Emily Ferguson is a new name to know. The emerging L.A.-based artist recently presented her first solo exhibition, “Your Spirit, My Butterfly,” a series of 14 oil-on-canvas portraits that combined the delicate feelings of loss with the strength and power of a woman transforming and evolving in a formative period of her life. At their core, the paintings are also an ode to beauty and what Ferguson calls the “editorial energy” that has inspired her from her days as a fashion model to now, as she continues her own metamorphosis.
When did you make the leap to creating art full-time?
Art was something I always wanted to pursue. From 2019–20, my partner and I shared a studio space and
it was the first time I started selling work, so I realized it could become my full-time career. I dove into it once
I felt like I had the means to do it; there’s this nature of making art where it’s an expensive thing to do, but I
worked part-time and had a night job to afford to have a studio until I got myself to a place where I could start
to see the future.
Congrats on your debut show this past summer. Why were butterflies on the brain?
My nana passed away during COVID, and everything felt really low. We were super close, and it was my first experience with deep loss. I lived in Chinatown, which is walkable for L.A., and I spent a lot of time walking outside. I kept having this strange thing happen where white butterflies were coming up to me. I started associating it with my nana, the evolution of how we go back to nature, and the seasonality of our emotions.
What other symbols informed this series of paintings, “Your Spirit, My Butterfly”?
I’ve always been drawn to painting hair. I have a family full of hairdressers, but I didn’t recognize until later
in life how much that impacted me. I used to sit down and my nana would do my hair. It was a ritualist thing,
and subconsciously now it comes out in my work. Hair shows so much emotion, and [in this series] it was
huge in showing seasonality, change, and time.
You originally began your career as a model. How did you get your start?
I was scouted when I was 17. It was so random; they saw me in a restaurant, and I was so caught off guard. I guess
that’s always how it goes! I had never thought about it. I was going to community college after graduating high school, so I thought, “Why not!” I loved fashion and meeting people, and I thought it could be interesting.
What are some fond memories of that time?
I was based in San Diego County, so it’s what formed my excitement and interest in being in L.A. regularly for
work. This was six or seven years ago, and it was so different. Influencers hadn’t really started and everything was being shot in studio—no one was doing anything on their phones. I remember the first time I did a test shoot. It wasn’t even a big job, but it was my introduction to how much is out there, and the beauty and talent that’s in the world. It opened my eyes, and I see now that it got me to where I am—to support myself and start buying my own materials and finding a studio. The photographer from that first shoot is now a good friend, too!
On that note, you’ve used the term “editorial energy” to describe the paintings. Tell us more!
There’s a striking nature to them, whether it’s the subject looking directly at you, the color, or the strength of the unwavering gaze. I wanted to have that same feminine power from the beautiful editorials I used to look at. It sits with you in a way. You want to know that confident woman and what she’s thinking because there’s an energy that pulls you in and the image strikes something inside of you.
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Why are the ’90s one of your prevailing reference points?
I think it was the last era of supermodels starring in the type of editorials that we don’t have anymore. There’s a nostalgia
for it and those images. Now, we’re so oversaturated, whereas there’s a stillness in time with these older images. Also because ’90s fashion and cinema is such a hodgepodge; it’s a culmination of styles that come together. I find that important to translate into artwork—pulling a lot from one era that still speaks to so many times.
What do you hope people take away after viewing your work?
I guess you can call me a traditionalist. I still believe that looking at a piece of artwork and thinking it’s simply beautiful is just as impactful. I never intend for my work to be disruptive; it’s about finding my place in the beauty of the world.
Are you self-taught?
In a formal sense, yes. I spent three years in community college and I took every single art-related class I could, like art history and life drawing. I took that knowledge of how to use materials and dove into it on a self-taught level. I love what I do more than anything in the world. I feel a compulsion to physically create something. I enjoy the cerebral, intellectual side of it, but I think that the physical nature is where the compulsory instinct is.
Are there any other creative pursuits you enjoy?
I do enjoy writing! I think sometimes when I’m feeling at a loss of what to do, writing down my thoughts or my experiences lets me naturally find my feelings and emotions, which then drives me to paint. And I absolutely love to cook and bake—to use a different part of my brain.
What’s your speciality?
I make a great roast chicken and salad. It sounds so silly, but I make a damn good salad, and then a pie.
My partner and I love entertaining and cooking for a group, Alice Waters–style.
Balance! As a young female artist, what type of career do you hope to have?
The most important thing is that I have a career of joy and creative fulfillment.
I’m moving into a beautiful new studio space, getting super focused, and deciding on new opportunities!