10 questions with Emily Marie Miller Coan, a painter who explores archetypes and fairy tales to reflect the human condition

November 13, 2022
5 min read
Studio shot of Emily Marie MIller. April 2022. Courtesy of the Artist

Tell us about yourself and your journey towards becoming an artist.

I’ve been working as an artist for my entire adult life. The first major act of my own will was to sign up as an art major in college, and I’ve never looked back. Although I’m now a painter, I began making sculpture, installations, and performance work in school. The content of this work was strikingly similar to my paintings now - I’ve been following the same conceptual thread since the beginning. I moved to New York City as a painter when I was 23, and was able to navigate my way into NYC's art world, despite having no prior connection to it. I’m interested in women’s history and labor practices, storytelling, mythology, and fairy tales. To make my work, I weave my own experiences of girl/womanhood into the painted world I’m building.

Ring of Fire, oil on canvas, 36x48", 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Monya Rowe Gallery

How would you describe your work to someone who has never seen it?

I make figurative oil paintings that are often jewel-toned and glassy looking through the process of glazing. The paintings often contain multiple women in natural or stage-like environments. There’s an other worldly, chthonic feeling to the works. There’s often a furtive, shameful, sexual, or powerful undercurrent present. Recently, the paintings have figures engaging in traditional women’s work, like weaving and spinning flax.

What feelings, subjects or concepts inspire you as an artist?

At the end of the day, what feels really compelling to me is any situation where on the surface things feel veneered, slick, and uncomplicated or clean, but just below the surface it’s apparent that there is a messy intensity about the situation, that some parties involved are trying to hide. I’m also interested in history when it diverges from the mainstream narrative - especially womens’ history, history of marriage, women’s labor practices, witchcraft, etc.

Please talk to us about the role of shame in your work

I was raised catholic, and shame is a big part of being a catholic, especially if you’re a woman. Having shame was just a way that I existed in the world for a long time. I honestly didn’t even consciously recognize that shame was a subject of my work until we met for coffee a couple years ago and you mentioned it - you were spot on with that observation. I’ve never personally shied away from intense, “unacceptable” emotions like shame, guilt, anger, or hatred. I was always labeled as too intense or too much in my family, which frustrated me because I could feel the undercurrent of strong emotions that were not being expressed. Giving expression to shame feels honest.

8 Cups, oil on canvas, 30x40", 2021. Courtesy of the Artist and Monya Rowe Gallery

Let’s continue discussing the importance of the role of shame by talking about the gaze—your figures can be seen as inviting the viewer to look at them but equally one can sense an intrusion upon something private. Your characters are seen performing quite unconventional things that may be seen as controversial. What would you like the viewer to feel when they are confronted with your paintings?

The gaze is so interesting. I do feel that women want to be seen, and equally fear being seen. Young women especially tend to objectify themselves according to someone else’s ideal, and then resent the objectification. 

My figures behave in unconventional ways, like if the “shadow” side of a personality was allowed to run free. I’m comfortable with this part of my personality, so it doesn’t feel controversial to me, however I do understand why people would feel like they are controversial. Maybe I’m just a freak. I don’t have an agenda for the viewer when they see my paintings. Whatever comes up for the viewer is their experience, and I’m happy to provide that confrontation, no matter their reaction.

Would you consider your paintings as a political reaction to the world we live in, or do you prefer to let them speak for themselves and avoid discussing the politics around them? 

I find the current political narrative to be so out of touch with reality. On some level, I do have an agenda, but painting is a very diffuse form of communication. I prefer to let the images soak into peoples’ consciousness and affect them subtly, like magic.

Sympathetic Magic, oil on panel, 16x12", 2022. Courtesy of the Artist and Monya Rowe Gallery

The female form is a central component in your work. What compels you to focus on it?

I’m navigating this world through a female body. My experience informs the work. Having a woman’s body is so complicated, magical, and misunderstood. There are myriad experiences to create from.

Can you name a few artists or art historical periods that have influenced your practice ?

I’m influenced by Jan van Eyck, Hieronymous Bosch, the Unicorn Tapestries, Louise Bourgeois, Lisa Yuskavage, Pipilotti Rist, Carolee Schneeman…

En Caul, 10x8", oil on panel, 2021. Courtesy of the Artist and Monya Rowe Gallery

Are your protagonists completely imaginary or are they informed by your surroundings and personal entourage?

The protagonists in my work are definitely informed by the people I’m close to - my family and close friends, people I’ve known in the past, and first and foremost myself.

What's in the pipeline for you? Any exciting things you want to share?

I’m currently working on a two person show next year in LA - details to follow. I feel really excited about the direction the work is going - it feels like world building, and at this point I know who the players are in that world and what the environment is like. Every year brings me closer, skill wise, to being able to execute the paintings better. I feel like a fantasy author creating a huge, ambitious world out of nothing. In the studio, I’m a magician.

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Copyright © 2022 Particle Collection. All rights reserved.

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