In the last few years Rosie Emerson’s career has gone from strength to strength, she has exhibited internationally, held solo shows, completed an artist residency with Somerset House, created a new world record and discovered her love for the Cyanotype process. In an exclusive interview from her live/work space in ‘The Old Peanut Factory’ in Hackney Wick the curious and fervent Rosie talks to Smithson Gallery about her development as an artist and the love for her process…
Hello Rosie, it’s such a pleasure to be in your vibrant studio here in East London. Let’s start at the beginning, can you describe your transition from being a Fine Art graduate to a professional artist?
After graduating from Kingston University I moved back to Dorset where my parents are based. It was a brilliant opportunity to carry on making work without too much financial pressure. I met Vanessa Conyers, a wonderful ceramicist, we shared a studio and we made our own shows. We had a space above a gun shop in Blandford, we called it Shotgun Gallery and had exhibitions up there. It was in a beautiful two story Georgian town house without any electricity so we rigged up extension leads from the garage, a health and safety nightmare!
"I think it pushes you when you’re surrounded by so many creative people doing such brilliant and exciting things, you’re like ‘Wow, ok, this is what I need to be doing!"
How did you progress from there?
I had an opportunity to come back to London and got a studio in Dalston, it was definitely the best thing I could have done in terms of meeting people, I think it pushes you when you’re surrounded by so many creative people doing such brilliant and exciting things, you’re like ‘Ok, this is what I need to be doing! That’s when I did the ‘Legs and Drawers’ series, large ink drawings that combed furniture and architectural details with burlesque performers. These were inspired by a trip to Florence and the faded figurative frescos, and also inspired by being in London, so I took the influence of the art on the street in Florence and brought it to London by flyposting them! It was nice to see them get graffitied, ripped and fade in their own urban way.
Your work took a new direction soon after the Legs and Drawers series and you began to incorporate photography, how did this change of direction affect your progress professionally?
I actually got a commission to create fifteen pieces for a cruise ship soon after, the only brief was famous faces so I picked film stars from the cruise ship ‘hay-day’ such as Ava Gardner. I worked on this for about 9 months starting with collage and digital collage and then the final pieces were all photographs. That’s when I did the collaboration with jewellery designer Anoushka Ducas and photographer Becky Palmer. This work was really slick and I’m glad I went there, I learnt a lot from it, but it was also really nice to come away from it, I wanted more control and I wanted to get hands on again and that’s when I moved back to screenprinting, which I had done a lot of at university. "Having someone in your family who has been an artist most of their life makes it a very real thing for me, not just a dream, it made me think ‘I could do that!"
Was this when you began to introduce natural materials in to your screenprinting process?
Yes, I did that immediately because I wanted the prints to be softer and less graphic. I can’t actually remember where the initial idea came from, but it started with sawdust. My father makes reproductions of antique furniture. He saves different types of sawdust for me and posts it to me. I also use charcoal and bronze powders.
You come from a family of artists and makers, how does their work influence yours?
My grandmother’s a painter, her name is Keyna Emerson. She’s still painting and exhibiting now and she’s 92. Having someone in your family who has been an artist most of their life makes it a very real thing for me, not just a dream, it made me think ‘I could do that!’ She was at the Slade pre and post war, she always wanted to be a set designer but ended up painting. It makes a big different coming from a supportive creative family, it’s great.
Let’s talk about your subject matter, I’m interested in why there is only ever a solitary figure in your work?
I think there is an element of the fact that there is only you in your own head. I have always been really interested in the fact that everyone sees the world differently, and I love the fact people’s eyesight is different and we can both look at the same picture but see it differently. There is only you that sees things the way you see them.
Do you consider your models to be muses?
I project so much on to them that It’s not necessarily their personality that is coming through, it is one I am imposing on to them, so they are more like actors.
Would you say this projection is self-representative or more of a fantasy?
Yes it is definitely more of an idea that I am portraying, rather than a portrait, and of course it’s self-reflective, it’s to do with fantasy and creating other worlds. The inspiration for these ideas are sparked by snippets of things I’ve read or seen or heard, it could be a line from a poem, for example I did some artwork for an album cover that was inspired by a line from a Sylvia Plath poem about the moon dragging the night sky behind her.
Your screen printed collections of work combines elements of photography, screen print and natural materials. The curation of this process must be quite in-depth, how controlled is the process?
