The fine folks at Hobbs Architects in downtown Pittsboro are powering our Meet This Artist series this year. Architecture is art, and the Hobbs crew values art in our community. They join us in inviting you to take a look. Meet your very inspiring neighbors. Meet This Artist . . .
I got to sit down with Emma Skurnick right before the holiday break — smack dab in the middle of the hustle and bustle of it all. But let me tell you as I turned down Bynum Road, I felt my body start to relax. I passed by the General Store there, took in some of Clyde’s amazing critters, eased past one house that had paper lanterns hanging from trees out front dotting the sky with pops of color, and then I crept past the three abandoned buildings that Emma told me I’d see. They looked pretty to me; they have a story, too.
I found myself unwinding while wandering through Bynum, this mystical place full of art and artists.
Of course I’d been there — to Bynum — before. One of my family’s favorite adventures takes place every Halloween as we walk Bynum Bridge seeing pumpkins that are works of art as they sit flickering on the bridge, up above the mighty Haw with the moon shining through a misty dark sky. You know about ClydeFEST out here, too, I am sure — where us lovers of art get together to create and celebrate (save the date for this if you haven’t already: April 6, 2019). And last spring I loved getting to the Bynum Bridge Fest; in fact, this is where I first met Emma Skurnick. I remember my son, River, hemming and hawing over which of her creations he’d get to bring home before finally choosing a doggy dressed in red and wearing a blue cape.
So, flash forward to me pulling into Emma’s drive, next to her studio among trees and trees. Its big windows and cheerful, bright green door called out and welcomed me. Walking up to her home, not too many steps from her studio, kind of took my breath away. This is the type of home I’d envisioned in dreams many times before. It has a tin roof and that cheerful bright green door’s twin brother greeted me atop her front porch.
Emma welcomed me on in, and I saw art and colors and animals and warmth everywhere. I was so excited to be there, and I have a secret to tell you here: That morning, even before I stepped out my door, I thought to myself, “I know we’re gonna be friends.” We started talking about everything from big to small, from our past paths, to our beliefs in how art and creating art together heals and helps, to the powerful beauty of nature and how we should get our kids together some time. Her furry friend, Pippin, sat in her lap as we talked.
I got to meet her husband, Jan, too. I found out that he is one of the co-founders of Paperhand Puppet Intervention, and I think I started jumping up and down then. Here I was in the middle of this haven — among Emma’s gorgeous art and Jan’s work that hangs from almost ceiling to the floor, and I was awestruck. Their kindness and love for art, Bynum, and the outside world illuminates their home.
Sharing Her Stories
Emma was trained as a scientific illustrator and still works commercially doing illustrations for science magazines, museums, and publishers. She did this full-time for about seven years and then realized that she had her own stories that she needed to tell. She started mixing fine art into her illustration.
“My stories were still really based on my feelings about the world and nature and how spectacular beetles are and how feathers are made. Every detail of the natural world, to me, is amazing — a miracle — so I just wanted to make people pay attention to how spectacular the world is. A lot of these small things we just walk past really quickly without paying attention, so that was the purpose of my art: slowing people down.” She spent a lot of time painting giant beetles and big feathers to make people look.
After Emma’s daughter was born, her stories changed substantially. “The paintings became much more about interactions, all of a sudden, there were paintings with three rabbits in them or two birds. I was still telling my stories through animals, but they became much more humanized or anthropomorphized.”
She spoke of a series she painted during the time they were trying to convince their daughter to sleep in a bed by herself. “I was painting almost religious icons of sleeping animals!” She chuckles, and adds, “As she’s been growing up, it’s just so interesting how that has changed the type of story that was interesting to me. [T]hat’s the way it should be, there should be no separation between what you make and what you are feeling.”
Emma began to make pieces that were allegorical about other aspects of my life. She points to some paintings of birds, hammers, and eggs, telling me these were made during a time in her life when she was feeling insecure. “I’d done a whole series of those, of eggs being somehow squeezed or about to be damaged but nothing has happened to them; the eggs are fine and the birds are just sort of observing. The eggs are strong. They’re under threat, but the eggs are really, really strong. You can be fragile and you can be threatened and you can survive.” Listening, looking, I feel empowered.
