Conversation with Emily Richardson
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Conversation with Emily Richardson
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Elizabeth Johnson: You say in your show statement for Plot Lines that the title comes from "both the physical boundaries of a plot of land and the components of narrative." Can you talk about how recent experiences feed your personal synthesis of painting, quilting, and sculpture?
Emily Richardson: What feeds and inspires my creativity is working with the materials––the act of creating, and the personal experiences of daily life––interactions with others, closeness with family, revisiting places where I’ve lived before, lasting friendships, loss, changing perspectives. A lot of my visual influences comes from what I see day to day. I love to move and to look as I’m moving. I ride my bike throughout the city and sometimes take a new direction or route and discover something new. This summer, I found an industrial wasteland of sorts, along the west bank of the Schuylkill River, just south of Grays Ferry...
ER: ...A favorite corner is at 40th and Ogden, where there had been a stable with a few work horses. Now it’s a brand-new multi-story residential building.
When I make the pieces, I begin by working intuitively, that is, making intuitive choices of paint, and then of painted fabric. I'm not really thinking about anything except beginning a composition. Once the composition is underway, I may notice something that reminds me of some place I have been or reminds me of a few things in my visual memory. As the composition is coming further along, I may start to think about the formal elements to make sure it is all working. Once the composition is complete, I sew it by hand. And while sewing and seeing it in a different way––close-up and in isolated parts––my mind might start to wander as the piece again might make me think of a place I've been or an experience I've had.
EJ: If you are remembering a changing landscape by relating to the materials in front of you, does your work with fabric provide an infinitely potential space for you to assemble new, abstract wholes?
ER: Yes. My attraction to working in fiber stems from the range of possibilities offered by the materials and techniques
EJ: Do you "see" the world you are working in as three-dimensional though it is built from two-dimensional materials?
ER: Yes, but I use the term "depth" instead of three-dimensional. When I am working, I try to achieve depth. I also want to create texture, but it is not really texture––only the appearance of it. And it's not actual depth, but again, the appearance of depth.
Discover Emily Richardson's Process in the Studio:
EJ: How does titling unfold?
ER: The title for the show and the titles of the pieces came after everything was completed. I looked at all the pieces and thought that they leant themselves to telling stories, and that a person looking at the work could create a story inspired by the piece. None of the pieces are tied to a specific location or specific story. Each piece is a collective impression that is intuitively expressed. I encourage ambiguity. I allow the viewer to see different things and make their own interpretation, which is how I see the narrative too. It's up to the viewer.
EJ: You wrote to me in an email that you felt Fright On Hold, Forgotten Bottom, and Devil's Pocket express "the prevalence of news photography of the disaster and destruction in Ukraine."...
EJ: ...By referencing Ukraine after a piece is finished, are you commenting on the horrors of war? For instance, do you build with fabrics that might signal anger, love, joy, loss, fear, etc., based on their colors and designs? When you are finished, do you look at the pieces and remember progress as a visual story?
ER: Great questions. And I wish I could answer yes. But the answer to all of them is no. While I’m working, my response is visual, not named. I don’t assign feelings to colors, shapes, or designs. The dark pieces surprised me. I rarely work that darkly, and I built them intuitively and visually: I was not thinking about the images of Ukraine while I was creating them. After they were done, I realized they reminded me of the news pictures I'd seen of Ukraine. A similar thing happened a month or two after 9/11. I created a piece with two columns of painted fabric against a white background. These columns were crossed by a series of horizontal strips of other painted cloth. As I worked, I was thinking that the horizontal elements were stabilizing the verticals. I realized afterwards that the piece was in response to the massive amounts of imagery I had seen of the destruction of the Twin Towers.
EJ: Summer Moments #1 and #3, Fright On Hold, and In Conversation suggest figures. Summer Moments #2, Clearfield, Devil's Pocket, Forgotten Bottom, and Early Light suggest landscapes. Your titles clue me in to your abstraction. Do you consciously provide a hint of meaning in the work to orient the viewer
ER: I think so, not so much in the titles, but in the work itself. It isn’t just to orient the viewer, it's for the integrity of the composition. If landscape-like images are apparent as I am building a piece, I follow that lead. If a piece is developing more along figurative lines, I pursue that. I keep a list of ideas for potential titles and when it is time to name the pieces, I draw from that list. It's somewhat random, and at the same time, I'm trying to find the right match between piece and title.
EJ: Twist stands out as a more geometric composition, though it could be a sun. Does this more centralized play on pure form operate differently? To me, it suggests a machine or process more than a place or thing. How did the piece come about?
ER: Twist features a piece of white fabric that I cut into a circle, and this was unusual for me. From there I let things grow around it so that the circle is somewhat obscured...
ER: ...I agree that it is less of a landscape. While I don’t see a machine, you mentioning it makes me think of a show from ten years ago at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis, which made a strong visual impression on me.
