This feature was originally published in issue 15.
Multimedia artist Emma Kohlmann exists in three different worlds: her quaint, quiet life in Northampton, Massachusetts; her social, gallery-hopping life in New York City and Los Angeles; and the indefinable otherworldly life she has created through her colorful and abstract watercolors. Each world is a telling reflection of Emma’s multifaceted personality and the disparate needs she has in order to fuel her creativity.
Emma’s watercolor world is playful and somewhat naive. It’s balanced, yet completely off-balanced. It’s intrinsically political, unwittingly powerful, and aesthetically stunning. It’s a way for the Massachusetts-based artist to retreat into a figurative world that doesn’t define an ideal form. Fascinated by the idea of constructing things that are beautiful, but are not attached to certain forms of identity, Emma sees the body as political. There are aspects that are visible and others that are hidden. There are parts that are celebrated and others that are obliterated, and she wants all of them to be acknowledged. Driven by her desire to deconstruct what is learned, her lively figures aren’t confined to traditional gender norms, and who or what these figures are is irrelevant. What’s most crucial for Emma is branching out of the typical male canon of nudity, transgressing the image, and remaining absolutely limitless in her presentation of such.
The day I speak with Emma, she seems relaxed, talking to me while enjoying the sun outside of her studio. She’s just come off a string of group and solo shows, and can’t wait to take the rest of the summer to step away from her work, recalibrate, jump into a Claude Cahun book, and discover new clarity.
Tell me about the sleepy town you live in. What’s the vibe like?
I live in Western Massachusetts and there are a lot of people doing cool stuff. I used to go to shows four or five times a week in the summer—there’s a noise and punk scene that involves a lot of creators. It’s a college town; there are five colleges in the area so there are always people around, people are moving in, and doing things. But there’s also this hippie, eccentric, crystal culture here; White liberal types. There’s also a lot of nature and access to nature. There’s literally a place across the street from my studio that I can like jump in the water.
That sounds really nice.
I really like it, but I’m also always questioning it because I’m social and I need people sometimes. I need stimulation outside of this bubble. Sometimes I feel like it’s a little detached from the rest of the world. You can just live in your liberal pocket here. When you’re here there’s a protest every weekend and it’s always been that way, even before Trump became our president. There were always people up in arms about stuff. There’s definitely a political consciousness here and that’s not the case everywhere. So when people leave they’re like, ‘Oh wow, there’s actually like differing opinions.”
What’s it like for you not being in a city that’s known for being a “creative hub” like New York or Los Angeles?
I’m always conflicted by this because I grew up in New York City and there are certain things that I appreciate like having to learn how to take the subway when I was 12. I had to know things, act a certain way, and ask questions, and I think that guided me to always wanting to learn new things and reach out to people. Instagram changed my life while living here in Western Mass because I was able to stay here and also make sure that I was on top of what was going on. You don’t need to be in a specific locale to be part of a conversation. Part of my journey is trying to educate myself or learn new things.
Sharing your artwork at the level that you are, means you really have to put yourself out there.
And it feels really personal. It’s definitely a lot of soul-searching or figuring out what you want to say. It’s hard.
Is the process of sharing your work hard for you? Do you ever just keep work for only your eyes?
I keep sketchbooks and write in journals that I keep to myself. But in the past, when I’ve decided to post something from my journal, someone will reach out and want to buy it. It’s been interesting. At the time I didn’t have any money so it was like, “You know, this would be good for me and I can live off that for a little bit and then go to my next destination.” But I haven’t been able to really keep things to myself in a while and that privacy is important. Not everything is ready to show sometimes and I feel like I get pushed to have something ready to go all the time.
Where do you think this pressure comes from?
It’s part of my own thing where I agree to do too much. For a while, I was saying yes to everything because I knew I could do it all. Now I want to just scale back.
Tell me about your upbringing and kind of your first interaction to not only art but creativity in general.
I grew up in New York. I lived in the Bronx, in Riverdale. My parents aren’t the most creative people, but they love art and they always exposed me and my sister to it even when we would complain about going to the museum. My dad is a true New Yorker and is always trying to participate in any type of cultural events. I think he wakes up and is like, “This is the city you have and you have to utilize it.” It’s a testament to being grateful for the things your city offers you. Growing up I was always drawing, I had sketchbooks and weird scrapbooks that I would use to document my life. But I also danced ballet until I was a senior in high school. I was pretty dedicated to that practice. I had classes almost every day, even on weekends and I really wanted to pursue that as a career. I really loved the way the movement felt and that was more of what I was focusing on. I did have my art practice in some form, but it wasn’t as developed as my dance practice.
When did you stop dancing and what was the impetus for you stopping?
When it came time for college, I knew I didn’t want to go to a conservatory school because after spending time at Alvin Ailey, I felt like there wasn’t a lot of creative input being allowed. Coming up with choreography was never offered and there was a lot more of an automaton thing going on. I didn’t understand why we weren’t given the opportunity to pursue anything that involved your mind. You can memorize all these steps and it’s definitely difficult, but there’s also no creative component to it. So I went to Hampshire College and didn’t do art. I didn’t take art classes until the second semester of my sophomore year. I wasn’t interested in using the label “artist” or being considered that because I felt like everyone used that word so liberally. I took a lot of philosophy classes. I was mostly into political theory and feminist philosophy.
When did you start to share your work?
