Artist Spotlight: A Q&A With Local Artist Emily Williams Wheeler
In this Artist Spotlight, get a behind-the-scenes look at the woman behind the amazing Recess West murals, Santa’s Whimsical Wonderland design, and many of our banners and decor – Emily Williams Wheeler! See what she has to say about her process behind creating some of our most-loved elements within the mall, and her journey to becoming the artist she is today.
Emily Williams-Wheeler received her BA in Interior Design, with Distinction, from Iowa State University, in Ames. Based in Fargo, ND, she has exhibited widely in the region including the Plains Art Museum in Fargo and the Rourke Art Museum and Gallery in Moorhead, MN. Her work has also been exhibited at small venues around the country. She also leads workshops around the region and has been offering semi-private classes for children and adults in her studio for more than 10 years.
Williams-Wheeler has participated in numerous group exhibitions including the annual Midwestern Exhibition at the Rourke Art Museum, annual exhibits at the Spirit Room Gallery, and a duet show, “As Creatures” with artist Nathen Cantwell at the Cultural Center Gallery in Aberdeen, SD. She has also had many solo exhibitions at the Spirit Room Gallery, the Northern Lights Gallery, including her encaustics debut titled “SHIFT” at the Uptown Gallery. Williams-Wheeler’s solo exhibit, “Lint in my Pocket” is chosen as a traveling exhibition by the North Dakota Art Gallery Association (NDAGA) for 2017-18.
What triggered your interest in art? When was the first time you told yourself “I want to be an artist?”
I had planned to be an engineer from 6th grade on. I attended Iowa State with an academic scholarship and after the first year I realized that engineering was not what I wanted to do. I transferred to the College of Design and graduated with distinction with a degree in Interior Design. I worked on healthcare, churches, schools, and commercial design at the beginning of my career. When we decided to have children, I stayed home. I was quite a busy person and began making greeting cards which led to writing and illustrating 6 gift books (now out of print) sold internationally. I took several classes in watercolor from local artist Janet Flom and started painting from then on. My mother was an artist, though unfortunately, she never saw what I have accomplished in the past 20 years.
How would you describe your art?
Color is the most important thing to me. It evokes the most emotion and mood. I am told my work is whimsical and playful. I think that sounds about right. As my work evolves, it becomes more and more abstract.
What is your biggest inspiration for your art these days? What drives you creatively?
Again, color. I continuously work with layering colors, blending, mixing, glazing to achieve the right combination for a successful painting. My encaustic paintings (molten pigmented wax) are almost always abstract. However, lately my acrylic paintings have been focused on very large botanical themes. Very realistic and definitely a different direction for me. I am continuously blooming new ideas for painting. My environment, books, social media all influence my work as well as fellow artists.
What is your favorite art medium? And, why?
Acrylics and graphite are my favorite. I like to work fast most of the time and acrylics allow me to do so. The graphite adds a loose quality to the acrylic paintings. I also love to work with encaustic paints. That is a whole different realm since I paint with the pigmented molten wax and use a torch to manipulate it once it hardens. So many creative highs with both of these media.
Your art and creative influence is present in many ways throughout the mall: Santa’s Whimsical Wonderland installation, our banners, Recess West murals, etc. What is it like seeing your art come to life in a space such as West Acres?
I have to say, I am so extremely proud of being part of such a special environment. There is no mall like it anywhere. The support to local art is amazing. I think I might actually strut around a little when I walk through the building. The opportunities I have had to share my creativity with the public have allowed me to grow in ways I never could have imagined. Designing Santa’s Whimsical Wonderland–what project could be better?
Can you tell us about the process of designing Santa’s Whimsical Wonderland? What inspired your design?
I was definitely inspired by Dr Seuss. I tried not to have a straight line in any of the objects to ramp up the playfulness and whimsy. It’s like adding wiggles to everyday objects. You have to smile when you see it. My absolute favorite thing is Santa’s chair. I thought about offering to store it in my living room when the display is in storage. It turned out exactly as I imagined.
What was it like to create the murals in Recess West? How long did it take you to complete?
I am afraid of heights and those are some mighty tall walls. I used a scissors-lift to paint most of it and actually had fun doing so! I worked in the evenings, sometimes as late as 2 am. It was extra special seeing the mall after hours and walking “behind the scenes” in the non-public spaces behind the shops. It’s a different world back there. It took me about 80 hours to paint. I kept the design fairly simple so it wouldn’t overwhelm to space and agitate the children.
How do you think art transforms people, spaces, and even entire communities such as Fargo?
Wonderful question. This region tends to lean toward basic utility in our buildings and along our streets. Simply adding color bursts can greatly transform an environment. When winter comes, there is a brightness from the freshly fallen snow, but that quickly changes with wind and traffic. We spend so many months in that condition that we need artwork to boost our mental health. Art can challenge us to question, can add beauty, history, and energy. Not all art is pretty and that’s okay. We need to be inspired and thoughtful, something one doesn’t get with a brown and grey environment.
Where can we find more information on your artwork?
First, you can find my art online at www.emilywilliamswheeler.com. The Underbrush Gallery, the Rourke Museum Gallery, and Revland Gallery have some of my work on display. You will also be able to see my work in the new elementary in Moorhead.