A Conversation with Emily May of Decadent West

Emily May is an artist who lives and creates screen prints in her home studio in Jamaica Plain. Check out Emily’s Etsy shop, Decadent West, to see some of her witty prints, t-shirts and koozies, whose messages ring so true to so many.

I recently chatted with Emily on a park bench in JP and asked her about where she finds inspiration for her pieces and how she manages her work-life-art balance. Our conversation below is lightly edited for length and clarity.

Gabi Mendick: What’s your background both generally and artistically?

Emily: I’ve lived all over the place. I went to school in Vermont and studied environmental philosophy, but still did a lot of art in school. Afterwards I moved out to Portland, Oregon and realized that the only thing I wanted to do was art, so I devoted myself to that. That’s when I first got turned on to screen printing as something that I knew I had to do to make my art more sellable. I had been doing a lot of watercolors, and you can watercolor for forever and nobody’s going to care most of the time. I thought it would be cool to learn this process and be able to mass produce my work.  After Portland I moved home and my parents were living in Michigan where I took classes at the Kalamazoo Art Institute, where I learned how to screen print. I basically moved into the studio and fell in love with screen printing right away. When I later moved to Boston, about five years ago, I started my own home studio and I’ve been doing that ever since.

GM: Why did you find screen printing more sellable or more appealing as opposed to digitally printing paintings?

Emly: I was thinking “how can I make art available to other people?” I guess it was the style of screen printing appealed to me the most.

GM: And with screen printing the process of the reproduction is also an art, and you’re working with your hands, rather than doing everything on a computer.

Emily: And I should be better at digital stuff and technology, but my thing is pretty analog. Which is kind of nice, because though having a lot of scale digitally can be really useful, sometimes I think that a lot of styles start to look the same when they’re overly processed, so I try to keep mine a little more raw.

GM: So what brought you to Boston five years ago?

Emily: I had to get out of Michigan, and my sister was living here, and I also had a friend who said “you can stay with me”- so I moved out here and lived in a corner of his living room and I’ve been here ever since.

GM: Do you have a day job or are you a full time artist?

Emily: I do. I work right up the street at Lincoln School where I teach at extended day. I do a lot of art with fourth and fifth graders; it’s super fun. One of my favorite things to do with them is experiment with different types of printmaking, even something as small as making stamps on the ends of corks. I try to go crazy and get as weird as possible with them and explore easy, different modes of printmaking with the kids.

GM: Do you ever make anything in the classroom that you end up finishing at home and selling?

Emily: Yes, I definitely do. I started doing linoleum block printing with kids and then went home and started doing my own rubber stamps. Or even different motifs that the kids come up with. I was doing a little stamping project and this kid took out black paper and white ink and started doing all this moon stuff, and I was like, “oh my god this looks so cool,” and I basically copied her. Sometimes doing art is a hard sell to kids because they equate doing art with art class where it’s an assignment, versus a space where they can just run free.

GM: Do you think Boston is a good place to live as a working artist?

Emily: I would say yes and no. I feel like in other cities there is just a higher population of working artists or creative people. On the other hand, because it’s a lower percentage of people who would call themselves artist, you can build more of a niche for yourself. When I was in Portland I kind of knew that the city did not need me. I mean, there were people with mobile screen printing trucks. They were so far ahead in so many ways as far as people making it as creatives and finding their niche. Portland is really inspirational, but in Boston people have approached me because I’m a screen printer and asked me to do a job for them. Because you’re not flooded with people doing this thing. People putting together events will also find me on Etsy. Verses a place where everyone is doing it and you have to claw your way up. I’m also not adept at self promotion, so I do kind of wait for people to come to me- which is my downfall, but I’m also fine with it. And being able to promote yourself as an artist is a totally different skill set from being an artist. And I put all of my time and energy into my favorite part which is just making the art.

GM: Is it hard for you to find time to make art?

