Emily Caldwell: Naturally Yours
Emily Caldwell’s art is whimsical, often looking at nature for inspiration. Her path to art was a winding one, but she found a shining light in the end – one that she hopes to share with others.
article by April Honaker | photography by Brad Arender
The famous poet, Rumi, once said, “The wound is the place where the Light enters you,” but as Emily Caldwell’s story illustrates, it can sometimes take a while for the light to find its way. In 2001, when Emily and her husband Doug, lost their son Ben, the wound was unimaginably deep. At 18 years old, Ben had grown up a well-rounded kid, involved in church, Young Troupe and music. He was a vibrant teenager preparing to head to college at LSU. Bright and witty, he played the trombone and football. According to Emily, he was the light of their lives, so when he was diagnosed with cancer, a heavy cloud formed over them, and their world was upended.
Ben endured treatments at St. Jude for a type of leukemia the Caldwells had been told was curable, but after coming home for Labor Day, he developed an infection and passed away in late September, leaving a void that seemed unfillable. “It changed everything,” Emily said, and afterward, she found herself experiencing a level of grief she described as “scary” in its intensity.
She was suddenly unable to do many of the things she had done before. According to Emily, she had been the “quintessential church lady,” teaching the children’s choir and jumping at the chance to volunteer when needed, but after losing Ben, she found herself withdrawing from these activities. Her world was dark.
Then one day Emily received a card that read, “The sun shines not on us, but in us.” She said, “The words were beautiful, and they reflected Ben to me.” They also compelled her to begin shining her light again by painting a mural on her laundry room wall. Having never made art before, she asked her friend and fellow artist Donna McGee to help her by adding the words from the card to her mural.
After completing the mural, Emily started drawing and experimenting with other forms of art—mosaics, assemblages and mixed media. In the beginning, much of her work was focused in and around her home. In fact, after reading an article about a woman who built a labyrinth to promote inner peace, she decided to build one in the clay of her side yard. Although she had been skeptical of its peace-giving potential, she said the physical activity of digging and moving bricks was good for her and that it allowed her to create something that honored Ben.
Around the same time, Emily’s friend Jane Brandon introduced her to Anna Rowan, an artist Emily says has proven to be one of her biggest mentors and supporters. In the beginning, Anna would come to Emily’s house once a week, working with her and giving her assignments. Emily says, “I was still crazy with grief, but working on art would take me into another part of my brain. It would help me make it through the day.”
Other women soon joined them, including Liza Kidd and Emily’s cousin, Mary Helen Blanchard. The women continued to work weekly, making art, talking about it and building one another up. During this time, Emily’s husband, Doug, was also one of her biggest supporters. When she and her friends worked on assignments related to particular artists, Doug often ordered books about those artists to give to her, helping her accrue quite a collection.
Though it took a long time, these weekly meetings and Doug’s support helped Emily reconnect with people and, as she put it, “get back into society.” Emily said, “At the time, I think I needed to make something, because I’d lost something so beautiful.” However, she added, “I don’t want it to seem like what I do is ‘art therapy.’ It’s just what I do.” She says going on with her life is a way of honoring Ben’s memory.
Eventually, the weekly meetings led to the creation of so much art that the women needed to look for a larger venue to produce, store and display their work. In 2009, after about a year of looking for the perfect space, Emily and Anna found it at 135 Art Alley, and they proceeded to convert the 100-year-old wholesale drug factory into galleries and artists’ studios.
When the space was ready in December of 2009, the pair hosted their first UPSTAIRS gallery show, forcing Emily out of her comfort zone. “You make yourself so vulnerable when you open your work to the public,” she said. “When people come in, it’s like you’re bringing them into your house.”
Although scary at first, that openness brought a lot of light into her life, eventually making UPSTAIRS Emily’s favorite place to be. Since launching the gallery, Anna and Emily have curated the work of over 150 artists. In that process, she says it’s been important for the two of them to provide a professional venue to show artists’ work and to celebrate creativity. Emily says they’ve built relationships with these artists and that she has found joy in meeting and encouraging the young ones and the ones who forgot they were artists. She believes everyone is creative, even if they don’t realize it.
As curators, Emily and Anna try to nurture artists and to raise the bar for themselves each time a new show opens, which is typically on the first Thursday of every even-numbered month. These days mark the Downtown Gallery Crawls that have drawn crowds of arts enthusiasts into the historic riverfront commercial district of Monroe and West Monroe on schedule since before UPSTAIRS gallery was born. Over the last eight years, the gallery has taken as its mission to expose people to different kinds of art. Emily says she especially likes the idea of helping young artists realize that it’s okay to take risks and do something they’ve never seen before.
According to Emily, the work that goes into putting on the Crawls is truly a team effort. The small group of women that started in Emily’s home has grown into a full-fledged club of seven members: Amy Ouchley, Leigh Buffington, Kay McDonald, Selina Aktar, Jenny Ellerbe, and of course the original members, Emily and Anna Rowan. These woman not only continue to meet once a week. They also help prepare for the Crawls. In addition, Ann Bloxom Smith, a retired ULM English professor, writes the press releases and does the publicity for the Downtown Arts Alliance, which sponsors the Crawls. Ali Hijazi and Emj Cruz volunteer to make the vinyl name decals for the shows, and Jason Nelson, who is responsible for the logos, also prepares the door and entryway of the gallery for shows. In addition, numerous friends and family members donate food, serve wine, and check IDs. In truth, the number of behind-the-scenes volunteers, sponsors and in-kind donors is vast and deeply appreciated.
Over time, UPSTAIRS has definitely evolved from its initial purpose as a space for a small group of women to create and show their art. It has slowly transformed into a dynamic venue that serves others, fosters collaboration and becomes a totally different space every time the featured artists change.
