Arts&Culture

Protagonists: Emily Little

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Starting from an exhibition held in Rome last autumn, a new form of artistic investigation has emerged that sees creative possibilities in cellulose by exploiting the intrinsic qualities of the material itself. The artist Emily Little tells us about it.

Emily Little is a New Zealand-born artist, from a family of at least four generations of globe-totters; her grandparents were Scottish and her mother was born in India. She says that since early childhood, she has had a passion for painting and creating things with her hands. Emily decided to be an artist at an early age and since then, her artistic training and experience have allowed her to explore a number of techniques and materials, including paper and cellulose. However, it was her passion for watercolour and ink painting in British, Chinese and Japanese traditions that brought her closer to paper, a passion she still has today. 

When exactly did you begin and what are the pivotal stages in your artistic career?

«In my early teens, when my family moved from London to rural West Yorkshire, I was introduced to the world of ceramics via a local potter’s studio. It was a period which had a lasting influence on my ideas of form and my way of working; the physical handling of material and the central role of process are still an important part of my art-making. At the same time, my passion for the aesthetic world of the East was revived through the study of Japanese, Chinese and Korean ceramics. I later studied drawing and painting at the Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland and visited Italy on a field trip. As a student of painting and a watercolourist, it was impossible not to fall in love with the light and colour I found there.

I moved to Italy after college and later won a place at the Scuola dell’Arte della Medaglia at the Italian Mint in Rome. While there, I worked with all kinds of materials, and I drew and designed copiously – from commemorative medals to gadgets for the Quirinale – gaining invaluable experience and developing my understanding of space, composition and form. It was during this period that my ever-present interest in paper received an important boost, which was further fuelled by a one-to-one workshop on handmade paper-making and watermarks at the Cartiere Miliani, Fabriano. It was here that cellulose pulp first presented itself as another outlet for my creative impulse». 

How has your work developed?

«In 2014 I was artist in residence in Inis Oírr, the smallest and easternmost of the three Aran Islands in Galway Bay, Ireland, where I was commissioned to create a temporary sculptural installation that could withstand (or not oppose) the Atlantic wind. Two years later, I was artist in residence in northern Finland for a three-month winter residency. Both experiences helped my work to evolve; I began to look for alternative sculptural processes that would substitute traditional and less sustainable methods such as bronze casting and kiln firing, which ultimately led to my questioning the notion of permanency in sculpture. Since then, paper, metal mesh, cotton and wool thread have become part of my range of sculptural mediums, which has seen my work align with principles of Fibre Art.

A solo exhibition of my work on and with paper at the Centre Technique du Papier in Grenoble, France again presented me with the potential of cellulose pulp not only as an artistic medium, but as a substitute for many other materials that we use in everyday life and therefore central to a sustainable future.

My current work sees a union of my artistic experiences. Taking advantage of skills acquired in the fields of sculpture, ceramics, and painting, I experiment with various techniques, creating unique works that blur well-defined artistic categories but that maintain their raison d’être regardless of the specific technique and where cellulose pulp and paper have an increasingly significant role».

 Emily Little in brief

• Graduates with honors in drawing and painting from Edinburgh College of Art, Scotland.

• Exhibits in solo and group shows in Italy, Ireland, Australia, Belgium, France, Finland, and the UK, including the Royal Society of Scottish Watercolourists, Edinburgh and the Royal Society of Watercolourists, London.

• Wins the Prix du Conseil Général de Versailles at the Salon de Versailles and is awarded twice with the Dorothy Duff Memorial Prize at the annual exhibitions of VAS Visual Art Scotland.

• Wins a public competition to attend the Scuola dell’Arte della Medaglia at the State Mint in Rome.

• Attends courses in mould-making and bronze-casting at Central Saint Martins, London and a one-to one workshop at the Cartiere Miliani, Fabriano.

• Artistic residencies: Royal Ceramic Factory of Sargadelos, Galizia, Spain, Áras Éanna Arts Centre, Ireland and Kulttuuri Kauppila Arts Centre, Finland.

 Art works in cellulose pulp: matter and meaning. Is that the concept?

«That’s right. Like a painting or a sculpture, the pieces must work at an aesthetic/visual level, so values such as balance, tension, light and colour, texture and finish are a priority. On the other hand, by choosing cellulose pulp as an artistic medium, I am interested in exploiting the intrinsic qualities of the material itself to create meaning.

“Pulp Realism” is the title of a solo show I had in Rome (October 2021), where each artwork carries quite specific references. For example, Book of Conflictquestions whether man’s innate violence is the only true common thread that unites us as a species and connects us to our ancestors. Untitled, one of the first works in this series, was born from considerations about the way we perceive catastrophe and human suffering through the information we receive via the media.

Vertical Navigation uses the ship (a frequent motif in my sculpture) to suggest polarity in human fortune and destiny and how the power of imagination can transform the way we see reality.

For practical reasons, my cellulose works are carried out during the hot, summer months and, as a result, have become naturally linked to climate change as experienced in urban environments. The extreme heat from 2017 onwards has therefore dictated my modus operandi and reflects the transformations we are experiencing today.

Urban Summer, Residue, and Combustion all to some extent suggest heated urban environments and chemical transformation. Snow Glow, on the other hand, is inspired by memories from my winter artistic residency in Finland: one day, the white frozen river in front of my studio was invaded by an effluence of coloured liquid. During the realization of this work in Italy in very high summer temperatures, the “snow” transformed into white heat, and the title combines these two extremes in a visual and conceptual juxtaposition. Rattoppi, on the other hand, is a metaphor for the battlefield of the creative process, where, despite the artist, it is often the work itself that takes over and becomes the driving force. It also bears witness to the fundamentally empirical approach in my artmaking». 

