Alumni Profile: Emily Mayo (MFA) on How Embracing Impermanence Helped Her Evolve as an Artist
Adjunct Professor at Henry Ford College
Exhibition Tech at Grand Rapids Public Museum
Grand Rapids, MI
Like the charred pieces of lumber she turns into enthralling works of art, Emily Mayo is well versed in transformation. After coming to the KCAD MFA program in search of creative rejuvenation, Mayo found herself immersed in an environment, equal parts challenging and supportive, that inspired her to instead completely rethink the “how” and “why” of her artistic practice. Ultimately, it was only by tearing it all down that she was able to build herself up into a dynamic creative professional who’s coming into her own post-graduation: producing bold new artwork, landing high-profile exhibitions and opportunities, and forging a multifaceted career path, all driven by a firm understanding that—in art and in life—nothing ever stays the same.
What made you want to return to school to earn your MFA?
I needed to get back to a creative headspace, but more than that, my identity as an artist felt unresolved.
Why was KCAD the right place for you to find your way forward?
KCAD gave me the space to explore, and it posed to me the right question: why do you make? I understand now that you have to be able to answer that, to get to the core of who you are as an artist. Only then you can make work that’s truly your own and no one else’s.
Mayo's piece "Untitled #3" hanging in her studio (image courtesy of Emily Mayo)
What did finding that answer mean for you?
First, it meant getting to a place where I could actually accept the question as necessary.
I loved figure drawing as an undergrad, so in grad school I just kept doing that at first because I knew I could do it well. But the work wasn’t really getting to that core, and my peers and professors knew it. I had to face some harsh truths in critique. At the time, it felt like I was being attacked, but my professors helped me see that this was a process I needed to go through.
My foundation was shaken, but in hindsight I’m so glad that happened. That’s what any graduate program is supposed to do: make you reconsider what you thought you knew.
Where did you go from there?
Home, actually. I grew up in post-GM Flint, and was raised in a Pentecostal church that preached a message of renewal, not just spiritual but economic, given the reality of where we were. That first summer in the program, I spent a lot of time in Flint with my dad, who’s a city bus driver. I wanted to re-experience these places from my childhood, taking pictures and making drawings of them.
(above and below): While reconnecting with the places and spaces that defined her childhood in Flint, Mayo and her father were drawn to the charred remnants of abandoned houses scattered across the city's neighborhoods. In them, she found not just inspiration, but materials too. (images courtesy of Emily Mayo)
As we were driving through some of the more dilapidated neighborhoods, we’d see these completely burned down houses that looked like they’d been eaten away from the inside by some disease. It seemed like nothing to draw at first, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had to come back.
What happened when you did?
I took some of the wood. I was mesmerized by the texture, and all these correlations with charcoal. I already had a deep relationship with the material as an artist, but here it was in its most vulnerable state. I was struck by the idea that this raw material could be the medium itself.
The first load of wood I squeezed into my little car became “Homage,” a small, altar-like piece. I’d never created a sculpture before, but afterwards I felt like I knew something was happening. But I also knew that this needed to be more than just repurposing materials; it needed to be about taking the material further.
"Homage," the first piece Mayo created using reclaimed charred wood (image courtesy of Emily Mayo)
What do you mean by "taking the material further?"
I wanted to make sculptures that were inexplicably balanced, using clever concealment of the support mechanisms. There was not only this redemptive aspect of making something beautiful out of destruction, but this desire to give form to faith. Faith, to me, is believing in that which you cannot see. Both ideas are key to the spiritual aspect of who I am, and it felt like I’d finally found this opportunity to bring that part of my identity into my art after searching for it for so long.
"Vestige," a towering sculpture that exemplifies Mayo's technical and conceptual approach to creating works that are, in her words, "inexplicably balanced." (image courtesy of Emily Mayo)
How did this creative rebirth impact your experience in the MFA program going forward?
Year two, things are going better. I’m still being challenged, still trying to figure out how to make sculpture, transitioning from 2D work to 3D work. But the commitment I’d made was getting more respect; I was proving I could do more than just draw things. And I felt that step by step, I was getting close to that answer to the big question of “why?”
How did that involve what you were doing outside of the classroom?
