With her first semester at Albion almost behind her, Emmeline Solomon, assistant professor in the art department, is this week’s featured professor. Solomon holds a BFA in Printmaking from the Maine College of Art as well as an MFA from the Sam Fox School Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
Solomon and I carried on a conversation about her life and academic journey over the years in a small office space located on the second floor of Bobbit. Solomon said that she had been surviving off of coffee with almond milk since breakfast.
Jessica Behrman: What is your degree in?
Emmeline Solomon: My terminal degree is in general fine arts, but specifically printmaking. The basic way to talk about it is using stuff to put stuff on other stuff. That’s literally what it is when it comes down to [printmaking]. It is reproduction and dissemination of stuff. It is also highly technical, which is fun for me.
JB: Did you plan on going into the art field when going to college?
ES: Let me break this down. I’m so glad that you’re doing this [article] because I constantly talk about it. I did want to be a painter when I was 17 and [decided] to go to college. So, I chose schools based on how far away and how prestigious they were. I’m from Philadelphia, originally, and I was like, “Chicago is where I am going, that’s the furthest away.” And I went there intending to study painting forever and I burnt out so hard within the first year. So I took a leave of absence that technically lasted ten years, when really I just went away from that particular school. It made me think I hated art completely. So, I left there and worked for a year. And I went back to school specifically on a neuroscience track. So I was like, “just kidding, maybe I want to be a scientist,” but then halfway into that I was like, “no I want to do art.” So I left and went to a different art school in Maine which was a little tiny one that I ended up getting my final degree from. And in that process, [I] realized that printmaking is the thing that I care super hard about and that I’m not even a little bit of a painter, no where near what I do or what I care about. Extreme props to painters though. I have no idea how they do that all of the time. Like I have to fix a machine once in a while in order to feel good in my studio practice. So I was like, “yes I sort of want to be an artist,” but man did that change a lot of times.
JB: What were the schools that you attended?
ES: The School of the Art Institute of Chicago is the first one that I went to. And then I was at Temple University for the neuroscience track. Then I was at the Maine College of Art, which is like this tiny arts school in Portland, Maine that I ended up teaching at later.
JB: Was the Maine College of Art a small liberal arts college like Albion?
ES: The school I finished at is an art school art school. So we had one science requirement, five art history requirements, two English requirements, and a psychology requirement and that was it outside of the arts. Sounds intense right? It’s obviously just art. But obviously all of our practices should engage different areas, I shouldn’t just be drawing a plant for the rest of my life, I should learn more about botany and stuff.
JB: Going back to art after deciding on a neuroscience major seems extreme. Why is it that you chose a very different field?
ES: I really thought I hated art. Context because it’s reality, [the School of the Art Institute of Chicago] is really hard to get through, even if you are on multiple scholarships. It has one of the highest credit requirements for any four year art school. So often people will have to stay for a fifth year to finish the credit requirement. And of course that cost more money. And I was working full time and was only 18 and had no idea what I was doing with my life or college. So I was completely lost to no end, which was great.
JB: So after choosing art what made you decide to narrow it down to printmaking instead of painting like you originally thought you would do?
ES: Painting is so focused in that there is nothing to really distract you. There is a lot of technical skills but not much technical activity. So you keep doing the thing that you are not good enough at forever until you become better at it. And I was like, “okay, I can’t do this for the rest of my life.”
JB: Do you like the technical skill of printmaking?
ES: It’s a good distraction. I also think you should keep doing the thing you have trouble with forever until you get better at it, but for me, I burnt out very quickly. So I can do [printmaking] for four days and then be like, “at least I can oil this press”. Then I can step back and do that and then I can return to the endless process of laying on the floor – which is having an artistic career. I live and die by a bunny planner. So put it in the bunny planner, cry for five minutes and start again. It’s healthy to sometimes just sit and figure out what you give a shit about in the moment. Really, it’s just thinking “what am I doing” and then doing it. I joke that crying and freaking out all the time is a big part of my practice, but like it really is. I think you have to have a certain level of, I don’t want to sound derogatory when I say nuts, but you have to have a certain level of “this is what I have to do now to be an artist.” As well as having like 600 hundred shitty jobs. I did my time, I’ve been barista, bartender, retail, library worker and nanny. Whatever to make sure I can pay my rent.
JB: So you have traveled around a lot with different jobs.
I went to Philadelphia, and briefly to New York, and then back to Philadelphia and then back to Chicago, then back to Philadelphia and then worked at a library for a year and then rode my bicycle across the country with a friend of mine, and then I went to South Florida and I was a nanny, and then I went back to Philadelphia, then to Maine, then to Saint Louis. Then I was in Saint Louis for awhile because I was very lucky and got a teaching job right out of school. Then I went to Germany for a hot minute and was about to apply for an artist visa there and then my old school contacted me and asked if I wanted to teach there and then eventually run the department. So then I went to Maine, and now I’m here. I’ve done a bit of bouncing, but I have also just traveled for fun a lot. I budget really hard to be able to do trips as much as possible because I feel that’s vital for my personal sanity.
