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15 Q&A's to Meet Emma Brittain

Join us as we chat with Emma Brittain, a talented muralist whose work beautifully blends human experiences with the wonders of nature. From the joyful depiction of river otters to the ambitious project of crafting interactive parade puppets, Emma's art not only sparks wonder but also inspires action and connection within her community. 


01.

Your artwork often explores the relationships between humans and the natural world. What draws you to this theme? How can art foster a deeper connection to our environment?


Recently, my work shifted from a more critical lens of human failures to protect our environment to a focus more on joy and belonging in the natural world. I’ve decided that love is a better starting place for my art. I’ve always found solace and wonder in nature. I’ve seen connections between my life experiences and what I see happening around me. Other times I’m brought away from my own thinking by nature. One time I was very frustrated, and I took a walk in the woods and saw a large bear track in some mud. Suddenly, standing where a bear had trod made my other thoughts silence and my wonder at the world around me bloom.


Art can foster a deeper connection to our environment. Through art I share my own view, experience, and love of nature. For example, I've lovingly made a lot of pottery with salamanders on it. The viewer interprets it, either relating or remembering something they already know, or perhaps they think “I’ve never seen that before.” Hopefully from there they search it for themselves and find what it means to them. Maybe they search for that certain type of salamander or just the feeling I evoked representing it. People have seen pieces and tell me about their memories as a kid playing in a creek or ask, “Do we really have creatures that look like this around here?” I think interaction with nature-based art boosts interest in seeing and protecting the environment around us.


02.

What’s the inspiration behind your mural "Hopeful Currents" at Red Jacket River Front Park? What message or feeling did you hope to convey through the piece?


In August 2023, I painted a mural over 125 feet long for Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper. The mural is a larger than life, vibrant depiction of two river otters and a school of bluegills. I chose to incorporate the species to celebrate local conversation wins. I had an amazing encounter with an otter in the nearby Tifft Nature Preserve. Otters had been absent in our area for some time, but through conservation efforts in the 90s, we’re starting to see their return. The otter I saw was the first confirmed sighting at Tifft, and a whole family of them was spotted later. This is counter to typical news about the environment; we all know things are dire but fewer people know about the small wins that happen. My mural is meant to bring joy and awareness of the conservation wins in our area. If we only focus on the bad, we can be scared into hopelessness and inaction. By acknowledging the good things happening in spite of the bad, we keep hope alive!



03.

What memorable moments or challenges have you encountered while working on large-scale public art projects such as these?


While painting “Hopeful Currents,” I sensed something about the size of an apple flying in my periphery and I wondered if someone threw something at me. I climbed down from my ladder and I found a baby snapping turtle in the grass at the base of the ladder. I think a large bird must have been carrying it away and he managed to wiggle free. He was upside down and hidden inside his shell, but I grabbed him and brought him to the pond, and he opened his eyes and swam away!

04.

"Wonder on Parade: Living Sculptures of the Niagara Watershed" sounds like a unique and ambitious project. Could you share some insights on the concept behind it and what visitors may expect from the exhibition?


“Wonder on Parade” is an interactive public sculpture project that highlights the beauty and importance of the Niagara watershed ecosystem. “Wonder on Parade” will involve crafting large-scale parade puppets or “living sculptures” of local animals to perform for the public. The living sculptures will interact uniquely with each spectator in a truly extraordinary way. My hope is to create a bit of wonder around local ecology because wonder is a force that breaks through despair. Wonder makes the world feel large and full of possibility. We are in a time of dire consequence for the Earth, but without wonder and hope there will be continued inaction. These living sculptures will bring joy and wonder to the community in an expressive and celebratory way.

05.  

How do you approach the creation of parade puppets differently from other forms of art, considering their interactive and public nature?


Parade puppet or giant puppet making often takes a group effort, so I’m gathering a volunteer force to help with puppet building by doing things like layering on paper mâché. I also rely on the expertise of makers in The Foundry community makerspace. The Foundry has a tech lab, textile lab, woodshop, and metal shop as part of their makerspace program, open to anyone and full of expert volunteers who help with people’s crazy ideas, like mine! We also have The Tool Library in Buffalo from whom I borrow tools for these big projects. Parade puppet building is traditionally a pretty communal event itself, and Buffalo truly is the city of good neighbor,s so I feel very well supported! If anyone wants to join my volunteer group they can go to www.EmmaBrittainArt.com/wonder.

06.

Buffalo's local ecology seems to be a significant influence on your current project. What aspects of the local environment are most inspiring? How do you incorporate them into your art?


I love that Buffalo and Western NY in general are full of small conservation miracles. Similarly to my otter sightings, there have been recent sightings of the Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle, not been seen in over 30 years in Ellicott Creek. These are creatures most people have not even heard of, so I like to depict them in my art to raise awareness.

07.

What do you hope viewers will take away from experiencing your public art installations?


Joy and love that will grow into knowledge and conservation. Hope and wonder that will grow into action.

08.

How do you balance creating art for personal expression and creating art for public spaces for a diverse audience?


I think all we have to offer the world is our authentic selves. Even when I create pieces that are meant for the community to enjoy, it all stems from my own self-expression. I hope sharing pieces of myself inspires other people to share things of themselves as well. For instance, someone might see my parade puppets and think “Well if she could pursue such a large and crazy idea, why can’t I?” And I hope they do!

09.

What keeps you inspired in your art-making process?


“Try everything”! I think being open to learning from different media is important. I’ve never been an abstract painter, but I recently did some freestyle quilting, which involved a similar process of piecing together colors and shapes. I see it as all connected; every form of creativity can lend itself to another. Through color play with quilts, I can use color more creatively in my other projects now. I may even try some abstract painting now!

10.

What future projects or themes are you excited to explore?


This month (May) I start my six-month residency with Hunt Gallery in downtown Buffalo, so I am very excited for the time and space to create a body of work there. I have some themes I lean towards, but my work typically evolves from creating and creating more iterations of an idea, so I am not sure of the exact trajectory yet.

11.

Are there any artists, past or present, who have had a significant influence on your work? Probably too many to count!


I had so many great art teachers from elementary through college. There even was an art teacher who owned a small business next to my mom’s shop who would encourage me outside school hours! Now I teach and hope to provide the same support to my own students.

12.

Are there any hidden gems or lesser-known areas in Buffalo and the surrounding area that are great locations for future mural projects?


I think as certain areas are being reclaimed for recreation and public enjoyment such as the Riverline project and the 33 Expressway park, there will be new and fresh places in need of public art, and I hope to be considered for those!


13.

Where do you go for fresh inspiration?


Most often I go to a nature preserve, but I also love to take inspiration trips when I can. I recently visited the historic Black quilting community in Gee’s Bend, Alabama and some Civil Rights spots in that area. I visited a plantation museum with merchandise in the giftshop that said “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams,” and I’m really motivated by that idea. My ancestors endured a lot in the hope that future generations have a better world, and we must continue to work towards that.

14.

If you could paint a mural anywhere in the world, where would it be and what would the theme be?


In college, I studied abroad in Tanzania and I’d love to go back and do some big artwork with the community in that area. There is so much beauty to highlight, I think the theme would probably be something about ujima, the beauty of working together.

15.

Describe your perfect day in Buffalo.


A morning walk at Tifft, a waffle at Fitz Books, some time in the studio, lunch at the Breadhive, teaching an afternoon class at Locust Street Art, dinner and drinks at Mint Mojito.

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