A Mid Summer Soiree
Tanner Oksman, Cleaver Magazine, 2015
First sort through Emily Steinberg’s A Mid Summer Soirée in quick succession. Then go back and read it slowly. This appealingly energetic set of captioned images is a storyboard of sorts. Each slide displays a beguiling creature or character, and sometimes a pair, pictured just above a crisply worded sentence encased in a neat, if bourgeois, font. We are presented with a simple trajectory: the individuals, spotlighted in medias res, are about to attend, or are attending, a party. These experiences do not clearly build on each other: “He’d been out of circulation a while.” “They argued just before arriving.” “She rooted through her closet and was dismayed.” Trying to fill in the narrative gaps is part of the pleasure of the journey, as is, on the contrary, moving past those gaps in favor of experiencing the piece’s seductive rhythm.
The artworks—some fashioned in delicate colors, some in black-and-white—are offset by clean white backgrounds. Many of the images are clearly collages, intricately inked cut-ups of crossword puzzles, newspaper articles, and cartoons. “I’m interested in the idea of chance, and what happens when you don’t control the situation,” Steinberg explained about the piece’s composition.
Viewing A Mid Summer Soirée, one is cast into a framework in which whimsy and fantasy meet a morning coffee-and-newspaper ritual. To transform daily minutiae into otherworldly events, to dive into the looking glass: therein lies the delight of this piece.
September 2014, Cleaver Magazine
To read Emily Steinberg’s autobiographical visual narrative, Broken Eggs, a set of sixty-seven images accompanied by sprawling text and recounting her struggles with infertility, is to witness a series of concurrent, sometimes even conflicting, emotional transformations. From the first, our narrator appears engaging, intimate, and raw. She sits on the ground, her hands wrapped around her knees and her brow furrowed, delivering a back-story for the whirlwind series of events that follows. She spent her twenties as an artist and her thirties unsuccessfully looking for love, while other life events—depression, anxiety, her mother’s dementia— got in the way as well. This is how she finds herself “on the cusp of forty,” just married, trying to have a baby, and suddenly encountering the possibility that what seemed like such an inevitable life course might no longer be a possibility.
Steinberg’s narrator figures prominently throughout almost all of the pages, but particular visual details often shift. In one image, depicting herself undergoing interuterine insemination, her midriff and thighs widen, as though her body is stretching itself to accommodate this new surreality. In another image, she draws herself shrinking as she transforms into a rodent: “I became a fertility guinea pig,”the text reads, and the last two words are repeated, like a directionless echo, in thin capital letters. These serial, shuffling portrayals are at times accompanied by smudges of color: some mark a short-lived, fiery optimism, while others more ominously seem to cage the narrator in the space of her recollections. Over the course of what seems like an otherwise straightforward, self-explanatory narrative—the text is colloquial and confessional, sprinkled with expletives and interjections—we sink into the story. The sequence of events might sound somewhat familiar—expensive drugs, repeated trips to the doctor’s office, probes, statistics, frowning attendants—but the individual depicted on these pages is dynamic, a substantial and vigorous presence. Her experience touches us, even transforms us, as we witness her unraveling.
While authentic portrayals of the daily ins and outs of motherhood (from the mother’s point of view) in comics are still somewhat rare—Nicole Chaison’s The Passion of the Hausfrau springs to mind, as do Lauren Weinstein’s online comics and some of Aline Kominsky Crumb’s works—it seems even harder to find honest depictions related to motherhood and loss. Phoebe Potts’s graphic memoir, Good Eggs, addresses, like Steinberg’s, the painful experience of infertility, and Diane Noomin has drawn about her struggles with miscarriages. Nicola Streeten’s Billy, Me & You recounts the death of the author’s two year old son, Billy, and her subsequent attempts to cope with the unimaginable loss. These texts are brave and powerful, in terms of their searing honesty and the way each explores the graphic aesthetic somewhat differently in order to best tell the story. But they are also significant because they actively, and graphically, dispute a culture that favors only particular kinds of depictions—of the satisfaction and ease of family life, of fertility, of positivity in the face of grief and loss, of closure. As Steinberg’s narrative ends, we know the fragile shell of hopefulness and inexperience has been irreparably broken, replaced permanently by a gaping, if artful, exposure.
The Poetry of Comics
Tahneer Oksman, Cleaver Magazine, 2013
Comics and poetry have a lot in common.
