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4 Questions for cover artist Michela Emeson

OL: You’ve lived in both Mexico and Europe. Do you think this has influenced your work away from the American grain?

Michela: Even though I have strong European influences, I am American with a range of work that encompasses its history from Jazz to 9/11.When I was a child I remember seeing old black and white photos of people at the beach. They must have been European. The beaches were vast. So were the women. Some were nude. The men wore slits as suits. I could feel the heat, the movement of those bodies, a community of breasts, legs, bellies. This was not New Hampshire where I was raised. I distinctly remember my mother’s 1950’s bathing suit: Playtex-like, a girdle with a stiff pointy bra. I belonged on that vast beach with its looseness and camaraderie. The seeds are planted early.

OL: Robert Hughes famously said that America had produced no great erotic art. Though you’re not exclusively an erotic painter, do you think your own work places you outside of the ‘American tradition’?

Michela:I agree with Robert Hughes. Even though our society is sexualized, there is an absence of the erotic, passionate, and sensual in American painting. On occasion I have seen replicas of those beautiful Attic Greek vases in American homes sometimes sitting on a doily.

The nude is provocative and makes us conscious of our vulnerabilities.

OL: I see both elements of Mexican political art and European fauvism in your paintings. Do you consider yourself part of a larger historical tradition?

Michela: The painters that influenced me, that indeed taught me to paint, were European. For years I looked at Schiele, Kokoschka, Kirshner, Otto Dix, all the German Expressionists. I started to find my voice by lying in the bath. The tiles were large squares of marble with delicate streaks of gray running through them. I saw a line in those streaks that I was able to internalize.

Quite recently while living in Europe and traveling I saw this Schiele line in many artists’ work. I learned this line was taught in the art schools of the time. Schiele went further than all of them and to this day I am moved. He keeps me honest.

I visited the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. I was there last when I was 19 years old and had begged my parents to let me stay in Europe. They didn’t.

Before I entered the galleries I sat in the museum coffee shop alone. I ordered coffee and a Viennese something wonderful pastry. It was quiet. I was served with a cloth napkin in a very old museum. It was gray black marble with white and gray streaks running through it. The Alte Museum. I was at last home. It took all my energy to leave and enter the galleries. I saw Schiele, but I had also come to see Ruben’s Nude in a Fur Coat, purportedly the first erotic painting. The date, 1630. In reproduction, the colors are strong. In person they are soft. The painting is astonishingly soft and so very sensual.

OL: In his a book about poetry, Nick Halpern described how a balance between “The Everyday and the Prophetic,” has defined most American poetry this century. I notice that tension in your own work: “Everyday,” because you refuse to artificially beautify many of your subjects (clawing hands, smudged faces), and “Prophetic,” because so you’re clearly not a “realist,” in that many of your subjects seemhalf-metaphorical, or spiritual, and your canvases seem always to be in motion. You seem to be both painting spiritual essences and to simultaneously be making a social comment. Do you find the intensity of each varies with your mood, or are you constantly in search of both? Or do you (as I’d suspect) recognize no demarcation?

Michela: 
No. There is no demarcation. I can not add anything more to what you have so generously and beautifully said.


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