A few years ago, Brevard artist Emily Mehta wanted to practice welding on a small scale. It was a useful skill in creating the sculptural pieces for which she was becoming known. She found a scrap of metal and some wallboard screws and plunged in, only to find her attention drawn to the space between the screws and the metal, and how changing the shape of the materials also changed the space around and between them.
The result became part of her “Tactile Breath and Reunion” series from 2010, which also featured reconfigured inner tubes from the discarded tires of 18-wheelers.
“By selecting the mundane object, there’s a shift in resonance and meaning,” says Mehta. The wallboard screws, twisted and bent and tangled with one another for the “Tactile Breath” exhibit, became almost threatening, while the hunched and contorted shapes of the rubber inner tubes — suspended from 2x4s installed crossways into the gallery walls — disturbingly evoke lynchings.
“Making art is one of the ways I consider the goings-on of the world,” says Mehta.
Transforming everyday materials came early to her, when she learned to sew at the age of three by retrieving used fabric sheets from the family dryer and reconfiguring them as templates for stitching.
“I come from a family of doers,” says the 27-year-old artist, reflecting on her childhood growing up in Charlotte. “I loved to draw, and I think the sensibility of making is something I honed growing up.” Her grandfather was a furniture maker, and an older brother is an accomplished artisan.
Spending her high-school years at the Cate School in California and college at Davidson College added a more sophisticated gloss to her inborn talents, along with the social intricacies of living in a community setting. “At some point I became focused on the nitty-gritty of what it means to share spaces,” says Mehta, “and how sharing space informs our relationships and ways of living. So for me, at some level, there’s a responsibility to make the artwork.”
Those early experiments with cloth survive in Mehta’s smaller transformative pieces. Fashioned from cloth and canvas, they’re a far cry from the clothing she once made for herself from standard patterns. “Eventually, working from a pattern was limiting, so I began to piece things together and learned that I didn’t want to make clothing and products for people,” says Mehta. “I did want to make work that draws you in. So now, when I pick up a piece of cloth, I’m looking for form. I’ll turn it over and over, make a split, turn it inside out. I’ll stitch together and then tear apart. I love revision.”
These cloth sculptures seem like relics from some other time, laden with history and experience coaxed from a hidden past.
With the restless curiosity typical of her earlier work, Mehta has more recently turned to works on paper, both drawings and mixed-media works that, like her sculptural creations, contain basic forms contorted into folded, angular, or skeletal images.
“When I was younger, I built form from color, but over the years I’ve developed an inclination to understand the world through line,” says Mehta. “I draw with pencils, charcoals, and some oil sticks. I enjoy the binary tension and harmony between those materials and acrylic paint.”
As with her work in other media, these works on paper also explore the relationship between an object or form and the space around it, which can extend to the human body itself. Some of Mehta’s drawings are anatomical figures stripped down to their essence, like X-rays without the shadows of flesh and soft tissue. “Even though my work is abstracted, it’s typically rooted in that which is found on a human. I like to consider the curvature of the spine, contours around the neck, exploring that interior space of ribcage and lungs.”
Even something as basic as the breath can work its way into the art, a concept that came to her while she was out jogging one day. “I would use that time to think and my breath came up as a natural way to pace what I was doing in the studio,” says Mehta.
Working with and lifting the heavy rubber pieces of the “Reunion” series further emphasized how breath affected the art. “That rubber was heavy!” recalls Mehta. “It emphasized an awareness of the life-giving pieces of breath that help punctuate my making process. I like to just have that awareness, but not get bogged down with it.
“I don’t believe in preciousness in art-making. But when I consider what it is about everyday objects being transformed into the art realm, mindfulness matters.”
Visit emilymehta.com to see more of the artist’s work.