Emily Van Engel is an Oakland-based artist whose work explores our response to the ecological crisis through glass, paint, and papier-mâché. Artist, however, was not her first profession. She worked for 8 years doing environmental advocacy and policy work before going back to school for her BFA.
Now running her own Etsy shop, she works as an art teacher part time and devotes the rest of her time to her craft. Her work will be on display at Strand Theater Studios as a part of East Bay Open Studios the first two weekends in June. In April, I met up with her to discuss daring to become an artist, making space for what you care about, and the importance of balancing patience and action.
SP: Tell me a little bit about your work.
EV: My art reflects my reaction to the ecological crisis that we’re in, and the range of responses that I have felt to that crisis. My initial paintings on this topic show alarm and fury, and then I transitioned to calmer work that reflects sorrow and acceptance, and now I’m exploring work that reflects my hope for collaboration and empowerment.
The early paintings explore an angry and confused and scared emotional line of thought. When I made them, I felt like I really needed to show the world that this ecological crisis is happening. I wanted to highlight industry and the dark side of us burning fossil fuels. So I made an acrylic painting that’s the shadow of a power line on the sidewalk to show the shadow part of using fossil fuels. I have a painting of a grocery store just looking down the checkout lines that I made when I was feeling overwhelmed by the food industry and how much waste and misuse of resources goes into it and I was feeling overwhelmed by how to choose products at the grocery store.
My glass silk screen work represents a shift in how I managed my feelings about the environment–feeling kind of overwhelmed by how we’re sourcing our energy, but also thinking, “what would it feel like if we could transform our energy system and it was sustainable?”
Most recently I thought, “what would art look like that shows an environment that we’ve created that is not going to destroy us in the end? What would it look like if we built communities that were totally sustainable?” Honestly I didn’t know what that would look like. So I thought, what if I built the tools for us to all build it collaboratively? I work with kids, and kids always want to touch things. I totally relate to that–it can be frustrating to see art and not be able to touch it. So I wanted to do something that really involves the viewers and empowers us all to build the future that we want. So I’m building bricks and I’m going to show them for the first time at my open studio in June and invite people to come build.
SP: You’ve mentioned to me that you came to painting through a somewhat circuitous path. Could you tell me a little bit about what that path was?
EV: I’ve always painted as a hobby–even as far back as high school–but I never thought that it would be something that I pursued professionally. I even had a teacher in high school who assumed that I was going to art school. And I looked at her like she was crazy and responded, “no, I’m going to get a ‘real’ job, go to a regular college.’’ So I did that. And I worked professionally for about three years at an environmental non-profit in Wymoning.
I kind of found my way into a design job there–putting together newsletters and fliers and ads, all of the printed graphic material–even though I had no training in graphic design. But part of me wanted to do more policy work, and this opportunity opened up at a local housing authority. So I worked as a planner advocating for affordable housing rules for four years.
In that planning role, I had this moment where I thought to myself, “I am making memos. That’s what I’m producing.” So in that job too I gravitated to more of a design role. During that time, I thought, “I should do graphic design!” So I started taking online classes, with the goal of opening up my own business in Wyoming.
Then while I was taking classes, one of them was a painting class – a color mixing class. And something just felt right with me. I was so excited about mixing colors. So I thought, “what if I was a painter?” I kind of had a split mentality about it. Because part of me was so excited and I just waned to make art and I believed that it was possible. But the other part of me thought, “artists are famous people that everyone knows about and that’s not you and you just stick to what you know and don’t change your life around to make that happen.” But ultimately I believed that I did want to do it.
I went to California College of the Arts for 2 years and completed a BFA. I really loved it. But it also felt scary, because I thought to myself, “how am I going to do this professionally?” I just wasn’t sure how it was all going to work.
When I graduated my plan was to work as a freelance graphic designer part time and then start my own painting practice, the idea being that I could do work that I knew how to do, I would own my own schedule and have time to work on my art. And I did that during the first year after I graduated, but the graphic design piece felt like just as much hustle as the painting, and given the choice, I wanted to put my creative energy into building my art. So I explored other art-related paid work experiences, and decided that teaching art felt like the best fit.
SP: How have you made being a painter work financially?
EV: I think it’s been mostly a mindset shift. Just realizing that this is something I want to do, so I’m going to make space for it. Right now I have a part time job that doesn’t cover all my bills. And that’s fine for right now. When I was in Wyoming I owned a home and I made some money from selling it, which was really lucky. So I have that as a cushion right now. And my parents and my partner have been really supportive of me so for this year and the past year, money has not been an impediment. But I don’t feel like I have a solid business model. I’m just committed to spending the time doing the art, because it feels like the right thing to do. And I don’t know if this will last forever. But I feel really lucky for right now.
SP: When do you experience moments where things feel a little scary or risky, and what helps you get through?
EV: It feels risky to not have a full time job – both due to the lack of time structure and also the inflow of money. In general, the act of spending all this time on my art feels like a risk. But I tell myself that it takes time to build your art. I remind myself that the fears about my own sustainability are part of a bigger picture about really wanting to make art.
SP: What do you love about what you do?
EV: I just love the act of making. It feels good to work with the texture of paints. It’s almost like working with mud. And I love the act of discovery, when I mix colors and get something unexpected. I like talking about the ideas behind my art. It’s been healing for me because I felt shy about bringing up environmental issues my whole life. But with my art, I can say “this is actually happening!”and we can talk about it. So that feels good.
SP: Do you have a vision for the future?
EV: I definitely want to keep making art and teaching, but I don’t have a business plan. For a while I thought I needed to write one and I was envisioning a Word document that was really boring and I just couldn’t do that. So I do visioning sessions by myself where I sit in what it feels like to be a successful painter. A successful artist. I sit in the successes that I have had. For example, I sold a painting this year for $2,000 and that felt amazing. It was so exciting! So I just remember what that felt like and hope to bring more of that.
SP: What advice do you have for women who are interested in pursuing creative careers in general or painting specifically?
EV: I think for painting specifically it takes time to build your craft, so have patience with yourself. When I first started art school, I put a lot of pressure on myself to show my work and have it feel somewhat steady and stable, because I really wanted it to be something that generated income. But the truth is that it takes time to feel confident in your art. Ira Glass has a quote about the fact that creative people have standards for what our work looks like, and it takes time to get to that place. And I think I pushed myself before I was totally ready. So just be kind and patient with yourself. At the same time, I’m glad I did take that action because it gave me a lot of experience, and you have to start somewhere. So, don’t get stuck in waiting for the perfect moment. Find that balance between patience and action.
Thank you, Emily, for welcoming us into your studio and sharing wisdom about your process! Your work is powerful and beautiful, and your path encouraging. I can’t wait to check out your latest pieces at East Bay Open Studios this weekend!