A Transformational Journey: The Paintings of Emma Balder

Emma Balder,  Pinglet No. 1  (2015), Acrylic, fabric, and thread on canvas, 10 x 13 inches

Emma Balder, Pinglet No. 1 (2015), Acrylic, fabric, and thread on canvas, 10 x 13 inches

by Scott Gleeson

Painter and installation artist Emma Balder recovers the aesthetic force of studio waste, discarded paintings, and found textiles, through a restorative process of reassembly. Constrained by a traditional rectilinear painting format, Balder expands the boundaries of the painted object by bringing together elements from different contexts and with different histories into new works imbued with feelings of nostalgia and discovery. Peripheral Vision discusses with the artist her motivations, processes, and her time as a Vermont Studio Center resident staff artist

Describe a work of art that has been meaningful to you or influential in some way.

Olafur Eliasson’s piece Your Blind Movement - I had the pleasure of experience this piece when I was in the Ukraine, seeing where my father grew up for the first time. The entire trip was transformational, and seeing this piece in the flesh certainly enhanced the experience. You walk into this bright and colorful room that is doused in fog, so much that you can only see what is directly in front of you. As you walk slowly and carefully through the room, the colored lights change ever so slightly, from red to orange, orange to yellow, yellow to green, and so on. The end is unknown, and you often find yourself bumping into a stranger before you even know they’re there. To me the piece symbolizes life and it’s constantly changing colors. You never know where you’re going or the obstacles you may bump into along the way, but it’s important to take one step at a time and focus on what’s in front of you. Experiencing this piece felt like a confirmation of my path as an artist, a path where the future may be unforeseeable, but the journey, slow and careful, is transformational.

How old were you when you decided to become an artist? Describe your training and how it has contributed to your current practice.

At a young age I was very interested in textiles and fashion. In my tweens I decided that I wanted to become a fashion designer, and even though I always had an interest in it I felt my early decision was based on everyone else’s idea that that was what I should be. In high school I began taking art classes because that was a prerequisite to study fashion in college. I took a painting course at the MFA in Boston when I was 16 and immediately fell in love with the source of freedom it provided. From that moment on I knew that painting and creating from the depths of my soul was my true passion. I continued this passion in Savannah where I received my painting degree at SCAD. 

My time at SCAD was wonderful and certainly a challenge for me. I had never done well at school, but art school seemed to fit me just right. I learned how to see things differently, in ways I had never before. I fell in love with color and learned so much about it, about seeing the color in shadows and in light. I learned how to see the blues or reds in a stark white wall or a bright yellow object, and that was so important for me to discover, both as a painter and a visual person. It certainly helped me observe the world a little differently. 

Additionally, I had the opportunity to spend a summer abroad in Lacoste, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, France, which was certainly pivotal for my time at SCAD. I always had a deep connection with France growing up, but being able to really sink my feet in, painting and studying in the most beautiful, relaxing place was a spectacular experience. I had felt a sense of freedom to explore not only the beautiful French countryside, but also my experience so far as a painter. It certainly challenged me and pushed me outside of my comfort zone, but these types of experiences, like my experience at the Vermont Studio Center for a year, are crucial to an artist and human being’s growth.

Emma Balder,  Clusterfunk  (2015), Acrylic, marker, fabric, acrylic painting cutout and embroidery on found placemat, 12.5 x 12.5 inches

Emma Balder, Clusterfunk (2015), Acrylic, marker, fabric, acrylic painting cutout and embroidery on found placemat, 12.5 x 12.5 inches


Describe your studio practice and working methods? How does this space contribute to your process and development of idea?

My studio is like an artistic recycling center, a magical “junkyard” full of beautiful colorful items that most artists consider “waste”. It's very important to me to use what I have and waste as little as possible. If I cut up a piece of fabric or paper the scraps get collected for reuse, so there is always something to create from something else. There is so much beauty in these wasted pieces. I love sifting through my tiniest fiber scraps and finding the most beautiful little fiber puffs and pulls. I had started using these scraps to create small works on paper because I wanted to emphasize their beauty. These fiber pieces on paper are like studies for my larger works and are great practice in making quick decisions without worrying so much about the outcome. I have a habit of dwelling on trivial things, being indecisive, and getting easily attached to things, people, or places. I find that creating these quick studies in which I force myself to make quick decisions really helps me grapple with these challenges, both in and out of the studio.

