In the Studio with Emily Gorum

In the studio with Emily Gorum, whose imagery derives from her adolescence—fishing at dusk, swimming in dirty lakes, running slowly in the heat. We met with Emily to tell us more about growing up in Georgia, her experiences during COVID, and her ideal conditions for creating work.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

I have always seen myself as a creative person, but really did not begin to see myself as an artist until 2020 when I began to focus more intensely on my drawing practice.

 Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?

I am from a small, somewhat insular town in Georgia. Both of my parents are in the medical field, so there was not a huge emphasis on art and design in my upbringing. I spent a lot of my childhood outside in the southern heat doing things like swimming in muddy lakes, running on buggy trails, and shucking corn on a farm in Alabama. I used to reject where I came from. As a teenager I wanted to leave the south as soon as I could. But a lot of the imagery from my adolescence continues to show up in my work, like I am revisiting my childhood through a nostalgic adult lense. 

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice, artistic work?

From a young age I found it easier to convey my emotions and personality through dress, so I would cut up my old clothes and try to make new, eccentric ones. This eventually led me to Parsons where I received a BFA in fashion design. My favorite classes from my studies were the live model drawing and ideation classes and I began carrying a sketchbook with me everywhere. 

When COVID forced us all to be inside, drawing and working with clay became my way to stay sane. My artistic growth happened very organically; I had the time and energy to explore different methods of mark making and try out new materials. For the most part, I had really only used charcoal and graphite in my work. I studied color theory in school, but staring at a white piece of paper and imagining putting color on it was daunting. 

A pivotal moment came when I was experimenting with oil pastels for the first time, but felt like I was missing the texture I could achieve with charcoal and graphite. I began using the tip of my pencil to scratch off areas and create patterns. I was really happy with the textured surface and negative space it created and felt confident in developing the process further.

What’s the message of your work? How would you describe your aesthetic? 

So far, my work has been created out of personal experiences and memories. But a recurring narrative is how we deal with isolation (a theme that definitely arose from my experiences during COVID). I’d describe my aesthetic as colorfully emotive, intimate, and uncomplicated. 

Who/what are your greatest influences? 

A really close artist friend of mine, Adam Dressner, influenced me tremendously. Before I considered myself an artist, he showed me new ways of looking at and making art. And being able to watch him paint in his studio taught me how to be sincere and vulnerable in my own practice. In terms of aesthetic influence, Louise Bourgeois and Leonora Carrington have made a huge impact on me. Their work is haunting in the greatest way possible.

An unexpected source of inspiration?

Poetry, my dreams, and running.

What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? 

At the moment my work is very much a meditative process for my own psyche, and I don’t always have an audience in mind. But my hope is that many of the themes I am exploring are easy to relate to. 

Ideally I want my work to have clarity of expression so that when the audience views a piece they feel that they have, at one time in their life, been in the same state of mind as me when I made the work.

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic? How has your art evolved? 

As mentioned before, COVID was a huge event that initiated change in my drawing practice as it allowed me to focus a lot more energy on it. An additional event was moving into my own space and turning my apartment into (mainly) a studio. This gave me both the mental as well as physical space to try new things. 

I try experimenting with different mediums on a weekly basis. Recently I have been experimenting with monoprinting. I never want to feel too comfortable in my practice and think it’s important to fail often and, as a result, develop.

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a good piece of work?

I can tell if something is going to be “good” if I have been able to create an image in my head before I start any sort of sketching. The most gratifying process begins with descriptive words– usually I have written them down after a dream or a disruptive thought I had during the day. I sit on these words for a while, but then as I experience the city, go to a park, or go upstate, I start to replace the words with imagery and eventually am able to see the foundation of the piece in my head.

This feels the least forced way of creating for me. It’s an exciting process and it usually lends itself to a result I like. 

Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your works?

Morning Grooming came from a dream I had. I had written in my phone notes immediately after waking up: “friend brushing my hair. Me sitting in a chair, him behind me, only torso and arms and hands. Me facing viewer. Head down maybe with hands in lap.” I could see the drawing in my head and I believe I started sketching it that night after work. 

Something in the future you hope to explore?

I want to explore larger scale drawings and try mounting on wood. Right now space is the main barrier, but I have begun to re-arrange my apartment to allow for room to make bigger works.