Emily Schnall, view of Inner Beauty, Polymer sculpture with acrylic paint
There is such a beauty of bones and tissue that I’ll never tire of …(Emily Schnall)
Equal parts fantasy, animal studies, and anatomical illustration American artist Emily Schnall’s work is intricately made and memorably strange.
These forms and models exist in an imaginative space of gothic folklore and horror. Within this context, we find not only a rather mundane sense of comfort with the blood and raw of the dance between prey and the hunter, or even more strange and ordinary the medical disection. And yet within all of this, there is also a profound respect for wild creatures and a constant questioning of humankind’s relationship with other living creatures.
Emily’s precise objects and drawings are sometimes to my delight rather noir to say the least. This is punctuated happily by a morbid but contagious sense of humor and an element of the absurd: “a sublime silliness. Even work that on one hand might be very serious to me still has this element of absurd humor.”
Much of the artist’s image seem populated by both exotic and woodland creatures, an echo of a childhood spent preserving wildlife. For Emily, life seems full of constant learning, and seeking new ideas and concepts, and she notes the importance of research for her practice. It is clear that the rubrics of vernacular myths and fairy tales are important to the artist’s work. She has also made a number of works that personify the struggle against extinction, and of course concepts of butchering, dissection and the body in parts such as the sculptural series Inner Beauty.
For Emily, anatomical imagery is in part a reflection of her academic or atelier practice, but as well, she welcomes the idea that such gruesomeness has certain shock quality.
The Killing of the Honshu Wolf
The Killing of the Honshu Wolf
The leitmotif of the wolf functions as way to honor the symbolic value of these creatures. In many ways, Emily’s work seems to underline the concept of the wolf in a symbiotic way, e.g she pushes her viewer to see them as we might see canines, by extension asking the viewer to think of the connections we hold with the natural world, however many times these have been broken by our interventions.
Emily’s interest in ideas of transformation, the concept of a changelings, anthropogenic change, extinction and conservation are beautifully conjoined with Japanese mythology in the sculptural work The Killing of the Honshu Wolf. The project began when the artist studied papermaking and art history in Japan. She was able to harvest kozo trees, processing the bark into paper pulp, and to make washi paper. Emily used this paper to make the life-size Honshu wolf pelt. The pelt is stretched across branches from Rhode Island, a common practice for tanning hides. She notes that Rhode Island is the birthplace of Matthew C. Perry, the man credited with opening Japan to the west, the Honshu wolf’s extinction thought to come about because of American style ranching.
“For me this dialog between the original Japanese kozo branches I harvested to make the paper, and these Rhode Island branches is the most loaded aspect of the work.The entire piece is one of lament, an apology to wolves.”
Bones to Pick, ink and watercolor
Bones to Pick tells the true story of a Russian poacher and an Amur tiger. Emily explains the story and the work:
“It’s a story of revenge, essentially. After a skirmish initiated by the man, the tiger followed the man’s scent back to his cabin. The cat trashed the interior, and is purported to have dragged out the mattress on which he waited for the poacher to return. When he did, the man met a grizzly end.”
This work, like many others challenges our concept of the wild and the civilized realm of humankind. The battle is in some ways a microcosm of people’s constant urge for dominion over the natural world.
ES: What fascinates me about this story, and in particular this moment I chose to illustrate, is this strange equality between human and the animal. They’re both hunters in a territory, directly competitive , and pose grave threats to one another. It’s tempting to vilify the human character, making this into a simpler narrative of a poacher who got his just desserts . I’d like to resist this interpretation. I feel for both the man and the tiger. I wanted to capture this quiet moment of potential energy; at this point these two appear equal and it’s unclear who will come out alive. It’s rare for modern humans to find themselves in positions like this.
Little Red ink and watercolor
The gruesome drawing Little Red is a twist on a classic story. The artist intends the image to be absurd, and heightens this element by adding an element of extreme gore. “I’m fascinated by the psychology of monstrous portrayals of humans; this is one of the reasons I enjoy the werewolf and similar folklore so much.”
Griswold the Wolf
RB: The symbolic value of creatures like wolves reveal much about humankind’s perceptions of self and the wilderness.
ES: There’s such a rich body of wolf folklore from around the world They’re often quite major figures that can tell us a lot about how we have pictured ourselves in relation to the wilderness. And then of course there are werewolves, which have always been one of my favorite monsters. They’re plain fun and they speak to the psychology of the human-animal relationship in so many ways.”
As well, Emily is drawn to the visual appeal of the animal.“I enjoy the long snout filled with teeth as a piece of design. Their dentition is gorgeous, a perfect marriage of form and function in my mind. “
The artist draws from a wide variety of sources such as vintage natural history and medical museum curiosities, she explains:
I can’t get enough of bones, and specimens, and classical dioramas. I crave novelty so I’m constantly rummaging through the musty corners of the internet for something strange. Recently I found a video made by a fur trapper, and in his shed he had a dozen or so coyotes hanging from the ceiling, ready to be skinned. To prove these coyotes were truly frozen– I suppose this makes skinning more difficult– he went about banging on all the icy bodies with a hammer. It was such a surreal image, this forest of stiff, dangling bodies and this man surreptitiously knocking on each of them. I love moments of such strangeness.
Animals, creatures, psychology, and anthropology are all interests of mine, and folklore represents an intersection of all these things. (Emily Schnall)