I spent a lot of time in the KCAD woodshop honing my woodworking skills so that I could do what I wanted to do sculpturally. I also talked with faculty in the Master of Architecture program, who helped me think about structure as an integral part of my process. I found I really enjoyed that structural engineering aspect of things.
I also took on a curatorial internship at [KCAD’s Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts] UICA that was very fruitful for me. I enjoyed building relationships with the curatorial team there, and connecting with the artists, but really the hands-on work with art and artifacts, watching these things be uncrated and seeing them in their most raw form.
"Kaphar," pictured here on display in the Grand Rapids Art Museum during ArtPrize 2017, was Mayo's first foray into the radically open public art event (image courtesy of Emily Mayo)
Shortly before graduating, you did start making drawings again. What inspired that, and how did this new work connect to what you were already doing?
They’re aerial view drawings of houses that had been destroyed by fire. I started looking at the totality of things, which is what that perspective is about. I’ve always thought of them as portraits, and in some ways a return to the kind of figure drawing I used to do. I’m trying to use the format to tell the human stories of these structures, but I’m also just trying to understand them myself. All we’re doing when we draw is trying to understand what we’re drawing.
"Untitled #1," by Emily Mayo (image courtesy of the artist)
As you were preparing to graduate, where did you feel like you were at in your journey?
I still had a lot to work through, but deep conversations with fellow artists and mentors led me to ultimately feel like I was doing the right thing. The biggest challenge became the scale of the sculptural work—I was running out of places to put the pieces, and I began to think that I might have to start actually destroying them.
That’s fascinating, especially given the nature of the materials you’re using. Did you?
Yes, and it was a revelation. I learned that I have to see my work as temporal rather than permanent, and that it’s OK if these materials were repurposed again to become something new. When I was ripping apart “Vestige,” my largest sculpture to-date, I thought I was going to be depressed, but it was immensely freeing. Now that the materials are raw again, I want to turn them into something new.
Fast-forward to the summer after graduation, and you’re accepted to an artist residency at the prestigious Vermont Studio Center. What impact did that experience have on you?
It’s amazing to be in a place and a head space where time stops and you get to just focus so intently on creating. But the biggest benefit was getting to know other artists from around the world who were also there. It was great to make those connections and be inspired by the way other people create. My experiences challenged me to further rethink the way I see my art as something precious. I emerged much closer to that mindset of just developing a deeper relationship with the materials and the process and seeing the end result as only temporary.
"Untitled #2" by Emily Mayo (image courtesy of the artist)
What about your creative practice? What’s unfolded for you professionally since graduating?
In 2019 I was featured into two national juried exhibitions, Inhabit at Manifest Gallery in Cincinnati and the 91st Michigan Contemporary Art Exhibition at the Muskegon Art Museum, and I was also selected for inclusion in Manifest’s 13th International Drawing Annual, which was published late last year. It’s a huge honor to be included in these kinds of circles.
You’re teaching art now at Henry Ford College as well. What’s that been like?
It’s been a big learning curve, but I really enjoy it. When you’re able to teach something like perspective in a way where students get it, and you see them taking joy in the process, it’s very rewarding.
Just as I’ve had to do myself, I like to challenge my students to change the way they use materials, and to understand what those materials are made of and why they do what they do. I also try to get them to understand what observation really means, that when you first start drawing, you incorrectly assume that you know what things look like. When you humble yourself to really pay attention and draw what you see, that’s the breakthrough.
Mayo at work in her studio (image courtesy of Emily Mayo)
You’re also working at the Grand Rapids Public Museum. What’s your role there?
There are countless opportunities to learn new skills at this job, and it’s been very rewarding. I install the exhibitions and maintain everything during the time they are up, which means a lot of on-the-fly building and fixing. I’m learning a lot about how mechanisms work together, and I’m excited to see how that will inform my work in the future, maybe doing some more kinetic things.
So, what’s next for you?
I’m just wrapping up a solo exhibition called Chorbah-Chadash at Ferris State University in conjunction with winning the university’s MFA Purchase Award after graduating.
I’m also preparing for a solo exhibition at Carlsten Gallery of University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. I’m going to be creating a brand new site-specific sculptural installation and the curator has given me a lot of freedom to work with, so I’m excited to explore new possibilities.
And do you feel like you’re any close to answering the “why?”
I’m still grappling with that, and I honestly hope I always will be. If I find the end of the revelations, I find the end of my inspirations.