Both mediums trade in the fragmentary, the elliptical, the paratactic, and both are framed in and through time (configured as the breath, in poetry, and as space, in comics). Pacing drives a poem just as urgently as it drives a graphic narrative, short or long.
Comics and poetry have the potential for mass appeal, but are most often valued by a selective underground, a community of devoted readers who often (in private or public) dip into the forms as creators themselves. Both invite a kind of do-it-yourself investment.
They each have the potential to demand your fullest attention and to invite close readings and re-readings. But both can also be read in snippets and pieces, while waiting for the bus.
Perhaps for these reasons, poetry-comics or comics-poetry feels like an inevitable composition. As Emily Steinberg writes of “architecture” and “story” in an introduction to her graphic poem, “The Modernist Cabin”: “They are independent of each other but dependent nonetheless.”
Steinberg’s intricately cross-hatched illustrations are neither complement nor accessory to the blocks of poetry neatly sketched on alternate sides of each page. Instead, the two forms are mutual, interactive. The modernist cabin is a lonely construction, inviting cool reflection, even as it absorbs the warm inner lives of its’ inhabitants, imposing on them an inviting light, a geometric practice. As readers, we experience, as we read words and pictures together, this “essential living space. / No more, no less / than is needed.”
Emily Steinberg-What You See Is What You Get
Cornices and Teacups, Emily Steinberg’s most recent show at Schmidtberger Fine Art in Frenchtown, closed May 31. Emily works in an Expressionist-Realist style, combining an innate awkwardness with superior painting and drawing technique. She approaches her subjects--teacups, old buildings, matzo cracker boxes, asparagus, the human figure--with equanimity and imbues them with the unique, wobbly energy that emanates from her hand. If you funneled the strange vitality of Charles Burchfield through the clear structure of Edward Hopper, you would get Emily Steinberg’s emotional portraits of everyday subjects. In the cornices paintings, lively, sensitive brushstrokes create both architectural details and hollow sky. With the teacups, bold brushstrokes depict the decorative pattern as well as the form, distinguishing the interior and exterior surfaces. Smooth areas of flat color calm the eye and conjure the feeling of cool porcelain against your cheek. When I met Emily in her studio in Philadelphia, I was shocked to see the actual teacups she used: they were like movie stars at the airport--tired, annoyed, tightlipped and grim. How did she discover and express so much drama in china? Each cup has its own personality, and her skill at creating characters suggests a story. The cups remind her of her mom who “liked her cup of tea” and evoke imaginary women dressed plain to fancy.
Emily has taught studio art and lectured on art history in the Philadelphia area since the early ‘90s; currently, she teaches painting at Penn State Abington. She received her BFA in 1987 and MFA in 1992 from the University of Pennsylvania. In 1987, she studied at the Penn-in-Florence program in Florence, Italy, and in 1989 and 2005 she was a resident at Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont. After a tough period of being unable to paint, she wrote Graphic Therapy, a graphic memoir that was serialized in SMITH Magazine (2008-2009). It’s a rant on searching for love and a reason to make art after finishing her education and having to work at low-paying, arts-related jobs. Working on the book honed her drawing skills and gave free reign to her humor while she wished and willed her fortune to change. During 2010, she read and discussed her book at (I list only a few venues): PSU Abington; “Chicks & Comics” at Mary Jacobs Library in Rock Hill, New Jersey; and First Person Arts Salon Series and The Print Center in Philadelphia. Also, she wrote “Blogging Towards Oblivion” for The Moment (HarperCollins 2012). Producing and marketing her book inspired Emily to return to painting and exhibiting her work. Recently, Emily showed in “Network” at Westbeth Gallery in New York City, displaying a larger version of the teacups series, using scale to impact style.
When describing her painting style Emily remarks, “What you see is what you get,” I would add that she knows when to paint colorful, complicated passages and when to leave well enough alone. She creates a model for the human emotions of attachment and detachment. To return to those teacups: everyday objects are transformed into emotional, sentient beings, and as a group of 16, they represent a cross section of society. Emily is the painter’s version of Honoré de Balzac, author of The Human Comedy. Balzac also measured description, creating comic, tragic characters. A Realist, he saw the world ruin the weak and champion the strong and his sarcastic humor eases the pain of human failure. Juxtaposing gnarly patches of paint with smooth ones, Emily creates independent, talkative, female characters in all their contradictions. Witty and candid, they are more than happy to reveal their frailties, struggles and triumphs.
