Gaze at the work of Emily Pettigrew and you’ll notice the profound simplicity of it all. The artist, who’s born on the coast of Maine and studied in New York, paints the subtle moments of everyday life, like a dog sleeping at the doorstep; a bedroom steeped in the rouge light of the open fire; or the silhouette of a person walking down the stairs. “I find inspiration in stories,” she tells It’s Nice That, “stories of the past, stories about a person, stories contained in an object that has been owned many times. As life happens, there are plenty of moments and scenes that are mundane and not meaningful. It’s in the retelling of experiences that meaning and mythology are formed. That’s what I find so fascinating about history. Finding a feeling of deep meaning in the everyday is definitely a driving force in my work.”
Emily’s ability to observe the gentle humdrum of life and turn it into a painting is a skill she developed over time. For one, her father is an oceanographer and mother a painter, so her immediate family – as well as her natural surroundings – were unsurprisingly going to have an impact. In fact, Emily is drawn to the colour green, and she used to spend most of her time either alone or playing in the woods, she says, or sometimes she’d be with her mum making things. “So much so that my sister used to call me ‘Mum Jr.’,” she recalls.
The idea to become a painter was always an obvious and inevitable route of Emily’s. And, having achieved that goal, she now works full-time in the medium and has exhibited widely across New York, London, Portugal and more. What’s most interesting, though, and perhaps the least unsurprising, is the heavy use symbolism.
Rich in nature and history, Emily's paintings have been crafted with a variety of tools, notably with a large flat brush, small flat brush, pointy stick, painter’s tape and a .05mm lead mechanical pencil. She also finds herself much more focused in the evenings, and will head to the studio at around 1pm every day. “Unfortunately, I deal with a lot of chronic pain, so I have to be very mindful of what I’m doing with my body while I work,” she says. “I only work standing up at an easel.” However, she regards her chronic pain as the catalyst for reaching her dream as a full-time painter. Before heading into the profession, for instance, she was working as a rare book seller in Manhattan – a role she loved that increasingly became more difficult over time. “Living in the Catskills, working for myself, and putting all my resources into what I most want to do, allows me to work around the problem.”
Collectively, Emily’s portfolio has a consistent style running throughout. A darker, emerald-tinted colour palette; the careful consideration of shadow and light; the cropped compositions; everything has been placed accordingly and in a way that leaves the audience wanting to learn more. Her latest piece, for example, is one that she created for a duo show named Off Hours at Monya Rowe Gallery. Entitled Fourteen Irish Colleens, the painting is a “weaving of other people’s stories and my own experience into one deep blue image,” she notes, all the while depicting a woman’s arm and hip as its illuminated by the light of a window.
“Recently,” she continues, "I’ve been spending most of my free time looking for places in the Catskills that feel ‘special’. It was during one of these excursions that I found ‘the oldest Catholic church in the Catskills’.” The church in play was built around 1800 and comprises a steep slope and long set of stairs. Within, there’s a mass grave named Irish Colleens, which is dedicated “in loving memory of 14 Irish girls who came here from Ireland in the 1800s and who tragically lost their lives in a fire.” The painting, then, references this church through its interior, while the figure has been drafted from a photograph of herself in what she calls another “special place” – i.e. Dún Aengus, a “prehistoric hill fort off the coast of Ireland.” She adds: “It is through the weaving of time (prehistory, the 19th century, the modern day), place (Ireland and Catskills), and people (myself, my Irish ancestors, the 14 Irish girls) that a deeper narrative is formed.”
There’s more to Emily’s work than what first meets the eye, and behind every simple composition, stroke and hue, there’s a story waiting to be told. “There is a deliberate removal of extraneous details in the images I paint, which is intended to create a sense of mystery and eliminate obvious references,” she explains, citing how she will avoid anachronisms at all costs for this very reason. “I like things like time periods to be unclear, so I would, for example, never paint a cell phone. I sort of see it as a purification of the image.” The result is an ambiguous yet utterly compelling portfolio that enables the viewer to build their own narratives. “A push-pull of serenity and quietness with a sense of deeper unease or mystery is a dynamic that defines my work.”
Emily Pettigrew: Waiting for Admittance, acrylic and graphite on wood, 18"x14" 2020, available (Copyright © Emily Pettigrew, 2020)
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.