Emily McPhie takes a sketchbook to her daughter’s dance lessons. She draws for a half-hour between dinner and a load of laundry. And unlike her father, artist James Christensen, who had the luxury of painting alone, McPhie lets her children paint alongside her in her art studio.
Her artwork reflects her priorities. She paints depictions of mothers and children, often in unlikely and usual settings.
She also finds inspiration through stories and fairy tales and recently painted a series of pictures based on the Brothers Grimm tale “Old Rinkrank.” The story tells of a princess who falls into a glass mountain where an old man finds her and forces her to be his servant. After years of making his bed and cooking his dinner, the princess finally finds the courage to climb out of the mountain.
In this interview, McPhie talks about the relationship between art and story, how she finds balance as a mother and painter, and why children need both art supplies and chore charts.
Becky Blackburn: You have said that imagination was touted as the most precious faculty one could foster in your childhood home. How did your family help you cultivate your imagination?
Emily McPhie: A lot of that came from my dad. He is a creative person and a creator, and everywhere we went there was an adventure to be had. When he would go running, he would dress up as a ninja and wear all black. Everything had some creative element to it. And we traveled a lot. I went to some neat places, Europe a couple of times, Tonga, and my dad would always point out, “They’re going to do things differently. The stores will all close in the afternoon. Make sure you get your lunch before everything closes for siesta. And that’s not wrong; it’s different.” I thought that was a really important thing that he taught us when we travelled. Observe. See how other people do things, and look at it as a different way of doing things, not right, not wrong. And that taught us to observe. But coming up with ideas, doing creative things, that’s where we got praise.
BB: What were some of the things you did as a child?
EM: It was always exciting when we had a book report or a creative project to do for school. If we had math questions, we were out of luck, but if we had to build a replica of a mission (like) the San Clemente, and we had to re-create (it) with little trees, moss trees and go out and clip a branch and make those kinds of things, that’s when my dad would get into a project and get excited about it.
BB: Were there any kind of rituals or traditions you had that fostered your creativity?
EM: Halloween was always really big. My mom sewed. She would make our costumes, and our dad would paint our faces. We really got into Halloween, and I do that now probably even more so with my kids; I always make them dress up with a family theme. I keep thinking, “How many years are they going to go for this?” but they do. Sometimes they ask, “Can I be Elsa?” (I answer) “No! We’re being skeletons!”
BB: How did your father influence your decision to become an artist?
EM: Really only by his living it himself. He did not encourage any of his kids. He knew how hard it was to be successful as an artist. He calls it the burning in the belly. If you have it, you have a chance. It doesn’t matter as much how good, how skilled you are versus how much you want it. He knew that if we wanted it, it would happen for us on our own. I think it was kind of a defense that he knew it’s really hard, so he didn’t push or encourage any of us, and the two of the five of us that are artists came into it in college. We went to BYU and both thought, “There is nothing else more for me to do; I have to do this. I could do this or this or this or this, but I can’t. I have to do this.” So we both fell into it on our own.
More continued tomorrow.
How do you make time for your talents?
This interview was originally published in the Deseret News.