Emily Strange first picked up a brush in an art therapy class she took while staying at a homeless shelter in Trenton, New Jersey, in 2009, using cheap acrylic paints to create works that helped pull her closer to her late friend, Mya, who had then recently passed away.
“I had never lost anybody, and it was such a shock,” Strange said in an early October phone interview. “She was an artist, too, and so I started to make art to deal with [her death] and maybe reconnect with her a little bit. And it turned into something that hasn’t stopped.”
Initially limited in resources, Strange tended to paint on canvases she would find discarded in the trash, often creating mixed-media works by fleshing the pieces out with stray bits of wire and other found objects. For one early painting of a brain, Strange took apart a broken radio no longer being used by the shelter and embedded wires, screws and other materials taken from it into the work, the stray electronics serving as connectors and synapses.
These early forced adaptations have fueled in the artist an ongoing sense of exploration, with Strange continuing to find new inspiration in unlikely materials. Most recently, experiments with a type of wall spackling led to a four-painting outburst, the artist playing with the sense of dimensionality it lent to the canvas.
“I mixed [the spackle] with charcoal and paint and ink, and then I slapped it on the canvas and started to take other tools and make lines in it to see what kind of texture it would create. Then I painted on top of that,” Strange said of the new series of works, which are included in the artist’s upcoming exhibit, dubbed “Don’t Call It a Comeback” and in the Short North on Saturday, Oct. 7. “I just work with whatever I think will look cool, and I experiment with it, and if it turns out it turns out.”
While this sense of curiosity has been present in Strange's craft from the onset, her life and work have continued to evolve in ways both subtle and pronounced. When she started to paint, for instance, the artist was still in the midst of her addiction, and the canvases often featured stark black and white characters she dubbed “monsters” – sinewy, sickly, sometimes-fanged figures loosely based on the memories she had of other drug users with whom she had crossed paths. Now eight years sober, these figures have gradually taken on more human characteristics, with limbs and softened features replacing pronounced ribs and hollow eye sockets. Beginning three or four years ago, Strange even started to incorporate more vibrant colors in the pieces, reflective of the light that began to enter into her own life.
It’s a shift Strange said she couldn’t have imagined when she first picked up a brush and painted the entire canvas black against the advice of the woman who taught the art therapy course at the shelter. “She told me it would be harder to put the colors on top of the black, and that I’d have to do more layers,” said Strange, who continued this technique for years. “Looking back, I think I had fallen into a darkness that was completely overpowering me.”
This sense of hopelessness further surfaced in the early language Strange incorporated into the paintings, with the artist recalling one work in which she created a background by repeating the word “sedated.” She then overlaid this text with a tired-looking character who had deadened, black eyes, spiky hair and a “body like broken glass.”
“Back then, I was still using, so I was still in that mindset, like, ‘I’m not gonna make it past 30,’” Strange said. “I didn’t care about helping anybody else, and I couldn’t help myself.”
As this idea receded and eventually evaporated, new words started to emerge on the canvases – terms such as “metamorphosis” and “survivor.”
Initially, Strange said, her embrace of “survivor” was more self-motivated – a way to give greater power to a concept she had finally allowed into her own life. In the years since, it has gradually extended outward, with the artist coming to understand, appreciate and even celebrate the myriad difficult journeys being undertaken by everyone attempting to best make their way through this existence.
“I think that a lot of my art started with myself and now it’s shifted into focusing on how I can help other people,” said Strange, who has recently started teaching a monthly art therapy class at a methadone clinic – nearly 15 years after similar instruction helped to set her on the path to healing. “For a long time, it was, where am I going to stay? Am I going to eat? My house has no heat. It doesn’t have hot water. We have a broken window. There was always some problem, something I was struggling with. And now, I bought a car, and it’s the first thing I’ve owned for myself. It was like once I accepted that I didn’t have to worry about how I was going to pay my bills, maybe I could help other people get to that state, too.”