The artist on her love of paradox and the power of travel post-quarantine.
After spending more than a year stationed in New York during the height of Covid, Emily Furr has finally managed to get away. And the artist is more creative than ever because of it. Furr spoke to Platform from her family home in Illinois on why painting is like surfing, how becoming a parent made her lose her self-consciousness and what book on fear helped her trust her gut.
How would you describe what your work is about?
I love paradox. I love showing the solar and the lunar of life, the masculine and the feminine and other polarities. But I think I'm mostly focused on comparing industrialism with human legacy and showing how we're squeezing nature. In the Midwest, the landscape of these sort of forgotten states is power lines, factories and Superfund sites. From my view as a Midwesterner, I saw industrialism encroaching and hurting the environment. I want to show machinery and juxtapose it next to something ethereal and celestial.
Do you think your Midwestern roots are the main reason you want to explore those themes?
I think so. My worldview changed as I became a mother, and I think the world needs more mothering. I think we don't look at progress as compatible with nature. We’re just taking, taking, taking. When I had a kid, all my ideas clicked and I started painting small, which I think helped crystallize the idea that I could do little stories, little vignettes. I'm passionate about social issues, but I also love the mystical and ethereal.
You mentioned the different scales that you were experimenting with in terms of your painting. What do you think makes painting the best medium for you to explore those themes that you mentioned as opposed to other mediums?
There's something really mystical about it. It feels like a little tarot card to me. I don't know what everything means. I follow my intuition. I just love painting because it feels like something that's carried on through the ages for hundreds of years, and I like being part of that conversation. Painters just have to paint. It doesn't make sense, it's messy, it's expensive but you just love to do it. Once you can kind of get comfortable with it, it's like riding a horse–you just want to get back in the saddle.
Is it ritualistic for you to paint?
It's ritualistic and it's disciplinary for me. But I really enjoy doing it. It's a lot of ditch-digging. There's a lot of, “Ugh, this is annoying,” but when you catch a wave, as it were, I'm like “Oh God, this is like surfing.” But it's a lot of preparation to get to those cool moments.
Is there anything about yourself you've learned through your practice as it's evolved over time? Is there anything it reflects back to you?
I think I have a no-nonsense approach. I would try to do crystals and be like, “I'm going to meditate.” I don’t have time really. I've got to get in there and get out. I think you have to strip away all the bells and whistles and just roll your sleeves up and get to work. I have other days in the studio where I do work on my computer on Photoshop, etc. Some days, I'll have this thing in my mind's eye and I need to figure out how to get it out on the canvas, so I'll tinker on the computer. I think if I have a word that comes to mind for my artistic practice, it’s 'discipline.'
When it comes to working on the computer, has digital technology in general changed your process at all or is it something that's just supplementary?
I definitely think it's part of my practice. In a way, it's part of all of our practices now, unless you don't use a phone [laughs]. I think a lot of artists are taking photos of their work and even that is part of my practice. In a way, it's always been a part of my practice because my undergrad was in graphic design. Once you do that, you can't unlearn it. When I was in grad school, I got oil pastels, and I was trying to sketch but I'm just so much faster on the computer that I just sort of went with it. It’s fine if I don't do everything analog. But the end product is analog, and I do like that.
Is there anything that you like to have on in the background as you work?
I like talky stuff because I'm alone a lot, so I usually play podcasts. I really like the Talk Art podcast; I like books on tape; I love anything murder-related. I would say I listen to music more when I'm walking or running errands, but when I'm in my studio, I feel a little lonely, so I need some talking.
I'm curious, what is it about someone speaking on a podcast or reading a book that feels different from someone singing with music?
Sometimes I get emotional with music, so I think if I'm just listening to something murder-y I'm level and I can focus. With music, it evokes so much in me that I want to either dance or cry or laugh.
It’s been an intense year with the pandemic. What's it been like for you to travel back home now and be in that environment?
