I first met Emma when the four winners of the #LibertyOpenCall met up at Liberty HQ in London to work on our fabric designs with the Liberty design team. We had a great lunch together and a pint afterwards, and then went our separate ways.
We all met up again at Gatwick airport for an extended day trip to Milan, looking round the Liberty factory and getting a first glimpse at the test prints of our fabrics.
Our third meeting was for the launch of our fabrics, back in London’s Regent Street at the Liberty store. And then, later, at a Liberty book launch reception, where we hobnobbed with fashion glitterati, including Chatham girl, Dame Zandra Rhodes.
We’ve all kept in touch since then, and Emma Hill kindly submitted some of her art to an exhibition (remember those?) that I organised at The Hot Tin in Faversham, Kent.
Unlike me, Emma had her eye on Liberty for quite a while before her successful submission to the #LibertyOpenCall fabric design competition.
#LibertyOpenCall was the first Liberty Open Call to be conducted entirely online. Prior to that, aspiring artists/makers would queue up outside the store, sometimes for six hours or more, for the chance to make a four-minute pitch about their product to the Liberty buying team.
Emma had spent two years developing a scarf collection with Liberty Open Call firmly in mind. Her designs were inspired from her ‘Itchycoo’ painting series, featuring the enchanted garden from the stories that she told to her young children. Each scarf featured: a heart; a tiny motif of Mimi, a child in a red dress from the Itchycoo stories; and a daisy and an iris – the names of Emma’s daughters. But Emma and her scarves never made it to London.
‘The first year, they didn’t have an Open Call,’ Emma remembers. ‘And then they did have one, but I was abroad so I didn’t hear about it until after the event. And the last Open Call I missed as we were doing up our house. So I never got to pitch.’
In 2018, six years after Emma completed her scarf collection, a sponsored ad for #LibertyOpenCall popped up on her Instagram feed. There was no queuing for this fabric design competition. Aspiring designers posted their entries on Instagram and added the #LibertyOpenCall hashtag. There was a fantastic prize. Winning designs would be made into fabrics to be sold in Liberty’s flagship London store and online, and would enter Liberty’s historical fabric archives alongside the design greats, including William Morris.
Emma submitted her painting Graffiti Summer, which was inspired by a day spent in London with her daughter, visiting the Fashioned from Nature exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum and photographing graffiti in the East End. Her entry was chosen as one of the four winners.
‘I hadn’t really put any thought into which painting to hashtag,’ Emma reflects. ‘If I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have chosen Graffiti Summer. That painting took me on a rollercoaster of highs and lows. It had been a battle making it, so it wasn’t a favourite. I felt so relieved when it was finished. However, now I’m really pleased that it accidently became the one, because it’s so much richer because of all the layers. It has a good story behind it and now, with a bit of time, I’ve grown to love it. ‘
As part of her Liberty experience, Emma was chosen to feature in a BBC documentary called A Day That Changed My Life. The cameras followed her creative journey from submission through to the nail-biting moment when she heard that she was one of the winners.
‘It was fun to share my art journey and the background of the winning painting,’ Emma says. ‘It was also the first time I’d shown my fresh new style of painting after a three-year break, so it was amazing to get such a fantastic initial response.’
‘It wouldn’t have been the same if there was just one winner,’ she says. ‘What made it so valuable and amazing was the four of us being able to experience it together. And the opportunity to learn a bit about each others’ work and to get to know each other.’
Emma was brought up in the UK but is half English and half Norwegian. As a child she spent school holidays in Norway visiting family. There were summer camps in the mountains in summer, and skiing in the winter.
Although she really excelled at art at school, she didn’t get into art college. They said she ‘needed to be more free’. This was a massive blow for Emma. She became very insecure in her art and began to believe that she couldn’t paint.
She decided the best way to get her passion back and find her creativity again was to learn more about art. So, after a ‘mind-blowing’ year studying art and philosophy among the mountains and lakes in Lillehammer in Norway, Emma, aged 19, returned to the UK to pursue a joint honours degree in Art History and Scandinavian Studies.
