Sydney-based artist Emily Besser has had an interesting journey on her way to becoming a fulltime artist.
After graduating Sydney College of the Arts with a Bachelor of Visual Arts and First Class Honours, Emily went on to study law and worked in Native Title Law for ten years. But creativity is something that’s innate for her, and something that was nurtured from a young age by both her mother and her nana. So after becoming a mother, Emily returned to painting and hasn’t looked back.
I met up with Emily in her studio recently as was blown away by how prolific she is. She’d been preparing for her solo exhibition Myths to Live By – which opens tomorrow at the Chrissie Cotter Gallery – and all the pieces for the show were at the framer’s. Despite that, there were dozens of canvases standing against the walls and works on paper in big stacks around her studio space.
As you can probably see from the photo below, Emily is the most lovely and genuine person, and you’re going to love this peek into Emily’s creative space and process.
Where do you live?
In a quiet and culturally diverse suburb of the outer-inner-west of Sydney. I love it here. My neighbours are friendly, salt-of-the-earth people who cultivate their gardens and look after their homes and families. They share their crops of lemons, oranges and rosemary. It’s a very grounding place to be.
Where do you create?
In my studio, in a sunny corner of a large room that I share with my two boys and their toys. It’s their playroom and my studio.
When I can’t be in the studio painting, I’m working unintentionally in my head by looking at the things around me, at painted surfaces, gardens and buildings. I walk the same path to and from the kids’ school a lot so I try to find something new each time that I haven’t seen before, insignificant things really, but things that hint at a human story.
The suburb I live in also has a small National Park, it is a very compact bushland within a highly urbanized area. There is a bat colony there, Aboriginal hand and foot cave paintings, middens and a sandstone structure called the ‘Nuns’ pool’. It is an intriguing place. On bush-walks lately I’ve been noticing the incredible variety and depth of colour on fallen gum leaves. This kind of thing sustains me until I can next make it into my studio.
When do you create? Is it a full-time job?
I paint within quite a narrow schedule: Tuesday to Thursday, between the hours of 10.30 am and 2.30 pm, when the kids are at school and pre-school. Sometimes at night if the energy is there. Saturdays and Sundays if I can steal some more time.
What path led you to this creative place?
For as long as I can remember I’ve been in my creative place, for better or for worse; drawing, collaging, collecting, arranging, writing and taking note of things, and putting it all into scrapbooks. It’s a mild obsession, very enjoyable and probably a process of trying to make meaning out of things. It’s also highly portable. And it’s not that I’m searching for meaning so much as that I’m in awe of all the meaning to be found and I need to process it.
I don’t paint directly from these books, but I do store ideas for paintings there, like a reference book.
I vividly remember scrapbooking when I was four-years-old. My mum and I would cut pictures out of magazines together and then paste them in a scrapbook, and write the word or meaning of the thing next to the image. Maybe it was my first lesson in semiotics. I think my mum knew deeply the value of creativity, and she always supported it unconditionally. She is very creative, and her mother, my nana, was incredibly creative. She was an artist, she just never called herself that. My impulse to create comes directly from her and my mum.
What’s your elevator pitch? How do you describe what you do?
I really need to work on my elevator pitch. When people ask me if I’ve gone back to work yet after having kids, or say that it must be nice to have a hobby when I tell them that I paint, I inevitably end up sounding apologetic for what I do. Which is a bad habit really, but I think it’s a challenge to be confident to tell people that you are an artist.
Being an artist is a strange occupation, one that seems at odds with the norms of life, but on the contrary, it is so very much aimed at the heart of life.
How would you describe yourself in six words?
Short, messy, cheerful, friendly, sensitive, kind.
Where do you find inspiration and motivation?
It’s a bit clichéd but I feel like inspiration is everywhere, but you do have to be in the right frame of mind to receive it. And you can’t always be. For me, inspiration can be found particularly in painting, music, books, magazines, museums, theatre, poetry, smells and memories.
What are the essential items in your workspace?
Brushes, rollers, paint and paper. And music.
Do you have a favourite tool that’s essential to your work?
Luckily, painting is pretty basic, because I’m technophobic, so my tools are very simple. Even if I buy a fancy paintbrush, I try to take care of it but I much prefer it when it’s crusty and paint-laden as the marks it can make are more expressive.
What do you love the most about your creative space?
I love working at home, and at the moment I like the convenience of having my studio inside the house. It means that there’s quite a lot of fluidity between domestic tasks and parenting and my studio-work.
Also, there is something challenging and rewarding about working while family life goes on around you, especially as a mother. I am lucky to have a partner who is both a writer and a journalist so we have a reciprocal respect for each others’ work. I am never made to feel as though my work is self-indulgent, or taking away from the family simply because I don’t have a salary as such and I work at home.
Is there something you don’t like, or would like to change?
Eventually I would like to have a studio out the back of my house so that I can paint on a larger scale.
Do you listen to anything while you work?
Music by Bill Callahan, PJ Harvey, Bjork, Patti Smith.
Favourite work-time snack (or beverage)?
Cruskits with avocado and vegemite.
Tell us five online resources or apps you can’t live without.
Instagram, Flipagram, Pandora, This American Life, Free Thesaurus and Pinterest.
What’s the hardest thing about what you do?
Justifying to myself, and indirectly to others, as to whether painting is a worthwhile activity. To some people it will never make sense, and painting as an activity and cultural object has no meaning. To others it is a very human activity, and can be dense with meaning.
The other challenging thing about painting is that it is a very solitary task, and while I thrive off this aloneness I do feel that I lack a mentor.
How do you work out the financial aspects of your business? What resources, tips and tools would you recommend?
I plan to start doing this properly next year and have no idea how to start. I did do a unit of Accounting when I studied law but I failed the first time around. Numbers are not my greatest strength.
What advice do you have for aspiring creatives?
Work hard but look after yourself, ride the highs and lows of the creative process with a little bit of detachment, and don’t overcommit yourself.
Do you have a dream that you’d love to fulfill?
Paint for life.
If you’re in Sydney be sure to catch her solo exhibition Myths to Live By from 18 – 29 November at the Chrissie Cotter Gallery in Camperdown.
I hope you’ve enjoyed meeting Emily and seeing her wonderful paintings. I have one more Space to Create post that I can hopefully squeeze in this year – in the meantime, you might like to catch up on previous posts in our Space to Create series.
Photos by Lisa Tilse for We Are Scout (unless otherwise noted).