MAKERS: Elizabeth Emery
It’s hard to pin down Elizabeth Emery. She is a printmaker, painter, sculptor, installation artist, gallery owner, feminist, avid cyclist, and podcaster – Emery can’t be reduced to a “category” or descriptor – she is the kind of person that I find endlessly fascinating. She’s also one of only six area artists chosen to participate in the FRONT Triennial this Summer. Emery seems to contain the energy of four people, and visiting her studio in Clark/Fulton recently, that energy was contagious.
Emery’s studio is on the second story of a house in West Cleveland, just steps from the roar of I-90. The first story is occupied by the appropriately named Some Time Gallery – a space in which Emery has organized a hand-full of truly amazing exhibitions, including a recent show of her own work and Columbus artist Laura Bidwa (pictured above), as well as a wonderful show by artist Darice Polo last year.
She takes me upstairs into the studio space, and I’m immediately overwhelmed by the array of works in progress, tools, knick-knacks, and strange inviting items that can be seen in the large main room. The space exudes busyness – vignettes of different activities seem to be everywhere, but it’s not in disarray. I would describe it as highly organized chaos. The upstairs of the house is a vast space of interconnected rooms, each with its own purpose. The main room is for dirty work like her plaster projects (above).
There is a wood-working room:
A bathroom where her screens live:
As well as a series of what were once bedrooms now with various roles:
One of the rooms is a tantalizing repository of toys, statuettes, stuffed animals, action figures, and other strange items. If you are familiar with Emery’s work, this likely comes as no surprise. Emery is perhaps best known for her plaster sculptures – strange, often hanging forms, usually bound, that appear to be soft to the touch as if they were made of fluid, suspended inside a plastic bag. If you look carefully, small items emerge here and there. These found objects could be anything – many oddly recognizable, yet not. They create an uncanny mixture of nostalgia and uncertainty – Is that the leg of a toy soldier? Maybe. They are also insanely tactile – as you can see below. I had to restrain myself while viewing her show last year at Cleveland State – the pillow-like forms demand to be touched, even though I know I will be disappointed to find only cold, hard, unmoving stone.
These pieces were made by suspending a bag across a frame Emery created for pouring – clipping the bags to the sticks, she has to move fast. The plaster can only be manipulated for so long before hardening.
Her materials are close by, including discarded bits of toys as well as some plastic foliage. I’m imagining her having to bend down as she pours, performing a dance of movements to get the materials inside the suspended globule as the clock is ticking.
The adjoining room is her painting/printmaking studio – brushes and paints are neatly arranged on a table, and works in progress are taped to the wall. Emery creates collaged images, using printed and painted components. I admit I am not as familiar with her 2-D work, but I do remember some of her prints in the Fandom 216 Show a few years ago at Zygote.
Emery altered sports pages with color-coded diagonal lines in a series of works focusing on Women and Sports. Emery is herself an athlete (she was once a professional cyclist), and it was this print series that inspired one of her most fascinating projects – her podcast, “Hear Her Sports”.
“Hear Her Sports” is a forum that gives voice to exceptional female athletes and women in sports. After doing the research for the print project, she found that only 4% of total sports media coverage is about women – their voices lost in an endless stream of manly chatter. Emery’s goal is to change that by creating a space for discussion about women’s issues in athletics, a subject that is clearly underrepresented. She speaks to women from all around the world, from every conceivable background, all united under the banner of sports. I also love that Emery’s definition of sports, or being an athlete, is incredibly broad. She defines being “sporty” as much more than playing in an elite competition – simply going for walks, or kayaking, dancing, or doing yoga – any and all sporty pursuits are welcome.
Personally, I love the idea of a podcast as a an artistic medium. Similar to music, television, youtube, film, performance – podcasts are about communication. And interestingly, without a visual component, podcasts (for me anyhow) allow for much closer listening, without the distraction of visual stimuli.
For her FRONT project, Emery is making an audio documentary – an offshoot of Hear Her Sports, about female athletes from, living, or working in the Glenville neighborhood (which is the FRONT Triennial’s home-base). She is specifically speaking to Glenville women from roughly eighth grade and above (“10-110 years old”) – hopefully including some who continued their sport after high school. She wants to talk about the challenges facing women athletes in Glenville, a community underrepresented in many ways – including the larger discussion of Cleveland sports. The recordings will be available through the normal channels (iTunes, Spotify, or other podcast players) and at listening stations set up during FRONT at various locations in the Glenville area.
I have always hated that many people view sports and art as incongruent. And while it may be true that many artists have no idea who Corey Kluber is, watching him pitch a masterpiece of a shut-out is about as close to art as I’ve ever seen. I was curious – how do all of Emery’s activities fit together – is there a thread tying it all together? (no pun intended) So I asked Emery, how does being an athlete connect to her artmaking? She explained:
“I’m often asked if cycling influences my art. Being physically active, interested in not just sports, but how we move in space and relate to other living and non-living things in that same space is essential to what I make. Even my collage work is impacted by movement. Years ago, I started using a new adhesive, which I apply to the paper, let dry, and eventually heat set to the base paper when all the decisions about placement are finalized. Being able to move the paper at will completely changed how I worked. Or allowed me to work in a way that is suited to me. … The idea of movement encompasses both athletic physical movement and a more grotesque movement of body parts, organs, and struggle. In addition to movement and physical space, the sculptural work is also about power dynamics, breaking out, limits, confinement.”
Emery’s work brings to mind the painter George Bellows, whose masterpiece “Stag at Sharkey’s” (1909) is one of the must-sees at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Bellows was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, and by age 10 was known to be an incredibly talented athlete. He played baseball and basketball (basketball was a relatively new sport at the time), and in his senior year of high school was approached by a baseball scout to play professional baseball. He declined, opting to go to Ohio State, where he lettered in both sports. As his college career was about to end, he was being courted by several professional baseball teams, but instead he dropped out (a month before graduation), to move to New York to become an artist. He had always been an excellent draughtsman, providing illustrations to his school yearbook, and he wanted to be a painter more than a paid athlete. But his love of movement and physicality cannot be missed in paintings like Stag at Sharkey’s, where the lithe, visceral bodies of the boxers flex and contort as they lunge toward each other. For Bellows, sport and fitness were exhilarating pursuits, and the paintings he created reflect the brash competitive spirit of New York at the time.
In similar ways, I think the work of Elizabeth Emery speaks to our time – as she said, her sculptural work is “about power dynamics, breaking out, limits, confinement” – I can’t think of a better metaphor for life in 2018.
Visit elizabethemery.com to see more of her work, and www.hearhersports.com to learn more about her podcast. If you know a woman athlete in Glenville that might want to take part in her audio documentary, click here.