Subjects like Hanne Gaby Odiele feature in these painstakingly precise works pulled from snapshots.
Emerald Rose Whipple paints in a studio in Chinatown, adjacent to the Manhattan Bridge. Trains thunder by at regular intervals ("it's like a school bell," Whipple says of the loud, rhythmic rumble), yet the vibe in her workspace is still imaginative and calm. A mood board for an upcoming photo shoot is taped onto the wall, which will eventually be featured in Transmission, a magazine Whipple contributes to. The windowsill is peppered with pretty seashells, silver rings, charms, and stones—keepsakes from her jeweler parents. A mêlée of painstakingly executed oil paintings are stacked vertically against the wall: lush landscapes, portraits startling in their realism, groups of clustered friends that meld a 'snapshot' feel with the delicate touch of 19th-century pastoral-setting brushwork. Recognizable faces, like models Samantha Gradoville and Hanne Gaby Odiele, are casually mixed in with other friends.
Whipple discusses her West coast upbringing, her sources of painterly inspiration, and how the fashion industry ultimately drove her straight to the art world.
What are you working on at present?
I'm wrapping up these two landscape images of Hawaii, where I grew up, for my upcoming show in Belgium. I also did these two blankets for the paintings, so it's going to be kind of like an abstract installation: I'm going to put the blankets on the ground, and I want the viewer to sit on them: that way it's like you're in the ocean, or surrounded in the forest—like a montage of my memory of growing up.
I'm also working on snapshots of my friends. They're going to be a much larger series. I think I've compiled a hundred images so far that I want to paint. They're kind of fashion-y…
But also very evocative of Impressionism and Pointillism.
Yeah! Like if Monet were painting street style now.
So tell me about your background.
I was born in northern California, and then my parents moved to Kauai, where I grew up until high school. My dad's like a hippie surfer type, chasing endless summer. My parents were jewelers.
I got into Pratt after high school, and went there for fashion. I have been working in the fashion industry, and have been trying to move out of it to focus on painting, ideally. I did shoe design for Marc Jacobs, went into wholesale and buying at Acne, then Proenza [Schouler] for a while... just sorta hopped around.
What prompted you to veer out of fashion?
I think the industry is very aggressive. The commercial aspect of fashion design destroys me a little bit, because there's [otherwise] so much beauty in it. Couture is incredible—that's where I really resided: the quality, and the fabrics, and the beading, and all the detail that goes into creating that. It's not like "culottes are in this season; everyone make culottes. Céline is selling it, so let's copy Céline"—and it all sort of blends together. Some of the people are really intense, too! That's how I started doing art again; I needed a release. December 2012 is when I began painting.
Between 2012 until now, how has your style evolved?
It's evolved so much! The paintings used to be soft and airy; lots of layers. The strokes [have since] become bigger and looser. Then there are the pixel paintings… they started to feel very controlled, I could feel myself getting really OCD about where the dots go. Now I'm trying to be more fluid, balancing that hyper-pixilated image but still maintaining that language. I've also done collaborations with Dylan Forsburg—model, turned photographer—on painted fashion editorials. I try to capture my friends and make them more than just a photo. Photos are so disposable in our time. A bunch of our friends created these magazines that are free and distributed all over the city. They're a simple, natural blend of art and fashion.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I have been looking back at paintings from the early 1900s. I feel like there's this huge gap in this century, into the 90s with Elizabeth Peyton and Lucian Freud. No one's really painted people. And I feel like my paintings are very much of our time, especially our generation. It'll be nice to look back 20 years from now and be like, "Wow, those were the people I was hanging out with!"
Does it feel hard to part with the paintings, given that sentimental attachment of friends-as-subjects?
Yeah, it's really weird! There are some I don't want to let go of; I send them to my dad and tell him to just hang onto them for a while. Capturing the essence of each individual is such an intense process. It's like a chunk of me, hanging on the wall.
Do you go to museums or galleries regularly?
I used to work uptown and would go to the Whitney or the Met every day on my lunch break, and just sit with a painting for an hour, then run back to work. At the Metropolitan, I found myself most sitting with Balthus's Thérèse Dreaming. A schoolgirl sleeping and dreaming—very much what I'm trying to embody. And Chuck Close I'm completely mesmerized by, he's incredible—I love his process. Richard Phillips I love too.
Looking at your bookshelf, it's so diverse. Dash Snow, Mary Cassatt, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, psychology books, Henry Miller, You and The Psychic Within featuring Dali on the cover…
I found it at Bart's Books in Ojai! Energy and crystal healing and consciousness, and that whole realm of existence—a lot of my landscapes in art are very much tied to that. Before I work, I meditate to make sure I'm balanced and not putting anything negative into the art, because I feel like you can pick up on that. I definitely want the paintings to be a sacred oasis that people can feel safe to get lost in.
Text Sarah Moroz
All artwork courtesy Emerald Rose Whipple