01 Jun Emma Housley – Interview
Emma Housley lives in Street with her partner and children and is one of the Core Artists here at Heart of The Tribe. She is receiving much recognition within the local art community for her unique, vibrant, abstract style and has a strong social media following. Here Emma is interviewed by Vicki Steward of Normal For Glastonbury
Were you able to be creative during lockdown?
Before Covid I was just starting to be able to make a living, call it a job. I had real momentum going, I got a painting into Bristol’s RWA Open Show, there was lots going on, then Covid came along and everything was cancelled. I think artists have been finding it hard in lockdown, time became elastic.
During the lockdown everyone has had such a different experience, as a woman with kids you have no mental space, everything you do is domestic. When the kids can’t go outside and play you have to channel their energy. I did carry on painting, on the dining room table, but I couldn’t go to the studio and that was the space where it was just me and my painting.
(Emma wrote a piece on this and the difficulty of doing domestic work and art https://www.emmahousleyartist.com/articles.html) “Feeling invisible is also one of the perils of the Covid Lockdown. We need to be seen, to be heard.“
When did you become an artist?
I think, like most artists, there’s always been that seed. I’ve always had the drive to create art and I’ve been doing it for years, but then there’s a moment when you can say ‘other people can see that too’. It’s about being visible. (In 2018) I was part of ‘Create Space’ in Street, when they took over an empty supermarket as a gallery open to all artists. I put my work in and people really liked it. It was the first time I dared to do exactly the kind of work I wanted to do and dared to show it to someone else. That was a really important moment. I have masses of self doubt, so I had to go through the pain of being visible, and survive it, and keep on wanting to do it.
Art is visual communication, I do it for my own satisfaction, but it’s also my way of putting myself out in the world. I decided I wanted it to be my job and my livelihood. That’s very risky. It’s almost like having an alter-ego, there’s me in everyday life and there’s Emma Housley The Artist, out there, doing all this stuff. I was starting just to inhabit that space before lockdown came in, now I’m getting back to it.
Were you encouraged to create when you were younger?
My Mum was an artist too, though she’d call herself an amateur. I was quite academic at school, so I was steered into that sort of route. I ended up doing an English degree, then an art foundation course, then I went to Cyprus College of Art for a year. It was an amazing formative year, but then art went back to being a ‘hobby’ for a very long time afterwards. I just did random jobs.
I feel like I always did almost what I wanted to do, but not quite. I’ve done lots of interesting things, quite a lot of travelling, taught English in Madrid for a while. Before I was doing art I was sewing, making bags, doing creative things and selling at markets, being a maker. Through that I learnt to run a business and do social media.
Then I realised I had to focus right down, not just do something a bit like what I wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to paint abstract art, now I’ve honed it, taught myself the skill of getting it out. It’s taken me a long time to get to the point where I’m happy with what I do. I’m never completely satisfied, I don’t think you ever get there. But it’s authentic, that’s what is important to me. It’s good when you realise that even people you look up who are really successful also have self doubt.
What medium do you work in?
Acrylics and a mixture of whatever I can find, sometimes kids pencils and crayons. It’s very fluid. It’s got to be playful. I think that’s the reason my paintings work, I don’t get too precious about them, I do a lot of scratching and rubbing things out. If I try and plan a painting I can’t, it has to be a reactive process or it doesn’t work. It’s got to be spontaneous.
I start with a colour, I can’t really explain why I choose a particular colour on a particular day, but I start by mixing a colour that I find really exciting, then I start working with it and thinking about contrast and texture. Usually, as the painting develops, a theme will come through. A lot of them are about water, I think that’s because for me swimming is quite an ecstatic experience, a quite overwhelming sensory experience. That comes out in the painting.
(I ask Emma if she has particular associations with water) Swimming has very happy associations: holidays, being by the sea. In Cyprus I had amazing experiences of the bluest skies, swimming in the sea everyday, it was idyllic. I think I see colour in a strange way, not synesthesia as such, but I do see certain emotions or states as a colour.
I find painting immensely therapeutic. It’s strange to me that the thing I do is not only therapeutic and enjoyable for me, but it also creates this thing that other people can find enjoyable. I feel very lucky that that’s what I want to do and other people like it, but I would still paint even if no one else ever looked at my work. There’s a lot of finalising at the end, things that were random and uncontrolled become more defined, so that’s a sort of working through.
I feel like I never quite say what i want to say, except in my paintings, that’s my authentic voice. I got a bursary from Somerset Art Works which meant I got to go to Clayhill Arts for studio space and mentoring. I went there initially for six months but I’ve never quite left, it’s an amazing place. They gave me opportunities to do things I’d never expected to do, that initially I found quite terrifying. I did a private view with two other artists and gave a talk to 40 or 50 people. I really surprised myself – I felt quite at ease because I’ve got more confident in myself as a painter, I think I’ve realised I do have something to say. I’ve done a podcast ‘In the Studio’ with Clayhill too.
There’s quite a lot of ‘overcoming’ as an artist, learning to overcome my own insecurities, to learn to live with them and do it anyway. Otherwise you run out of time. You can spend forever hiding in a cupboard thinking you’re awful, but eventually you have to come out and say ”this is me”, so you can reach your potential. Every time I paint there is a bit in the middle where I think ‘this is shit, I’m shit, I’m not a painter’. But you have to push through.
I was having trouble with a drawing once and my tutor told me “You’ve got to keep going with that drawing, otherwise every drawing you do you’ll come to the same point and you’ll stop”. Doing art is a strange compulsion, you have to suffer it being awful before it gets good. You do reach these moments where you feel like you’ve got to the end, but then you have to keep going, it’s the same for relationships, if you don’t go through it the first time you get stuck in the loop.
How do you feel about Heart of the Tribe?
I think it’s brilliant that Glastonbury has got something like Heart of the Tribe, it’s curated, it’s really high quality and it’s full of people who genuinely, passionately, love art. Kim really wanted my work in it which was really nice. I think as we’re allowed to meet up it will become a really good community that will become really important to me.
I feel quite conflicted living in Somerset, I do miss living in the city (Bristol). That feeling of being somewhere I don’t necessarily feel at home in, it’s maybe given me a bit of a spark. I’ve found it much easier to paint since I’ve lived here. There’s been a tension that I’ve had to resolve and I think that’s made me work a bit harder. I’ve also got more space here. In Clayhill I had a massive barn to paint in, which enabled me to paint bigger than I’ve ever painted before. There is a feeling of space in Somerset that you don’t get in the city.
Where would you like to be with your art in the future? How do you see success?
I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I’ve made it, as you go on you keep changing your own goal posts. Five years ago I thought being successful was selling one painting. Now I regularly sell work, I’m in the RWDA, I’ve been interviewed for Evolver, I’ve been chosen for things, I’ve had my work accepted. That’s what I dreamt of, I’ve got it now. I think I’ll always keep looking for the next thing. I would love to do some more residencies. I did one at Strode Theatre a couple of years ago, I just went and painted and people came and talked to me, I loved talking to loads of different people. That’s what I’ll be looking for when the world opens up again. All I really want is to keep on making paintings that I find satisfying.
Emma will be doing an art residency / open studio in the workshop space at the end of the Heart of The Tribe Garden during Somerset Art Works Open Studios event from 18th September – 3rd October.
Her Solo exhibition is from September 23rd – October 18th at Heart of The Tribe Gallery.