Tahlequah Daily Press

Features

May 1, 2012

Art a sublime experience for Emerson

TAHLEQUAH — Growing up in Tahlequah, Judith Emerson didn’t imagine she’d return as an artist and writer. But she has – after living in New York, raising her daughter and traveling.

Creating art, for her, is a sublime experience.

“I work very loosely, so I prefer mediums that allow me to improvise and experiment,” said Emerson. “I have studied classical art – the human figure – and taught American Indian Art history at University of Central Oklahoma, figure drawing at City Arts in Oklahoma City and at the Firehouse Art Center in Norman, and most of my creations are from my imagination. I prefer any medium that allows me detours on the journey.”

She loved growing up here.

“[I remember] summer nights, before air conditioning sitting out on porches and telling stories, waiting for the house to cool down and sleeping with the windows open, and hearing all the sounds of nature,” she said. “We lived close to the woods, with crickets, frogs, birds, owls, and catching lightening bugs at dusk. We would make jewelry out of them and dance around in circles.”

The old Cherokee barbershop that belonged to her grandfather for over 50 years on Muskogee Avenue still holds a special place in her heart. It’s now a music studio.

“All the old traditional Cherokee people used to visit him and have their haircuts. They’d be speaking and telling jokes in the Cherokee language, which my grandfather grew up with,” she said.

Her mother’s family came to Tahlequah in 1838. They have a family cemetery at Blue Springs, where her ancestors from the Trail of Tears are buried.

“Both my mother and dad graduated from NSU,” Emerson said. “My grandfather is on audiotape in the Oklahoma Historical Society Living Legends. He was the son of Cherokee Light horse and Sequoyah Houston, and he was shot and killed by Cherokee Bill. And he was friend and historical adviser to Dr. Ballenger, Glenn Shirley, and other historians and writers.”

After earning a Bachelor of Arts from Northeastern State University in English Literature, she studied four years the at Art Students League, in West 57th Street in New York. There, she studied sculpture, painting and drawing. She worked at an art gallery in Soho and then for the National Museum of the American Indian in the Wall Street area.

“Oh, and the first year I lived there I was mugged, so I got a partial scholarship,” Emerson said.

Along with her own family history, she’s inspired by artists and writers such as Picasso.

“Picasso was a truly innovative, creative mind. [I like] Rembrandt for his technique and nocturnal paintings, and Fritz Schoder, for being bold enough to take chances,” she said.

She admires writers like Faulkner, “because he’s so attuned to people’s natures, and for his beautiful prose,” she said.

A professor at NSU in the English department, Dr. Vesly, left a lasting impression on her by making literature come alive.

“He would read Hemingway to us and made it sound like music. It was then I knew what real writing was all about,” she said.

Now Emerson has written and illustrated her own book, “The Myth Makers.”

The cover features a painting from her Shape Shift series. Some of the story comes from her grandfather, and some from several years of historical document research – including a trip to the place her ancestors left in 1838, which is now under water: Turkey Town, Ala.

Inspiration also came from her late sister, who wrote and published the non-fiction book on their ancestors, “The Houstons of Tahlequah.”

“She laid the groundwork for a novel I never intended to write, but big sisters won’t leave you alone, even when they are gone,” Emerson said. “I am indebted to her for her preliminary scholarly research. It is not a typical Trail of Tears book, though it covers that period.”

Another project she has going is “The Watch.”

“I am looking for a small room for an installation that features them watching you with powwow music in the background,” she said. “And I am writing the sequel to ‘The Myth Makers,’ taking the same characters from 1839 up to Oklahoma statehood. This is my ‘Roots’ endeavor. And I have two children’s storybooks in the hopper.”

Among her awards is a second place in Annual Contemporary Indian Art for a painting competition at Cahokia Mound Museum in July 2011. A solo exhibition at the NSU gallery in Broken Arrow features 26 paintings and drawings from the “Shape Shift” series.

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