Working Girl is our new segment in which we talk to women about their work. Our latest subject is Emma Kohlmann, short-hair-of-my-dreams-haver. The New York bred painter and multi-media artist creates work that is abstract and hyper-sexual, visceral and beautiful, and inherently feminist. Kohlmann’s work is fine art in the streets and punk in the streets: the artist is a prolific zine producer and has done work for bands like Hoax and Natural Law. Also did I mention her hair cut?
I sat down with the 25 year old to talk about her art, her process, and the super open, positive, and collaborative ways in which she arrived where she is today, as well as her upcoming events in Los Angeles: the Up In Smoke Fantasy Hed Shoppe she co-curated with her friend and fellow artist Sonya Sombreuil Cohen which opens Thursday May 14th, and her solo show “Love Spring Fever” at Mata Gallery, which opens Friday May 15th.
Tell me a little background about your art career. Did you study art?
I studied dance for a long time. And I did that all throughout high school. Ballet mostly. And then I went to college and I thought I wanted to do dance, but I went to this liberal arts college called Hampshire, where there’s no majors. You can do literally whatever you want, just as long as you’re motivating yourself. It’s all self-determined.
It was an amazing experience. Instead of dancing I took philosophy classes and post-Colonial theory, and then I took art classes my second year. I had always been into art, I was in art honors in high school, so I always wanted to do that. But I never thought about what it took to be an artist? I don’t know. Then I got a studio and I became just really obsessive about my practice and about working there. It was fun for me.
What would you say it actually is or takes to be an artist? It sounds like you discovered it by just giving yourself the space and time to do it.
Yeah. I guess for me, having a studio practice is like going to the gym. You want to be healthy, you have to do it all the time, and you have to be consistent. And I kind of feel like that’s how I work. I wish I felt that way about exercising! All I do is like, make art or walk. I don’t drive so I walk everywhere. But I guess it’s about discipline, and pushing yourself, and finding out these things, and being engaged.
Did you play around with a bunch of mediums before you settled on the one that’s most prevalent in your work?
Yeah, well I was really into collage for a while, and then in college I felt very self-conscious about the work I was making and wasn’t really sure what I was doing. I had a couple professors tell me that it didn’t look good so I stopped doing that. I always drew and I always loved doing that, like doodling in sketch books. So I’m still kind of doing the same thing. My thesis was a water color work and I made like, 300 pieces of huge drawings, then I made really little color pieces that were scattered throughout the gallery.
Wow, 300 is a lot.
Yeah! I really like having a lot. I hate minimalism and I hate sparse-ness. That’s never been my thing. I’ve always been about excess, I love excess and too-much. I’m still doing the same stuff, just like incorporating color and texture and stuff.
After college I imagine you didn’t have the pressure but also the comfort of academia to help you with your art. So how did you pursue art from there?
It’s funny because I lived in Western Mass and when I graduated I stayed in Western Mass, which is very rural. There’s a ton of stuff going on there, it’s just very weird. It’s just like a hub of people doing obscure stuff, like noise music and punk. When I graduated I found myself in a scene that was super supportive. I would make flyers for people. I started making zines right after I graduated college and I would go to shows and bring them there. People were really receptive to that.
How do you feel about zines as a tool for artists, especially now?
I don’t know. I like it because I never incorporate words with my illustrations, and then I used zines because it put me out of my comfort zone. I am really self-conscious though; I have a hard time articulating myself and I’m really shy. So that [zines] felt like the most I ever put myself out there because I felt like, super naked, because someone is reading how I actually feel. Most of it is fictional, but I feel like i’m trying to talk from a perspective that’s outside myself.
They say all good fiction has elements of the person writing it.
Yeah. I just never really knew about zine culture, and then I became like immersed in it, and other people were doing the same thing or like, I contributed something different, there were connections being made there.
How much would you say you used the internet to put out your work?
That’s like, the majority. I would have never met the people that I know without the internet.
You mean in terms of collaborators or just people that you work with?
Well, Sonya [Sombreuil Cohen] and I went to college together, and I feel like we work really well together. We’ve always had this connection and understand each other. But like my other friends like Nina Hartmann, we met through other affiliations. The internet really fused that. It’s weird, I love and hate Instagram, there’s something that’s so personal about it to me. Like I can understand who a person is through their Instagram. That’s my favorite part about the internet, is looking at people’s pictures and being like “wow, they’re so cool! They’re interested in the same thing I’m interested in.”
It is funny because a person is very much “here is what I’m like” you know? But it’s their own version of themselves…
Yeah it’s manufactured and stuff. People sometimes really manicure their shit.
I mean it’s just the kind of person you are. Like if you’re that kind of person you will do that same sort of personal curation in real life anyways, you know? I don’t think it’s that far off from how people really are.