It's been great to travel. The quarantine was really tough. I had a toddler and it was hard on him because he was in our apartment. But it was hard on everyone worldwide. It’s been nice to be with family since I didn't see them for a year. We stayed in New York City for over a year even as everybody left. I don't know if I like quarantine city life.
It was a weird experience. It's a New York we’ll never see again, right?
I know. But it's really good to be with family again and just being in a new environment. I've got a little studio setup here in my parents’ basement, so I'm working on some little gouache works on paper.
I feel like quarantine was a time of reflection for a lot of people. Now that we've mostly come out the other side, is there anything that you've been hesitant to try in the past but you really want to now?
I'm kind of an introvert and I felt things like social art openings were sometimes a chore, but I actually really miss them. I'm excited to go back to art openings and see my friends' shows and just be out there again. I don't want to take the New York City art community for granted because it's really special and there are so many great people.
You mentioned listening to podcasts and audiobooks. Is there anything that you've read or seen lately–books, movies, articles–that really stuck out to you?
I read The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. It's all about instinct. I liked it because I think instinct is so primal and we kind of tune it out a little bit in our modern world. I think it's OK to listen to your gut, and that book solidified that for me. It’s a simple book, but I loved hearing about these stories of primal fear and how people were led by their fear out of bad situations.
I’ve heard of that book but I haven't read it. Are all the situations it details extreme life or death scenarios?
I would say that they are violent situations a lot of the time. I think the thesis of the book is around violence, but it can cross over to other parts of your life. The main thing that I took away from it is it's OK to listen to your instinct even if other people are telling you different.
Is that particularly hard to do as an artist or as a creative person putting your work out there?
Yes, because it's embarrassing to put your work out there and you do have some fear. I think this book was talking about primal fear, but as an artist, I do have fear because what I'm doing is kind of silly a lot of the time. I'm drawing fleshy orifices, etc., and you have to just get over your fear and put it out there. I look at it as spaghetti on the wall. You're going to throw the noodles at the wall and some of them are going to stick and some of them aren't. You just have to do it and get over any hesitation.
Is that sort of hesitation, in work and life, something you feel you've grown out of over time? Or perhaps you're able to push through it differently?
Yes. I think becoming a parent helped me lose a lot of that self-consciousness. I stopped trying to be cool. I was like, “I don't care. I'm not cool anymore. I'm here. I'm tired. I'm too tired to be cool [laughs].” When I was beginning in grad school, I was very self-conscious and everything was overthought. Once I had my kid, I didn't have a lot of time and I had a little bit more confidence. I wanted to go in a weirder direction, and it just all clicked together for me.
So did becoming a parent change the actual work for you? Or just you in general?
For me, it did change the work. My son was born with a heart defect, and he was in the hospital for over six months. I think grappling with mortality in that helpless way definitely changed my work. I didn't make work for about a year when I was pregnant and when he was in the hospital. When he got home and was more settled in, I started making tiny paintings and it all clicked together. I didn't care anymore if it was "good" or not.
I'm glad to hear he's doing better now!
Yeah, he’s great! He's running around at day camp right now.
Do you have any favorite personal possessions or anything that you collect that really means a lot to you?
I collect movie stubs to all the movies I go to with my dad. I like to keep ephemera like that: move stubs, theater tickets, concert tickets, anything like that.
What's the first thing you tend to notice when you enter a new space?
I think lighting is everything. Airiness is also important. I'm trying to get my mom to paint these walls white. I like things minimal. I'm thinking of interior spaces, but I think I respond well to openness in general.
Are you passionate about interiors and design?
I am! I love mid-century furniture design and Bauhaus and all that. I think I like a clutter-free, tidy, airy room. I think that helps my interior thoughts and my interior world and even my creativity.
Is there anything you'd want to redo or start over again?
I don't think so! I really love that I ended up in New York. I moved to New York in my early 20s and I did the graphic design thing and I always sort of hated it. But now, I'm actually grateful for all that time I had in the office because I think it helps me to focus and I have these computer skills. I don't know that I would go back and change much now.
Is there anything you wish you were asked more often?
“Would you like more coffee?” I want coffee offered to me [laughs].