Really Suffering for One’s Vision: A review on Emily May

by Taylor Stamm

If you have never been to Water Street in downtown Kalamazoo, an atmosphere of creativity permeates. The spread of drinks and eats are mentionable but its obvious support of local artists solidifies a sense of community there. Every few months, the downtown café exhibits an artist from the Kalamazoo area. I went to see the last exhibit by Emily May, whose work is no longer showing but she will be “crashing” the Art Hop somewhere tonight with another artist named Nikki Kazmar in what they call the “Mobile Street Creative” from 5 to 9 pm.

As Keeney Swearer noted in his review of the current show at the Biggby coffee shop on Kalamazoo College’s campus, the cafe setting creates a different way of approaching art than work exhibited in an art gallery. [1] The commotion and relaxed vibe set up a casual interpretation of the work present – you go to a café to indulge, revamp, focus, whatever it may be; art is an afterthought in this context. Just like the space, May’s work is busy; it requires a closer look in order to notice the little details present in each piece. With eyes no more than two inches away from the surface of the print/collage/painting, the parts that compile the whole piece are ripped out from newspaper, old maps, lace, old photographs, sugar packets and fake pearl necklaces, stuff you would probably find in a thrift store or your parents basement.

Downtown Water Street Café exhibition: Emily May, May 2012. Photo by Taylor Stamm.

When I first walked in, a booklet made of cut-up maps caught my attention, punctuating a series of repeated portraits of the same woman, possibly the artist herself, in various combinations of light and dark blues, maroon, purple, and white on screen prints and colored pencil. The booklet, made from cut up maps reads “TRY ME” on each page. It is unclear to whom or what she is responding, but the title heightens the assertive/antagonistic feel even more: Ima win this one (not that it’s a power struggle). There is an ambiguity about what exactly she is referencing and how serious the dispute is; we are left without much context other than the image of the woman and the booklet, which makes me pause and wonder, what experience she is speaking to?  Whatever she wants us to “TRY” her with, the message gets easily lost in the mixed media and the text accompanying the piece.

As I perused many of her pieces, I couldn’t tell if this artist has the mentality of a seventeen-year-old artsy-girl or a serious satirical approach with her work. The piece entitled like, rlly suffering for the terrifying clarity of (one’s) vision, encased in a golden frame holds three upholstered shapes of sunglasses, covered with lace. The valley-girl terminology brings a bad taste to my mouth – maybe it’s just the art-snob in me, but even if it is a joke, it’s the kind of thing that’s mostly funny for friends. Collaged-clippings of various musicians not widely acclaimed like Harum and Billy Preston (in case you are familiar) seem to make fun of the musicians in the background and ultimately, by the phrasing of the title, May herself.


Emily May, like, rlly suffering for the terrifying clarity of (one’s) vision, 2012. Photo by Taylor Stamm.

Another piece collages a printed figure of a shapely woman wearing a high-fashion, one-piece bathing suit. Replicated on what appears to be phonebook paper and repeated over and over the viewer is provoked to be highly aware of the formal decision to cut off the head of the figure. The title, or side note rather, solidifies the uncomfortable nature of this piece: Untitled (like I’m going to tell you). Perhaps it is denying some guy or gal her digits, her name, how many bathing suits like that does she own? Giving sass is a familiarity to me as well but alongside the other in-your-face comments, or pieces’ titles rather, it becomes too much too fast.

After I left the café late Tuesday evening, I got to the nearest computer to check out her website given to me by the baristas who were closing up. Websites are now widely expected of artists; it is a way to get recognition, publish, or otherwise put opinion out there. Gilsdorf, a writer for the Help Desk blog on Daily Serving answers weekly questions about buying, making, selling, marketing, and exhibiting art and asked a few international curators a few months ago what their opinions on an artist website was. One curator said about artist blogging, “I have found this to be a great way for artists to share their work, while building context and community around their practice. I suspect that more and more these blogs will be used as research tools for curators and galleries, especially in compiling group shows.” [2] As I scrolled through the images on the WordPress site, EMILYMAYSHOUTS, I realized I had seen her work in the Exquisite Corpse gallery at a previous Art Hop. Websites and blogs certainly do keep us connected and it is the quickest way to get to know about an artist’s work in only a few minutes.

At the bottom of the main page, May explains her work and why she feels she doesn’t need an artist statement, “Notions of rebellion, self-reliance, nature, love, fury, beauty, fear and nostalgia, to name a few, are so deeply embedded in this space that it seems redundant to articulate their importance to me, and consequently their presence in what comes out of my hands.” [3] Maybe revisiting the work and assessing the themes so “deeply embedded” in her work is a better option in developing a body of work, rather than nixing a statement. May has a strong voice, which is overtly clear in all of her work. She undoubtedly has passion and exposes herself in ways that many others would not have the courage or strength to do, but if it’s a serious artist identity she is after: lose the sass.


[1] Keeney Swearer, “Presentation in Alternative Gallery Spaces,” comment with a K (7 May 2012), Date of access: 30 May 2012.

[2] Bean Gilsdorf, “HELP DESK: On the Web and In Your Head,” Daily Serving, 12 March 2012, Accessed: 1 June 2012.

[3] Emily May, “Zen and the Art of Showing,” EMILYMAYSHOUTS, 5 June 2011, Accessed: 1 June 2012.



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