April 20, 2015

Working from Life

It’s been said that Mountainfilm is much more than a film festival — it’s a community of creative, adventurous people who inspire us to make the world a better place. As an artist in residence this year, I’ll share my landscape paintings and talk about my current work, but I also want to focus on the individuals who make this community so special. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been hunting down Mountainfilm contributors and asking them to sit still for three hours while I paint their portraits. This is a lot to ask of a busy person, and I’m grateful that so many have been willing to work with me on my idea. In these three hours, we get to know each other a bit and I try to capture something more than just a physical likeness.

Josh Bernstein sits for his portrait to be painted at Emilie Lee's studio in New York City

Josh Bernstein sits for his portrait to be painted at Emilie Lee's studio in New York City

Working from life is central to all the art I create. Whether I’m painting a person or a landscape, being there allows me to not only see, but to feel the living qualities of my subject. I consciously choose not to use photographs for reference, instead relying on the paintings and notes I make on location to inform my ideas. In the case of my landscapes, my process begins with an adventure. My painting gear is dialed to fit in a backpack, and I’m free to hike out to remote locations. I like to feel exposed to the weather, the smells and the sounds of a place, and in those dynamic conditions unexpected things come to life on my canvas.

At Mountainfilm, I will also share my current work: studies of a unique conservation area in the iconic landscape of Montana’s northern Great Plains. The American Prairie Reserve caught my attention because of this organization’s creative method that merges previously owned land into one encompassing open space. To do this, the organization purchases land when it comes on the market, leases adjacent government parcels and then merges them to create a new wilderness. When it’s complete, the reserve is expected to be more than three million acres, and it will be the largest conservation area in the United States.

For one month this spring, I’ll be on the prairie working with volunteer researchers from Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation’s Landmark program as they collect data in the field. I’ll make drawings, paintings and illustrated notes all month long and share these on Instagram and on my blog. With this project, I’m interested in how my own paintings, which are heavily influenced by 19th century artwork, can investigate the subject of wilderness in the context of our time. Joining me on the prairie will be musician Jessica Kilroy, who plans to record elemental sounds, such as wind in the grass and wildlife calls, to use in a musical composition that will accompany my artwork in a gallery exhibit planned for spring 2016.

In the last week of my trip, Eugenie Frerichs will join us to take photos. As I write this, I have yet to step foot on the prairie, but in just two more days I’ll be out there beginning my work. At the end of this adventure, Eugenie, Jessica and I will be on our way to Telluride Mountainfilm with new work to share and stories to trade at this unique gathering of minds.

See you in Telluride!

Emilie Lee, Moutainfilm artist in residence 2015

Learn more about Emilie Lee’s work at www.emilielee.com.

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