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Q/A: Emily Sewell

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Honolulu artist Emily Sewell is a conceptual seamstress— no, a performance sculptor— no wait. Okay, so she’s hard to categorize, which makes us wonder why everybody always wants to categorize artists, anyway. She’s as tender as she is raw, and sweeter than both of those. As Matt DeKneef wrote in his Hot Pick in this week’s issue, “The most common thread strung between her works is quite literally that: fiber.” Sewell’s upcoming solo show, Emily Sewell: Embodied, showcases a “comprehensive look at the aesthetic that keeps her own blood pumping—a composite body of work that’s both raw and organic, but also delicate and extremely fragile.” Embodied opens at the Gallery of Hawaii Artists on Jan. 28.

Honolulu Weekly: What can you share about the art you’re showing? 

Emily Sewell: Embodied is a collection of old work I created mostly during my undergrad at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. It’s inspired by my growth during a time of finding my voice, my spiritual understanding and my way as an artist. There are a lot of hidden meanings and concepts embedded in each piece. It is the body of my work—the voice of my heart. 

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I know you also work in “performance.” Does your own physical body factor into Embodied? 

Our bodies offer such an intimate personal understanding. It’s just so beautiful when I think of that. The body is the form to which we experience it all. Everything in the show is related to some sort of a bodily feeling, from the inside to out.

It’s also created with, against, or around my body. The tactile material, the way the displayed artwork will relate to the positioning of the body, and just the ongoing concept of feelings, the hunt for comfort, and the sharing of the intimate, the human experience.

Now as far as how my body factors into the exhibition, simply put, it is my muse. I like to work with mostly fiber materials, or fiber-minded processes because it involves such a slow and long process of working with your hands and body. Intimate.

There’s something very fragile and delicate about your art. What is it that draws you to make work that’s easily breakable?

It is very fragile and delicate—stresses the shit out of me moving it to place to place! 

Kind of going back to why I like to work with the materials I do, I find so much hidden meaning and hidden metaphors in the raw, organic state of the material. I use those hidden things as sub-points to the larger body and concept of the piece. Most times I manipulate the materials as to how we, on a day to day [basis], manipulate those hidden things in our daily interactions.

And yes, they tend to be soft, delicate, translucent and fragile because they evoke things or feelings from my heart.

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Are you working with any materials here that you haven’t before, or that are relatively new to you? How did you come across them?

I’m always exploring new material per each new piece, new idea, new obsession. It varies because the materials are the strength behind the piece. It depends on what concept I’m working on or what space I am working with. I try my best to find materials with meaning to which enhances the overall significance of the piece. My next body of work will involve studies of home, habitat, spaces and intimate places. 

The next big art thing after this GoHA show is Pow Wow 2013. This will absolutely involve new materials and new ways of working.  I’m really looking forward to it. 

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What aspects of living and working in Hawai‘i have had the most impact on your process?

I think it would be the opportunity to be vulnerable. Coming into a new place through an open door has allowed me to kind of start fresh, to really, really understand how I naturally react and to recognize what I view as important. I love the intimacy of living on a small island and have also been inspired by the community out here.

Curious to know what your art world pet peeve is and if the exhibition is partly a response to it.

I’m such a free-minded person that it takes a lot to peeve me.

I suppose one struggle of mine is being a fiber artist. There is this misunderstanding or unknowing of the fiber field, or “crafting,” and the fine art field. I’m reading a great book right now [A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression, by Howard Risatti], that’s directly focusing on this topic and debate. I guess we could say Embodied is in some way a response to it because I’m putting it out there, hoping it can shine some light on fiber art and that people can view it right up there with painting and photography.

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