Emily Louise Howard is the hands, head and heart behind The Diggingest Girl. Emily was born in Burlington, Vermont in 1984. She was raised in Erlanger, Kentucky and educated at the University of Kentucky, where she received a B.F.A. in painting. Emily went on to get her M.F.A. in painting and her M.A.A.E. with K-12 licensure at the University of Cincinnati. Emily has been a lifeguard, espresso shot-puller, aircraft baggage handler and fueler, university instructor and waitress, middle and high school art teacher, among other things. She now carves and pulls prints full time, fulfilling a lifelong dream of being a working artist. Emily lives in a little house in Erlanger, Kentucky at the edge of the woods-- a fitting place to create her cozy and empowering imagery. She runs her business out of her basement studio.
Her work is an amalgamation of many elements, a patchwork quilt of personal histories and desires. Through the making of this body of work, she explores her Appalachian ancestry and the domestic practices therein, her Cherokee bloodlines, oral storytelling (in European, Appalachian and Native American traditions), and the brutal and naked hope that is the essence of childhood.
Five-Dots: How long have you been in this studio?
Emily Howard: Well, I grew up in this house. But I’ve had just this part of the basement for the past year, and it’s actually in the last couple of weeks that I acquired the sitting space over there. So I’d say that in the past year this has evolved into my space. But before then [my studio] was in a tiny bedroom upstairs that I very quickly grew out of.
FD: And how long were you working upstairs?
EH: About two years.
F-D: When you moved in here, did you have an idea for how you wanted to lay it out or did it develop organically?
EH: It definitely developed organically due to the weird “L” shaped space. I utilized the light from the window and the press sort of as anchors for the rest of the studio and I just moved everything around according to where those two things were gonna land.
FD: Has the location of the studio influenced your work in any way?
EH: Oh definitely. It’s great to have the studio in the house. I guess you could say that it increases my productivity. So if I’m just sitting around upstairs I’ll always end up deciding to just make some coffee, come down here, and get some work done. It’s also really helpful because of my natural schedule: for years (and I guess this is because I had always been a student and then a teacher) I thought that I was a morning person. Once left to my own devices I found that I am a night person. So I usually roll out of bed around 9 or 10, but I’ll usually work until about one or two in the morning.
FD: What is it about the night that works for you?
EH: Eh, it might have something to do with my mom’s schedule. She’s an RN on the night shift at the VA. So I guess I’m more productive in the night so that I don’t have to worry about waking her. Plus, during the day I can get so distracted. So at night I can kind of focus a little bit better.
FD: Other than it being in your home, is there any other location based impact on your studio practice?
EH: Well, having the woods outside is really nice. I grew up back there, and if you follow the trail back it will take you right to Doe Run Lake. I’d like to think that the woods is kind of like the birthplace of my imagination— being so close to something that created so much joy for me as a child really impacts my work. My work also has a lot of natural elements: greenery, woodland animals, figures, references to the sky.
F-D: Can you describe a typical day for yourself in the studio?
EH: Like I mentioned, I try to wake up naturally; which is great. I’ll make my coffee. I’ll come down here and sit on the couch and putter around on the internet for a little bit. When I start to feel— I don’t know, ready to work— I’ll carve, or print, or some design work. If I get hungry, I’ll go upstairs and grab something. It’s really nice, I can get in a sixteen hour groove down here, and just work continuously. Or I can just work a few hours in a day. It just depends on what deadlines are coming up. I work best under pressure, so I tend to wait to work on projects.
FD: Who are you doing design work for?
EH: I’m doing some mural design right now for ArtWorks. I’ve done seven projects with them.
How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
EH: I guess I would call it rustic and folksy. My identity as a Kentuckian figures into the kind of work that I make. A lot of the animals that appear in my work are animals that are from the Appalachian region exclusively. A lot of my flora and fauna are regional as well. But I guess I’d say that my work is also feminine and narrative. I’m interested in stories. I love fairytales, folklore, and mythology. I’m interested in Native American mythology— specifically Cherokee mythology— that’s my heritage.
FD: Are there any Cherokee folktales or myths that you are working with or examining right now?
EH: Yea, not specifically Cherokee, but there is a narrative that I’ve been working with for a long time. It’s a story that I've been working with and through at the simultaneously. I would say that I’ve been writing it, but I haven’t really ever put it to paper. It’s very loosely autobiographical: the protagonist is a girl placed within Victorian Appalachia, if there had been such a thing. The story kind of goes as so: Her father gets captured by the wolves in the woods: the wolves trap him, capture his soul, and then [place] his soul within the body of a raven. So she has to wage a war with the wolves in order to retrieve her father’s soul. She has to go through a lot of trials, and so a lot of the little stories that appear within that larger story, appear in my work.
FD: When you say “Victorian Appalachia” are you simply denoting a fictional time frame placed within a specific historical context? Or are you employing Victorian motifs?