Dogs or cats? Beach or mountains? Urban or rural? Salt or no salt (it’s a margarita thing)?

Dogs, actually cats, no, dogs. Mountains with beautiful lakes for swimming! Rural, but with easy access to urban areas. Salt!

What kind of music do you listen to? Do you listen to music in the studio?

I listen to a lot of underground electro-soul and future funk. It’s music that truly gets me going in the studio and fills me with energy and passion. Music often gives me a creative boost and I feel so lucky that I now live in a place where seeing this type of music live is so easily accessible.

What work in your portfolio do you consider your most pivotal accomplishment and why?

My Pinglets were both pivotal and transitional. I think I had this idea of what a painting should be, but I was so fed up with just using paint on a square or rectangular canvas. So I began cutting up this one painting (what I call the “Ping”, the mother painting) and once I did I felt like I opened up this entire new world for myself. I finally started to create work that I felt had meaning and depth. I started incorporating other artists’ wasted materials, fiber and paper scraps. So I wasn’t only regenerating my own work but also my materials. This really pushed me into developing a sustainable art practice. 

Before the Pinglets came to be I was creating a lot of large-scale abstract paintings. I had always been told that I was not very good at working small, so I wanted to challenge myself to do just that. I stretched twenty small 8 x 8 inch canvases, determined to turn them all into masterpieces. I attached them together to work on as one large painting, and rearranged them several times to create new and exciting layers. Then I separated them, fine-tuning them as individual paintings. I learned that it wasn’t necessarily about the outcome of the work that was important, rather their significance derived from the process and the challenges I faced while creating these pieces. This kind of deconstructive and reconstructive process became a pivotal one for me, and these works certainly transitioned into creating my Pinglets, as well as the rest of my work.

Tell us about your experience at an artist residency. Where did you go and who did you meet? Would you recommend the residency to others?

I did a month long residency at the Vermont Studio Center and then was awarded one of their Staff Artist positions where I lived and worked on site for a year and was provided living quarters, a huge studio, meals, and a small stipend. The entire experience, both the one-month residency and the yearlong program, was life changing for my career as an artist. It allowed me to push my studio practice in a direction that I didn't know it could go and I'm forever grateful for that. The year certainly came with its challenges, as everything does, but the opportunity to live and work in a community of artists in beautiful northern Vermont was incredible. I was able to meet with the visiting artists and have studio visits with them every month, so that was also wonderful to have. I would certainly recommend doing an artist residency or the staff artist program at VSC. Time and space are everything to an artist, and to be able to work in a large, undisturbed space without the distractions of normal, crazy life is truly a blessing.

Emma Balder,  Spinning  (2014), Acrylic, paper, and thread on fabric, 7 x 7 inches

Emma Balder, Spinning (2014), Acrylic, paper, and thread on fabric, 7 x 7 inches

What is next for you in your art practice?

I am hoping to create more installations and have just begun working on one out of recycled plastic bags. There's something amazing about being engulfed in a massive, colorful installation. It's like being amongst the mountains; it makes you feel small but also makes you feel like anything is possible. Both tend to take my breath away. 

I am also hoping to apply for grants and apply to another residency this year. Graduate school is also on my radar. All are important things and are on my 5-year goals list.

Historically, women have been underrepresented in the commercial and academic art worlds, and where women are represented many are paid less than their male counterparts. How has this dynamic affected your professional career as an artist? 

Living in a male-dominated world is frustrating to say the least, but it certainly keeps me going and makes me work harder to prove myself, not only as an artist, but also as a strong woman. I worked for this amazing artist in New Orleans, Katrina Brees, who makes eco-conscious bicycle floats for Mardi Gras and also runs an all female gender-bending parading group called the Bearded Oysters. She is an incredible supporter of women and female artists and I learned so much from her about being a leader, stepping out of my shell, and also owning who I am and what I stand for. Katrina and all of the incredible women I met in New Orleans were so inspiring and supportive, and that has certainly stuck with me. It's important that women support other women, both in the arts and outside of the arts.