Emily Culver: The Idea of a Thing

In Dialogue

Portrait, photo courtesy of the artist

Virginia-based artist Emily Culver’s background is as multifaceted as her artwork. With a father who is a carpenter and contractor and a mother who transitioned from being a midwife to a nursing professor, she was raised in a world that merged craft and body. This upbringing influenced her own creative direction. Adept at procedural tasks, she nonetheless felt a pull towards a less constrained form of expression. College introduced her to painting, but she soon sought more than just surfaces, finding herself intrigued by the interplay of gravity, physics, and mechanics.

On your web, you describe yourself as an “Object/Body Maker”. Can we look in that context at your recent series, Into//Not Through, where you made works in forms that reference intimate places – including jewelry, objects, and images?

When making anything, I think about objects and bodies, bodies as objects, and objects as bodies. To me, they are different and the same simultaneously. Even the idea of a “thing”. A thing is an object/body that is un-namable and therefore un-knowable.

The spaces, jewelry, objects, and images took on different bodily attributes for my work at the Baltimore Jewelry Center titled Into||Not Through. Cellular division, the birth of matter, freckled surfaces, and the like were all metaphors in the work on display. These were alongside more obvious indicators like squishy silicone and bath decor. My pivotal evolution in this work was that I became more interested in suggesting substance and material than reading a form. I wanted the work to feel in flux, although it was in the active state of (un)becoming. The exhibition’s title further illustrates this idea as one enters the work suspended in a space and doesn’t pass through.

Into||Not Through, 2019, mixed media, photo by artist

And your work in SelfObject?

After working for a few years to understand how objects can interact with the body, I decided to take a more inward look at myself. A SelfObject, in psychology terms, is an external thing that becomes the focus of transference. They are persons, objects, or activities that complete the self and allow it to function – a simplistic example is an infant’s caretakers as SelfObjects. The work during this time took on more personal yet relatable narratives of experiences and interactions. For example, “What She Saw/When She Walked In” is a collection of objects that are my reflection of adolescence – a time when bodies change. Recalling the moments of these discoveries resurfaces feelings of embarrassment, vulnerability, shame, and sorrow. These memories mirror the lumps and mounds that made them – they sometimes refuse to stay down.

What She Saw/When She Walked In, 2018, copper, enamel, caulk, nickel silver, silver, 37” x 26” x 2.75”, photo by artist

You make wearable art, as in Knismesis Headgear (2015). How do you see that in relation to your sculptural – installation work in a gallery space?

Anytime you infer the body, there is a challenge in engaging the audience through experience. Some would argue that you can’t know any of the objects that I make unless you get to touch them. I would suggest that the suspension of that longing, coupled with the speculation of what they might be like, is far more productive and interesting. Even though most of my object or installation-based work may not be worn or held in an exhibition space, I hope there is always an experience of slipping into and wearing the work like a second skin. In my work, if you’re not wearing it on the body, it is likely already a body on its own that invites you to climb inside.

Knismesis Headgear, 2015, urethane, leather, rubber, photopolymer, 6.5” x 4.25” x 1” each, photo by artist

What are you working on now?

Currently, I’m building multiple new bodies of work all at the same time. I have a nearly completed series of fabricated objects that appear as medical tools glitching, morphing, and leaking stone appendages. All the works are made by hand and utilize carving and fabrication processes. I also just finished the first in a series of projects that utilizes my research of 3D printing optical illusion images onto the surfaces of three-dimensional objects. Embedding an object within an object, or the skin of an object, if you will. While they may feel dissimilar in nature, these and the other projects I have planned will culminate in an epic narrative of evolution that I’m calling ”Some Balmy Elsewhere” at the moment.

Inheritance, 2022, silver plated copper and hand-carved stone, 7” x 4” x 7” each, photo by artist

About the artist: Emily Culver is an object, thing, and body maker from rural Pennsylvania, USA. Currently located in Norfolk, Virginia, she is an Assistant Professor at Old Dominion University. Culver holds a Master of Fine Art in Metalsmithing from Cranbrook Academy of Art and a Bachelor of Fine Art in Metals/Jewelry/CAD-CAM from Tyler School of Art and Architecture. She actively exhibits her creative work nationally and internationally and is the recipient of various awards and residencies. Existing primarily as sculpture, objects, and jewelry, Culver’s work explores notions of intimacy, (non)functionality, gender, and identity through corporeal qualities. Through these works, she considers how object interactions are interpreted, translated, and mutated through negotiations with the body and anthropocentric tendencies.