I look forward to every interview that I am lucky enough to conduct – obviously seeking out subjects that I especially admire, because it’s a great excuse to delve and garner a better understanding of their M.O.Today I have to confess I am also feeling a little chest-swell of pride, as I interview artist Emily Besser. I have known Emily since she was just five, meeting her on her first day of kindergarten – when I was a worldly year two-er! She was notably special even then – and has always been a deeply creative soul. For the next three decades our lives have continued to spontaneously cross paths, and I feel very lucky for that – as Emily is both lovely and extremely talented.
Emily is a colourful, intuitive, gestural painter of abstract inclination. It is sometimes easy to pass off abstract art as ‘easy’ – especially when it looks random, scribbly and spontaneous, but it takes discipline, a practiced hand and a keen understanding of medium to really make a painting sing. Emily ‘anchors’ her works by giving them a title, but it is her fascination with the process – the accidental marks, or unconscious decisions made about colour, line and shapes – that incite the evolution of her signature style. Emily becomes all consumed when painting, happily whiling away hours ‘in the zone’ when she can. She prefers painting on the floor, as it feels more comfortable (and she is petite!), and she enjoys the way paint pools on the surface, rather than dripping. Personally, I love knowing this detail about her work.
Despite an Honours degree in Visual Art from Sydney College of the Arts – Emily did not immediately proclaim herself to be an artist. In fact, directly upon graduation she enrolled herself in another degree, this time Law at UNSW – and went on to work in the field of Native Title! Her inner creative self was only to be held at bay for so long, though, as before she found herself back on the brushes, inspired by self-reflection, poetry and psychology.
Surprisingly, it was amidst the chaos and selflessness of motherhood that Emily identified an opportunity to ‘recalibrate’ her craft. Stealing a corner of the kids playroom for her studio, Emily describes the euphoric feeling of flow that can come from hours of uninterrupted painting, and the somewhat challenging transition between the states of mothering and painting.
While whimsical, Emily’s work is deeply considered, and rich with her personality, and honesty. I have been watching as her works evolve over time – and I can’t help but think ‘she just keeps getting better’ to myself. But, perhaps I am biased.
Tell us a little about your background – what did you study and what path led you to what you are doing today?
All I wanted to do after leaving school was study Art. Luckily I got into Sydney College of the Arts (SCA) at Rozelle. I did a Bachelor of Visual Arts, majoring in Painting, with Honours. On the day I finished my final research paper I had no idea what to do next, so I applied for a graduate degree in law at UNSW. To my surprise, I got in.
I finished studying (again to my surprise) and moved to Dubbo to work as a lawyer in Native Title law. I was still working as a lawyer when, living in Wombarra, I started painting again in a chook shed out the back of the bush property we were renting. I realised that I wanted to dedicate myself entirely to painting, but I didn’t know quite how to do it.
Then I had kids, and this was a surprising opportunity to re-calibrate my life and get back to a daily art practice. It took me a few more years, but I quit my job as an environmental planning lawyer and decided to start painting again.
There is a very supportive community of Instagrammers (many of whom I lured in to follow me with photos of my jewellery, and then sprung onto my paintings!) who, perhaps more than they realise, helped kick things off for me this year, and gave me the confidence to dive deeper into my painting.
What have been one or two of your favourite projects in recent years and months and why?
A beautiful artist friend of mine Alex Falkiner (@alfalky) put me in touch with Lucy Mora from Hut 13 and in July this year I had an exhibition called ‘Adventuresome Things’ in the gallery space of her shop in Richmond, Melbourne. It was my first solo show ever really, and the first time I’d framed my works, let alone shown my work in this way. I enjoyed every moment of it. Lucy is so relaxed and supportive, and of course it was a treat to have Mirka Mora wander in and have a look! When she winked at me as she was leaving the gallery and told me matter-of-factly that I was a real painter I nearly burst into tears.
How would you describe your work?
My work is scribbly, emotional, gestural, erratic, painterly, layered and complex.
I relate to abstract painting as a form of visual poetry. I read poetry to get my thinking and my heart into different spaces of feeling. There is so much space within us. No matter how dull or stressful our surroundings, we have our imagination, and internal spaces that respond to poetry, music and painting.
What interests me right now is the spiritual dimension of the individual, particularly in contemporary life, where the struggle with disenchantment is very real. I think that is why I am so intrigued by ceremony and rituals, which serve to elevate the ordinary and everyday events and processes of our lives.
What does a typical day for you involve?
Weekdays and weekends are like two different worlds for me. During the week I live in the real world and function fairly efficiently with occasional opportunities to paint. Weekends are: sleep-ins, avoiding chores and painting for hours on end in my pyjamas.
It can be challenging to transition between these states of activity: mothering and painting, and because my studio is in a corner of the kids play room, sometimes there is a stressful mix of competing needs going on. But I wouldn’t have it any other way actually. The gift of mothering to my art practice is that it forces me to stand back from getting completely lost in the detail of my work. The gift of my painting to mothering is learning how to be present on a creative level with my children.
Can you list a few resources across any media you tune into regularly?
I love looking at anything that has a deep complex beauty: aged textiles, contemporary ceramics, the paintings of fascinating abstract artists like Vincent Hawkins, Phoebe Unwin and Steve Roden, Outsider and Folk art. I use Instagram and Pinterest quite a lot. I love art books, old psychology books, books on religion, anthropology, textiles and jewellery.
When creating your work what processes and materials do you use? Is it an intuitive process or meticulously planned, and how long does each piece take to complete?
It’s all intuitive. I never make a plan for a work. I’m fascinated with the process of painting: the accidental marks and unconscious decisions made about colour, line and shapes, the almost euphoric feeling of flow that can come from hours of uninterrupted painting, and sometimes the crash when you finally get a grip on yourself!
For me, it is a spiritual practice of sorts, a place of supplication, to whatever it is that there is, but where there is no godhead, just colour.
I play music, have the occasional break-out dance, wear comfy clothes. Look at a few things to spark of my minds’ eye, drink coffee, and then begin.
Which other local artists or creative people do you admire?
My local and clever friend Julia Flanagan who skilfully makes gorgeous hand-painted leather bags under the label Frejj, and her equally clever sister Jayne who makes beautiful jewellery.
What would be your dream creative project or collaboration?
I’m pretty happy squirrelled away in the suburbs, painting, but any collaboration with a textile artist would be fascinating.
What are you looking forward to?
Each day, painting.
Your favourite Sydney neighbourhood and why?
The inner-west of Sydney, in general. It’s just very relaxed, with good food and coffee and interesting people.
What and where was the last great meal you ate in Sydney?
At my Mum’s. She is a wonderful and curious cook.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Sitting on my porch in the morning sun with my boys, in my pyjamas, drinking a coffee, preparing for my mind for some painting.
Sydney’s best kept secret?
The Woods Deli and Café on William Street in Earlwood.