Meet Emma Stenhouse: Remember to Just Do You
Indigenous artist and early childhood educator, Emma Stenhouse is hot property at the moment with her creative work booming. She has been dreaming of her art on textiles since she was a young girl and it is soon to come to fruition due to her upcoming collaboration with Nerida Hansen Fabrics.
Deeply inspired by nature and country with a subtle use of colour, Emma, is riding high on a wave and not coming down anytime soon. Here she has a chat with our blog editor, Jacqui Taylor, on her passions, the three most important women in her life and staying true to herself.
Hello Emma, thanks for the taking time to answer a few questions. Firstly, can you tell me a bit about yourself, where were you born and where do you live?
Hi there! I’m Emma Stenhouse, 42 year old mum of three – two boys and a daughter in heaven. I have been married for 20 years this November and was born and raised in Broken Hill, outback NSW. Five years ago my husband Shane, sons Lachie and Fraser and I moved to Warrnambool, Victoria. We now live on peek Whurrong Country in the Marr Nation.
I’m an early childhood educator and passionate advocate for the rights of the child and the opportunity to share my culture and educate people through art.
How long have you been an artist? Talk to me about your journey.
I have been a creative person since childhood and have explored many different art forms over the years including sewing, screen printing, print making, fabric dyeing and my two current passions have both stemmed from me connecting to my Ngarrindjeri heritage. I began weaving the coil weave about three years ago, unaware that it was the weave of the Ngarrindjeri women. I connected to an incredible weaver who turned out to be my dad’s cousin! My Aunty Glenda, a master weaver, has helped me put the pieces of my family history together that had become so important to me once I turned 40. I was able to connect with myself as an Indigenous woman, and have become a very proud Ngarrindjeri woman and sharer of my culture - which I’m still learning about.
Painting art from my culture soon followed and has allowed me to explore my own family connections and use of traditional iconography to create contemporary artworks. These focus on my connection to country, the beauty and importance of nature and the stories I want to share, especially about family. These are stories that I have connected with. My work is inspired by nature, particularly the colour palette close to me heart which is the beautiful reds and earthy tones of the desert. Recently, I have begun exploring more coastal palettes and I look forward to a time when I can visit my grandmother’s country - the lower lakes on the Murray River, Ngarrindjeri Country.
Like many indigenous women who have skin that isn’t quite dark enough this journey has not been without it’s challenges, I'm exploring this through my artwork which I feel an important journey to share and inspire others.
You have a new collection coming out with Nerida Hansen Fabrics. What was your inspiration?
The focus of this particular collection is about our journeys and the things that we are connected to such as our family, country, the stars, nature and the places we meet. They show our connections. It is called the Pinkie collection after my grandmother.
What is the meaning of the symbols in your art?
The traditional icons I use are used all over the country to share stories. In these pieces you will see the symbol for meeting place - I often use this symbol to represent home - the place we come together. The symbol for journey is also represented with five lines between circles, they represent travel and the circles represent camps of rest stops.
I use the symbol for star to represent the spirits of those who have gone before us, who watch over us and continue to light the way. We are all connected to the stars and the spirits. I also honour nature with a seed pod - this is an icon I have created myself to represent our connection to country and growth.
People are also represented strongly in my work - these look like an upside down U shape. These can be used to show a single person, child or mob depending on how they are placed. I also use the traditional icon to represent a male and a female. A single line to the left of the upside down U it is female, a pair of lines means male.
I'm currently leaning towards a more feminine colour palette that represents the softness of women, there are still many colours I am looking forward to using in my pieces, however I find myself being drawn back to these. Perhaps it is my link to my grandmother who was a very soft and gentle woman.
Emma, did you ever imagine your art on textiles?
Did I ever imagine? Not only did I imagine it, I have held on to the dream of it becoming a reality for as long as I can remember. When I was a young girl, I would sit and watch my nan sew on her old Singer sewing machine, I was drawn to the different fabrics she used - the textures, the weights. I’d admire her busy hands and her button collection - which I have since been gifted, and had fear of her fabric scissors which were sharp and that I was not allowed to touch under any circumstances! At 91, my darling Nanna Rosie still has busy hands and is still creating!
I began sewing myself about 13 years ago, I created pretty much everything from pin cushions to clothing and found my obsession with fabric had no end. I learned how to sew and draft patterns (thanks Pinterest), to dye and then screen print my own designs. I guess from that moment I saw that if I held onto my dream of designing my own fabric, it just might happen one day…And here we are!
What or who inspires you?
My main influences in life generally are my mum and my nan and in more recent time my beautiful grandmother who I didn’t get to spend enough time with. These three women in particular have given me a strong sense of courage and self belief. They have worked hard for what they have in life, as do I.
The other biggest influence in life is my connection to country. I can’t ever remember a time in my life where I wasn’t outside in the dirt, admiring little flowers, the sky and its changing colours, a bird singing - I’m a nature nerd! I can’t quite put into words to explain my connection other than to say it’s a knowing. A trust in our country to give and take, to nurture and challenge. The elders of the Ngarrindjeri say ‘everything is connected ‘ - this is something that has resonated with me even more since I came to connect to my culture.
What is next for Emma Stenhouse?
I hope to use my artwork to continue to educate people - to take the fear away for people who are scared of ‘getting it wrong’. The only way to truly discover our beautiful culture is to learn about it. I will continue to work in schools, work alongside the Peek Whurrong Elders and language facilitators in my community to share our artwork and stories and languages.
I’m also working on more pieces to share and reflect my own identity and allow for people to have conversations about their own connection to country.
What advice would you offer to other emerging artists?
I was given some advice last year that has stuck with me - know your worth!
This is a challenge that I've grabbed with both hands, it hasn’t been easy, and has been so much learning about myself and my capabilities as it has been about practicing art - with discipline and focus. As an emerging artist and someone who has just connected to my culture I found myself on the end of a lot of advice that was given with love mostly, but some not so much… so I needed to own who I am.
So my pearl of wisdom is to listen to yourself and surround yourself with people who know you and support you. Truthfully, I value the opinions of my family and my elders, anything else is white noise. Know who you are and just do you!
Name three words that describe your style of art.
Feminine, story telling, a conversation
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