basic sculpture class was one of the best experiences, I felt like I really connected with a lot of the students. I’m not a very good public speaker and felt a little out of my element in the classroom but I got along really well with all of the kids and at the end of the class I could tell they had a really good experience too.

H: If we were to run into somewhere in Richmond where would it be?

A: The Black Sheep restaurant, I work there and it’s such a great place. But honestly I’m always in my studio, or at my friends’ farm in Ashland and playing music. I play the bass guitar; I’ve been playing bass since I was 15. I played in my high school jazz band but I didn’t start playing in a band until recently.

H: What can we expect to see from Thief & Bandit in the future?

A: Right now I don’t actually design the garment, just put the art on it, but that’s kind of my next step.
I’ve been talking to a friend in Brooklyn about doing a show there in the fall at a space he has, so when I go to Germany I will mostly be working on a new line for spring/summer 2010. I’m hoping to do an actual line, but one of the things I’m really struggling with is whether to get things manufactured or continue to make it myself. If I was going to have stuff manufactured I want it to be here in the US, I like the idea that it could create jobs for people here in Richmond. It’s so much about running a business and it’s scary. It’s overwhelming making the 20 t-shirts that the MiniMini Market in Brooklyn will order and I know I need some help.  I don’t need to be making that much money off of this, just pay rent, get groceries and feed my dog mostly. And maybe not work at the Black Sheep, just hang out there. One of my near future goals would be to have a functioning website and have a stock list and selling my stuff all over the US and Canada.  

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Be sure to check out Amie’s website featuring her art at amiecunningham.com. You can find current Thief & Bandit pieces at Rumors 404 N Harrison St. (804) 726-9944 and right now Amie is showing some of her sculpture at Metro Space Gallery 119 West Broad St. (804) 643-7125.

Interested in being a part of RVAmag.com fashion section? Email Hunter ([email protected]) or Karen ([email protected])…yep yep!

Matt Ringer

Matt Ringer

A meat popsicle.




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