‘I thought that through my studies, I could learn about art, discover what interested me and get into painting again,’ she reflects wryly. ‘In fact, studying art history had no influence on my art whatsoever!’
While she was studying at the university, Emma started attending life drawing classes at the art college across the road from where she lived. Eventually, she applied for a place there but was told she would have to choose between the degree she was taking which was nearly complete, or a completely new course in fine art. She decided to complete her degree and afterwards, spent the summer in Norway with her uncle, training to be a divemaster.
After the dive season in September 1996, she came back to the UK and started working as cabin crew with British Airways and, that Emma says, is where her real art education began.
Art Culture Vulture
‘I travelled extensively and made it my mission to search for art and culture everywhere I went,’ Emma recalls. ‘It was a real adventure. When I arrived in a county, I would visit whatever exhibitions were showing. I found amazing exhibitions from the largest retrospectives in New York to tiny local galleries in Calcutta, Hong Kong and Tokyo, and everything in between.
‘The days when the time frame just didn’t fit, or when galleries were closed were often the most fun as they were totally unpredictable. I’d often find myself in the most unusual of places.’
‘I documented everything,’ she continues. ‘I wrote it down and organised it according to time zones, starting with London at 0 degrees Longitude. It was a kind of response to three of Mathew Collings books – Blimey: From Bohemia to Britpop: London Art World from Francis Bacon to Damien Hirst; It Hurts- New York Art from Warhol to Now and Art Crazy Nation. I thought of my writing as a commentary on art and culture at the turn of the century, from the point of view, of a 20-something-year-old girl.
‘I kept it all my writing on an old floppy disk, but luckily I had it printed up as a book, which, last year, came out of storage after eight years. In the New Year, 2020 I picked it up and had a read. After 20 years I realised that my thoughts about art and my purpose are exactly the same today.
‘What interested me back then was how art becomes like an international language, communicating cultural diversity and differences without the barriers of speech and geographical borders. Art uniting people while sharing new, rich perspectives. I’d be in Thailand and they’d be promoting art from Finland, or I’d be in Brazil looking at art about the arctic – completely different culture promoting each other, educating and sharing an insight to their world. It was like there was this network of people communicating and understanding each other’s cultures, and it was all through art.’
With the prospect of more time during the first lockdown, Emma prepped up, with canvas and paint and was looking forward to explore her creativity. But when lockdown came, she didn’t feel like painting. Instead she decided to write up her travel diaries as blogposts.
‘I thought it would be interesting to see if I could look back at where I’d been and continue the story, but on the internet,’ Emma says. I looked back at where my painting started off, in Australia, where I became hugely influenced by Aboriginal art and culture.
As I was revisiting my archives during lockdown ‘Black Lives Matter’ came to the forefront of my awareness and I thought that I would celebrate Black Art and the huge influence that it has had on my work. The previous week I had started painting heart’s for an exhibition in Vienna, All You Need is Love. All of a sudden I was continuing my story – painting Love HeArts, that were expressing unity, celebrating difference and visually expressing all the beliefs and thoughts from what I had written all those years ago’
You can see more of Emma’s Love HeArts here
So, six weeks into lockdown, Emma was painting again and exploring new ways of communicating her art through social media. You can watch Emma talking about influences on her work from Black art, in this IGTV broadcast.
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Early commercial success
As she travelled less while bringing up her children, and with her artistic influences broadened and developed through experiencing so many different cultures and styles from around the world, Emma, started to paint more. In particular, as she mentioned above, Emma was inspired by Aboriginal art. This is particularly evident in her earlier work, albeit with a ‘European spin’.
Emma’s first breakthrough came when she visited the Affordable Art Fair. A case of mistaken identity got her a conversation with New British Artists who took her on as their ‘wild card’ artist.
Emma laughs, ‘I’d only done one painting, so I had to do a couple more. Three months later I had a whole wall at The London Art Fair and I sold out. It was amazing!’
New British Artists, represented Emma for 10 years, exhibiting and selling her work at art fairs around the UK. But although she was experiencing a great deal of commercial success at this time, Emma still hadn’t achieved the ‘freedom’ in her painting style that feedback from her original art college application suggested she was lacking.