Where do you get your inspiration from?

«I can give you a list, but that is far from being complete. Life experiences and travel, the media (in particular, photojournalism), urban environments, building sites and archaeological sites, the latter with its echoes of human endeavour, artistic processes (for example the positive and negative forms in plaster moulds), are all certainly inspiring, as well as the work of other artists, such as the British sculptress Rachel Whiteread with her “inverted spaces”. Finally, new directions or solutions may present themselves during the working process itself. However, as my approach is essentially empirical when working with cellulose pulp, I need to give the work ample space to evolve, rather than forcing it to conform to preconceived ideas».

Long-fibred paper and cellulose are among the materials you use; do you have any regular suppliers?

«I have no particular suppliers; for cellulose, I have a number of large sheets of pure cellulose from an industrial source in France and I am currently looking for a supplier of pure or recycled pulp also in Italy.

For long-fibred paper I use white or unbleached Chinese or Japanese papers, for example rice paper, or Kozo paper, a finer quality paper made by the Japanese company Awagami. However, since I am interested in exploring materials, I would welcome the opportunity to work with any plant fibre product».

Can you describe the technique you use for working with cellulose?

«I soak the cellulose in water and put it through a blender at least twice. Depending on what I am using it for, I also grind it by hand using a pestle, as more detailed areas require a finer pulp consistency. After that, I add binders, anti-mould and oxides for colour and leave the pulp to soak overnight before using it. During this phase, I try to conserve water by recycling excess liquids and using them in succeeding batches, with the result that some impurities will end up in subsequent artworks, binding the works together almost as if each piece were part of a single entity.

I then build a matrix to create a relief mould and apply the pulp by hand in small quantities at a time. This process is repeated a few times and then I leave the work to dry. The moulds or matrixes are built from any material I have available: for the sculpture Vertical Navigation, for example, I constructed a large mould from chicken wire to allow the pulp to dry out. In some cases, I also insert other materials into the pulp that are pressed in, sewn or attached using the pulp itself. Some sculptures take a few weeks before they are concluded because, as with my painting, I like to put the work away and out of sight for a while before declaring it finished».

And what about your watercolour collage paintings?

«I prepare the support by stretching heavy-weight paper, for example Fabriano cold pressed (640 g/m², 100% cotton) on a wooden board. At the same time, and over a few days, I hand-paint white or unbleached oriental papers with high-quality, water-based paints to create shades of colour and patterns, which attempt to capture the mood of the work I am about to begin. The torn fragments of these papers are what constitutes my “palette”, with which I will work together with liquid paint. The painting is built up gradually by applying coloured washes until I achieve the saturation and tone I am looking for. The torn paper is added at this stage and the process of adding coloured washes and paper collage are repeated numerous times before the work reaches completion.

The process is often a physical and mental battle in which material and form are pushed to their structural limits. My paintings don’t always begin without a clear point of arrival, but are considered finished when colour, texture and marks arrive at a balanced, harmonious unity. My personal painting technique has involved extensive experimentation to find the right quality of paper based on considerations such as the quality of the edges when torn, wet or dry, or if cut; its resistance to copious washes of colour; how much it shrinks on drying and whether it tends to remain curled. In my painting, I have also begun to recycle materials by creating pulp from waste collage, so that the process and the artwork itself (made entirely of paper) aim at a reduction in water consumption and the recycling of materials».

Why paper: what does it represent for you?

«Both cellulose pulp and paper give artistic satisfaction that comes from the almost magical transformation of an apparently ordinary, everyday material into something capable of conveying an aesthetic message and commanding attention.

Additionally, the way I employ cellulose pulp gives an unpredictability to the process, so the final outcome always contains an element of surprise. Even though I may guide the pulp to follow a particular direction, by using this medium I am accepting that the material will assert its own will on the final result.

Cellulose pulp permits strong statements using a non-precious and apparently humble medium when compared with traditional ‘noble’ materials such as marble or bronze. Conversely, in a world where renewables and the circular economy are what we should be aiming for, paper (and pulp) play a central role».

Who has been your biggest influence?

«While working with cellulose, the works of the Italian artist Alberto Burri and his Material Realism have often come to mind, especially since Burri sought to highlight the centrality of matter in his art. In fact, this was why I entitled my Rome exhibition of cellulose artworks “Pulp Realism”».

Do you accept commissions or do you prefer to concentrate on exhibitions and showcases?

«I welcome commissions and after participating in the Aticelca Congress 2022. I am interested in exhibiting my work in a space which is suited to the type of work I do.

In addition, for some years I have been working with a gallery in Brussels where I exhibit my watercolour/collage paintings».

What are you working on at the moment?

«I am currently working on some high relief works that draw their inspiration from shapes found in industrial packaging and machinery. Most of the work I have made with cellulose pulp is designed to be wall-mounted, so I’m currently working on free-standing pieces which can be placed on the floor. I don’t like to talk too much about work in its embryonic stages, as I prefer to give space and freedom so the work can evolve and change of its own free will. Regarding my current projects, last September I exhibited my work «Industrial Cube» (in painted wire mesh and cotton thread) in the fourth and final location of the 30th Miniartextil travelling exhibition – at Le Minorelle di Marcq-en-Baroeul, Lille – following that of the Pinacoteca Civica di Como, the Beffroi de Montrouge (Paris) and the Textile Museum of Busto Arsizio. And finally, in conjunction with the MIAC fair, last October I exhibited several cellulose pieces at the Lucense in Lucca.