EH: Yes, I’m utilizing motifs. I will often sort of collage different patterns and images together before working on a new block. For a while I was also using Victorian garb whenever dress came into a question for a figure; that’s something that I haven’t done in about a year, but it’s something that I often circle back to.
What mediums do you work with?
EH: I’m mostly a relief printmaker. I used to work solely with wood blocks. But after a while I was just carving so much that it wasn’t worth the wear and tear on my wrists and so I switched to linoleum. I want to do this for a long time and so I’m trying to save my body. I do also do a little bit of silkscreening, but I’m not the best at it and I don’t really have the facilities and so it’s not my focus. I also paint a little bit, but that’s more for pleasure.
F-D: Can you tell us more about this process and how it has evolved?
EH: Like I said, I started with wood blocks and then moved to linoleum. I have started to collage my prints— I enjoy cutting out prints, placing them on beautiful patterned paper, and then hand painting elements. That’s simply because I don’t have the patience to do reduction or multi block prints. But then I’m creating more work for myself by having to hand paint. So who knows. But also, I like to see the artists’ hand when I buy work; and this gives each print a uniqueness that it wouldn’t otherwise have.
I’m also finally getting to that point where I have all of those hours of practice carving blocks that I can begin to experiment more with composition and smaller details. I’m also excited to start moving and experimenting with more three dimensional elements. My emphasis for my Master’s was actually in sculpture and installation. So I’ve been moving more in that direction and am actively trying to make more prints that can stand up. I have a saint series that is a part of that, as well as a few others.
F-D: Can you talk a bit more about the Saints?
EH: Yea, so I just cut them out with a scroll saw and then print directly onto them. They aren’t really meant for outside or to stand wind, but the can comfortably stand on their own in an interior space. They’re meant to serve as little alters.
F-D: Do you have narratives in mind for each piece?
EH: Usually, yea. Aside from the story I mentioned earlier, I have made prints based off of images of a few historical figures. I just completed a run of prints based off of Joan of Arc. There was also “Ghost Stories”, my most popular print—which is an image depicting the feeling of becoming absorbed in stories as one reads.
FD: Where does your interest in representing historical figures come from?
EH: Loving to read. And being energized by badass ladies in history. I like learning about different trailblazers. I like reading about women who are like me and not like me. It’s inspiring. And I think it’s important to know where you come from as a person, a woman, and as an artist.
F-D: Do you consider your work to be autobiographical at all; does personal history work its way into your art?
EH: Yea, I’d say that it’s autobiographical in that you look at my work and you can kind of pick up on aspects of my history and day to day life. I’d say that my earlier work was a lot more autobiographical. But I’m so interested and motivated by the outside world that my work sort of becomes a timeline for my interests.
F-D: What influences outside the visual arts inspire and impact your approach to making work?
EH: Well. . . books. I read a lot, often, all of the time. I’m really influenced by the natural world. I go on a lot of hikes. Being outdoors is really important to me.
FD: Do you keep your hikes regional?
EH: I try to get away from the city as much as I can. Luckily I make most of my money by traveling to art shows and markets around the country. So I try to parlay that into adventures whenever I can. So I always try to fit it into my work travels. I also hike around Cincinnati and throughout Kentucky: Red River Gorge and places like that.
FD: What are you reading right now?
EH: Right now I’m reading Broad Strokes: Fifteen Women Who Made Art and Made History (Bridget Quinn). It's just a wonderful read and highlights a few female artists and their accomplishments. A Company of Women is something that I just keep open and around because it’s so motivating and energizing. I’m also reading H is for Hawk, which is just a small piece of fiction by Helen Macdonald.
F-D: What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
EH: Well, without the space I wouldn’t be able to make work. When I was upstairs in that tiny room, I did it because I had to. It was what was available. But it feels really empowering to have a space that is just for housing and nurturing my creative energy. I feel really productive down here. I wouldn’t be able to run my business without it.
Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
EH: Yea! It’s funny, my students used to make fun of me because I get excited about everything.
FD: That’s a great thing. . . not that they made fun of you. It's great to keep your excitement!
EH: Yea. . . I was hoping that it would be infectious [with them]. And it wasn’t. Anyway, I’m working on a new series titled, “Saints for the Modern Woman”— which are those standing pieces that we discussed earlier. I’m essentially just creating saints that I, as a contemporary woman, feel like I need. They’re depicted nude, and that’s because I love the human form. The first that I depicted was the Saint of Self Love. That’s something that I and a lot of women struggle with. Being able to love yourself is important and it can be hard at times. There’s also Our Lady of Wildness: she's just about remembering where you come from, we’re all animals after all. There’s also Our Lady of Transformation; and that’s simply for anyone that is going through any sort of change. I was transforming from a teacher, which was a huge part of my identity, to a full-time artist at the same time that some of my friends were getting married, becoming parents for the first time, and some that are transitioning genders. So she is for anyone who is going through a state of flux. I’ve gotten a lot of good response from them, and so that’s something that I’m interested in creating more of. The next saint is going to be Our Lady of Righteous Anger. I feel like she’s very timely. A lot of angry women and people in general. Which is good, that’s what we need right now.