One of my best friends lives there permanently, which means I get to stay there for free, which is why I am there very often. As a vegan, I was kind of worried about food there. But it turns out the cultural ham fatigue is real and there is so much vegan food in the city. It is really fun, their art scene is really wild and really open.
JB: So when talking about years between academics, would you advise students to take a gap year?
ES: No. You need it. I mean for the record do whatever you want. But I really think there should be a gap year between high school and college, and then also between undergrad college and grad school. Unless of course you are absolutely sure you want to be a doctor, which is a thing, and you have so much schooling then you should probably stay motivated and just go straight through. But I think you need to find who you are as a person outside of education before you can commit forever to the thing you plan on doing. So like you haven’t been a person outside of school. You start school at like four or five, so you should take time to figure it out first before you just continue to dive in. I mean that’s what I think, but then again, I kept leaving school for a long time, so I’m clearly biased. Honestly, I am very pro gap year. It makes me very nervous when people are finishing up a graduate degree and have never been a person outside of school. Because you can just keep going, so you don’t have to be a whole beginning outside of an institution. So yes, big time take a minute! Keep doing the things you care about but take a minute.
And you guys are so young. You have so much time to figure it out. As long you can pay your rent you are fine. Not that you shouldn’t have higher aspirations. But if you are graduating at 21-22 and you are already paying your rent and already have a degree under your belt, then I would say you are in a pretty solid place. You should really know for sure that that’s what you spend your life doing before you enter into a long term committed experience. Honestly you can take very long years of time to just figure your shit out. I have sworn a lot in this and I apologize.
JB: Do you have a specific type of medium that you prefer to work with?
ES: I do a lot of soft sculptures, and installation, and some printmaking. So I am technically trained in printmaking, I’ve done the traditional apprenticeship stuff, teach it, love it with my entire heart. But my actual work is not that.
Right now I am into large scale woodcuts because it makes me feel like a jock. Like ya “I’m craving this gigantic thing” but it doesn’t mean I’m actually a jock. I couldn’t do a sport if you paid me. [The wood] has this really inherent graphic quality that maybe I should stay away from because I kind of feel like I’m cheating. Most wood cuts will look good regardless of how you do them. Which is a huge perk. But when it comes to my whole heart, like with processes, I really love etching – which is metal in acid. It is so much fun. It’s how dollar bills were made for a time. So you can joke about forging stuff, but don’t actually forge stuff because that’s illegal.
JB: What classes are currently teaching?
ES: I am currently teaching 2D and printmaking. So if anyone wants to learn about printmaking please take the class! I also hope to eventually teach some book art classes. I have this dream, that is totally impractical, it’s actually quite terrible, but to do a start to finish historical book making course. So like you set the type, you print the type, you make the pages, you bind the book, and you have a completed manuscript at the end. It’s a lot to ask but it’s like going back in time. So it would be like having full control over these things that we are used to seeing already done and finished.
JB: So it seems like as a printmaker you need to have a lot of patience. Do your students learn this over time?
ES: That’s what they joke about, because printmaking and book binding is all apart of the printmaking umbrella in my brain. So the joke is that if you major in printmaking you must minor in patience. It’s a lot of focus and waiting.
JB: What brought you to Albion?
ES: A job. A lot of things. One thing, it’s a great job, just wanna put that on the record. Albion is offering positions that a lot of schools aren’t doing anymore. Especially in the arts, it is a rough scene. It’s long term, so the last school I was at didn’t have the ten year option because it’s an art school, so we just had a constant yearly appointment for the rest of the career. So I personally really care about the liberal arts model, which is not a thing in the arts school. Because a lot of the education is super one sided. I think that the different classes are super vital, because I think that good artists should have varied interests. For example, a biologist that pursues art will make better art, sometimes, then somebody who has only ever focused on a very narrow spectrum of art. So the outside experience really helps.
JB: How do you like Albion so far? Are there any aspects or qualities that you really love and enjoy?
ES: I’ve only ever lived in cities, so I’ve never liked had a lawn before. So I have had no concept of any of this. So it has been a really interesting shift for me to go from major metropolitan areas to a small town. I am really enjoying the Gilmore Girls of it all. It’s like the Starhollows kind of vibe, or the Schitt’s Creek, without the badness. Like when looking at a lot of media, it’s like the neurotic city person moves to a small town, so in this case, I’m [the] neurotic city person in this situation. So like I can already recognize most [of] the people I see, which is wild to me because it is so tight knit. Also, the school is super supportive of faculty and seems to be of [the] students. I didn’t really understand the vastness of the cornfield experience in the midwest until I rode my bike across the country when I was 19. And that was my first experience with [having to] go a mile and then you can turn kind of roads. That is not what city blocks are.