'I want viewers to reconnect with the meaning in life': The economically wild paintings of Emily Pettigrew

Born on the coast of Maine, artist Emily Pettigrew's paintings have been infused with the harshness of the state's landscape and the Spartanism of its people and architecture. Now living in New York City, her work is tempered with a formidable discipline.

"I think you can trace its recognisable visual impact in the work of painters who have spent significant time there," Emily tells Creative Boom of Maine's rugged influence. "Maine lent both a puritanical cleanliness and a wildness to my aesthetic world."

This almost sanitised approach to painting can be found in her haunting depictions of people treading through hallways, empty rooms looking out onto empty houses, and fence posts weighed down with the heft of snowfall. Each is picked out with a veneer of paint that never borders on the excessive. Instead, it looks as if it was strictly scraped over the surface and forced to go as far as possible. The effect is powerful.

"I like economy," says Emily. "It was a part of my upbringing as a child: not to use more than you need, that excess is not admirable. My parents were into the Shakers and 'doing it yourself' and impressed those things on me."

This isn't to say Emily's work is bleak. There's a sincerity and a wistfulness to her paintings, a hope born out of hardship. The thin paints and muted colours work together to create a feeling that you've crept upon them in the middle of the night and that if you're not careful, you could wake them with a start and frighten them off.

As well as Maine, moving to New York City has helped Emily to hone her style. "New York City impressed a discipline, work ethic, and sophistication onto my practice," she says. "Now that I have moved to upstate New York (the Catskill Mountains), I feel a sense of freedom and well-being, which I think has added richness to my paintings."

Speaking of her practice, Emily reveals that the spark at the inception of her paintings is to go out and experience what she wants to create: "I am always looking for places worthy of being painted - that's a driving force that never leaves my mind." Stating that her work and life are quite interwoven, which creates a greater sense of meaning in both, she starts by taking lots of photos and staging a moment that will become a painting.

"The final reference photo will often be something saw in passing - a person walking through a door, for example - which I will then re-frame and have the subject recreate in a cleaner and more formal way," she adds. With her photo taken, she relocates to her studio and studies the image on her phone screen. By drawing at such a small scale, she can make more conscious decisions about the final image rather than being bound to copy reality. "Once I feel the drawing is complete, I transfer it onto wood and begin to paint."

The overall effect of her ethics and approach is a world of paintings that invoke a sense of peaceful quietness, but one that points to a deeper, more thrilling mysteriousness. "I suppose I want viewers to reconnect with the meaning in life," says Emily. "In the moments that fulfil our human needs, I feel everyday life gains its meaning."


Get the best of Creative Boom delivered to your inbox weekly