Emily: That, I would say, is my other biggest struggle aside from self promotion. It is hard- balancing the work I do to get paid, plus time to make art, but also time for your social life. And I’m definitely not a loner, I’m pretty social; I need to spend a lot of time with friends. It’s definitely hard to balance, but I always come back to it. Deadlines keep me on track. And I like to remind myself that it is the most important thing to me, because that’s why I don’t have a full time, solid career job. I generally work pretty part time to make time for art. Even when I got out of college I was so afraid that I would be one of these people who works full time and then comes home and then is too tired to make art. And I could never do that. But luckily I’ve been out of school for ten years and it hasn’t happened, so I feel like I’ve avoided that. Which has absolutely been a worthwhile sacrifice.

GM: Do you hope you’ll be able to transition to being a full time artist?

Emily: Yeah, I do hope that. It’s funny because I spend so much time wishing that I could do that, but I do still like to think of art as something that I’m getting away with. I like to have a day job for something to complain about. I never want art to be the thing I complain about. I like that it’s an escape rather than something I have to do to pay the bills. There are also so many artists or writers who had standard careers so that they could be as weird as they wanted in their art. They didn’t have to do their creative endeavor to pay the bills, and the fact that they were freed from that is what allowed them to be experimental. So that’s what I like to remind myself of when I’m in the depths of “Why can’t I be a full time artist?!”

And sometimes when I have taken on freelance jobs, they have just ended up stressing me out because everything has to be perfect. But, of course, I still want it all.

GM: I’m really curious to hear about your Death By Eye Roll (pictured above) print and where that idea came from.

Emily: I think it came mostly from my three decades of being alive on this earth first and foremost. But, including being a DJ in college and afterwards- that’s a very male heavy environment, and having this idea of, "these are the bands I’m supposed to like,” and then getting out of that space and getting older and being like, “who’s telling me that I’m supposed to love Pavement?” At the end of the day, I don’t care about Pavement at all. And finally realizing that is very freeing. But it actually came to me when I was at a bar with two acquaintances, two men who were younger than me and talking about the Strokes. And I was thinking to myself, “I’ve been listening to the Strokes since before you were born.” They were chatting and didn’t bother to engage me, and I was just like, “I’m dead. Bury me here.” And that was the one hundredth instance of that happening. Or being friends with or in relationships with guys who are in bands and will talk at you about their music without ever asking your thoughts. I basically thought it was a funny inside joke with myself. It started out as an embroidery, I posted it, I had a bunch of friends who were like, “oh my god this is amazing,” and then one of my friends was like “you should make this into stickers or koozies.” And I didn’t know that anyone else would thing that was funny or relatable. I feel like I could write a PHD dissertation on this, because when I’m at a market, 99 out of 100 women that walk by say some version of “this relates to me on a spiritual level,” which I honestly never would have predicted. And it’s honestly also really funny to watch men’s reactions. One guy asked me, “Is it that bad?” My other favorite is when couples discuss it. And the woman will try to subtly be like, “Uh, this is you.” It is definitely heartening to see the reaction, it makes me feel less crazy. And I hope that for every woman who has been talked at and felt crazy for feeling bad about being talked at, she will feel like she’s not crazy, she’s not alone, and it’s a shared experience.

GM: So when did you make the first of that print?

Emily: Oh gosh, good question. I did this embroidery probably about two years ago and then had an aha moment of, “Oh, I'm a screen printer, I can mass produce this. I don't just have to make one embroidery and put it on my Etsy and see if it sells.” That's also what I love about doing shows is that people will say, “I don’t really use a koozie, but do you have this on a patch?” and I probably wouldn’t have thought to make a patch. It is a really nice type of test kitchen. In the past two years I was trying to hit on something that was mine and original but would be big.

GM: I was going through your Instagram earlier and came across your Westworld piece again (pictured above). When I first saw that I think I took a screenshot and sent it to five friends.

Emily: It's something that I think about a lot. I should make stickers or something out of that. I thought that everyone already thought that way, but the response on that was bigger than I expected, so I was like, “oh, maybe everyone hasn’t already thought of this.”

GM: I also really love the print of the woman taking a selfie- where did that idea originate?

