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"Wild at the Edges"

The art of Emma Herman-Smith


With the wind howling up the Firth of Forth I met with Emma Herman-Smith in her city base to discuss her art and her exciting year-long role as artist in residence at An Tobar Arts Centre on the Isle of Mull.  From living in an old caravan in a forest clearing on this island to her home on the 13th floor of a tower block in Leith, Herman-Smith is, quite simply, adaptable. This adaptability accompanies a generous spirit and a delight in collective activity that is intrinsic to her personality and her art.  Emma began the residency by exploring forest habitats with local children, developing alongside them ideas & techniques that splice the tricky human/natural ecology of the island with verve and originality. This is no more a surprise to me than the 'other' Emma Herman-Smith; an artist in a more reflective and conceptual mood, the solitary caravan experiences where she lived more closely with nature, resonant to a different and more subtle clamour in the evolving 'man-made' forests. However, these two modes are not contradictory since they feed one another and always reflect Emma's ability to see ourselves within the natural ecology in ways that are rare for an artist.

My introduction to her work was in 2005 at the Society of Scottish Artists annual exhibition with an installation 'Swifts and Swallows'; a peloton of miniature bicycles careering in multicoloured formation around a corner of the gallery walls. It represented the shape of 'people as a multiple' in compulsive/competitive shape that is so reminiscent of migrating birds and mammals or swarming insects. As thought provoking as it was energetic, this work instantly alerted me to the existence of a fresh talent in Scotland. 

Her continued use of 'multi-colour', the innocence of bright 'coloured in-ness' and decorative patterning has continued to attract people to her work like bees to flowers. She seems to understand what it is we all hold in common and makes art to show that this is so. The decorative aspect, the 'hammered gold and gold enamelling' and the shimmer of the golden bough of Yeats' famous lines, it is this deceptive attraction that aims to unsettle the status quo, messaging those in power to change and those who feel disempowered to rise up and take a part in saving the earth.

Emboldened by the public response to her work thus far Emma created a public intervention in 2007 on London Road, Edinburgh where she 'planted' colourful model flowers on a grass embankment next to a busy city bus stop and then secretly filmed people 'plucking' them. The 3 minute edit of this 3 day event drew upon the natural science of observed insect behaviour by scientists, but instead mischievously used human stealth behaviour to create an artwork.

This environmental and cross-species concern in her work developed further in 2007 during a residency at the Vancouver Arts Centre in S-W Australia, an area famous for its temperate climate and pristine ecology. Her starting point may have been the lush wild flower meadows of this area but this led in turn to the subject of pollination and the nature of insects. The recent decline in bee populations was then coming to light and Herman-Smith created multiples, interventions and writings in response to this subject.  Through this active recognition of the disharmonies in the world she was able to draw parallels between inter-human exploitation (i.e. child labour or low paid workers) and human to insect exploitation where bees are kept in industrial farming environments solely to serve human needs for orchard pollination or honey provision. This vein of art was continued in Scotland with a series of outdoor concrete beehive sculptures and the exhibition Human/Nature at the Patriothall Gallery in Edinburgh in 2008.

 In 2010 she worked with the rangers at Holyrood Park in Edinburgh, studying the toad migration they try to protect across a busy road through the park. Brightly coloured resin casts & prints of car-squashed toads were presented in the gatehouse to the park as lasting art-based evidence of the conflict of human versus reptilian migration. Beauty from banal horror, it attracts yet sets our moral teeth on edge.

All this is indeed Fine Art practice yet it eschews the traditional frame or plinth presentations of the last few centuries, and more often dispenses with a gallery as well. Her work is a part of a fine 21st century 'tradition' already but one that pays homage (knowingly or not) to the earlier brave actions of artists such as George Wylie or Cornelia Parker and to her contemporaries like the playful waywardness of Lily van der Stokker, Aeneas Wilder or Deidre Nelson; artists concurrently involved in polemic acts of transformation for the sake of our well being within 'a deceptive wilful playfulness that is both wise and wild at the edges'.

The artist's felt despair and anger at our exploitation of the natural world is transformed into joy through a set of local actions and objects. In the same vein the An Tobar residency has supported a coming of age in the work of Emma Herman-Smith, where all these various strands come together, and that joy is of being alive and useful. The resulting art shows nature as part of our cycle, re-formed, cast and returned for the pleasure of all, where it will re-enter the fabric of the island. The elusive and the abandoned are made strong and decay is suspended. Science and spirituality may meet in these places. 