‘My style was very controlled,’ Emma explains. ‘I would have a scrap of paper and I would scribble and balance shapes and then when I came to the canvas, I would take time transferring that design to the canvas and then I’d paint it in.’
When her agent retired, instead of finding someone else to represent her, Emma got a job teaching art at ARTHOUSE Unlimited, a charity presenting the artistic talents of adults living with learning and physical difficulties who require varying levels of support, where she continues to work there today.
A change of style
Six years ago, Emma took a three-year break from painting to renovate her house. While the garage was being converted and with a wall down and plastering yet to be done, Emma felt inspired to paint again.
‘I put this huge canvas across the gap and just started painting,’ Emma says. ‘I was painting intuitively, just expressing how I was feeling, which I’d never done before.’
That painting was the beginning of a process that Emma now uses to produce all her work, which she describes as ‘spontaneous, intuitive, expressive and emotionally charged’.
‘It explores my memories and experiences within nature, of the sea, sky and landscape,’ she explains. ‘But not in the traditional sense of recording by recognition, but by my use of colour and texture. The energy of my mark-making, born of my emotional feelings and associated memories becomes the essence as it creates a visual mindscape. My heads is clear, empty of thought, I feel the colours and textures, intuitively.’
Each painting starts with a single brush stroke – ‘the start of a conversation’ Emma says. But it is only as the conversation continues, that the final painting begins to emerge, as she explains in her artist statement.
A streak of turquoise leaps over a zig-zag spectrum. Parchment and lilac play beside striking fluorescents. Prussian blue drips like pouring rain and brilliant white miniature dots light up the sky like stars. Paint is thrown wide and poured tight, meandering and flowing, following a journey of life. Gradually, layers of colour build phrases of optimism. Slowly, fragments of structure become suspended within the painting, revealing a glimpse of something familiar. Inspired by nature, brush strokes grow, constantly explore, entwine, separate and die. Occasionally, there is the hint of the figurative, recalling a hint of a memory which begins to form, shapeshifting and disappearing deep into the clouds or ocean. Sometimes landscapes emerge as lost cities or far away planets, luring like candy.
It is only when the painting is finished that Emma is able to assign meaning to her work. Her completed lockdown painting Hope with its zig-zag ‘forests’ reminded her of time she spent in the mountains Norway with its glacial lakes, waterfalls and the Northern Lights. And, although this was not in her mind at all during the painting process, Emma’s painting Joy , she realised, reminded her of water and the pond that she used to run past every day during lockdown.
But using Emma’s metaphor, like all good conversations, there is not always agreement and there might even be a few rows along the way before a consensus is reached and the final direction of a painting is resolved.
‘If I have a gut feeling that I need to change something or I need to do something else, I just do it, because, actually, it’s in the risks and the doubts that there is the chance that I might find something amazing,’ Emma says. ‘But it is a bit of a battle. I start adding things and I think, “Oh no, what have I done? This looks dreadful.” And it gets worse and worse and it’s almost like I’m destroying it. Until you get to the point where it is so awful that you just hate it. But eventually it works out and it feels like I’ve found magic. Actually, my favourite paintings are those I’ve had the most heartache with and absolutely hated because they were so disastrous. But I’ve ended up loving them.’
Emma’s lockdown painting Joy, started as half of a huge rainbow painting to celebrate Sir Tom Moore’s 100th birthday and the NHS. The original paintings has been painted over so many times that now, there is just a glimpse of what was there before.
‘I think it makes the painting richer,’ Emma comments. ‘It gives it more depth and a story all on its own, by the journey it takes. It starts good and kind of gets worse and then you find a way to bring it all together in the end. I share the mistakes and accidents in the hope it will inspire others in art but also in their lives to carry on, giving them hope.’
Watch Emma talking about Hope
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Watch Emma talking about Joy
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You can hear Emma talking through the way she works, with reference to some of her more recent paintings on her IGTV channel.
