Paintbrushes, Fairy Tales, and Chore Charts: The Life of Artist, Emily McPhie

This is the rest of the interview I started last week with Emily McPhie. You may want to read the beginning of the interview first.  

Becky Blackburn:  How Did Your Father Influence Your Decision to Become an Artist?  (McPhie’s father is the well-known James C. Christensen.)


Portrait of Emily McPhie

Emily McPhie:   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.


Girl and the Crocodile

BB: We talked about some of your mother’s interests. What did she teach you that influenced your art?

EM: That’s hard to say because she’s in a different category. She’s the glue, she runs the business, she holds it all together, she’s the gatherer, she keeps the family together, she takes care of everybody. I think she recognizes and takes pride in the fact that she’s holding this whole show together. But as a mother and an artist, I feel like I have to embody the skills of both my parents, because I don’t have somebody to run my business, keep the books, make the phone calls, schedule everything. I have to do both, run the household, run the business and create the art and try and maintain my sanity in the process.

BB: And how has that worked? How have you figured out how to balance that?

EM: That’s the million dollar question! What I get asked most, “How are you a mom and an artist? How do you do it all?” and I want to say, “Do I do it all?” I wish I could say I did. No, it’s hard, it takes a lot of really hard work. You have to really really want it, because it’s enough of a job to keep your house clean and your children fed. That’s full time. And to make room for art, you just have to have your house in order, none of this crazy artist, who’s just free. That’s unreal. That’s unrealistic. You have to have your house in order. You have to have chore charts or whatever it is that you need today to get things back into balance, and it’s always changing, it’s always something else. Take your sketch book with you while you take your children to dance lessons. You have to figure it out: How can I make this work?

BB: In Genesis, when it talks about the creation, “create” in Hebrew means to organize. And yet we see creative people and organized people on opposite ends of the spectrum. Is there a way that you have reconciled that as an organizer and a creator? How do you see that relationship?

EM: It rings so true to me. The first time I heard that I thought, “Oh that makes more sense of what I do.” I definitely feel like I am more of an assembler than a creator. You know, I take scrap and paint from it, I take pictures or pull images out of magazines or off the internet and I piece them together. There’s a lot of organization to it, and I feel more that I’m piecing things together as opposed to just creating straight out of my head. I don’t pick up a brush, dip it in paint, and start going.

BB: So your father always painted alone while you often paint with your children beside you? How have you made this work?

EM:  You know, it certainly isn’t by choice. I like to be alone. I kind of need that sometimes, and I like to get into a flow, but that’s something I learned right off was too much to ask when I have little ones around. I could hire babysitters. I’ve done that off and on. I’ve tried to schedule time when (my husband) could watch them, but really I just have to open the door, let them in. They have access to all my craft supplies and tools, they can make things to their heart’s content. Pipe cleaners are usually a big hit. The trade-off is watching them make things and express themselves. They express creativity as a way of life. I am realizing as they get older that I get to have my door closed sometimes too. I crave that alone time so much. But even now, especially with them homeschooling, they can come into the studio whenever they want and we listen to music, or sometimes we listen to books together, and that gets them to be busy enough for me to work!

lion (1)

Serena and the Lion.

BB: How do you feel they (your children) have influenced you art?

EM: So much of my art is about motherhood and because it’s what I’m in the thick of, and I’m always grappling with my inner self, trying to find that balance—

BB: A mother’s work can be mundane and repetitive but still really important. How do you balance this work with things that feed your soul? Is there a relationship between them?

EM: I love that question. I’ve tried to overlap them as much as possible. I tried at first—I have a couple of paintings that have two separate personas. This is the artist me and this is the mom me, and I tried really hard to force this separation. I think mothers a lot of times go through this emotion of losing their identity when they are knee deep in babies and children. They can feel like they are being taken over by mom-duties, the “Where did I go?” I felt like I needed to tear those personas apart and live them out separately. As I’ve matured in my motherhood, I’ve realized I’m just changing, I’m growing, nothing is lost, everything is gained. Let all the aspects of me overlap, intertwine, paint about motherhood, paint about children and the lessons they teach me, do projects together and count that as much as a creative outlet as making a painting.

BB: You said on your blog that you try to make time for reading and writing. How do you find time for this and how is it important to your artwork?

EM: Reading is a lot easier because I can listen and paint at the same time, it uses different parts of the brain. I listen to book on audible while I paint all the time, (while I run, while I clean, drive… I’m a bit of an addict). I love being influenced by stories, and I love getting lost in stories. Some paintings I can look at recall what I was listening to when I painted it. Like, a Jane Austen type novel, and it got a little ornamental or this was a dark, Harry Potter kind of thing. A lot of times too, what I have to deal with is not being able to sit down for two hours and get into a flow. I have half hour spurts before I have to go and change the laundry or go pick somebody up or change a diaper, and tearing my mind away from it and then coming back has this moment of, “OK where was I? What was I doing?” Being able to push play and the story picks up where I left off somehow takes my brain right back to where I was. So it’s really helpful to have a book going while I paint.

BB: What relationship is there between art and story? I know that you’ve used some fairy tales in your art. How does that work?

EM: Fairy tales are great to work with because they are supposed to teach you something, but they can be so very bizarre. The Grimm’s tales leave so many gaping holes, I think that’s kind of why I like them because you can fill in the holes. How do they get from point A to point D?