March 16, 2012
Abington Art Center's latest "Solo Series" show, a favorite venue for area artists seeking high-profile solo exhibitions, features three Philadelphians and one Yardley resident.
Emily Steinberg, a painter and graphic novelist, draws thumbnail cartoons, and she's on to something. Her sketch They Told Us All We Had to Do Was Go Shopping, for example, goes after modern life's unending sales pitch. Not derivative, her commentaries take a single composite shape. They may not be earthshaking in their depth or inventiveness, but they display finesse and skill.
Background Therapy: The story behind the Gap Year comics
SMITH Magazine, 2008
In early 1996, artist Emily Steinberg went into a funk of no small magnitude. She quit her job as the coordinator of public art exhibitions in Philadelphia’s City Hall to focus on painting. Then she didn’t paint much. Her once prolific output of bold, brightly colored portraits, still-lifes, and landscapes dwindled with her new commitment to full-time creativity. Having granted herself the freedom she though she needed, then-31-year-old Steinberg suddenly found “no compelling reason to make art.” Oops. “I became obsessed about my weight. I became obsessed about being single. I had a bit of a breakdown,” she says.
em-2.jpgA journal-keeper from age 15, Steinberg now found herself free-writing at a frantic pace for two or more hours a day. For nearly two years. She scrawled pages about her anxious fixations on Nazis, O.J. Simpson, JonBenet Ramsey – “It was so much easier to think about those guys than to figure myself out.” She went into therapy. She scrawled pages about that. At some point, she started to think she was actually writing something that might be, well, art.
“I started thinking maybe it wasn’t just the ramblings of an unemployed societal malcontent, but a book.”
Somehow, in the way these things often happen, that thinking dissipated after a while, the scrawluscript found its way into a drawer, and Steinberg slowly found her way back into the world of mundane functionality. She took a job teaching art at a private Jewish middle school, a job she still holds today.
“In 2005, I gave my kids an assignment to do an autobiographical comic strip. No particular reason. I knew they liked comics and graphic novels were getting some attention, so I thought it would hold their interest.”
But as she sketched a day in the life of Miss Steinberg as an example for her students, she flashed back to Miscreant Steinberg of a decade prior and realized she had an assignment for herself as well. “I was going to turn all that stuff I wrote years ago into a series of illustrated vignettes.”
When the school year was over, Steinberg headed off to an artist’s retreat in Vermont to begin drawing the awkwardly expressive talking heads that would ultimately fill the panels of Graphic Therapy. The drawings added a veil of fictional distance to Steinberg’s anecdotes:
“I drew real people who were with me in Vermont, but then I assigned them to characters in my past when I started matching text to the drawings. So Victor, the therapist, is a real psychiatrist I had in 1997 – every episode I describe really happened – but he has the face of this writer, who was really cool, but who came from a very conservative Midwestern family and whom I can’t imagine telling the things I talked about in therapy.”
Steinberg, who cites Woody Allen, Leonard Cohen, and Maira Kalman as influences, resurfaced other characters with images drawn from magazines and photographs. Many a fashion model has been drafted to serve Steinberg’s neuroses. Sharp-eyed readers will even spot Rita Hayworth.
Time has placed its own veil of fiction over the angsty Emily portrayed in Steinberg’s illustrated narrative. “I have great empathy for her,” the artist notes, “But I get impatient with her, too, this anxious, depressed, immature version of myself. She couldn’t get out of her box.”
“I don’t paint much now,” says Steinberg, who married photographer Paul Rider two years ago, “I may get back to it, but I’m on hiatus from that from a while. I think that this project has really been more rewarding. I’m planning to do another. It pulled things all together for me.”
Rachel Fershleiser, Editor
SMITH Magazine, 2008
Emily is 39, single, underemployed, and can’t decide if she’s a dilettante or a genius. We’re pretty sure it’s the latter. Her fearlessly blunt diary of her “gap years” exposes a unique worldview on art, commitment, Nazis, mice, copy-machine salesmen, Judaism, SUVs, and psychoanalysis. Plus, it has funny pictures. Stark and hilarious, Graphic Therapy is SMITH’s newest webcomic, and we couldn’t be prouder. What Shooting War did for post-Bush war in Iraq and A.D. did for post-Katrina New Orleans, Emily Steinberg is doing for post-art school neurotics. Whether or not you’ve been there, you’ll find something to love in this candid and quirky account of an ordinary life