 Kate Downie RSA        January 2013



Artist Biography

Following foundation studies at Watford Art School, I studied sculpture at Glasgow School of Art between 1990 and 1994, gaining a BA(hons) Fine Art. 

Since then my career has been built on a combination of gallery exhibitions, commissions and publicly engaged projects and education.  In recent years residencies have taken me to Australia, Japan, Cornwall and the Isle of Mull.


2014  Town House, Dunbar. In a Natural State 

2013    An Tobar, Tobermory, Mull. For All It Has Become

2012    Holyrood Park Information Centre, Edinburgh. We Love Toads

2008    Studio Stokes, St Just, Cornwall. Taking Possession

2007    Vancouver Arts Centre, Albany, W.Australia.  Pollination

            London Road Park, Edinburgh. Picking Flowers Surveillance installation

2006    The National Trust for Scotland's Hill House, Helensburgh. Flora

1999    Anderson Christie Architects, Glasgow. 

1998    Anderson Christie & Faifley Housing Association. Furnished


2013   RSA, Edinburgh. In Perspextive. 

2012    Caol Ruadh Sculpture Park, Scotland. Tread Lightly

2011    Patriothall, Edinburgh Heimat                              

2010    Kunsthalle Garmisch, Bavaria. In Connection    

           Cork Festival of Cycling                                                                 

           LSC Montgomery, Texas. Washi 5           

2009    Cupar Arts Festival, Fife, Scotland    

            National Galleries of Bangkok, Thailand. Paper Magic  

        KC Gallery, Houston, Texas, USA. Washi 5

2008     Mino Washi Museum, Mino, Japan. Meander

        Quenington Sculpture Trust, Gloucester. Freshair, Portobello. 

        Garden Galleries, Portobello. Plastic Forever

Patriothall, Edinburgh. Human/Nature

2007     RSA  Survey, Edinburgh. 

        Scottish Arts Club, Edinburgh. Botanica

2005     Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop. New Members

SSA, RSA Edinburgh     

2001     The Arches, Glasgow. Satellite 1  

2000     Fruitmarket, Edinburgh. Sum of Parts      

1999     Glasgow Project RoomMuseum Magogo

            Belmont Terr., Glasgow. Townhouse


2008      Big Things on the Beach. 'Hives'.

2007      Edinburgh International Art Festival/Magazine. 'Leith Regatta'

2006      Cow Parade/Ocean Terminal, Edinburgh. 'Ocean Colour Coo'

2003      Carlton Cinema, Stirling. 'Godzilla'. Briefly, the world's tallest popcorn sculpture.

2001      Puppet Lab & MacRobert Centre, Stirling. Long-term installation of soft sculptures.

1990      BBC. Jim Hensen's 'The Storyteller', costume jewellery for television series of the 'Greek Myths'.

Permanent sited works commissioned by Applecross Construction and Harrison Ince Architects.

Festival installations and puppets created for Edinburgh Mela; Dusshera, Edinburgh; Baku Caledonia Society/Puppet Lab.


Vancouver Arts Centre, Albany, Western Australia

Mino Paper Museum, Mino, Japan

Cupar Arts Festival, Cupar, Fife


2013/14 North Light Arts Beach Hut residency, Dunbar 

2012        PARTners residency on Mull with An Tobar, Forestry Commission Scotland and Creative Scotland

2011         Edinburgh City Council VAA award to develop work for exhibition. 

2010         Royal Hospital for Sick Children Edinburgh.

2008          Mino Paper Art Residency. Mino, Japan

     Studio Stokes. Micro Residency, St Just, Cornwall

2007          ESW/VAC Residency exchange. Albany, Western Australia

     Scottish International Education Trust

     Hope Scott Trust.

2006          EVAAC, Edinburgh City Council, funding to realise 'Picking Flowers' 

2005          Friends of the Royal Scottish Academy, Annual Bursary, solo recipient

                  City of Edinburgh Council, Professional Development Award

2004          Worshipful Company of Founders

1999          AICART international ceramic symposium Porto, Portugal. 'Europa'

1994          John Kinross Travel Scholarship to Florence

              Art Exposure Student Materials Award.