Interview with Emily Rapport

Neoteric Art: Give us some history on yourself.

Emily Rapport: I grew up in a rural suburb of Rochester, New York. Drawing was always a prevailing interest and I never had any reservation that going to art school would unlock my future. I came to Chicago to attend the Art Institute in 1991. I had desperately wanted to go to New York (since that was clearly the center of the art world) but – Chicago was sort of compromise that my parents and I reached. The college career had lots of stops and starts due to financial issues and also a lack of discipline on my part. I finally earned my BFA from the Art Institute in 2005. During that time, I worked as a waitress and was looking for some way to create and participate in an art community. I tried to start a zine but it was hard to get people to show up for meetings.

Around that same time, I landed my first studio in Ravenswood. I volunteered with a small group of people who were creating the “Art Walk Ravenswood Tour of Arts & Industry” (now the Ravenswood ArtWalk) and that fed into all of my ideas about community and art. In 2007, I became the Executive Director but it turned out to be really hard to get all of the board members to show up to meetings.

Eventually, I had to choose between being an artist and being an arts administrator. Since then I have been working as a freelance designer at my own company, Eat Paint Studio.

NA: You studied at Cooper Union in New York and The School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Describe your overall experiences at both schools.

ER: I wasn’t a very good student at either school. I didn’t like to follow directions. There were a few teachers who got through to me, which I now fully appreciate.

Overall, Cooper Union was a great experience. The students were all exceptionally talented and much more mature and disciplined than I was. We were right in the epicenter of the East Village, there was a really great energy there – very electric – and all of the advanced painting students got studios. I spent most of my time in that studio. Unfortunately, that meant not attending a lot of my classes which had consequences and repercussions.

In comparison, at the Art Institute, it was harder for me to make a place for myself. I lived off-campus and worked so I wasn’t really engaged in student life. The range of ability, interest and capacity that students possessed there was also much broader. I found it very difficult to relate to some of the purely aesthetic and conceptual pursuits of my peers. There was a feeling that you had to experiment and use all of the schools resources. We were not generally encouraged to settle into one medium of expression. That annoyed me.

The financial investment required of a place like SAIC, with little probability of a career that will allow you to repay that investment, is in retrospect, something that I wish I had considered more carefully. There was no preparation for “real life” after art school (during the period that I attended).

Wherever you go, whatever you do, you get back what you put into it. I probably could have put more effort into attending my classes. However, art school is not a necessary stepping stone into the art world or to being an artist. I think the first few years after graduation I spent unlearning a lot as I established my own studio practice.

NA: There is an affinity toward the Ashcan School. Are there any artists from this period that have influenced you or that you admire?

ER: Absolutely. I think I was probably introduced to the Ashcan School through a painting instructor at the Art Institute, Marion Kryczka, one of the instructors who persevered. John Sloan, George Luks, George Bellows – and later artists like Reginald Marsh and Isobel Bishop, photographers from that period too – Walker Evans – the American story interests me greatly. Every culture has its own voice, character and experience. There is also a shared human experience but there are specific things that we see and do that tell about our lives and who we are. It doesn’t have to be representational but that’s where my interests lie at this time.

NA: There is a certain sense of immediacy to much of your work. Describe your process.

ER: I like to work quickly. I don’t want to spend too much time trying to make something perfect. I will sometimes sketch onto the canvas if I am doing a complicated or architectural scene but usually I just start painting (a wash of some color goes first). If I am aware of things “tightening up,” especially when it comes to portraits, I try to stop myself – move on to something different to not lose sight of the bigger picture. Unresolved issues often find their solution in the next canvas.

I mainly work from photographs and I carry my camera with me at all times. I consider the photos to be notations, not complete on their own, the painting is the completion or fulfillment of the idea. Contrary to some art instruction I have received, there is nothing wrong with working from photos. It is not “copying” – but a painter should also utilize their experience of how things look and feel as a complementary resource. Drawing is a bit of a lost art – the reliance on photography to “remember” things is negative in that way.

I use a lot of paint, although, not as much as I used to. And, an oil ground is very important.

NA: Do you see yourself as a documentarian of urban life?

ER: That is an interesting question because there are so many documentary photographers that I admire. A very good friend of mine, Andrew Steiner, has been one of the biggest creative influences on me over the years and I think that through watching him work, and frame things in the camera, I have learned about composition and how to identify the elements essential to a story.

I am definitely an observer of urban life but the subjects I work with must become something else through the process of becoming a painting. I am imposing my own narrative on the subject, a fictionalized account that emphasizes what I see as important. Painting (and all art) has always been about something greater than the sum of its parts, creating a sublime feeling that transcends the mundane.

Robert Henri said, “Art cannot be separated from life. It is the expression of the greatest need of which life is capable, and we value art not because of the skilled product, but because of its revelation of a life’s experience.”

I choose to paint subjects that are a part of my everyday experience and I am skeptical of work that relies on too much of an adolescent “fantasy” life or conversation with the self. That is really not interesting to me – in any medium. Art has got to have some sense of humanity and it has got to be able to communicate that. So, in that sense, maybe I am a bit of a documentarian.

NA: Many of your paintings take place at night or twilight. Is there something about the night that intrigues you or is the night just a part of the urban experience?

ER: We are all interested in duality; our selves in relation to society, light in contrast to darkness, etc. The urban night scenes are sort of imbued with a sense of mystery. The extremes of light and dark become symbolic of many things – the boundaries between shapes are blurred, fluorescent lights take on an unearthly glow – its very rich subject matter and it can become very dramatic. Originally, I was painting bar scenes and then came these fast food restaurants – Supernatural Burger King was the first. It looked so beautiful and majestic, in complete opposition to its actual function. There is something very fragile and human about this contradiction. I’ve done a few laundromats at night and El stations. Some quality of loneliness and transcendence in the night scenes appeals to me…

NA: What are some of the biggest challenges you face as an independent artist?

ER: Space, time, money – finding a community. A lot of artists are so insular, we work alone and so we feel like our struggle is totally unique. But, it’s not at all original and we need to learn how to network and collaborate more freely. We need to engage with each other and not feel like we are in competition. There is room for everyone. I’ve had experiences in both extremes – mature artists who expect me to work for them (since I have certain technical/computer skills that they lack) and others who actually refer opportunities and share ideas. The latter is certainly more rare.

Having a studio space really goes hand-in-hand with the idea of community. Its an essential part of developing your artwork, this separate space reserved for thinking and creating. The City of Chicago needs to do more to develop and cultivate space, to treat its creative community like the economic engine it is. As artists, I think we need to try to educate the community about how important these working spaces are to the cultural and urban environment.

Its hard to do things on your own, practically impossible. You need a strong network of peers and collaborators to truly to sustain your art career. Despite the difficulty, you just can’t ever give up. An independent artist has to believe in themselves and be committed to their goals – but also maintain a flexibility in unfavorable circumstances. I say – everyone who tells me “no” is wrong – and I keep all of my rejection letters.

NA: Where do you see your work heading in the future?

ER: I have spent the past few years concentrating on other things but I want to spend time on my artwork now and figure that out. I just noticed that my recent work has these very strong vertical and horizontal lines. I think sharing a space with Scott Simons has made me very aware of the power of the line. It has an oceanic feeling – this horizon line.

I would like to work from life again. There is a different dynamic in working from direct observation. The painting goes in unanticipated directions – because things are apt to change and be revealed when you work from life. I am interested in pushing some of the abstract elements of my painting.

But, I really don’t know where it is all going. That is the adventure.