Something had to have happened and I like taking my mind there. That’s what I did with my Old Rinkrank series. The girl gets captured by Old Rinkrank who makes her be his servant, and then she’s old. At some point she decides that she’s going to escape. How does she get to that decision? What happened in that whole time when she went from a young woman to an older one, and that’s what got me thinking on that series was what changed? What made her finally decide after all of those years that she’s going to take this on and get out of there? Thinking on that, drawing about it, pondering on it, led me to thinking, What is it that holds us captive? Our fears? What does it take to get us to say, ”Whoah! I don’t want that to hold me back anymore.” What gives us that moment of clarity or the drive needed to face a fear and push past it?

BB: I just love the title of the painting, “I have washed your dishes, I have made your bed.” What inspired you with that title?

EM: That’s a line right out of the story (Old Rinkrank). “I have washed your dishes, I have made your bed. No, Old Rinkrank, I will not open the door for you.” It’s about being all consumed with your daily activities – not seeing the forest for the trees kind of idea. The mundane can hold you back from making something magnificent happen. The dinner table and bed ended up on her head, always on her mind. It’s a motif I’ve used a few times where things have ended up on women’s heads. I put a whole circus on a woman’s head one time, and she has this really strong neck. It’s Poise amid the Hoopla. My life resembles a circus, and I can barely keep up with everything that’s happening, but I will do it with poise, I am determined to.

1006 Poise amid the Hoopla

Poise Amid the Hoopla. This woman carries a circus on her head. Sound familiar?

BB: Your husband was a musician in college, and you are doing music lessons?

EM: Yeah, I am taking piano lessons—

BB: You’re taking piano and your daughters are taking piano, violin, and cello is that right?

EM: I love music for the same reason I love art. It speaks peace to the soul. Music has a very immediate effect. I love warming up with playing some beautiful music before I go into the studio. Getting in tune with that emotional level, just inhabiting the emotion, I could live there.

BB:  So how do you see music enhancing your art or art enhancing your music. How are they related to each other?

EM: They speak the same language, the ineffable, no words or explanation needed. They get directly to the emotions. Sometimes I think that can be easier with music because you can feel in real time, and I think there’s more of a thought process with art, but I hope to be able to obtain that, where you can look at a painting and you can just feel it. You know, to get that to translate to other people can be awesome.


Keep the Lantern Bright

BB: And I think you do it really well. What are some of your favorite paintings on motherhood and family, and what emotions do you think mothers feel more intensely? How is that reflected in your art?

EM: Windows of Heaven is a piece I did, and actually the church owns it. It’s hanging in the church office building in the Young Women’s hall. The mother figure is bent over and knitting a sweater right on to her daughter, and when you look closer, you see that the yarn is coming from the mother’s sweater which is unravelling as she knits this sweater onto her daughter. I like how you asked that question, “What emotions do women feel more intensely as mothers?” Whatcame to mind is this idea of self-sacrifice. You’re unrecognized, you don’t get the praise of the world, you don’t get noticed for being the best mom to your specific children. It takes a certain kind of humility and selflessness and hard work and a pure love to successfully pull off being mother, and I think that’s definitely something you have to experience. There are people who can look at that painting and have tears because they get it on that emotional plane. My publisher, he didn’t get it. I said, “You need to make this one a print. People will like this painting. It means something to mothers. If there ever was one that you needed to make a print of, it’s this one.” It took two years for him to finally make the print. He just didn’t see it, didn’t understand it. So I definitely think you’ve got to live it to get that emotion.


Windows of Heaven: The Mother is Using Threads From Her Own Sweater to Sew Her Daughter’s Sweater

BB: Fear and determination seem to be a prevalent theme in your work. How do you think women overcome these fears and how is this reflected in your art?

EM: I think fears are overcome by facing them, recognizing them, naming them, and doing what you need to do to overcome them. Sometimes that is what I’m doing in these paintings is facing a fear, recognizing it, and as I’m painting, I’ve got a lot of time to think through it and to ponder and think about the balance or the emotions—

BB:  And I think you really address that in your Old Rinkrank series, that fear becomes that seems to be a really big theme. What painting do you think really embodies those emotions?

EM: There is a transition she goes through; in one she’s a little more fearful, and in another she’s a little more, “No, I got this,” and then when she escapes, she’s wearing armor. I liked that idea, she put on her armor to go to battle, to face the challenge and the danger of getting away from that Old Rinkrank. In the earlier moments of the series, she’s wearing a sweater, kind of wrapped up in security, not ready to take action yet. I love those different expressions.

emIHaveWashedYourDishes 001

I Have Washed Your Dishes, I Have Made Your Bed. A portrait of the captured princess in the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale, Rinkrank

emMotherMansrot 001

Her the princess shows both focus and determination.

emNoOldRinkrank 001

Preparing Her Escape


Rinkrank Decode (as posted on Emily’s blog).

  • The Glass Mountain is our perceived hopes and dreams.
  • Old Rinkrank symbolizes fear that holds us captive, preventing our potential greatness.
  • Red, whether fully exposed or covered and protected by sweaters or armor, is for


  • Dishes and Beds represent the everyday things that busily keeping us from progressing.
  • Gray and sweaters are for pondering; quiet on the outside while actively engaged in our

inner landscape.

  • The Ladder is a tool to work our way out of a fix, to get us back on our mountains.
  • Armor is for determination, protection, and strength.
  • The Landscape is stylized as a tribute to Arthur Rackham, illustrator of the Brother’s

Grimm and Other Fairy Tales

This interview in its entirety can be found at Deseret News.  Want to know more about Emily McPhie?

What artist or musician has inspired you?



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