FD: So, you mentioned that you aren’t vey well versed in the Catholic image of the ‘saint’. What then, made you feel like this was an image that was appropriate for your message?
EH: Half of my family is Catholic, so I had moderate exposure. But I’ve always been interested in icons. I took one really great course in undergrad on Byzantine Art and it was just a visual feast.
FD: Byzantine art can almost be mathematic in its' symbolism.
EH: Yea, and I just loved that you could look at an image and pick it apart by what images where included. This particular bird equals “x” and that sort of thing. It was just really fascinating— I love symbolism in art. I’ve also always been very comforted by ritual. I’ve always loved alters; especially, Mexican home altars, for example. Just the idea of building a special space within your own home to guide you on a spiritual journey. . . it’s always been a really beautiful idea to me.
F-D: Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
EH: I feel like it’s a really great time in history to be a female artist. My experience, on the internet at least, has been really positive and affirming and exciting. There is this great movement of women, and I’m specifically speaking to the creative community, building each other up and encouraging each other. It feels like there is a really beautiful sisterhood thats evolving right now. I’ve gotten a lot of really great feedback on my work which is really feminine. Obviously it’s great if people see my work and it makes them feel good. Affirmation and encouragement are great things to provide to anther person and if my work can do that, then I’m happy. And then, I’d like to hope that my work has a place within the context of history. But I’m not sure what that place is right now. If any of my work is going to last longer than my own lifetime, I’m not sure. Last, I’m informed by other artists’ work, but I’m certain that no one is informed by me.
FD: You never know. The internet is the great ground leveler and anyone can be anything to another person. It makes everyone equal. Your place in the world tends to be irrelevant now.
EH: I mean, yes you’re right. I get tons of interaction from Instagram and other platforms, but very limited face to face interaction. I don’t really talk to other living creatures during the day. The internet has kind of helped with that— it has opened my horizons— and I feel like I have a really great sense of support and community out in the world. It really feels like a gift.
F-D: Do you have a motto or creed that as an artist you live by?
EH: I would say. . . work hard, stay humble. Aside from that, I try to make work from a place of love and not fear. I pride myself on having a strong work ethic— I blame my parents for that. My dad is a hustler, and my mother has always worked very hard.
F-D: When asked; what do you tell people you do for a living?
EH: I tell people that I’m an professional artist. If they press me, I’ll tell them I’m a printmaker. Which then can open a whole can of worms. ButI try to look at it as a teaching moment.
FD: It’s interesting that you are saying “professional”, what is your reason for including that little adjective?
EH: Oh, it’s just me denoting and forcefully answering the question that lies in between the lines of whether or not I in fact make enough money off of my practice. By enough money I’m referring to the ability to pay myself, my bills, health insurance. . . all of that life stuff.
F-D: What risks have you taken in your work, or for your work?
EH: Well the biggest risk was definitely quitting teaching. My last job, they had found another position for me; and I made a decision not to take it. It just felt like too big of a sign that at the end of EVERY year I’d get let go. And then I’d have to go through the immensely stressful act of finding another teaching job before the next school year. But after a while I was in fact, becoming more and more successful through going to craft shows, and I thought. . . you know, this might work. So I figured, fuck it, I’m going to go for it. It was really terrifying, but I have an amazing support network. I figured, I don’t have any of the “adult” responsibilities of a marriage, children, or a mortage— so if I was going to do this, I needed to jump right in. Also, on the other hand, there was also that fear of not knowing if I in fact had the drive and hustle to keep myself motivated. A few months in, I am pleased to report that I haven’t had any trouble.
FD: I’m going to go back a bit to your referenced concern (prior to leaving your teaching position) about the ability to fiscally take care of yourself after leaving said teaching position. How did you go about navigating and learning how to run your business?
EH: I took ArtWorks’ Co-Starters Program. It was just an amazing experience for me. It was single-handedly the most informative class I’ve ever taken. I mean, I went to art school and took that avenue— and I always got beneficial feedback about my work itself, but never about how I was going to, or needed to run an actual functioning small business. That sort of programming isn’t supplied in art school. Not even in an MFA program, because the unspoken (and sometimes spoken) expectation is that you will become a teacher. That Co-Starters class provided me with so many answers to questions in regards to tax and sales sort of questions. I now have an excellent and patient CPA, and he answers a lot of my questions. I also have started collecting books on how to run a small business, and I use those as a resource very frequently. So, yea. I am an advocate for Co-Starters. If you can take it, then you should.
F-D: Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
EH: I've got a bunch of stuff! This Memorial Day weekend I have Spring Arts in the Park in Blue Ridge, Georgia. The following weekend (June 2nd-4th) I'll be at Summerfair in Cincinnati, Ohio. June 17th and July 15th are Cincinnati's City Flea, I'll be there; and then July 20th-23rd is the Ann Arbor State St Art Fair, which is in Ann Arbor Michigan. I also have my list for everything through late fall up on my website.