After college, I got an Instagram and my ex-boyfriend, who was in a punk band, introduced me to a lot of people and I started making zines. That was my way of meeting new people. I would get their home addresses and would mail them a care package of stuff that I was making. It was a way I could communicate or keep relationships while I was lonely in Massachusetts. I started making flyers for shows eventually wanted to be more active in the community. My friend had a storage space and made it into a gallery so I helped her with some shows and became a part of this cool community.
How did it eventually evolve into what you’re creating now?
Well, it was always painting and zines. I would create zines for every holiday. My painting practice was always there I never showed it. I kept making stuff even though I wasn’t showing much. I used my studio practices like a gym membership, I made myself go every day because I was paying money for my studio. I put in the time and made my practice part of my life.
I feel like you work at a quick pace. I saw the show that you had at New Image Gallery and you were showing so many pieces. What drives this quick pace?
I work at a really quick pace because the medium lends itself to that. I make a lot of work just so I can have more options. I make a lot of the same images over and over again because I never really find one that captures what I’m trying to convey. Things often don’t come out the way I want them to, so I do it over and over to see what nuances I can give a piece to make it more beneficial to the idea I had for it.
The things that I’m trying to convey aren’t attached to the world that we live in. I think that’s part of the reason why I’m constantly remaking these things. I want to try to make a world where everything is on the same spectrum; there’s no hierarchy. There’s just this playful, sexual, universe where everything’s kind of balanced and off balance at the same time.
How do you continue to push yourself?
I feel really lucky that I’m able to live off my art. It kind of blows my mind that I get to do the stuff that I like. I’m constantly trying to figure out new ways of creating so that I’m not just doing one thing. I try to work on different levels, whether it’s making a scene or working in a new medium or learning new things by reading new books.
You’re on this path of constant learning.
I guess because I live in the Northampton, I’m able to have access to these really awesome libraries. I tend to work in the library fairly often and that’s one place I do a lot of reading and research. I also learn a lot from my contemporaries. All of my friends push themselves and are really interested in specific things. I feel like I live between two worlds— I have this quiet place and then I also have a vibrant social world. I’m here in Massachusetts for a couple of days and then back in New York for a couple of days and then somewhere else after that.
Is there a place that you go where you feel the most at peace?
When I’m In Massachusetts. I think that’s why I always come back here because I can actually hear myself think. Even though I have all these places that I love—I love going to LA so much because it’s such an amazing place and all my friends live there—but it’s funny whenever I go places, I eventually get to the point where I want to be in my studio or just in my weird sleepy town.
What’s something you’ve been excited about or proud of recently?
I feel honored that I was able to do a show at Jack Hanley Gallery, which was my first real solo show in New York. It felt like a milestone for me because I never expected to be doing this as long as I’ve been doing it. I’ve always expected to have an art practice but not really be out there.
I’m also really stoked I was asked to be in this film club based in Denmark, run by Emma Leth, who is this amazing artist, model, creative woman. Her partner is Tal R, who is this incredible painter. They sent me five rolls of film and a Super 8 to shoot a film. I shot it with my sister and I really wanted to have movement and dance incorporated. I did different shots of me dancing in these fields in really tall grass and then I shot her doing it too. I also filmed myself while trying to paint, which is really funny. It’s all very cinema verite, weird, and choppy. It was fun to think about how I would want to show or make movement again.
I’m not sure if you’re aware, but this issue is all-women. You have a lot of female contemporaries and female-identifying artist friends that you work closely with. Tell me about how you support and encourage each other?
I’ve mostly only had female friends for a large portion of my life. I feel like my role has always been to encourage people, to always make sure your friends feel supported, and to encourage them to produce the art the way they want. That’s the best way to have a good friendship. Emotionally, art allows you to really think about things, not just about yourself, but about the world as well. Everyone should be able to make art or have access to that tool. And it doesn’t require money to do it. That’s something that I’ve always been adamant about; you don’t need to have a lot of money to have an art practice. You can have a pencil and loose leaf paper and make the most amazing thing. Competition is something that was built by our Capitalistic society to make ourselves feel bad. It’s a symptom of always feeling inadequate and eats us alive. We exist in Capitalism, but there are ways in which we can divert these feelings and make everyone feel included.
You have an authentic style. Not only in your work but in your personal style as well. Do you think there is such a thing as originality anymore?
I think we are all part of this giant snowball. We’re contributing more and more media to the world and things are going to repeat themselves over and over again. It’s funny because I do think that there are people who intentionally copy things and in that are not fair. But I also think that with how we put ourselves out on the Internet, people are going to copy you because it’s out there. If you’re putting yourself out there in any way, people are going to see what they like and take something from you. I think that’s part of human consciousness. I also think that there’s a synchronicity where people think of the same thing in different ways and in different parts of the world, and it just so happens that they do the same thing at the same time. It’s this crazy thing, but it’s really hard to be like authentically you or just authentically yourself when you were created off of something else, like so many people came before you.
How do you subconsciously stay authentic to who you are?
I just try to stick to my principles of being supportive, trying to make my best work, and constantly having a practice going. Even when I worked another job, I worked in the evenings and would always go to my studio before. I’d spend the first part of my day in the studio. It’s not the same for every artist, but that really helps me to keep a conscious open mind.
For more from Emma Kohlmann, follow her on Instagram.
Photography by Brian Overend.