‘This Is Where I Belong’

Why artist Emily Gherard is owning her Pacific Northwest roots

Gherard displays the backside of a piece she made using hundreds of staples. She will show her works with Bridge Productions at the 2017 Seattle Art Fair.

Inside a one-car garage in North Seattle, artist Emily Gherard’s sketchbooks blanket two long tables, stacks of experimental prints shroud the counter tops, and completed paintings hang together on an unfinished wall.

“I like to leave it a mess,” Gherard said. “That way I can walk in and have something to do right away — which is usually pick up all the trash.”

This ritual allows her to easily enter the threshold of the studio, where she spends most of her afternoons and nights working — but only after she pauses her roles as a professor at North Seattle College, and as a mother to her 19-month-old daughter.

“I think everything about my work is declaring I’m a Pacific Northwest artist ….and I’m very proud of that.”

As Gherard prepares paintings and drawings for the Seattle Art Fair, her works expand and develop every day. Last year, Seattle-based Bridge Productions included one of Gherard’s charcoal drawings in its program, and this year the gallery’s booth will consist entirely of her works.

“When you think about what to put in a booth at an art fair, sometimes the quietest thing holds the most potency,” said Sharon Arnold, founder and curator of Bridge Productions. “I think Emily’s work definitely fits that. So we’ll keep it simple and powerful.”

Gherard’s sketchbook containing drafts of her works to come.

At first glance, Gherard’s work feels straightforward. Her incredibly limited color palette — refined to mostly blacks, grays and whites — and tight, linear marks abstract her imagery to large, blurred shapes and motions. Her inspiration, though, derives from a sense of identity in location.

As a child, Gherard’s family frequently relocated — almost every year — so when she had the chance to establish herself in a new location, she chose Seattle and planted her feet.

“I remember having this sense of ‘This is where I belong,’” she said recalling a family vacation to the Olympic Peninsula. “I think everything about my work is declaring I’m a Pacific Northwest artist ….and I’m very proud of that.”

Though her works have become very dark in value, Gherard said that her environment influences her use of color. Most pieces begin with bright tones, but the pigment quickly dies in the process, she said.

Gherard working in her North Seattle studio.

Behind her hung a striking turquoise painting, nearly complete, and still surprisingly bright.

“It makes me physically uncomfortable,” she said.

But it serves a purpose. And while the painting is an anomaly of color amidst a plethora of neutrals, it emphasizes a similar groundwork to much of Gherard’s work: the human figure. As a teenager in Spokane, she attended figure-drawing classes, the cheapest and most accessible way to gain art experience in many cities. She fell in love with the practice. Though many of her recent pieces are wall-like, or landscape in appearance, she said the subject matter and composition derives from a figurative history.

“A good figure drawing breathes,” she said. “You’re drawing something that shows your humanity by you drawing it. I try to make that in the work even though they’re sometimes made out of staples, or are lots of little marks.”

As she continues to staple wooden panels, and produce more of those little marks, Gherard looks forward to experiencing the atmosphere of the fair again. Aside from the opportunity to sell work, the artist said the event’s value lives in seeing the sheer abundance of art in one space — in walking through a venue with thousands and thousands of people viewing art.

“As artists that’s what we desire more than anything,” she said. “That’s what we dream about.”

Gherard’s work. Still in progress. Purchase tickets here.