The Unseen Artist

Emma Housley

I am a painter, which means my job is visual communication.

It’s not always, in fact not often, a conscious way of communicating. Being an artist of abstraction, my meaning is hardly ever obvious, but communication it is all the same. And, over the past few years I’ve learned that putting my work into the world for other people to see, judge, and sometimes buy is both terrifying and completely and utterly necessary.

Many artists would feel the same as me I’m sure:

I don’t mind if you don’t buy it, I don’t even mind if you don’t like it but I need you to see it!

This kind of masochistic exhibitionism is part of being an artist.

So what happens when you keep communicating and no one is allowed to listen? We all know it’s hard to keep talking coherently if our listener drifts off absently, and this is kind of how it feels when you make paintings but no-one can look at them.

Lockdown has meant for many artists like myself the cancellation of our communication channel.

One of my major artistic goals was to have a piece in the RWA Open show. I was successful with this last year and my painting ‘Into Cool Water’ is hanging there, surrounded by beautiful, fabulous work with the doors shut and the rooms silent. It’s pretty heartbreaking. The RWA have been wonderful and keep extending the end date, so hopefully it will be seen in the flesh, and this gives me hope.


‘Into Cool Water’ on show at RWA Open 

The extremities of lockdown have made us all profoundly aware of the connections we have with the physical world. The visual arts and the performing arts can’t ever be completely digital because there’s this atavistic urge to touch, feel, see things that we love. We are tactile beings. Thinking back on some exhibitions I’ve seen, I recall that feeling of walking into a room of paintings I love. I stop breathing for a second and stand in front of a painting. I can see where the person’s hand has been. I see their thought process, their midway struggle to get it done, their desire, their sense of space and colour. And for a brief moment they have communicated something beyond words to me and I’m lost in their universe.

When I’ve finished a painting I take a shot with my iPhone and put on instagram. It’s a great camera but there’s always a sinking feeling when I look at the image I’ve just taken. The image dies a little. It flattens, the contrast wanes. I can pimp it somewhat with filters and and editors but something is always lost in translation. You can’t ever get quite the right balance, and colours that zing, textures that undulate just go flat. Paintings, plays, sculpture, installations were never meant to be static 2D things. There’s something about the peril of real life, the danger of showing something to an audience that you can’t replicate on zoom.


Preparing works for Somerset Art Weeks Festival, 2019

So. I know we have to make do for now, and that’s OK. We need to keep safe, but how awesome will the rebound be! I keep painting in hopes that eventually my work can be seen by real live eyes that take it in and feel it’s presence. Meanwhile, I have to paint in the shreds and patches of time that homeschooling allows me (there’s a whole other story, mainly about working women…) I strongly believe that out of this collective trauma we will hold on even more tightly to the things that bring us joy and revel in our physical world. That all sounds to me like a recipe for the resurgence of artistic expression in a dynamic and incredible way, which is why I feel #ArtIsEssential.


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