The Scrutineer xx

Emily Gordon

Words: Michael Sharp

Photography: Ashley Mackevicius

Emily Gordon felt isolated growing up as an only child in the suburbs of Oakland on the east side of San Francisco Bay.

“We lived up on the hill, so we were a bit removed from the feeling of being in a city, and I always felt a bit disconnected and remote, even though Oakland is a city of 400,000 people. It was a quiet upbringing.”

Today she and her family live in a terrace house in The Rocks, an historic area in inner city Sydney that bustles continuously with residents and tourists.

“This was my childhood desire – to get off the hill and be amongst people, to be in the city.”

Emily in Oakland

Gordon performed well academically at school and was interested in art from a very young age. 

“When I was little, I wanted to be either an artist or an astronaut,” she recalls. “I was always doing after school art programs, weekend classes, summer camps, summer courses. In the way a lot of kids did sport, I did art.”

Her parents had an appreciation for the Arts, however they worked corporate desk jobs. “But Oakland is a creative and diverse community, so there were lots of good opportunities and options. Also, my friends’ parents tended to be creative people – artists, photographers, illustrators – so being in those homes was a way to engage in creativity.”

Gordon studied art at high school, and took courses on weekends and during holidays, but when it came time to select a university course she didn’t choose art.

“Basically, I chickened out,” she says honestly. “I told myself that I wouldn’t fit in, but I think it was really because I was convinced I didn’t have anything people would be interested in seeing. I thought art school was to prepare you to go straight into a museum and I didn’t think I had what it takes.”

Gordon decided to study History at Cornell University in New York State, with a focus on East Asia. Cornell offered its students the opportunity to spend a semester studying at the University of Sydney and Gordon decided to grasp that opportunity by the forelock.

The course was “fabulous” and one night she met a nice young man at a Sydney bar.

“Spoiler alert, he is now my husband,” Gordon says with a smile.

Emily in Australia

After graduating from Cornell, Gordon decided to emigrate to Australia which means “I’ve spent essentially my entire adult life here”.

How difficult was it to make this major, life-changing choice?

“I make big decisions easily and little decisions with a large amount of angst,” she responds with admirable self-awareness.

Feeling a bit adrift in her new country, Gordon enrolled in a marketing degree at Macquarie University because she thought it would help her find employment. She completed that degree in 2008 and discovered the Global Financial Crisis meant there were very few marketing jobs available. For the next few years she worked in real estate.

Gordon hadn’t practised her art much since leaving high school “because I was in University survival and fun mode” however she now started enrolling in community art classes. After Gordon’s second child was born, her mother encouraged her to get back into painting and offered to babysit while Emily did some more art courses.

Her confidence grew “and I came to the realisation that I could create and sell my art for a similar monetary outcome as working part-time in the roles that were available to me.

“I remember reading an issue of Country Style magazine and seeing these fantastic artists who were creating good work that had tremendous appeal and they were selling their work for money as a small business. That was their job. I thought: ‘How fantastic would that be?’ It was a light bulb moment – that you could be a working artist if you are making art that people connect with.

“So I made another big decision – I decided I was going to be an artist.”

Emily the artist

Gordon and her husband own a property at Gunning, a small town that lies between Goulburn and Yass in The Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, and she began painting landscapes in the area. She remembers looking at one of these works and being satisfied that “it had its own little voice”. This gave her the confidence to apply to a local winery that was seeking artists to exhibit there.

Her submission to the winery was accepted and the series of about a dozen landscapes sold well.

“The thing I was most proud of was that I sold some to collectors who were not friends or family or associates,” she recalls fondly. “They were local people who had seen my work on Instagram, came to the show and bought some paintings.” 

As it happens, one of those collectors knew Amber Creswell Bell, Director of Emerging Art for the Michael Reid galleries, and recommended that Creswell Bell have a look at Gordon’s work. Creswell Bell followed this recommendation “and that changed everything”.

While Creswell Bell admired Gordon’s landscapes, she asked her to focus on her more recent cityscapes and the subsequent 2019 exhibition “was a great experience and very successful”.

Emily in the city

Gordon moved to The Rocks in inner city Sydney in 2018 “and that’s when I started to look at this environment as subject matter. I have an interest in painting my personal narrative – painting where I find myself, painting the things I see in my daily life. I didn’t paint the city until I lived in the city. I find moments around me that are visually captivating – this vista, this corner, this alley. About 50% of the time it’s me going about my business and something catches my eye and the other 50% I go exploring to see if I can find something interesting, the seed of an idea. I’m looking for moments of light and of rhythm.”

Gordon always carries her smartphone with her to capture these moments.

“Over time I develop a library and I refer back to those images to think whether there is a painting there. Sometimes I take a photo and I know it’s going to be a painting. But other times I think there is something interesting there but I’m not sure what it is, so I save it and circle back later. For some of my paintings I might have taken the photo three or four years ago and I’ve looked at them many times until finally I say to myself: ‘I know how I can do this. I know what this composition needs, I know what the colour and the light needs to be to translate that moment into an artwork.’”

Most importantly, “there needs to be an engagement between a photo and what ends up on the board”.

While Gordon is inspired by the real scenes that surround her, whether cityscape or landscape, the key components of her work are less tangible.

“The things I am looking for in the composition are rhythm and light. If I’m happy with the rhythm and I’m happy with the light, then everything else falls into place.

“My current practice, and this does shift over time, is to begin with a loose sketch followed by a more composed sketch, just to spend some more time in that world, understanding the composition, understanding the proportions and making decisions about how to make it work as an artwork. Then I start work on the board with an underpainting, which is like a drawing in yellow ochre paint – and that’s where the real building happens, where decisions are made about what is in, what is out and what needs adjustment.

“The underpainting is critical for decision-making and once that’s down, it’s almost like a jigsaw. For example I don’t paint a blue sky and then a cloud on top. If there’s a cloud, I will paint the cloud and then the blue will go around it, or vice versa.”

Gordon has achieved significant success since she committed to being an artist six years ago, including selection as a finalist in the 2021 National Emerging Art Prize and selling out her past four shows at Michael Reid Northern Beaches and Michael Reid Southern Highlands. 

She is grateful to those who have guided and supported her and knows she still has much to achieve.

“You are always growing. I have a process but not a fixed approach. For every painting, I ask what does this painting need, what is special here and how can I bring that out visually,” she says with softly spoken intensity. “Giving each work its own approach opens up new ideas and gives me more options as I build my practice.”

Gordon’s latest exhibition is titled Higher Ground and, as always, it is important to her that the series works as a coherent narrative.

“The title refers to me revisiting places and memories in The Rocks, an area where I’ve been working pretty intensively for the past five years, trying to see familiar topics from a new perspective and also discovering new vistas that I hadn’t previously appreciated.”

Higher Ground opens at Michael Reid Southern Highlands on 2 May and runs until 2 June.

Michael Sharp

Michael has been working at Michael Reid Southern Highlands since it opened in March 2022. He has previously worked as a lawyer, journalist and senior practitioner in Australian corporate affairs.

Ashley Mackevicius

Ashley discovered photography at the age of 15, which proved to be a lifeline for the academically challenged son of Lithuanian migrants. He has had a long and successful career and lives in The Southern Highlands.

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