An Afternoon with Emily Payne


Emily Payne is an artist working and living in Berkeley, California. Originally from Mill Valley, Emily grew up in a home of artists and makers who began to influence her from an early age. Her father was an architect, her mother was a professor of creative writing and a sculptor, and artists and maker friends and family members came and went, bringing with them what Emily describes as “magic.” Emily and Erica met at an art show a number of years back and, at the suggestion of Erica’s daughter that Emily’s pieces would translate into textiles beautifully, began working on collaborative pieces. Perhaps what resonates with us most in Emily’s work is the line she walks between control and chance. At every moment of the process there is an element of happy accident, and Emily’s demeanor exudes this same easy spirit. This idea of the beautiful and intentional mixed with chance and slight imperfection exemplifies everything we love at Erica Tanov. To celebrate our second collaboration, we took a visit to Emily’s studio to talk about the inspiration behind her most recent work, her artistic upbringing, and ways that she has learned to let go in both her practice and her everyday life.

When you first enter Emily’s studio you are greeted by a stack of color coordinated books. While they are there for her to use, Emily keeps an open-door policy when it comes to taking them, and if you see something that appeals to you, it’s yours. Nothing is too precious that it cannot come and go. Photos, books, and artifacts from her past- work by her mother, early sculptural pieces, large wire work- neatly accompany the shelves and walls of the studio. Moving upstairs to Emily’s desk, a stack of architectural photographs from a recent trip to Chicago rests on her desk. These photos became the leading inspiration for the work behind our collaboration, but architecture has long been at the forefront of Emily’s work. Having grown up in a home she describes as having “no right angles” and built in direct response to Mount Tam, Emily is continually inspired by the way buildings are designed to work within the confines of nature. Similarly, Emily’s pieces incorporate space as a medium itself, and suggests that the physical space around a piece is just as important as the finished piece. Believing that, “nature [and sculpture] makes us instantly aware of our scale,” Emily aims to challenge people to react on a physical and cerebral level with each piece. Her photographs of the trip show her unique perspective at disrupting the perfectly linear quality we’ve come to think of with architecture. When talking with Emily about the process of making her paintings, she emphasizes this idea of “throwing off the line”- letting go of rigid and confining lines, and welcoming slight idiosyncrasies. Looking at photographs of Emily’s trip to Chicago, we see this perspective. Rather than working with the framing lines of a building or taking photos from a straight-on perspective, her photos show buildings taken at angles from underneath bridges, subway lines shot from a sideways angle- each photo making you forget that these lines were ever perfectly straight to begin with. This juxtaposition of orderly and imperfect is then translated to her paintings. Since books are cut in straight right angles and she often paints in straight lines, Emily always makes sure that one element of the painting is not perfectly straight, just as the natural and man-made world exist together.

Despite being a long time lover of books and having a poet for a mother, the idea to use books came from a some-what wave of chance. Before working as a full time artist, Emily studied literature at Oberlin. Shortly after graduating she began looking for “non literal ways of communicating- ways of not naming directly through words.” In a figure drawing class, Emily met an artist who had created and put together her own artist book, which inspired Emily to seek out making books for herself. This search lead her to San Francisco State where she studied book arts and book making, eventually leading to her to taking apart books to construct her own pieces. Her first book pieces were smaller and more sculptural,  but eventually they grew into canvases and large-scale installation. She first encountered books as a usable medium when she saw a phone book cut in half, and fell in love with the way the cross section of the text formed unique textures and patterns. She began by cutting organic-shaped forms into glued pages, and sanding away at the outer layers to reveal fragments of the original content. After a stack of unused book parts began piling up, Emily gradually transitioned into using the covers as canvas. By using the covers as a platform for creating something new, Emily is able to hold onto the history and personal stories that the books contain while giving them a new conversation. Each canvas begins by gluing the covers together, outside cover up. The total canvas is built entirely from book materials- the PVA glue, the board, and the cloth covers. After the desired size is met, Emily flips the canvas over to start the paintings. Since she is working with the canvas upside down, the way that the canvas will look when it’s finished is left up to chance. Over-thinking the initial layout makes the piece feel too forced, and usually does not take the piece in the right direction. If she likes the way that the canvas’ lines are moving, she keeps the canvas straight and paints at an angle. If she turns the canvas, then she paints the lines on straight.

Emily views the need to control and perfect as limiting, but that is not to say that her work is created without intention. By being open to her work and life coming to her at it will, life catches her and “instills trust that the boogie man feeling of the unknown [will go] away.” Embracing life as it comes instills balance, but “keeping your eyes open and listening is how you live intentionally.

A stack of photos, taken from an architecture boat tour in Chicago, Illinois.


A special piece made by Emily's mother made from crocheted forms and wood- the first piece you encounter in Emily's studio. Emily's mother crocheting baskets on the floor of their Mill Valley home.

Paintings translated into textile: photos from our collection shoot, taken at Emily's studio by Sabine Herrmann.

Scenes from Emily's work space: our prints "early" and "lately" alongside beginning canvases, paint trays, and favorite pages found in collected books. 

 Hanging wire sculpture and early book drawings.




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