The next Artist Interview Project installment features artist Emily Bradbury Whalen. The first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary. It is followed by the full interview text.
Learn more about the Artist Interview Project course assignment in Dr. Jenkins’ introduction to the series. You can follow the Philosophy School of Phish on Facebook, Twitter (@phishedu), and the course’s public website.
As part of my final course assignment, I interviewed Emily Whalen. Whalen is a painter who uses water coloring in her artistic expression. She has an academic background in art education and continuously practices her technique. I appreciate that Whalen can show respect for technique but not be limited by it; she is able to transform her art beyond herself. She does not limit herself to just drawing portraits but understands the beauty in architecture. Whalen’s art is meant to reach out to all audiences with her attention to detail in art style and objective placement for her paintings.
Like many artists, Whalen is concerned with communicating with her audience. This interview reminded me of the reading of D. Robert DeChaine’s “Affect and Embodied Understanding in Musical Experience.” In this essay, he talks about the emotional impact that art can have on a person. He calls this interaction “affect.” For example, DeChaine offers the following description of the affective experience of music: “a slight sliver, a recognition that you couldn’t quite makeout, a feeling of warmth or happiness or sadness with no seeming point of origin” (DeChaine, 2002). Whalen’s painting certainly applies here; herart is both beautiful and expressive. The watercolor style of her art gives it a very comforting feeling. In fact, in our interview, she describes her artwork as expressions of love and peace.
Whalen cares not just about what message is being sent out but also the best way to deliver that message. Being a Phish fan, she likes to have her art reflect Phish’s music. In her art, she doesn’t try to cover the whole canvas with color but rather leaves some open space so her audience can add something to it. This inspiration comes from Phish leaving blank spots in their music for having the audience just enjoy on their own.
Below you will read the interview I had with Whalen about what arts means to her. I found that her answers warmed my heart and gave me a greater appreciation of her artwork. Sometimes people might assume an artist is more concerned about what is being drawn rather than why something is being drawn. This is an artist who takes the time and really cares about the people who see her art.
Based on your experience as a painter, how would you define art? How is this reflected in your art work?
Ultimately, I am looking for ways to communicate and connect with others. As much as I enjoy storytelling, I also really love the idea of nonverbal communication. This idea that people across the world and from different times can feel the same thing just by looking at an image, or by listening to music and dancing, really makes the oneness of the human spirit tangible for me. So, to me this can be accomplished through any of the senses, if it’s good food, sensations, sights or sounds, we all enjoy having these senses stimulated. It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you have because when it comes to the arts we all want the same thing – to love and be loved. Artists really are ambassadors for peace. One way this is reflected in my art is in the restraint. Sure, I spend a lot of time practicing techniques and studying color theory or investing in materials, but in order to be a good communicator you have to have a back and forth, so sometimes the most important part of my work is the area I leave blank because that is where the viewer steps in and participates.
Who (or what) has inspired your art style?
I’m a watercolorist, and unlike oils, in watercolor all your whites of brightest lights come from the white of the paper. By figuring out early where those lights are going to shine, I protect the viewers space on the paper by just putting little or no paint there at all. Phish does something similar, everyone knows about the pause in Divided Sky for example, the band plays nothing and the crowd goes wild! Holding that blank space in the middle of a song reminds me that I don’t need to cover a page in paint to get my ideas across, that it’s important to leave a place for my audience to add their own personal part, unique to each person.
When did you become a Phish fan? Can you explain the experience?
The first time I heard Phish was in a record store, they had just started making these listening stations with headphones and a selection of cds and I remember listening to Hoist like that. Some friends who I listened to the Grateful Dead with had told me I needed to check these guys out, so I did. The first time I saw them they left me speechless. They were unlike any other band I’d ever heard, and I wanted to stay in that place where their music took me. Soon I was making friends, helping out (and being helped by) the phunky bitches, and traveling to see Phish in different states and countries. I took a few years off for family life, but got to hit a bunch of shows this summer. It’s so nice to see them playing so well night after night, I’m truly happy for them and grateful to have made so many happy memories with these four guys who don’t even know me.
Can you point out a piece of art work that was inspired by Phish? How is the band, music, or community expressed in it?
As a fine artist, we’re always working towards making large bodies of work. I had been brainstorming for some time about something I could make that would appeal to Phans, but not be limited in that way. I wanted some phishy and universal, something that would be true to me but that I could take to a gallery. At the same time I was really practicing a technique called negative painting, where you paint a dark background around a white or light central object. This goes along with the idea of protecting blank spaces I talked about earlier. Eventually these ideas lead me to making what I call the Light Check series. They’re geometric paintings, layering glazes of watercolor, practicing painting light and gradually darkening the background, directly influenced by Chris Kuroda’s incredible light work. They’re really fun to make and I get a positive response from people about them. People tell me their ideas for what I should do next, which tells me my work inspired them and that makes me proud. As fun and successful as they are, I’m already brainstorming and on to the next ideas.
What inspired you to become an artist?
Since I have an education in art history, I have many influencers. I’m really interested in architecture and how a building space can create certain feelings in visitors. Again, I’m intrigued by artists of the past because I like how I can see what they did and understand what they felt and why it would have been like to live in their world – that their world wasn’t so different from ours. Phish and lots of other musicians have a huge influence on me, and currently I’m into California Impressionism.
What do you want people to experience when looking at your art?
My hope is that people who see my work will feel good! Cheesy as it may sound, I’m an ambassador for peace and love. When people see my work they should be reminded of the best feelings and inspired to make some art of their own too. I want my work to be accessible and welcoming to everyone.