Building supportive communities online
Now Emma continues to consider how she can use the power of the internet to communicate with others through art. This year will see the launch of her podcast Art Seeker Stories, based around her Art Culture Vulture diary.
‘It will be partly nostalgic, looking back at my travel adventures twenty years ago, but I’ll update those, continuing the conversation with what I can find now – online, most likely during lockdown,’ Emma explains. ‘But I’d also like to interview and support other artists, to share their background stories. Other people’s art is incredibly important to me and I’d like to celebrate that, to build a community that is creatively inspiring and supportive of each other.’
Emma has personal experience of how much members of an online artistic community can support each other.
‘On occasions, when I have lacked confidence to paint myself, I seek refuge in other people’s art, ‘ she says. ‘In a way, other people’s work is just as important to me as my own and I guess what I’m hoping is that I can give the same, or even a fraction of what other people’s art has given me when I’ve most needed it, to somebody else, with my own artwork.
‘One year I looked at the artwork of Jessica Zoob every day. Her paintings gave me such comfort and joy. Years later, I won her painting, Sunlit Waters as a prize in a competition she set during lockdown, with my painting Joy. It felt amazing to have my own work recognised by someone who had given me so much through her own work.’
Emma recalls the support she received from the online artistic community during a period of anti-climax after the excitement of winning the #LibertyOpenCall competition.
‘I was so excited,’ she says. ‘I had a Liberty fabric design and I had been on TV. I’d had great exposure and I was looking forward to getting my art out there. Yet I couldn’t get anywhere. Everything I applied for I didn’t get in to. I’d built up this massive portfolio of work but didn’t know what to do with it.
‘And then it occurred to me – I don’t have to do anything. I realised I didn’t have to paint any more. It was euphoric. It was like a weight off my shoulders that I wasn’t going to have to do it again. Every underlying pressure was taken away. I could just play with paint and have some fun, but not necessarily to make a picture.’
During this time, although she was no longer painting, Emma continued to post art from her archives on Instagram.
‘I wanted it to look productive and busy, like everything was fine,’ she explains. ‘And then one day I received a really lovely comment from someone saying that she had really connected to my work emotionally. It made me feel good and give me a purpose. I thought, “Oh maybe there is a reason why I’m painting”. So I got over myself and started to paint again.’
Soon afterwards, Emma was accepted by ArtCan a charity set up to help artists promote their work and began exhibiting again.
Liten as Emma talks about engaging with the Instagram community on IGTV.
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So what’s ahead for Emma?
‘2020, creatively, was my awakening,’ she says. ‘I exhibited in Fake News the week before the first lockdown in March and in Vienna in September. And although planned exhibitions got cancelled there were various online virtual shows. I also won first prize to show my art with Trinity Art Gallery at The Grocer, at London City Island which, luckily, went ahead in the summer.’
2020 was also the year that Emma feels that her story, vision and purpose became clear. She got a new website to represents her and her brand.
‘This year, 2021, I’m excited,’ she says. ‘It is my time to take action. To put all I’ve learnt into practice. I have a new range of limited edition prints and hope to extend my print and product range and get involved with new ventures and collaborations.
‘One already in the pipeline is with Bombette, a slow fashion brand, environmentally conscious, creating artist collaboration clothing. Artistically, I continue with working with ARTHOUSE Unlimited, either in the studio or remotely.
‘I’m planning to make a start on a project on trees, influenced by my daily jogs around the golf club and the woods and the Haywood exhibition Among the Trees that I visited in March. I would also like to explore creating paintings in response to people and places, to compliment my Artist Journal and Art Seeker Stories, although I’m not sure which direction this will go in.
‘Most of all I’m very excited to be doing all I can to produce a podcast, for Art Seeker Stories that will be a platform where I can share my own and other artist and creative’s stories to inspire others and give a sense of belonging and community, expressing individuality, diversity and inclusion – Sharing Love With HeArt.’
Further information and to get in touch with Emma
Web : www.emmahill.co.uk
Instagram @emma.hill_art and @artseekerstories
Contact – firstname.lastname@example.org