This is a big month for the Orem-native Emily McPhie. Not only is her oldest child getting a driver’s license and youngest starting first grade, her new show Seasons has just opened (and will be up through September 20) at David Ericson Fine Art. She says that although it’s bittersweet to realize her children are growing up and a new part of life is beginning, this new phase will, at least, give her more time to paint. Judging from her new four-part series “Forward March of Time,” McPhie is confident about the future and self-assured as an artist. However, McPhie tells me that early in her adulthood, navigating her roles as mother, wife, and individual was the first challenge to becoming a professional artist. Inspired by folk art and her love of family life, McPhie’s paintings in Seasons focus on domesticity, story telling, imagination, and, centrally, cycles of personal and natural transformation.
From an early age, McPhie processed life through creativity and art. Her family traveled to museums around the world and talked about art around the dinner table. When McPhie started at Brigham Young University, she enjoyed her art classes and “pursuing art felt natural.” However, after she got married during college, finishing her degree and beginning adulthood became her top priorities.
“When you first become a wife and a mother, I think it’s natural to lose yourself for a while,” McPhie said. In the midst of moving into her first family home and caring for a new baby, she shifted focus away from her artistic development.
Soon, however, she realized that painting was too central to her life and sense of self to put away for long. She recognized that all her roles contributed to how she saw life and processed the world. Her art reflected these thoughts and helped her communicate to viewers and her own children about many topics. Her first professional show, Delia’s Dreams, was inspired by her young daughter talking about her dreams. Pieces like “Serena and Her Lion,” “Pirouettes and Pachyderms,” and “Birdcage” combined her experience of motherhood, love of painting, and interest in the expansive imagination of children, which, she says, enhances her own.
Another crucial inspiration for her work, she says, is narrative. When her father, the late painter James C. Christensen, took her to museums, he explained symbols, visual motifs, and stories in Medieval and Renaissance art. To her, allegory and allusion were always components of what she enjoyed and felt enhanced visual art.
“Most pieces I do are usually paired with some kind of writing,” she says. “Story and visual art are close in my mind. I write about what I was thinking when I was working on a piece for my own benefit, or even poetry to accompany pieces. I think text can enhance work for viewers, but visual art and text are two different ways of communicating. Sometimes you can only say something with poetry, sometimes only with color and shapes. Often, together they are even more powerful.”
McPhie also uses a blog to talk about the historical and iconographic significance of tropes in her work. For example, in pieces in Seasons, including “Celebrations” and “Forward March of Time: Summer,” and in earlier work like “A Dunce and her Seven Devils,” McPhie depicts figures with conical hats. She elaborated on this symbol in a 2015 blog post, saying:
“The dunce cap carries an iconographic visual of the naughty kid in the corner of the classroom, being ostracized for misbehavior. He may be the class clown, he may have received poor marks on his homework… In twelfth century Scotland there was a very influential philosopher-theologian named John Duns Scotus. He taught at Oxford University and had a practice of constructing a paper cone to place on the head of the poorest academic student to stimulate his brain, like a ‘thinking cap’ funneling light and energy into his mind… What we may see as a punishing, humiliating disgrace was actually intended to be a tool for our betterment. Like using our weaknesses for self-improvement, to learn and grow. And beyond that, to develop compassion and humility.”
This is a good example of the care and thought McPhie puts into every component of her work. Not only does she carefully paint minute details of fabric, patterns, and texture, she carefully considers the historical and contemporary significance of the symbols she puts into her paintings.
Each of the seasons in her “Forward March of Time” series reflects this attention to detail as well. The central children in these four pieces wear clothing with carefully rendered lace, buttons, or patterns. The surrounding landscapes in the seasons have carefully rendered botanical elements like trees, flowers, and fruit. In winter, for example, two children wander through an evergreen forest, with brush peeking up through the snow and even small wrinkles in their clothing visible.
McPhie’s work reflects not only her development as an artist, mother, and historian, but also as a keen observer of the world. As she says, the gentle, imaginative reality of children and their caregivers is often dismissed as less important than “bigger” world events. However, when we stop to smell the roses and look at the scenes in McPhie’s work, we can all learn something about our own childhoods and inner worlds.
“Seasons” featuring the work of Emily McPhie, Clay & Rebecca Wagstaff is at David Ericson Fine Art in Salt Lake City through September 20.
Hannah McBeth studied art history, classics, and Mediterranean archaeology before getting a Master’s at Cambridge University. She enjoys writing, hiking, and traveling to far-off places. Follow her on Twitter @hannahmcbee.