2020 - Design - Emma Crabtree

Emma Crabtree is an interdisciplinary creative practitioner whose interests lie in everything from collecting old trinkets, to hand crafting and illustration. Her current drawings, ceramics and publications combine her love of writing with fine art and image making. She finds charm in the often overlooked; discerning beauty in the mundane and piecing together visuals with threads of narrative. From this, Emma evokes meaning, revealing her own interest in the preciousness and value of things. She plays with the definition of desirability, and in the words of the artist herself, aims to examine ‘her own questionable taste’ in order to make objects which ‘can exist somewhere between ugliness and beauty’.


Text by Hannah Carlile

It is difficult to define Emma’s practice because it is ever-evolving. The artist openly admits she is not completely aware of the landscape her work inhabits, though she outlines the roads to find out; her practice driven by instinct and led by process. Her visuals are outputs on a conveyor belt of ideas and aesthetic flavours that amalgamate in a creative boiling pot. In the mix of it all, she discovers the project’s meaning, learning more about her own practice along the way.

I decided to focus my writing on my favourite project of Emma’s to date, ‘Touchstone’ – an illustrated long-form poem made up of museum-like captions. The publication showcases an assortment of objects and drawings, and acts as an accurate introduction to Emma’s artistic passion for collecting and curating. The project emerged from Leeds Discovery Centre, where Emma stumbled across an artefact and was inspired by the caption – ‘small, squat, globular vase with frilled neck and three feet’. She was interested in the fact that the writing was specific, yet descriptive, and both formal and creative at the same time. This duality sparked the genesis of Emma’s project. From it spurred a cycle of production where Emma would respond to the description through drawing and making. Next, Emma complemented her creations with self-written captions, which acted as visual prompts. From drawings she would make objects, and from objects write descriptions, and so on. This process was not linear however. Instead, it diverged in a number of different directions (see diagram) which is telling of the artist and her visceral style of working. Emma churned iteration after iteration, exhausting all avenues and growing her project until it spiralled into a more concentrated and formulated direction. From it unfolded a handful of research books full of images and objects which Emma used to line the path of her project, referring to their contents and using them to inform her work to follow.

Like the caption which inspired its formation, Touchstone is both formal and creative – it takes the grid of a museum catalogue and then breaks it by adding personality in sporadic text layout. The object descriptions, or lines of poetry, accompany drawings and crafted articles which float about the page. Together, they construct a narrative, their pairing and order of arrangement evoke meaning, showing the power of text and image combined. This also reflects Emma’s non-linear approach to her work – it’s impossible to tell which article precedes the other. Sometimes the objects and drawings compliment one another. Other times, they contrast, but together they work to provide an understanding of the piece while still leaving enough to remain ambiguous and open to the imagination. This ambiguity is something which interests Emma. In her work, she deliberately invites her reader to question what is real and what is deceptive. The publication for example could, at first glance be mistaken for a traditional archaeology manual. In serif font, brown riso-print and a textured cover, it looks like a relic from a forgotten time. Yet Touchstone also feels otherworldly. The swirled sculptures are redolent of a spiritual world. Even the name sounds mythical. Touchstone also means something you come back to repeatedly as a point of reference, which of course also mirrors Emma’s methodology, with each of her creations and collections responding to one another.

By isolating these ‘ordinary’ objects and placing them on a pedestal within the museum catalogue context, Emma finds a way to fabricate an imposed importance and sense of history. She has adopted the language of museums and now wields it to con the viewer, imposing her own history on objects that hold no former significance. In this way, she plays with the learnt semiotics of interpreting museum artefacts and collections - playing with the viewers trust and rethinking the way in which knowledge and fact is imparted in these settings.

Touchstone may be Emma’s latest creation to emerge from her project, but it is by no means the last. The artist is hoping to push it into a solo exhibition. Her handmade artefacts will be showcased as if they are a collection of archaic findings. This context is the ultimate example of Emma’s efforts to subtly allude to the worth of these objects as more than just the accumulative sum of their parts. In subscribing to the semiotic language of the museum, she discovers a way in which these shamanistic appearing artefacts can develop their own auras artificially, even if they are products of fiction. Touchstone recently won the LAP Books Artist Books Award and will be published and available to purchase in Autumn 2020.

Read Emma Crabtree’s essay on Hannah Carlile’s work HERE.

Published 01/07/2020