Emma Walker

In Artist Profile 56, Emma Walker writes of her turn toward the human hand, as the object and instrument of her latest body of work. Walker's 'Distillations' is showing at Arthouse Gallery – online, for now – and comprises wall-based and video works magnetically laden with the feeling, memory, and evasive alchemical processes which underpin their creation. Walker's is a material thinking, in which the impulses of both the mind and the body are at play.

As a girl, I was fascinated by my mother’s hands. I would trace their veins and tendons with my fingertips, following them like roads on a map.  I was captivated by their grace and how she used them while speaking, to provide emphasis and give visual form to her words.  A few hours before her death in 1985, she summoned the energy to bring them together in a wordless gesture of gratitude.  It was both a farewell and a gift to those of us with her, in those last moments. 

This memory has always remained, but it was only recently that I saw it reflected in a drawing I made of Mary’s hands from Piero Della Francesca’s Nativity, 1470–75.  This was the last of thirty drawings created over a period of thirty days in 2020. These drawings were my response to an exercise offered by Marita Smith (of Gallerysmith, Melbourne) in an attempt to lure me from the pit of depression I fell into during the national lockdown.  Returning to the timeless activity of working with pencil on paper and observing an artist’s work from another time entirely, allowed me to step outside of my own experience. Marita’s initiatory gesture of care produced a beautiful unfolding that included new investigations, a series of collaborations and the capacity to work again with a renewed sense of possibility. ‘Distillations’ is the result of that starting point and subsequent explorations which include paintings, drawings, video, a suite of shaped wall pieces and a free-standing sculpture.

Throughout my life as a practicing artist, I have studiously avoided the human form and was therefore surprised to find myself drawn towards the figures in Piero’s work. I was particularly interested in the language and expressive nature of the hands in his paintings.  There was so much tenderness and care evident in their gestures.  

Each day as I sharpened my pencil and watched lines emerge from its tip, I also found myself examining my own hands as they worked.  It seemed as if they had minds of their own and a capacity to function independently. They worked so beautifully together, one assisting the other – an effortless pas de deux.  These observations birthed the idea of Ābhāsa, 2021, an audio-visual work I made in collaboration with media artist Grayson Cooke and composer Matthew Engelbrecht. My aim was to create an immersive and meditative experience, one that investigated perception and reality, grace and the twin aspects of darkness and light.  Working with video as a medium has been a beautiful counterpoint to the weighty physicality of my usual practice.  Video, in its final state, is weightless. It occupies space yet does not fill it and beckons without possessing tangible mass. Its intrinsic qualities felt perfectly aligned with the ideas I was working with.

After lockdown, I returned to work in the studio. I stopped questioning my impulses and simply followed their directions. I again observed my hands, as they held and manoeuvred the power tools I use, to shape the plywood boards that I work with.  My hands assisted my eyes as they moved across contours and surfaces; routing, grinding, sanding and searching, until the boards were smooth as river stone.  These forms were created intuitively, in many ways responding to the plywood itself and its interaction with the tools.  

Later, more considered refinements would occur, as numerous layers of paint were added.  I would hold a brush and generate movements with my wrist and arm to apply paint on the undulating surfaces.  No longer confined to a two-dimensional, rectilinear plane, I was able to explore form, texture and the nature of touch and connection.  The process of applying over thirty layers of white gesso onto the works became an active meditation and a form of pure respite.  I no longer felt the need to depict anything or to cover these surfaces with colour or line.  Simplicity was what these works required. These paintings may not be figurative in a traditional sense, but they are drawn from a bodily experience and in turn have their own bodies. The smaller pieces are intimate.  They are holdable, like small children.

Larger works came later.  Three circular pieces that reference imagery from both the Piero drawings and the video work, were to stand at chest height in front of the viewer.  They create a magnetic pull, with their concentric, expanding circles referencing ripples in a pond or waves in the ocean and ideas about a fundamental unitive force. The circle felt solid, complete and beautifully unambiguous.  

On another work, Abhayā, 2021, I returned to the rectangle.  This impulse arrived on a day of high energy where I had the urge to burst out of the meditative reverie of the previous months. I wanted to do something joyful and slightly less careful. My mood had certainly lifted. I let loose on an enormous canvas, with fists of charcoal, using lunging movements and the full extent of my arm.  A huge, swooping drawing emerged that was unintentionally reminiscent of the flowing drapery and Florentine rivers in Piero’s paintings.

Through these investigations of intuitive material thinking and response, great shifts and learning occurred. These are the alchemical processes that can happen in the studio.  A convergence of often difficult impulses, feelings and half understood ideas.  Something transpires in this tactile grappling and engagement with materials and process.  Something is revealed and apprehended in a way that cannot be understood by intellect alone.  Each work has its own life and becomes imbued with this process of investigation, intention, struggle and resolution.  Each work holds a history, a connection to the past and yet exists in the present.  

And, as I type these words, I see another kind of circular movement from the past to the present as I recognise, with a sweet pang, that these hands of mine look remarkably like the hands of my mother. 

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 56, 2021.

24 August – 18 September 2021
Arthouse Gallery, Sydney

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