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Life & Work with Emma Shaw

Today we’d like to introduce you to Emma Shaw.

Hi Emma, thanks for sharing your story with us. To start, maybe you can tell our readers some of your backstory.
I grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with my parents and older sister. Looking back, I can see how art has always been a part of my life. My grandfather was a furniture designer, but he also illustrated stories, experimented with photography, and sculpted. My uncle was a jazz and blues singer-songwriter from New Orleans. Today, my sister is working as a professional dancer and choreographer. Early on, I understood that creativity and artistic expression had many faces. Although I took ballet lessons for sixteen years, I always felt much more comfortable as an observer as opposed to a performer. I developed a love for drawing and writing and went on to major in Studio Art and English Literature as an undergraduate student at Gettysburg College. It wasn’t until I spent a semester studying at The Leo Marchutz School of Painting & Drawing in Southern France, however, that I truly began to develop my own voice as an artist. Observational drawing is the bedrock of my existence: I feel connected to the world when I draw what I see, and natural motifs are always present in my illustrative work.

My journey took a bit of a detour when I graduated from college and proceeded to work for the hospital at the University of Pennsylvania. My job involved scheduling infusions for oncology research patients and operating the front desk. It was a difficult position, especially for a twenty-one-year-old with very little experience dealing with grief and loss, but I remain incredibly appreciative of the time I spent there. My patients motivated me with their kindest and positivity, and I ultimately decided to move to Georgia and pursue an MFA in Illustration at the Savannah College of Art Design. This decision led me to travel to France once again this past winter as a teacher’s assistant, and I will be returning in August as an artist-in-residence at the Chateau Orquevaux now that I have officially graduated with my degree. The gratitude I feel is immense.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
I’m from Pennsylvania; the roads are never smooth!

My biggest obstacle has always been my own mentality. I developed anxiety at a young age as I struggled to navigate my emotions and, in high school, began to suffer from frequent panic attacks. I became quiet, passive, and a bit reclusive. Although I always dreamed of becoming an artist, I lacked courage and confidence. Fortunately, I have been blessed with an incredible support system of friends and family that continue to believe in me. My parents encouraged me to pursue a career in illustration, and I feel so fortunate to have maintained strong friendships from my youth. My anxiety is an ongoing struggle, but drawing has allowed me to reconnect with the world in a way that seemed impossible at a young age. I feel so active and engaged in the community here at SCAD. Over the past two years, I assisted in teaching two classes, participated in the study abroad program, served as President of the Graduate Illustration Club, and became a shop monitor at the Printmaking Studio. Ten years ago, I would avoid my classmates out of fear of having a panic attack at school. Long-term growth is worth investing in and working towards. Change may not be immediate, but it will come.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
I am an illustrator and surface designer who specializes in both digital and traditional art. Because of my background in English Literature, my approach to illustration is akin to that of an author. Stories are when stripped to the barest of bones, an exploration of character and setting. With this in mind, I seek to depict moments in which a person is fully immersed in their environment. Furthermore, I often toe the line between realism and escapism when crafting an image. Although I gravitate towards subject matters found through routine, observational drawing, my body of work indicates a preoccupation with joyous expression as opposed to accurate representation. Whimsical florals are stylized and enlarged. A human figure’s proportions are exaggerated. My style is both inventive and emotive, a combination that rejects exclusivity promotes connectivity, and celebrates imaginative thinking.

My upbringing in Philadelphia has had a definite impact on me as a creative individual. The city is populated with colorful, quirky, profound, striking murals that transport any passerby. Collectively, my work has a similar effect. The ability to momentarily experience someplace extraordinary is my motivation, and a newfound appreciation for where I am is often the result.

People often cite my use of bright, saturated colors as a defining attribute of my work. I also believe that my willingness to embrace and combine a variety of mediums has aided me as an artist. Whether I’m creating a relief print, a series of fashion illustrations using gouache, or a digitally-rendered editorial illustration, I always feel inspired.

Moving forward, I hope to inspire others as an educator. I recently ran into a student I had previously taught over Zoom as a part of my teaching internship. She was so lovely and complimentary, and really emphasized how much she enjoyed the class. This was by far my proudest moment as a graduate student.

We’re always looking for the lessons that can be learned in any situation, including tragic ones like the Covid-19 crisis. Are there any lessons you’ve learned that you can share?
I definitely struggled with my mental health amidst the Covid-19 Crisis. Although I appreciated the opportunity to connect with people over Zoom and social media, we aren’t meant to exist online at all times. Nowadays, communication is so instantaneous and accessible. It is important to set boundaries, unplug, and focus on ourselves. As an art student, I was encouraged to take advantage of any and every opportunity to network. There was certainly a lot of pressure to make myself available to others at all times throughout quarantine in particular. Considering the gravity of the pandemic and the challenges it presented, however, we have to continue to prioritize our mental and emotional wellbeing.

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Image Credits
All Images © 2022 by Emma Shoshanna Shaw

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