Artist Emilie Clark painted the beautiful watercolor on our August 24th issue cover. Originally from San Francisco, Emilie lives and works in New York City. She took a short break from her summer vacation to talk about her work with JEM, the role of science and natural history in her art, and being chosen to represent a deadly sin.
How did you start working with JEM?
EC Well, let’s see… It’s been some years now. I was trying to remember the other day the first time I did one for them, and I’m not entirely sure what year was that.
I think it was 2004.
EC 2004? Ok, so that’s quite a while ago. I got an email out of the blue from them, and there had been somebody working there who had seen an exhibit of mine. She said that they were trying to expand the kind of illustration that they had.
I’m not an illustrator. I’m more in the kind of fine arts context of doing more conceptually motivated work. But all of my work deals with the history of science in some way. At the time, I was working on a project that dealt with carnivorous plants, and that’s what this person from JEM had seen. She said that they wanted to work with artists that weren’t necessarily doing straight medical illustration, but could get more of the dynamic of what the authors were talking about in their papers. That was really exciting to me. I had actually thought about doing medical illustration way back, when I was a teenager. So I said I would love to do it, and then I did one, and we just kind of went from there. They’ve kept coming back, which has been great. I really love doing the covers for JEM. I’m really happy when I get the email in my inbox from Marlowe (Tessmer, JEM executive editor, ed. note).
What kind of input do you get from JEM?
EC I really wanted to see an abstract or a description summary of what the paper was about, because a lot of my work has been response to historical text- sometimes medical, sometimes natural history or other kinds of scientists, botanical scientists, animal scientists. Reading a description is often more provocative to me than looking at a photograph, or a cartoon, or a medical illustration. I always get a description or the abstract for the paper. Then JEM often will send an electronic microscopic image that’s more diagrammatic, or they’ll send a diagram that is part of what they’re describing. But it’s very rare that there is an existing diagram of whatever it is that is being spoken about. I have to be able to make sense of the science enough to be able to make a drawing that is going to communicate what they are talking about, but I also try to keep within the way that I work. I would describe the way that I work to be more abstract, and more kind of getting at the dynamic than being like a straight up kind of illustration. Does that make sense?
EC So if you looked at the diagram it might be clearer, or the relationships of scale in my work sometimes might be more loose than they would be realistically. But that’s to try to emphasize whatever the argument is.
You’ve worked also as artist in residence in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.
EC When they invited me to come, I spent a lot of time talking to the botanists there, and the different horticulturalists that worked there. I discovered that the Garden was suffering from a devastating virus in their rose garden, and also a bacterial gall. Because of those things, they were going to have to remove something like a third of the rose population, the soil, and keep them fallow for two years, I think. That’s what ended up capturing my fascination. So I worked closely with the botanist who was studying the virus, and we had access to these amazing microscopes. But a lot of it involved a kind of fantasy on my part, because much of when I wasn’t looking at the microscope I was working in the garden and what I was looking at mostly not visible to the human eye. So that’s interesting to me, that sort of space that you can’t see, that you can only imagine and project on to. I think a lot of science is like that- you have to hypothesize and take what you do know and then apply to what you don’t know. That’s sort of what I did at the garden, and it was really fun and I learned a lot from it. And it was nice to work directly with some scientists as well.
What are you currently working on?
EC Right now I have a solo exhibit up at the Katonah Museum of Art, which is just north of the city in Katonah, New York. There’s a consortium of seven museums in the New York area that decided to team up and put together exhibits that dealt with the seven deadly sins. The Katonah Museum had chosen to work with gluttony and they chose me to represent that sin. I have a large exhibit that responds to that theme, and in a way the work that I did is about the opposite of gluttony. It’s more about seeking a sustainable relationship to the environment. It’s an exhibit of large watercolors and there’s an installation of food detritus. I spent a year saving all of my family’s food waste, and preserved every part of it, and so there’s a large table with all of that food waste on it. There’s also a sculpture that functions as a research station. Those are the three components of my work. I always do watercolor drawings or paintings depending on how you want to talk about them, it doesn’t matter; and then I make sculptures, part of which are functional and have something like a research interactive station to them. So that research station has a microscope and certain specimens that visitors to the Museum can examine. That’s up til October. It opened in the beginning of July. Then I’ll be having a big exhibit at the gallery that represents me in New York, which is called Morgan Lehman Gallery. That will be in February.