I always have an idea, but it’s nice to have that element of freedom and room for movement. In terms of the photographic element, I like the fact it’s just me and the model, it gives me room to experiment, which I prefer. Before, when I had a whole team around me, I sometimes felt like a spare part even though it was all my ideas… I would go and make tea! I wanted to be doing it, so I learnt how to do it. I think it’s actually easier to have more control
It’s great that you are up for trying different things, you’re always ready for it to inform your work in a different way. This leads us to your discovery of cyanotype, the oldest photographic printing process, can you tell us how it all came about?
It was about a year ago now, we had been to a moving in party the night before and I went to do a short course in cyanotype the next morning and just loved it! I thought ‘This is amazing!’ and I forgot all about my hangover. I was taught the technique by Ben Rider at Print Club, and I went with him to see the first ever cyanotypes by Annie Atkins, which was great, the detail is stunning. It was so special, and Ben’s enthusiasm for them was so infectious.
"I also like the unpredictability, how you can move things half way through the exposure, or allow the wind to catch the objects, things might happen!"
How did you feel when you made your first cyanotype and what’s the most enjoyable part of the process?
Ah it was such an exciting moment, it’s magic! It sent my head spinning with possibilities! It’s really nice to expose them outside in the summer, when the sun bursts out you get so much more detail, you can watch the exposure in seconds. I also like the unpredictability, how you can move things half way through the exposure, or allow the wind to catch the objects, things might happen…
"If I know exactly how something’s going to look, I’m not interested in making it."
We discussed control earlier, yet some aspects of your process are hard to control, they are unpredictable. Is the balance between control and unpredictability something that interests you?
Yes, definitely! I think if I know exactly how something’s going to look, I’m not interested in making it. What keeps it interesting for me is that element of surprise or unpredictability.
You have always worked to a large scale, last year you created a new world record for the largest cyanotype, do you have any other ideas for large scale projects?
I have always loved working really big, in fact I used to not do anything that wasn’t of a human scale. I wanted to make things that were going to really confront you, then I realised that they can do that without being quite so big all the time. I’d still love to do something really really big, perhaps in a huge derelict building, that would be really exciting, to have something installed over several floors.
You mentioned that you had fly posted your Legs and Drawers series, have you taken your work to the streets since?
No I haven’t, but I was thinking it would be great to do some cyanotypes because they use the daylight, so maybe in the summer I can leave some negatives up overnight and then let them expose in the daylight, I don’t know how it would work but it would be great to see them outside and then to see how they faded and weathered.
"I love the fact people’s eyesight is different and we can both look at the same picture but see it differently."
You are known for your figurative work representing the female form but you are also inspired by nature, have you considered working with landscapes?
Yes, I have done two cyanotype landscapes. They are circular, the plants I chose were almost mushroomy, the reminded me of Alice in Wonderland, which I liked. I have also brought in a painting element to them. I have always liked combining mediums, now I have got to grips with the process I feel like I can bring in new things.
Why did you decide on a circular format for your landscapes?
The circles are quite new, I’ve been working quite long and thin for a long time, then I discovered circles. Again, it was inspired by another trip to Florence, I was doing a lot of arches inspired by religious paintings. I like the idea of not working in traditional shapes, and I liked the fact that the circles look a bit like portholes or petri-dishes. Florence has really inspired me in different ways.
What, other than Florence, are your main sources of inspiration and influence?
I think that nature and architecture are my main inspirations, I would love to do more travelling. I love the V&A and I love the Wallace Collection as well, I really like horse armour and decorative craft. I really want to go and see the Julia Margaret Cameron exhibition at the V&A, she’s a pre-Raphaelite photographer, I like making photographs that look like paintings. I also I love the theatre of high-end catwalk fashion.
If you weren’t an artist what would you be?
In a fantasy world I would be a dancer, but realistically I’d love to do set design, and I love it when artists do set design. I’d love to do the set design for an opera or a ballet because you can go crazy!
You have had considerable growth in terms of your artistic career in the last few years, what are your aims and aspirations for the next few years?
Last year was really exciting with solo shows and doing the world record and showing a lot more internationally, which is what I wanted to start doing, so I think that would be really great over the next couple of years to have some more shows abroad, that would be really exciting. In terms of my work, there are lots of different analogue photography techniques I would like to try, I have done a little workshop in the mordançage technique, I love the technique but I don’t know where I’m going to go with it yet…