She painted the egg series last winter, and it was heavy. She went on to paint a series of giant flowers this past summer that are “sort of all about a return to life.”
Emma works really intensely on a series of ten or so paintings, and then there’s a shift. “The whole time I’m painting, I’m talking to myself. Painting is such a meditative process where I go upstairs where I paint, and it’s just me and the piece of paper.” After her daughter goes to bed, she and Jan each go up to their offices and work on whatever they’re working on in silence. “It’s just time to work through stuff and ask questions and see what happens. The paintings are all just a sort of the physical trace of that thinking and questioning and discovering process. So with each series, the questions that I’m talking to myself about are different and the answers are different.”
Emma finds inspiration for her paintings in varied ways — something could strike her as she walks in the woods, watches her daughter, or even while looking at Instagram or Pinterest. She goes through what she called a “gathering and collecting” phase and then lets everything marinate a while. She then goes on to creating little sketches. “As soon as I find that connection of thinking and imagery, that can be enough to launch a ten-painting series. Whenever I start a painting, I have to know exactly what it’s gonna look like finished before I begin painting. If I can’t imagine it finished, I can’t start it.”
What I find amazing is that once she gets to the “painting” part, she feels like the easy part because she’s done so much work in her head, mapping it out ahead of time. She starts one and gets really excited while thinking about the next one and usually by about number ten, the excitement has tempered and she knows she’s done. “Then it’s time to sit and think again and wait for the next idea to build up.”
Stumbling & Inspirations
One of Emma’s earliest memories of making art happened in Kindergarten when her class drew pictures of what they wanted to be when they grew up. “I drew myself as a French man, carrying a baguette and wearing a beret, because I thought all artists had to be French men with curly mustaches.” She laughs. “My parents were completely supportive, which was great, and they still are.”
Much later, working on her undergraduate degree with a major in Sculpting, there was a day she’d spent all day in the studio. She walked out the door and tripped over a pine cone. “You look at a pine cone and it’s perfect; it’s the most perfect sculpture in the world.”
An epiphany: “Nature wins,” she thought. “It’s gonna beat anything that I could ever make, and so why don’t I become an illustrator whose job it is to celebrate nature rather than trying to compete with nature.” She still keeps pine cones around and shared that her family and students have always inspired her, too.
Continuing to Share
These days, Emma teaches, too. “I don’t know what I would be doing if I wasn’t teaching my students. I think what I’m coming to now is that I just want to make room for other people to tell their own stories through their artwork and help them do that.”
For two years now, she’s been teaching basic drawing skills to a small group of medical students at Duke. “The purpose of teaching doctors how to draw is to remind them that they’re human and not just scientists or diagnosticians. There’s a lot of self-protection that has to go on when you’re a doctor, so we’ve been using drawing as a tool to sort of help them re-balance and to help them connect better with their patients so that they’re not so distanced.”
This work has been a source of rebalancing in her life, too. “I want all of the artwork that I make or help people make to be a tool for connection and empathy and meditation.” I can tell this work has created a wave in her world that is shifting the direction of her ship.
“For me, making watercolor paintings on paper might not be the pathway, because nowadays if I make a painting of a flower, I go ‘that’s pretty; did that really help anybody?’ Maybe not as much as some other way I could be using my time, so I don’t know where that’s leading.”
Emma continues to teach weekly through her open home studio classes every week, too. She may add beginning-to-draw and embroidery classes soon. “The reason why we’re learning to draw is to connect with our subjects, connect with the world, connect with whatever parts of ourselves we’ve been protecting.”
Where. Do. I. Sign. Up? Here’s how: Go to Emma’s website, and email her to get on her mailing list. Some of her students think of her classes as their community and their time to take care of themselves. “That’s a real gift that I can give to people — just time and space and focus. A lot of people call it their sanctuary over there.” That’s exactly how I felt as soon as I laid eyes on her studio. A true sanctuary.
