Storied Journeys

Emma Kalff is an American visual artist based in Colorado. A classically trained oil painter, she layers multiple scenes to create surreal collages. A road trip across the USA inspired a series of works that resulted in her first solo exhibition. Additional recognition followed, and in 2022 the artist’s work was featured in Southwest Art magazine’s 21 Under 31. Kalff studied at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts. Her paintings are available through 33 Contemporary Gallery, Chicago.

A: Your practice involves layering multiple scenes. How does collaging impact your final images?
I layer multiple scenes together in an attempt to present a somewhat altered reality to the viewer. I am interested in discovering the degree to which you have to tweak the real world before it becomes surreal – my paintings are an investigation into this question.

A: Can you expand upon your practice? How are your images created – from conception of ideas to their production?
I start with a blank panel and drive down my favorite back roads until I find a scene I like, then I pull over and set up my easel and paint. After that I’ll take the painting into the studio and work from photos, layering in images of my friends – eating at the drive thru, hugging each other, smoking, etc. 

A: To what extent does your medium of oil paint impact the types of images you create?
I love the combination of oil paint on wood, as it lets me work in layers, which helps build the dreamlike atmosphere I am exploring with my paintings.

A: Your work considers “the surreal atmosphere of dreams”. How do you attempt to capture this in your work? Why is the notion of dreams important to you?
In my latest series, Holding Your Horses, I have worked to recreate the subtle, sometimes unsettling atmosphere of memories and dreams. My paintings contain everyday elements – landscapes, figures, architecture – that are subtly mismatched so as to throw the viewer a bit off balance, make them look again.

I find that when I remember something, I may not remember where it happened, but I remember a weird detail like someone’s face or the pattern of the carpet. Dreams evoke for me a similar surreal feeling, a displaced familiarity. Dreams and memories are the precious realms of private emotion we all inhabit and I enjoy exploring them through painting.

A: In Issue 109 of the magazine, we featured Sedated Girl Summer. What is the story and process behind the piece? What does it represent to you?
One of my good friends and I had this running joke last spring that we were gonna have a Sedated Girl Summer instead of a Hot Girl Summer. We’ve both been having a hard time struggling with love life issues, low grade depression, just general life problems. So the joke was we’d spend the summer sedated and running away from our issues rather than having a Hot Girl Summer.

The painting idea came to me when I was driving through Colorado, where I live, and it had just been raining – that’s the scene you see in the painting. Only I had this vision of a blue blur off to the side, representing this sort of constant earnest melancholy I know many people, including myself, live with. I decided to paint the vision I had and call it Sedated Girl Summer, since being sedated is one way people choose to deal with the pain of life.

A: You aim to paint moods. To what extent does colour inform this practice?
To me, colour is secondary to value, which is essentially how light or dark a given colour is. If the value structure of a painting is strong, then I don’t worry too much about coloir. I sometimes experiment with it though. Sedated Girl Summer, for example, was painted using only the secondaries (orange, violet, and green) plus white and a hint of blue for the shape on the far right.

A: We also displayed Capricorn Wife in the magazine. What do the figures in this piece signify?
I used to live in New Orleans and sold my paintings outside the St Louis cathedral in the French Quarter. The two figures in Capricorn Wife were two of my friends, whom I met down by the cathedral. One of them was also a painter and we spent long days under the sun talking with the various characters of the French Quarter and trying to make some money on our paintings.

In Capricorn Wife, I painted my friends in front of a scene of a New Orleans street at night, under the golden glow of a streetlamp. New Orleans has a fierce mystery to it and I wanted to capture the creative fury that it inspires.

A: Your work was featured in Southwest Art magazine’s 21 Under 31 – congratulations! What was this experience like?
It was incredible! I am so grateful to Southwest Art for featuring my work and giving me a good deal of exposure. I also really enjoyed seeing all the other artists with whom I was featured for 21 Under 31.

A: A road trip inspired your first solo exhibition works. How did this trip come about? How did it impact your creativity?
I decided to spend some time working on farms in exchange for room and board, since I didn’t know anything about growing food and thought it would be useful to learn. I travelled through about a dozen states doing this on various farms and ranches, and I brought my easel with me and painted from life in every location.

I’d work my shift at the farm during the day, and set up my easel in the evening and paint the farm and its inhabitants, or I’d take my easel into town and paint a scene there. The result was this sweet little collection of about 50 paintings from all over, of all the kinds of scenes one could imagine. Each one was painted on a thin 8 x 10-inch panel so they were easy to get around.

This project, called Finding America, certainly impacted my creativity. For one thing, I had to learn to do a painting in a few hours after a long day’s work. Light changes quickly when you work from life, so I had to paint fast and really focus on my subject. And I had to get good at talking about what I was doing! People were always so friendly and curious whenever I set up my easel, so I got to practice speaking about my work.

A: To what extent does a physical location influence your work? Is your work driven by your external or internal environments?
I live in rural Colorado, and I’m always collecting raw material for paintings from my surroundings. I love taking pictures of my friends hanging out, or random people at the bar or folks walking down the street. I save the photos and then scroll through them later if I’m feeling stuck on a painting.

Sometimes I’ll pick a photo of a person and layer the image into the painting I’m working on. I also go riding around on my bike or in the car a lot, and make a mental inventory of things that catch my eye – buildings, certain lovely trees, street corners – that can serve as elements of future paintings.

A: You trained at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts. How did this study inspire or affect your artistic practice?
I was very lucky in 2018 to be given a scholarship to attend the Academy. I studied under Auseklis Ozols, who is a brilliant classical oil painter. I soaked up every gem of knowledge I could from him and so many other wonderful professors at the school. My time at the Academy gave me a solid foundation of skills to build upon in producing my own work.

A: What and who are your current inspirations?
EK: I read a lot of artist biographies. I’m currently in the middle of a book called Bouguereau, about the painter William Bouguereau and it’s by Fronia E. Wissman. I’ve been particularly inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper, Zoey Frank, William Bouguereau and Peter Van Dyck.

A: Are you working on any other projects? Do you have any exhibitions upcoming in 2023?`
I’m very much looking forward to participating in a show at the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art in Wausau, Wisconsin. And my painting Every Year the World Breaks Your Heart will be hanging in the museum from January–April.

I also plan to continue working on my current series, Holding Your Horses, and building relationships with new galleries throughout 2023. I Instagram: @emma.kalff

All images courtesy of Emma Kalff.

The work of Emma Kalff appears in the Artists’ Directory in Issue 109 of Aesthetica. Click here to visit our online shop.