Emily: I went to see an Egon Schiele show at the MFA, which was amazing, and his watercolors are so beautiful.  It inspired me; I basically sat around for the entire weekend experimenting with darker watercolors, because I tend to get too watery and too light. He uses dark tones and thick tones so well. I took a photo that I had taken of myself that had some shadows, and I tried to translate it into a really starkly toned watercolor. So, it started out as a watercolor, and then I ended up turning it into a screen print. Sometimes I get stuck in the same things, or I go back to prints I’ve done before that I like, but it was really fun to stumble upon something new and be excited about it.

GM: The figure of the nude woman that you use a lot is a different style from some of the wordy prints- when did you start doing those?

EM: I took a figure drawing class probably three years ago, and while doing the figure drawings I was thinking how fun it was going to be to turn it into a screen print. The drawings were successful and simple, so I made it into pillows, I put it on clothes, I just ended up putting it on everything. And then, I did other prints, and it was fun, because I never would have sold this figure drawing, but I played around with it and recreated it in so many other forms, and little did I know that the clothing with this nude on it would be popular. It’s a really fun way to be able to sell your drawings, or at least make them accessible. Because not everybody is interested in buying art to hang on their wall. Wearable art is super accessible and fun and I think that people right now are really interested in more custom, small batch items as opposed to something off the rack at H&M.

GM: And your work is super affordable as well, especially for people who may not have the disposable income to buy artwork.

EM: That is so important to me, because when I was just out of college and 23, I would see cool stuff, but I was broke. And I was just like, “why are these people gouging their audiences?” It is so important to me to have things that are affordable. And I do a lot to keep it affordable- I print on second hand garments so that I’m not spending $15 on a t-shirt that I have to turn around and charge $30 for.

GM: Any newer pieces you’re excited about or working on right now?

EM: One of the quotes from the Egon Schiele show, when he was put in jail for three weeks for basically hosting nude drawing sessions in his yard, and he was living with his girlfriend and they weren’t married, he did a self portrait and called it “Hindering the Artist is a Crime and is Murdering Life in the Bud.” And when I saw that title I thought, “I love how melodramatic this is, and this is how I feel everyday.” I could relate to it so hard and it was also hilarious, so I had to put it on everything.

GM: How did you come to start doing quotes and sayings and wordier pieces?

Emily: I’ve always done text heavy stuff. Even when I first started screen printing it was hard for me to just to do an image without words. I’m a big reader and writer and I love the idea of a digestible text or quote, they are so powerful. I’ve always been a quote collector so I love to repurpose them and put them back out there.

GM: When you are creating, are you thinking about something that is true to you, or are you thinking about the audience and the fact that these messages apply to everyone?

Emily: To be honest, I stick to myself first. And that’s the great thing about not having to make money off of it. I can think of myself first and I don’t have to pander. Because that’s the only way I can stand behind it is if it represents how I think and feel. And I always think, if I wanted to be a full time artist I would be making things with cats and mustaches on them. But if I was going to do that, I might as well be a banker- it’s the same thing to me. So if I think of a weird funny thing that I can laugh at, if anyone else likes it that’s great, and if not, that’s fine too.

GM: You’ve mentioned some, but are there any other artists who really inspire you?

Emily: I feel like I have a short list of artists, but a longer list of writers. As far as artists I definitely fell in love with Andy Warhol as a teenager. I think that for a lot of screen printers and graphic artists he is the gold standard. Another younger artist that I really love, whose show I just saw at the Whitney, is Laura Owens. She’s from L.A. and is a fine artist who does a lot of painting that can be serious, but there’s also a humor to it. It’s so subversive, especially as a woman to say, “take my art seriously, but I can still make it funny.” Not that I’m a fine artist, but I really love that audacity.

As far as writers, one of my number ones is Joan Didion- she was just so sharp and biting and true. Another of my favorites is James Agee who was a journalist who wrote about the great depression, he wrote this amazing book that is so emotionally rendered. And Lester Bangs is my other favorite, I love everything that he ever did.

GM: Any favorite spots for art shows around town?

Emily: I do love the ICA and I try to go there a lot. I live down the street from the Aviary, which I love, they put on awesome shows every month. I think last September I saw Solange at the Orpheum, and visually that was one of the most amazing shows I’ve seen- visual art or music, she was just incredible. That will set the bar for every show I go to in the future and I think nothing will come close.