EJ: Fabrics you have painted form your palette: you move pieces around to create shape, color, form, and light effects. Once you cut a piece for a certain use does that limit it? Is it a big plus when reworked materials physically carry your history of decision-making?
ER: As I move pieces around, I am also layering them, and not just layering on top but also from behind to change the appearance. Once a section of a larger piece of painted cloth is cut, I can use it. If it doesn’t work in the composition, I will be able to use it in something else or I can cut it again and try something else. So yes, it is a big plus and not a limitation. Cutting, building, adding, layering, removing, and discarding all allow me to create something that has never existed.
EJ: In your Gross McCleaf Artist's Statement you mention "getting familiar with the selection of painted fabrics . . . I notice interesting things happening and begin to get a sense of what might be possible." You also write: "Sometimes, after spending many hours and days composing a piece on the wall and pinning the pieces of painted fabric in place, I take it apart entirely to start afresh. It is then that I feel fully acquainted with the parts." Contrast this with Theo Van Doesburg's description of Mondrian's work: "Each misplaced line, each color applied without sufficient care and respect, can destroy the whole, that is to say, the spirit." The De Stijl artists planned purity and unity, and your Artist Statement says that you seek "a direction, a solution, to create a complete visual picture." Mondrian taped pieces of colored paper to the canvas, the width and color of the tape becoming an integral part of his gridded, visual language. Similarly, you pin pieces on the wall to find compositions. Is Mondrian's process like yours?
ER: I really don’t know who or what I’d compare my work to. While I am aware of the formal elements, a lot of my process is intuitive. I love looking at paintings with strong compositions. Among the artists whose compositions resonate with me are Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Vermeer, and Benny Andrews.
EJ: How do you connect to Benny Andrews? What strikes you most in his work? Are there Andrews-type stylizations in the current show?
ER: There was a retrospective at Gross McCleaf in 1996. It made an impression on me, particularly the linear qualities and the use of negative space in his work. Memories of that exhibit occasionally surfaced during the process of building some of these pieces.
I don't remember which ones, and I didn't refer to his work. So no, I wasn’t trying to achieve any of his type of stylizations. This also happened with the memory of William Kentridge's film installation More Sweetly Play the Dance, which I saw at the Cincinnati Art Museum in 2018. Again, nothing specific: just a fleeting influence based on my memory of the visual experience.
EJ: In Masters Art Quilts Vol. 2 (Lark Books), you mention that you like the overcast stitch more than the quilting stitch. Are there other technical elements for holding things together that has influenced your expression?
ER: The overcast stitch suits my hand. I also enjoy the hand action of knitting more than crochet. I don’t think there are other technical elements influencing the expression, except to say I don’t use glue or fusible fabrics.
EJ: Are the seams the most crucial aspect for you? For instance, a yellow edge meeting an orange shape in the middle of Sinks of Gandy is a Cubist move. Do you always leverage multiple interactions at the edges for the making and breaking of imagery?
ER: The seams are not the most important thing for me. My eye moving around the piece and perceiving depth are the most crucial aspects. The goal is to visually connect pieces––not physically, but by suggestion. It was a lesson I was taught early on: Don’t give the viewer all the information; allow the viewer to engage and do the work of connecting the elements on their own. So, in Sinks of Gandy, at the spot you mention, there is the dark triangle going up to the right in the orange, and a dark, curved triangle pointing down in the yellow. From there my eye goes down the left to the first dark shape (almost like a woodpecker head), then down to the black line, then over to the dark at the lower right, and so on. Perhaps this is the same thing as the way you phrase it: the making and breaking of imagery.
–– Elizabeth Johnson
Edited by Matthew Crain
Exhibition Dates: October 12 - November 11, 2023
Opening Reception: Saturday, October 14, 1 - 4 pm
Emily Richardson’s fiber work is internationally recognized for its expressive and painterly qualities. It has been featured in numerous exhibitions, including Quilt National, Fiberarts International, Oxymorons: Absurdly Logical Quilts, Visions, and Art Quilts: America at the Millennium, Quilt Expo VII, Strasbourg, France. Her pieces have also been shown at institutions such as the Netherlands Textile Museum, Renwick Gallery of the Museum of American Art, Washington D.C., American Museum of Quilts and Textiles, Kansas City Art Institute, Philadelphia Art Alliance, and Rochester Institute of Technology. In 2009 an extensive exhibition of her work was presented at the Visions Museum of Textile Art, San Diego. Her work has been published in exhibition catalogs, Surface Design Journal, Art/Quilt Magazine, Fiberarts, and The Art Quilt by Robert Shaw.
Emily resides in Philadelphia and possesses a background in fashion and theatrical costuming. She has been working in fiber since 1988. She received a 1995 grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the 1997 Leeway Award for Excellence in Fiberarts, and the 2004 Nihon Vogue Quilts Japan Award. Her work is in many corporate and private collections including the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, and the International Quilt Study Center, Lincoln, NE. Emily has been a featured artist at Jane Sauer Thirteen Moons Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is represented by Gross McCleaf Gallery in Philadelphia.