THE POWERFUL PORTRAITIST YOU SIMPLY CAN'T IGNORE
Extracts from a 2008 interview in the Derbyshire Magazine
Whether your eye is drawn to the striking eye make-up or distinctive black clothing, Duffield's Emma Tooth cannot be ignored - nor can her art. She produces stunning portraits of ordinary people in a classical Renaissance style.
...some may say she is a walking piece of art herself
Emma Tooth is used to double takes. The Derbyshire artist is as striking as she is talented, as unique and surprising as her formidably impressive art.
Some may say she is a walking piece of art herself thanks to her theatrical presence. Stunning eye make-up and clothes with an historical air show her creativity in evidence every which way. She is certainly used to stares. When she's not painting, she's at the sewing machine making ... big bustle skirts and gorgeous historical hats. And she's not afraid to wear them... "One of my favourites is a 4ft wide pannier dress. It's fabulous. I wore it around London the other week and people were rushing out of the shops to look..."
Emma doesn't own a pair of jeans and wouldn't dream of lazing round the house in an old tracksuit. In a whisper she admits that she wouldn't even open the door to the postman if she wasn't fully made up. "I have to be well-presented, it's who I am. Outward appearance can be an extremely powerful tool," Emma is well aware that appearance can signal political, social or religious views, what music you enjoy, your role models - even your aspirations. "I've been experimenting with my own image through clothes, tattooing, piercing and makeup many years..."
However, it is not Emma's unusual appearance but her fascinating fine art described by critics as "Jewel-like treasures" - which is catapulting her to places she's never been before.
She's been creating art for many years, before she hit her teens in fact, and she's currently working on her biggest project to date. She's delighted to reveal that she's received Arts Council finding to carry out the project. In recent weeks, she has been creating 13 oil paintings, Entitled Concilium Plebis which, translated from Latin means, Council of the Ordinary People. "It's been a massive undertaking," said Emma... "It's taken over my life but it's been well worth it."
Before being able to even wet her brushes, Emma had to take to the streets to find the right subjects to paint. Young mothers, youths in hoodies and teens wearing baseball caps have been her inspiration. "I found the ubiquitous 'chavs', 'hoodies' and 'scallys'," smiled Emma, "And I painted them, They are arguably the life and character of the Midlands, if not the UK... It was hard because I knew what I wanted but there was always the fear I might not be able to find it. But it wasn't that tough. People wanted to help, after they got over the initial shock of what I was asking them to do."
"Can you imagine it, you're just minding your own business, shopping round town, and I pounce on you and say 'hey, can I paint you...' it was surreal - but great."
Emma feels that the type of characters she focused on are not always presented in the best of lights and she wanted to address that. Presented in the style of Renaissance paintings, lit and posed like Caravaggios, Emma has created something extraordinary and new. She has come up with something stunningly atmospheric, a classical take on 21st Century life.
In one piece of work, a boy's hood casts a deep shadow across his face - but is he really one of those menacing thugs we have heard about on TV or does he have the pensive expression of a saint? Another painting shows a young girl wearing a tracksuit, huge gold earrings and holding a baby. For all the world she looks like the Virgin and Child, but is she one of our ever-growing numbers of teenage mums, so often unfairly blamed for society's ills?
"After all, Caravaggio's models were the people he plucked from the streets... Who can forget his images of angels and wise men with vividly dirty toenails?" she laughed. It's Emma's attention to detail which has enabled her to pull off this extraordinary feat...
This body of work ties in with Derby's Joseph Wright Collection and has already been shown at Derby Museum and Art Gallery. "Wright himself was influenced by Caravaggio's Dutch followers and painted real people during the industrial revolution... These are paintings of real humanity."
Emma's art is both engaging and relevant. The images do not poke fun at the models but show them as they are. "My main aim was to take something thought of as ugly or threatening or low-brow and find beauty in it... I wanted to encourage people to face their fears, to engage a completely new audience who would probably never have had their portrait painted and who otherwise would never have set foot in a gallery. After all, entering a gallery may be as intimidating for a hoody as pushing past him to enter as shop is for an elderly shopper." ...
"I've loved doing this... but it's been tough." Emma admits that she has been painting every single day to meet the deadline for this work but she's not complaining. The result has been so satisfying the she plans to create more than the original 13 paintings. "Why stop?"...
It's not just Emma's art which is entertaining and curious. She's a larger than life, love-life character with a passion for individuality. As well as the striking make-up and passion for vintage clothing, she is an avid animal lover and owns a black hen called Linda. While we chat, Emma's feathered friend made a new home in my handbag. "She likes you," said Emma, "She's a lovely hen. We are inseparable. She's a great companion."
Also hugely influential in Emma's vibrant life is her film-maker husband, Owen Tooth. He's the love of her life and extremely supportive. She has enjoyed some in involvement in his work thanks to her seemingly endless creativity. But nowhere is that staple facet of her life more at home than on canvas.
She considers herself a portraitist first and foremost. It is the creation of likeness which fascinates her. It is at the centre of her work. That element is amply displayed in the breathtaking Concilium Plebis collection...
In the conservatory of Emma's Duffield home, we talk for hours but only touch the surface of Emma's character and talent. I hate to leave cause she's so inspiring - but my much more mundane and structured life beckons.
We shake hands and promise to meet again. "You could paint me," I hint. With that, Emma smiles and leads me to the front door...