Love Letters from a Small Town
Emma moved to Bynum twenty years ago — a town in transition then, Emma said — because it was an old mill town. “A lot of the people who lived here had worked in the mill all their lives, they had all married each others’ brothers and sisters. It was just a really tight, small, town, and that was going away at that point. The mill had shut down; a few years after that, the mill burned down. The General Store was our actual general store. You could go in there and buy your groceries,and there was always this circle of old men who would be there every day, sitting and talking — and then the store went out of business so it was this real time of the town sort of closing in on itself. At the same time, because the houses here were really affordable, all these new people were coming in, and they were a lot of artists and graduate students and just this very different population was intermixing with the previous population — and from my point of view — it happened so gracefully because the old-timers were just really welcoming and willing to share their stories. They made space for me — this New Yorker/San Francisco person that was coming in.”
The Bynum experience eventually became part of her art, too. What started as her being part of a writing group and having a passion for writing long letters to friends, turned into her Love Letters From A Small Town. Her idea was to write a story about living in Bynum every month and send it out to people. Now, she’s starting her third year.
Last year, after a friend asked if she had one for kids, her first answer was no. A day later, she called her friend back and told her that she indeed did. Jan and Emma began collaborating, and they “started writing this completely fictional series of kids’ letters.” Just like her Letters From A Small Town, the kids receive a letter every month, but these are written by a rabbit named “Whiskers”. Animal Town is a fictionalized version of Bynum, and a lot of the characters are people. (I wonder now who “Wood Stove Willy” really is!) Kids of all ages are welcome to subscribe, and you can subscribe to either set of letters here. They go everywhere from Las Vegas to Spain!
Her Love For Chatham
Emma used to think that you need to be in New York or Paris or San Francisco to be an artist. What she discovered is that if you want to live in New York or San Francisco, then you have to have a full-time job which is not the same as being a full-time artist. “Discovering that living in Chatham allowed you to be actually creative in every aspect of your life because it was affordable, that’s really the bottom line. And it’s changed a lot in the past twenty-five years. It makes all the difference to live in a place where that’s affordable.”
“When you fantasize about being an artist, you don’t take into account that you need time and space, and living in the city doesn’t give you that. Because it’s such a great place to be an artist, it is so full of artists in some way, shape or form. You go into houses in Chatham and everyone has handmade pottery and real art on their walls. It’s just that pervasiveness that art is so normal here and also so affordable and so practical. I just feel like my friends who still think that New York is the place to be an artist are kind of missing out on something really important.”
What’s Next for Emma?
“My life changes every few years, and I come up with a completely new thing that’s my focus.” The way she sees it now is that any sort of visual art that she makes will be just for herself; it won’t be necessarily to hang on the wall or sell. “My creation is the community I’m building, bringing people together to make art or just to draw. That idea of a community formed around observation and appreciation; it’s all brewing,” she muses.
“There are so many different ways that you can make the world better but I feel like this is one of my strengths — it’s teaching and making people feel safe and excited and capable and wanting to set time aside. Drawing is a meditation, and it’s a way for us to not be spinning circles in our heads.”
Until next time, I will be dreaming of unwinding while wandering through Bynum to see my friend Emma Skurnick.
From the Artist
- Full Name: Emma Skurnick
Born: Chappaqua, NY
One of your favorite childhood memories: Eating chocolate bonbons while riding in the sleeping cabin of a long-distance train.
As a kid, my dream job would be: Artist-veterinarian (wasn’t it everyone’s?)
Three words that describe my art: Observant, kind and naturalistic.
I am inspired by: The diversity of the natural world, the love of my family, and the hard work of my students.
When I am not creating art, you’ll probably find me: Reading while thinking, ‘I should be cleaning the house right now.’
Most people don’t know I: Only paint after 10pm.
The most dangerous thing I ever did was: Oh golly. I don’t even like to think of it.
My spouse says I am: A good balance.
My students say I am: A good influence.
The last book I read was: The Leftovers (fiction). Designing your Life (nonfiction).
Three Chatham County places I frequent are: The Pittsboro Library. The Bynum Bridge. O2 gym (you can find me dancing like a fool there most Monday mornings).
Three Chatham County artists I admire are: Andrew Wilson, Shannon Beuker, and Forrest Greenslade.
Emma’s website where you can view her beautiful artwork: http://emmaskurnick.com/
Also, if you’re interested in checking out events in Bynum, this is always a good place to start: http://www.bynumfrontporch.org/about-forte/.