Emma Henry is a 19-year-old, multi-media artist, based on Vancouver Island, Canada. She uses acrylic paint to create minimalist pop portraits, a style that she only discovered a year ago. Her portraits are meant to pop; to jump off the canvas. Capturing the beauty that she sees in people, and showing this beauty to as many people as she can, is what Emma intends to do.
By Al Gord
Emma, I am glad that we have the opportunity to learn about you and your art. I understand that your journey as an artist started eight years ago when you were only 11. Can you tell us about that experience?
Yes! I believe I was in sixth grade at the time, and a girl in my class held a small art contest for the classroom. I had never drawn in my life, other than a few childhood finger paintings, but one of my friends managed to convince me to enter the contest, so I decided to give it a try. I decided I would draw an eagle, and I guess you could say that my talent was spontaneous. I found that I was somehow able to transfer an image from my iPod screen to the blank piece of paper on my desk, via my No. 1 pencil. It was mind blowing! It changed my life. I was just as shocked as my family when I brought home a photocopy-like drawing of an eagle with my family size KitKat I had won in the contest. I am actually almost positive that my family has that drawing saved somewhere.
What caught my eye were your portraits, but I understand that your original focus was animals. What led to you change the focus of your subject matter and was it an easy transition?
I did start with animals, yes, but there is something about faces that is just so incredibly captivating to me. I remember even through high school, most of my studies had to do with people. I made faces out of clay in ceramics, focused on monochrome portraiture in photography, and even did a mural of Muhammad Ali for the weight room. My interest in people extended socially as well. I was that kid in high school who knew almost everyone, and while I cannot stand crowds, I adore people. The concept of emotions has always captured my attention, simply because of the endless ways to express them. Whether through a song, a movie, a story, or an expression, the emotion that is shown and felt is what draws people in. I think, because of that interest, I most likely would always have ended up focusing on portraiture, eventually.
Various issues of importance influence many artists. For you the Black Lives Matters movement underpins your current work. Can you tell us more about the impact this has had on your art?
Oh boy, I could write a book about this subject. The Black Lives Matter movement swept the globe in the summer of 2020, and it caught my attention instantly. As a young mixed woman, it was appalling to see the things that were happening to people that look like me and look like my family. I had never seen a reaction on this kind of scale, and I knew that I needed to be a part of it somehow. I began my research immediately, looking for the answers to all of the questions I had had about race, racism, and culture. As a kid, my questions were pretty easy to answer. Why are my lips and my nose bigger than the other kids at school? What do they mean when they ask me why I do not “sound black”? Why did they not have fish cakes and roti in their lunch boxes? As I matured and came to witness and understand more, my questions became a little more complex. How can a 20-dollar bill lead to someone’s death? When did peace protests become tear gas wars against the police? How am I protesting the same things that my grandparents protested against? I could not help but think of the thousands of victims; I so wished to paint them, to honor them somehow.
However, I also could not allow myself to profit from them. Instead, I drowned myself in as many other beautiful people as I could. I search for people I have never seen before. That “wow” moment. I want people who see my art to have the same “wow” moment that I get every time. It is the same moment that I got to experience looking at all of the faces in the crowds and rallies I was at that summer. I think that being able to have that exposure to the hardships of everyone else, and the chance to learn more about myself and my people really helped me to see the beauty in myself and every other person on the planet.
Your lived experience is a powerful one and I can see how it influences your work. It would be easy to classify you as a portrait artist; however, I know that as artists we often do not want to be labelled. How would you describe your work and style?
That is a question that I have been trying to find the answer to for years now. I am actually giggling sharing this, because every word from here on out is quite literally going to be my thoughts as I try to figure it out. When I first started my art, I was absolutely positive that I would be a strictly photorealism focused artist. I spent an entire seven years engrossed in these incredibly detailed animal portraits with no thought of the infinite other subjects I could be trying to draw. I had convinced myself that I was limited to only one medium, theme, or subject. I went through a bit of a rough moment in my life in 2018, and hardly did any art for almost a year. It gave me time to rethink my goals and what I wanted or thought I could do. My new portraits are a style and concept I have never tried, and I am currently torn between whether my style is pop or minimalist. I think it may qualify as both. I will have to find something to call it eventually. Maybe I will make up something new.
Emma, while you have a unique style, your work reminds me a little of Amy Sherald. Are there certain artists from whom you take inspiration or whom you admire?
Okay, this is going to sound a bit artistically ignorant, but my knowledge of pretty much anything art wise in an “already existing artist” sense is almost non-existent. Other than my high school art classes, which were focused more on the task we were assigned than the history of art, I have no outside knowledge of almost anything that I didn’t already know. Other than the research, I have just done, I actually had not yet heard of Amy Sherald, but I can absolutely see how she would have influenced my art! We have a similar theme and her subject to background colour combos are the same as mine, so I totally see the connection! I wish I had known about Amy before, as I would have found my style so much faster if I had. It is odd to think about how much more can be taught in art classes and lessons, simply to avoid people like me missing out on such wonderful art.
