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Emma McHold Burke

Emma is a painter taking a break from oil painting. They currently work in collage and cyanotype, and sewing. They have been at RWS for about two years. The imagery in Emma’s work leans toward either the outdoors or images that have been distanced from the subject’s original association. This allows Emma the room to codify the images and use them in a new way in order to give them new meaning. “I guess my work is a lot about organizing things in a way that feels comforting to me.” For Emma this usually shows up in transparencies. Emma has tall wood structures with sheer fabric stretched over the front and back of the frames in their private studio (like the one pictured above). The fabric is “gessoed” with rabbit-skin glue and Emma paints on both sides so that a shadow of the reverse comes through the other side. Rabbit-skin glue--made of rabbit hide--is Emma's favorite tool. The glue is clear which lends itself to that transparency Emma is always chasing and it’s really tactile. They use it to prep and harden the fabric and they like all parts of the process. “You have to melt it down and it's kind of smelly and sticky.” They say you can rabbit-skin glue anything and put anything on top of it. “It grosses a lot of people out but I think I like that part of it too.” The process of making these pieces feels meditative for Emma because it is a space where anything is allowed. They mention obsessive tendencies and that creating feels like they’re getting something out; letting it go and moving on. “I learned a lot of rules at school about painting. It is natural for me to want to fight against them while still feeling attached to some parts of them. I’m granting myself grace to fail and try, and to mess up and distort.” They recently started eating meat again after eight years away from it. They are interested in the tactile qualities of raw meat and paint the texture and the marbling. “When I was making work about meat, everyone thought it was this huge statement about meat manufacturing or an ode to meat and I didn’t eat meat. I think I’m attracted to things that have these connotations and I like to remove them and just make them super personal, like letters to myself.” Textures that come from anything bodily brings up a visceral reaction for Emma that feels childlike. It’s this sensory experience that inspires Emma to create. It started as a very direct idea–paint the meat or other tactile object–and has changed into how they use materials to capture that same gooeyness or stickiness. They say, “If you want to eat it, I want to use it.” The work they’re making now, with the sheer fabrics and glue, is a move away from painting and toward more material studies. “It’s a lot of see-through materials and sewing elements together to create these moments that feel really bodily. The texture of the materials incite this really visceral reaction for me that reminds me of going to the fish market with my mom and poking all the fish's eyes.” Emma says this visceral connection to childhood has to do with being encouraged to play to the point of eating dirt. Emma sees the work as a way of refusing and unlearning the judgments society requires individuals to impose on themselves and others because the associations we are taught make certain things, like gross stuff, off limits. Instead, Emma doesn’t fight the feeling of wanting to get in there and touch stuff and poke and prod. Emma wants you to be curious too and to explore. “You’re allowed to do that. You don’t have to give that up.” After graduation, Emma didn’t want to paint anymore and they consider themselves in ‘recovery’ from going to art school. Emma believes this feeling may be rebellion against the educational system’s binary and linear idea of what it means to be practicing art because these ideas translate into practice. “There is so much power in taking a step back from your practice, and that is part of your practice!”

Revisiting these ideas from a new perspective has allowed Emma to get back into making. Drawing has always been a tool for them to process out loud, so Emma is teaching themselves animation. The repetitiveness and act of making is tedious, which has led Emma to animation's individual frames. "It’s a lot of the same imagery with a really slow attention to what’s changing." View a piece of Emma’s at Buoy Gallery in Kittery, now through May 13th. The exhibit includes 500 pieces of work that includes other RWS artists. Contact Emma via email ( and Instagram (@em_mcburke).


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