Emma Webster is an Oakland painter who graduated from Stanford University in 2011 with a BA in art practice. She was recently awarded residencies at Ox-Bow in Saugatuck, Mich., and the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vt.
I should warn you, I am currently reevaluating the root of my work. I'm trying to make painting about painting—without motive, you know? There's something ethereal and mysterious about creating art, and I fear this statement doesn't encapsulate it yet.
My work is about a spatial distance—perhaps the slow separation where the ones we love most become unknowable or the strange echo of an escapist daydream. They freely combine abstract motifs, traditional landscape, movement, and explorative mark marking to etch forms into vivacious cacophonies. My abstract paintings, like us, yearn for a sense of closeness that perhaps we once had but have since lost.
You have a fabulous caveat in your statement in the moment, which I can definitely relate to as an artist. What do you think interests you most about the mysteriousness of the creation of art? What are some of the ways you have worked to try and better understand the process?
The act of creation is a kind of scratching at the veil of unknown associations. You can’t plan a good painting, it just happens. Something about the paint, atmosphere, and artist’s interests create a giant nest of imagery that calcifies into a composition. The more I let go and let this network of imagery run the show, the more interesting the pieces are. This evolution has helped me move away from trying to detail the ‘why’—I don’t think I’ll ever get to its heart—I just want to run with it. Simply put: artist statements are tools for viewers, collectors, interpreters, but not for artists. Yes, I want people to understand and appreciate my work, but I’d rather they do so by confidently examining their own associations, narratives, and inclinations, as that is what I myself am doing when I paint. I want the viewer’s task to mimic the artist’s. I want the work to conjure something within the psyche. It takes two to do that.
Also on that note, what are some of the most challenging elements in your recent body work?
I want the paintings to strike a chord of familiarity and awe, but with a twist. I’m trying to make work about beauty or searching for beauty, which at times feels like a totally futile task. So yeah, the motive is definitely the most challenging.
Can you describe your working routine? Do you have a daily studio practice? What keeps you motivated?
I live and work in my Oakland loft. I wake up every morning around 9, make tea, photograph my work, work on applications (grants, residencies, shows), and respond to emails (Facebook unproductively) until about 11ish, when I start painting. Then I’ll paint until 7 or so… sometime that means furiously, actively painting, and sometimes huge chunks of that time is devoted to looking at works in progress and coming up with visual game plans. Then I eat dinner, look at paintings, watch a movie, sit on the couch, and look some more.
Motivation… hmm… the paintings drive it all. When my paintings are going well, I have to hold myself back from working. And when they suck? Then I force myself to anyways, usually by creating a visual ‘to-do’ list for the pieces. Deadlines are also a great motivator.
Can you give us some insight into your process? How do you begin? Do you sketch or do you tend to work more intuitively?
Mania. Pure crazy mania and excitement gets things off the ground. When I start a painting, I have a weird intuition of color combinations and textures that drives the whole thing. I’ll look at a canvas and think “Ok this one’s going to end up a black stripey thing on a rosey gray”—and often the direction changes mid-way through—but that vague schema is all that guides the work. The rest of painting is a process of interrupting and responding to developments within the piece. I don’t sketch. If I’m lost, I’ll make a small work in the same vein, and see if I can come to a resolution to use on the bigger one. It’s crucial for me to work on multiple paintings at once, which is why I like to paint on canvas stretched on walls as well as stretchers.
Do you like to give yourself parameters or do you work better with free reign?
I try not to start a painting thinking of all the ‘no’s. However, color is typically the beast I have to pay most attention to. For years I had a no-holds-barred idea of color, and now I’m beginning to pull back on the leash again. If the color has a facade of unity, you can get away with a dramatic spectrum of forms, marks, textures. I also try to balance value in a work (by taking black and white photos of paintings to understand their focal points). It brings a certain composure to them—they’re less adversarial.
The figure used to be more of a presence in your work—when did that start to dissipate and what drew you to abstraction?
Totally. I was (and still am) interested about how our ideas of the figure inform its shape. In my previous work, the figure instantly created a narrative within my paintings—“behold! Here is someone/thing doing something somewhere!” It’s not so much that the interest dissipated as shifted. Now I would rather explore the magical and sentimental. I want to create work that is transportive. A successful painting should invite someone to enter a painting and allow it to be entirely his/hers. There is a void of ownership; I want their transcendent experience to be theirs.
How do you title your work and at what point does the work receive a title? What is the significance?
The title either comes in the middle of painting (a bizarre mantra, shitty poem, jumbled thought) or at the end. My best titles, I find, are the ones that were born with the painting. The titles that arrive late to the party are often quips or incomplete thoughts.
What have been some of your biggest influences? Books, writing, artwork, history, film, etc? Where do you find them?
Jesus, this one is difficult. My inspirations come from all over. I love looking at art—most of my work draws from painting’s history and present. But the biggest influence is this the search for epiphany, this strange magical quality. The most intoxicating aspect of painting is the paint itself—it’s transcendent, it’s like chasing an orgasm or something.
Can you tell us about your current studio space and what you look for in a studio?
Space! Lots of space! Big walls, ventilation, natural light —nothing refined or precious. I want a space I can rip into. And that’s cheap :)
I love living and working in the same place. Yes, it’s hectic making a pizza and tripping on a staple gun, or having to move the coffee table out of the painting cart’s way, but I get so much from living with my paintings. I get to see my babies the whole day, every day. Sometimes a new idea will come to me while I do the dishes, and I can drop everything to hack away at it. Living with my work has created an deeper connection with my aesthetic sensibilities and my identity as an artist.
Are there a few artists that you are looking at currently?
Annie Lapin, Keltie Ferris, Cecily Brown, Jackie Saccoccio, Nicola Tyson, Jonathan Apgar, Zak Smith, Heidi Hahn, Peter Doig, Marlene Dumas, Judith Scott, Katherine Bradford, David Hockney, Nicole Eisenman, and Kate Klingbeil.
What do you listen to while you work? Any music or podcasts we should check out? What is the importance of getting into the zone and eliminating o minimizing distractions while you work?
I’m really embarrassed to say… I listen to the most mind-numbing pop music—90s hits, mainstream rap… I don’t want music that is interesting, or even good, really, I just want a cadence that's fiercely energetic. Music that’s too interesting distracts. I want my music like some sugar adderall trip from hell. My music in the studio sounds more like a workout mixtape than anything else. I can’t listen to talk radio, podcasts, or books on tape when I paint.
Do you think the internet and our current reliance on technology affects those of us who identify as artists and makers? Can you describe how you feel about the role of social media in the life and work of an artist?
The internet is easy to hide behind. It’s easy to brand yourself as something, pick up a slick mantra, and sell yourself or your art as the answer to ‘a’, ‘b’, and ‘c’. I think the internet totally affects the arts because it doesn’t push artists forward as much as we think. Instead of picking up the reins and doing something dramatically different, we find ourselves in the wake of unknown others’ work. Yes, the internet can be an awesome place to find inspiration. Yes, it’s a great tool for finding your people or market. But it also deludes us into thinking that by staring at a screen, we are actively searching. That’s fucked. Searching is done with a paintbrush in hand. Searching is making hundreds of shitty paintings. Searching is made through the weight of mania, ecstasy, passion, and pain flooding the creative psyche. As much as I adore the internet, I thirst for a day when I can unplug from the network of wanting and insecurity and find something real. I believe we find it not by observation, but by living.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your work and talk with us!