From Lee Emma Running’s “Cure” installation, these carved and polished deer ribs are assembled on brass rods floating over a blue table. The interior of the bones is gilded with 24-carat gold.

Meet the Artist: Lee Emma Running

“Meet the Artist” is a series of interviews with the Iowa Arts Council Artist Fellows.

Lee Emma Running’s art is a study in the transformation of nature. Born in Minnesota and raised in Denver, Lee Emma has spent the past dozen years in Grinnell.

Today, the associate professor of art at Grinnell College is one of five new people selected for the Iowa Arts Council’s Artist Fellowship Program. Created in 2014, the program supports professional Iowa artists who are exceptionally creative and contribute to artistic excellence and innovation in our state.

Iowa Artist Fellow Lee Emma Running’s “Pastoralia,” from a series of photographs created in collaboration with Barry Phipps. This image shows Lee Emma wearing a butcher apron and washing deer bones in a cast iron bathtub in a prairie near Grinnell.

During the next year, the fellows will display and discuss their work in communities across the state. Each fellow will also receive career-development training and a $10,000 grant to support new work.

We’ve asked each fellow to share a bit about their background, work and thoughts about the arts in Iowa. So far, we’ve already posted interviews with Ames artist Jennifer Drinkwater and Dubuque musician River Breitbach.

So let’s continue with Lee Emma, whose current work transforms the natural remains of deer bones into brilliant pieces of art.

Where do you make your work?

I have been making my work in my studio in Grinnell for 12 years. I also make work at residencies. This year I spent a month at Jentel, in Sheridan, Wyoming. My current project really started at a 5-month residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute in 2015. This July I moved into a new studio space at Mainframe Studios in Des Moines. I’ll be working there and in Grinnell this year.

What is your artistic medium of choice and why?

I work with a lot of different mediums, and I choose them based on the project. In the last couple of years I’ve been working with deer bones that I find while walking in wild places in Iowa. Most of these bones are from the victims of roadkill. This material became important to me after taking a class in traditional bone and steel tool-making. The surface of hand-polished bone is incredibly beautiful. I’m choosing to work with it because the transformation is so remarkable. I’m interested in making something precious out of something that has died violently and been forgotten.

From Lee Emma Running’s “Cure” installation, this piece is a polished, carved and gilded deer skull.

What themes does your work explore?

I’ve become really interested in looking at the deer herd in the state and nation. I feel like our current relationship to these deer says a lot about our American relationship with wildness. Interstate 80 has severely limited deer migration, but the corn crop in Iowa has also allowed the deer to thrive. This juxtaposition feels potent to me. Working with the bones, through traditional craft processes, to carefully polish, carve, and in some cases, gild them, has been a way for me to engage in a meditation and a conversation on wildness.

Lee Emma Running shared a short talk about her work during an Iowa Arts Council Fellows’ weekend in August 2017.

What are you currently working on?

I have a lot of bones I’m processing, but I’m also working on a film and a series of drawings. I’m also working on a large-scale collaborative installation and an artist’s’ book with Denise Bookwalter at Small Craft Advisory Press in Florida.

From Lee Emma Running’s “Cure” installation, this re-assembled deer skeleton hung from a tow hook is polished and laser-engraved.

What do you enjoy about being an artist in Iowa?

I love the landscape here. Growing up in Colorado I wasn’t sure how to look at the land when I first moved here. I was used to the drama of the Rocky Mountains. Living here has made me pay attention differently. I walk and run here every day, and I am inspired and enamored by the prairie, the waterways, and the sky. For many years I had a garden, and this taught me a lot about paying attention above and below the ground. The prairie burns that happen here are also some of the most dramatic and inspiring actions I have ever seen. I love the metaphor of transformation.

What is one thing you would change about the artistic field in Iowa?

Iowa is a great place to be an artist because there is so much possibility here. I would love to see more affordable work space for artists, not just in cities, but also in small towns. I would also love to see more ways for Iowa artists to transcend the regional scene. I think the issues Iowans are dealing with, such as land use, water rights, resource management, are global issues, and I think artists from the center of the country have a lot to contribute to this international conversation.

Upcoming dates/events/milestones related to your artistic practice?

In October I have a solo exhibition at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee. I also have an exhibition of my collaborative project “Sheathing” with Denise Bookwalter at the Western Carolina Museum of Art opening in January of 2018.

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