Artist Profile: ArtWest’s Emma Davis on Rejecting a Standardised Life

Originally published on White Noise

July 2018

Following her artistic dreams had always felt like an admission of defeat to Emma Davis: a pursuit less legitimate, less intellectual – less feminist even – than, say, the sciences. The Willesden-based creative told Arnelle Paterson about an epiphany that changed everything.

A petite woman with thick, layered hair greets me at the door of the art studio space. Her eyes light up as she offers me tea and coffee. It’s early – too early – but coffee’s never really been my thing, so I politely decline. Like its occupant, the space inside is serene, breezy and inviting.

This woman is Emma Davis, a writer and visual artist based at ArtWest who uses oils, watercolour, etchings and pencil to explore the effect and meaning of line, pictographic languages, calligraphy, and colour. Drawing serves as the canvas for all of her work, and she’s greatly influenced by abstract painter Howard Hodgkin.

Davis is just one of many creators from ArtWest, a collective of printmakers, painters, sculptors, ceramicists, and much more, who are based in a collection of buildings dotted around the NW10 postcode just north of White City. Every year, they swing open the doors and invite the public into their creative spaces to learn, commission, buy or simply have an inquisitive wander around.

The art bug bit Davis at an early age; she was “always drawing as a child.” She explains: “I was good at English and I was good at art so for a while, there was a bit of conflict between the two.” The bias of her school didn’t help matters, they were “very negative about anything that wasn’t scientific.” Davis says, “It was as though you were letting down the female sex if you were artistic. It was as though you were being a bit lazy and unimaginative, and that what you really should do was aim to be a lawyer or a doctor.”

This belief niggled away at her artistic dreams. “It meant that I thought that to go to art school was a sort of admission of being thick.” She believes that this issue is still on-going amongst the younger generation: “You have to make a choice at something like, 12? If you have any family pressure, you probably will say no to art and music.”

After studying English literature at the University of York, she found herself wanting to return to her artistic roots. But the school stigma continued to follow her, and Davis struggled throughout her twenties with the question of legitimacy. She says, “I was living with people who were going into PR and Advertising, and I didn’t particularly want to do that, but I hankered after a more standardised, legitimate life, where people go, ‘That’s brilliant! Oh, you’re a lawyer? Oh, you’re a doctor?’ Those kind of established existences that make you look like you belong to a certain world, you have achieved a certain amount. If you are to say that you’re an artist, that’s a peculiar things to say sometimes. People will either think, ‘Who do you think you are?’ or they’ll say, ‘Do you sell?’ Basically, are you legitimised by the world? I thought it’d be nice to have a more standard life, but it never really worked.”

One day, Davis had an epiphany. “Somebody said to me, ‘I guess it depends what you want to do every day.’ And you go: ‘God, it’s as simple as that. What do you want to do every day? What do you want to keep in your life, and what do you want to get rid of?”

Yet returning to creative practice wasn’t an easy process. “I had got out of the way of drawing, and I got really anxious about starting to draw. It made me feel depressed; it didn’t look right.” State of mind is very important when it comes to creating art, she explains. “You drift out of the usual world into an alpha pattern. Your brain switches.” Alpha brain wave patterns are present when your brain is in an idle state, such as daydreaming or meditating. Davis references Drawing on the Right Side of the Brainby Betty Edwards. “She said that when you draw, you need to turn the verbal side of your mind off. If you try and talk while you draw, it disrupts. I think you can flip between them, but you can’t write a novel while you’re trying to draw someone’s portrait.”

The workings of the mind are a running motif within Davis’ work. Her paintings explore the response that colours can provoke, but it’s a lot more than that. “I often thought that those works would be quite good in therapeutic settings because colour just resonates like music… I like abstract qualities because they give you breathing room to weave your way in and out if people can bother to give it time, or maybe no time.”

Despite this, Davis feels that there isn’t a rigid science to appreciating art. “Visual’s weird. You don’t have to stand in front of something for an hour to know whether you like it or not, do you? I think a lot of people don’t quite know how to look at stuff, so they get anxious. They quite like it to be a tree, because then they go, ‘Does it look like a tree? Am I happy with this tree?’”

When it comes to the question of the Emma Davis art legacy, it’s still in the works. “I read that Jasper Johns, once he discovered the way that he liked working, destroyed everything else,” she reveals. “And I thought ‘That is a really good idea!’ There’s a load of stuff I wouldn’t want to be my legacy, so I might have a go through, might have a big clear out.”

But how does the artist herself want to be remembered? Cocking her head to one side, she ponders. “Well I don’t think I’ll be an icon, but it’d be nice to be. If you can live a life with some sort of integrity, and some sort of authenticity and you follow your own path, I think that’s enough, isn’t it? Especially as a woman, you’re brave if you do that.”