Meeting people on the Internet is such a weird thing. Like not knowing them and then meeting them in real life and being like “I feel like I know you!”
Do you remember the first time you were like “Oh wait, I’m actually an artist now!” Like maybe it was when you sold something or like you did some collaboration, you know? Something where you were like “this is actually now my life.”
I think up until recently actually, like this past month. I had to quit my job to go to Japan. I just decided. to do it. I worked at a bakery called The Hungry Ghost and it was like my life after college, like what I did. I had my schedule and then my art on the side, my practice went around my work schedule. I had to quit and it was really hard. I mean I’m still technically there, they told me I’ll always have my job. But I don’t know, I don’t want to do that, I just want to do what I want to do all the time. It would be cool not to have to wait on people because people can be so horrible and like working there sometimes I just felt like people don’t even care.
Like you don’t exist.
Yeah and I think that’s like a normal thing with any kind of service job, people are fucking rude. There is a dehumanizing thing about it sometimes. But I really like having that [a job]. I like having to break up my day and having a schedule. That’s kind of the main force as to why I can do so many things at once. I have a problem, I just say “yes” to everything. I hate saying no, because I’m just like, Why? What am I going to do? Sit around?
I imagine your job influences you practice in some way, because that’s a big part of your life, and the interactions with other people too.
Yeah and I live in a small town so I know all the regulars and they know me and I’m sure they’re like, “where did Emma go?” It’s just funny working there and after a while just being able to tell what someone is going to order and what they like and then seeing them in town and kind of knowing their backstory.
Yeah like, cheese-danish guy, there he is.
Haha yeah there’s like, peanut butter chocolate chip guy.
Is there a particular project or a piece of work that you have done thus far that you are most proud of?
That’s really hard… I mean I’m really excited about this upcoming project i’m doing. Sonya and I are collaborating and making this pop-up shop called “Up In Smoke” and it’s a dream that we’ve always had based off of when Claes Oldenburg did this shop and he fabricated everything in the shop…We’re trying to do that but like weed themed [laughs]. Neither of us smoke weed really, we just like the weird culture, like the fantasy thing and pleasure thing that happens when you do it. It’s like the one place you can go and buy things for you, like a sex shop. A smoke shop is for your pleasure.
So we are making limited run t-shirts for that, of like bootleg band t-shirts and favorite songs. And I’m making all these zines. I’m really obsessed with this poet Anne Sexton and a lot of her publications are kind of like really ugly to me. I just really want to make my own version of them, so I’m going to bootleg illustrated copies of her books and we are going to put out an inspiration zine with stuff that we look at. And someone’s going to make weed perfume and Alexis Gross is going to make weird towels and things with some of her photographs on them. We are trying to get as many people involved as possible. Like I’m always really into having a community, getting people involved and creating a community out of it.
It’s going to happen mid-May. That’s a project i’m really excited about. I’ve worked with Sonya before. We had a show in Olympia called “Psycho Mama.” It was about the female and the idolization of self and self-obliterating type stuff. We wanted it to be this overwhelming experience of. There were poster sized paintings, hundreds of them everywhere. We made t-shirts, we made zines, and we hand-painted all the t-shirts. It was in this coffee shop DIY space and people were kind of offended by the work because it was pornographic, so I felt like people were kind of outraged, but I was like, you know what, that’s okay. The fact that people were feeling something is better than nothing.
You elicited a response.
Right. As long as there is something like that. I hate when people are just like “uhh I feel nothing.”
Would you say that you prefer collaborating with other people or working on your own?
Yeah, I don’t like the attention [on my own]. I just like when people really get into things. Like “oh cool, they’re into it, I’m into it.” And I work on my own stuff and make my own stuff all the time. I prefer to have a collaborative/brainstorming thing. And sometimes in collaboration with like Sonya or Nina or whoever we break off into our own thing and within the collaboration there’s our own independent thing going on. There’s always something like that; it never really feels like a complete and total group effort.
Would you give any advice to any young artists who are trying to find their own people in the world that they want to collaborate with or link up with?
You know what, I think that people are super competitive with each other.
Yes, Especially women. And that’s something I’ve been so lucky about. I never really felt that way because I’ve only embraced it and welcomed people and I think to have that kind of attitude instead of like, “you stole my style, that’s mine.” No one’s original anymore. You’re not some kind of brilliant genius that came up with solid gold pieces. It’s never going to be that way. That negative attitude detracts from any positive commodity. And I would never want to alienate something, and I think that’s the only thing I’ve been doing, is just trying to welcome people and work as hard as I can.
Emma’s solo show at Mata Gallery opens May 15th.
For more info about the Up In Smoke pop up opening May 14th, click HERE (flyer below).