In addition to connecting Emily with creative people, the gallery has provided opportunities for personal artistic growth. Meeting with the Art Club weekly has continued to expand her art, and the public nature of the gallery has led to numerous encounters with university professors and other distinguished artists. Emily has taken these opportunities to ask for feedback on her work. She is so comfortable sharing her work now that she says she doesn’t hesitate to ask people like Benjamin Hickey, curator of the Masur Museum of Art, for advice and criticism. Although she confidently seeks feedback now, her growth has not always happened without flashes of insecurity.
In fact, she has a piece that once made her say to herself, “This is just too crazy. I can’t show this.” The piece was inspired by a relic found at Poverty Point, one she decided is a fox-man, although others believe it is a great horned owl. After mustering the confidence to share the piece with a few close friends, she was encouraged to find that they loved it. As a result, she decided to show it to the public and then add it to the small number of pieces she would deliberately hold on to for herself or for Doug. She said, “I wanted to keep it as a reminder to try—to not be afraid of what people will think and to trust my intuition.” She wishes the same courage to other artists as well.
Through the support of family, friends, and other artists, Emily has grown tremendously, so much so that she says, “I can’t even begin to explain it.” In the course of her development as an artist, her love of nature and being outdoors has also played a crucial role, serving both as inspiration and as a means of connecting her with like-minded people.
Birds, in particular, are a recurrent theme in Emily’s work, and she’s always liked them. Even as a kid, she would create bird models, and when her friend Ann Bloxom Smith asked her to create a billboard for Black Bayou Lake, birds were prominently featured. Although she hasn’t always been serious about identifying the birds, she grew more interested in identification after meeting Kelby Ouchley and his wife Amy.
Kelby is a biologist and retired wildlife management professional, who asked Emily to create drawings of animals for his book “Bayou-Diversity: Nature and People in the Louisiana Bayou Country.” At the time, Emily was still a new artist and had never created the kind of intricate black and white drawings that Kelby needed. After some hesitation, she agreed to take on the project and, with Anna’s mentorship, tackled it.
She says the project really sparked her interest in other creatures, leading Emily and the Ouchleys to start hiking and kayaking together. Sometimes they were joined by other friends, but regardless of the group’s size, its members approached the excursions with mindfulness. Kelby’s wife Amy even brought along a magnifying jeweler’s loop, which gave them the opportunity to look more closely—to see aspects of nature that can’t be seen with the naked eye. This tendency to look closely at nature is also something Emily hopes her art will encourage viewers to do.
Her love of outdoor adventures has led to work inspired by trips to a variety of places, from Poverty Point to the Grand Canyon. Of the Grand Canyon, she once wrote, “How can you do it justice with artwork? But how can you NOT do artwork?” Emily sees that there are things in the natural world that simply can’t be captured by art, but she has a simultaneous, unquenchable desire to try to capture these things anyway. The resulting art combines whimsy with intricate, realistic detail. The tension between these two is complex and difficult to express, just as holiness is.
In a world that tends to shy away from talking about holiness, Emily aims to capture it in her art. Drawing inspiration from writer and theologian Frederick Buechner, she sees art as an enduring means of communicating with each other about sacred things.
One of her favorite quotes by Buechner suggests that “the most basic lesson that all art teaches us is to stop, look, and listen to life on this planet, including our own lives, as a vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of the time it ever occurs to us to suspect.” The meaning of this quote is reflected in Emily’s work and in what she writes about her work. In an artist statement for a show titled “Yucca and Friends,” she wrote, “Shapes, patterns, reflections—southern, southwestern, northwestern—it’s just good to pay attention to what’s around you.” These down-to-earth words make it easy to relate to her and to follow her advice.
Emily’s first major exhibition outside of UPSTAIRS gallery took place last year after spending three years as president of the Downtown Arts Alliance. Knowing she would have more time to devote to her art, Benjamin Hickey invited her to create work for a show at the Masur Museum of Art that would be titled “Emily Caldwell, Naturally.” The work she created was inspired by outings she took in northeast Louisiana with the Ouchleys, outings she fondly dubbed “Field Trips.” In these trips, Emily realized the interdependence of species within the ecosystems she observed, and the resulting work stands witness to that realization. In a brochure for the show, Hickey said, “her work is like the artist herself: an improbable mixture of joie de vivre and seriousness that coalesces into beautiful, thought provoking activism.” After witnessing Emily’s inspiration firsthand and seeing the finished work, her friend Kelby asked, “How can we not be summoned to be better stewards of these remaining natural treasures after viewing this remarkable collection?”
Emily’s current collages are full of rich colors, textures and patterns, and they feature wildlife in a fashion she describes as “almost scientific.” When conveying a creature, Emily says, “I hope to reveal its intricacies, and I want to encourage people to think about its special place in nature.” She adds, “I think if more people were biologists there would be no wars. We would respect life more.”
Several of her collages are currently on display in The Big Room Gallery, curated by Ricky Sikes. The Big Room is separated from Emily and Anna’s gallery only by a small upstairs foyer, and both galleries are located at 135 Art Alley, where Emily and Anna hosted their first show.
One thing Emily says she has learned as an artist is that people can ultimately take away whatever they want from your work, but at the same time, artists can have hopes or intentions for that work. Sometimes she hopes simply to make people smile, to share some of her light—her insight—with them, and if it can be captured or shared, maybe a bit of holiness.
As an artist, Emily Caldwell has worn many hats and connected with many people. She has been influenced and has been an influencer. Her place in the larger narrative of the Downtown Arts Alliance is a testimony to the power of the arts to infuse life and light into people and their communities.