One artist that was a huge inspiration to me when I was focusing on animals was Robert Bateman. The detail that he has been able to capture in his pieces were exactly what I myself was aiming for, and I spent a huge amount of time in a little gallery where I grew up just staring at his art. I was lucky enough a few years ago to meet Page Ough, and it was probably one of the most life changing experiences I have had. I was still drawing animals at the time, and Page is a photorealism artist that I had looked up to for years. To actually speak to her face to face was surreal. She is one of the kindest souls I have ever met, and she gave me so much advice about how to really enjoy my art and achieve my artistic goals. I went to visit her a few times after that, and her presence was never any less impressive than the first time.
At the moment, an artist that has become a new muse to me is Carla Mooking. I met her at an art show this past July, and she handed me a card with a photo of her art on it, which I was shocked to see was almost identical to the style I use! It was mind-blowing that we had somehow both come to this exact conclusion, without any prior knowledge of each other. Her art now captivates me, simply because of how many times I attempted to do what she does, but was unable to capture it quite like that. It is amazing.
Carla is another fantastic artist. In learning more about you, it is evident that you are open to evolving and creating subject matter of various forms. Is there a new series or theme that you want to explore after your portrait series focusing on Black Lives Matter?
Another great question that I myself am still wondering! I am an incredibly spontaneous person, and so I actually never plan any of my art endeavors at all whatsoever. It is an interesting way to do things, if only because it means that every one of my paintings are practice. I do not paint with the intent to create something perfect or sellable; I paint for the enjoyment of painting. It makes it a little… interesting to keep up with (I can hardly keep up with it myself), but it does mean that any of my recent art will constantly be new and different than anything else I’ve done before. My portraits at the moment do not have a specific theme, although Black Lives Matter did lead me here. I think if the current theme could be anything, it may be something like Soul or Emotion, but for now it is just… people. Faces. I have been interested in pointillism for a while now, actually. I have been poking away at an 18×24″ portrait for almost a year now, and I think it might be the most satisfying thing to watch the progress. I may have to make that my next attempted medium. As for a theme, I will have to figure that out as I go!
One of the powerful things about art is that age does not factor into ability. It is evident that you have a gift. What is it like being a young artist breaking into the industry?
Thank you and it is actually pretty unbelievable. It is super exciting to get to experience this, if only because I know that it is a once in a lifetime kind of thing. It is surreal to be making art almost full time at 19. It is like a dream. It is my dream. I cannot possibly thank everyone enough for the support and love they have given me through this; it really is what keeps me going! I never would have imagined the number of opportunities that I have been given this past year, or how fun it would be! The art community is full of some of the realest people I have ever met, and I do not think I would trade it for the world.
What is it like balancing your beginnings as an artist, other work and your social network, as you lead an atypical life as a young adult?
To be completely honest, it is overwhelmingly hard. I am not saying that to discourage other young artists, but it is a lot to fit on one plate. Balancing art, work, bills, my mental health, my physical health, and a social life is… a lot. However, there is a trick to it. Time. I had to remember that I have no shortage of time. I am only 19, I have a good 70 years of art left to do, if we do not count the globe heating up – which it is. I do not have to do eight paintings in a day, or find all of my subjects for five years from now, or land 50 commissions a month. My theme does not have to change every year. It can change every 15 years, if I really want it to. Slowing yourself down changes everything. Absolutely everything. My stress levels have been cut in half and I now find that I enjoy my art a lot more, and I am making it more consistently than I was before. I no longer have this looming sense of possible failure over my head, because the only person I could possibly fail is myself. And I have time on my side to perfect my talent before I could ever do so. So, yeah, it is hard being this overwhelmed. However, getting the hang of it is only a matter of letting time go.
I think your approach is a great one! Do you have any advice for new artists and especially young artists looking to make art their focus?
You come first! Your art lives and exists through you, by your hand. Do you ever wonder why your best work is done when you are in “the zone”? That zone is you and your headspace. That ability to block out the outside world and just exist within yourself creatively can only exist if you are able to. Those art blocks that you sometimes get are not your temporary inability to create. They are your brain’s way of telling you “Hey, take a break, work on you.” Your headspace needs to be as steady as your hand, hold yourself with as much importance, confidence, and grace as you would a paintbrush. You will love yourself and your art so much more, I promise you.
Emma, it has been a pleasure chatting with you. I do have one final question. Where do you see yourself in five to ten years?
Thank you so much for having me, it has been amazing to do this. I would hope that in five to ten years I would be a full-time artist. I am working extremely hard toward that right now. I want to be in a gallery somewhere by then, maybe even in more than one. A studio would be mind-blowingly awesome, but that might be an even further down the road expense. My ultimate goal in the next five to ten years is to just grow. I want to see how much I am able to do. How many different styles and techniques can I create? How many different subjects can I paint? How much detail can I put into a piece of art, and how much detail can I take out? I want to play for a while. Just have fun with my art. I am really happy that people will get to see that.