It's hard to speak of visual artist Emma Overman without mentioning children.
Her work abounds with iconic images transported from a familiar fairy tale or book into a painting where they often take on a unique, even quirky appeal. But they also acquire a decidedly adult emotional complexity.
"Emma's work is simple but complicated," says Joanna Taft, executive director of Harrison Center for the Arts. "I think to many it's like a naïve fairy tale but to others there's a dark side."
Like many, Taft is intrigued by the complexity of Overman's deceptively childlike work and admires the resulting ensemble. "She's able to pull polar opposites together until it becomes a cohesive show."
The Harrison Center hosts Overman's upcoming solo show, Carousel: A Gilded Memory of Books, Movies and Animal Crackers, which opens First Friday on March 4.
Overman's work is increasingly familiar in Indianapolis. In addition to her solo shows at the Harrison and AV Framing Gallery, she's also a 2009-2010 Creative Renewal Fellow. She's illustrated four children's books, and her work was just published in Edgycute: from Neo-Pop to Low Brow and Back Again, by Harry Saylor. Her paintings have been exhibited in numerous galleries nationwide since 2007 [see sidebar].
Taft isn't the only admirer of Overman's work. Among her many other fans is my six-year-old daughter, Naomi, who has accompanied me to the Harrison for my interview with the artist.
The Overman painting that my daughter Naomi is most familiar with is entitled "Loss" (acrylic on canvas). In this painting, you see a ladybug looking up at a wide green sky where a single red balloon floats heavenward (probably thinking that it's another ladybug). A postcard-sized image of the work, in fact, hangs in my daughter's bedroom. One night, when putting her to bed, I asked her why she liked it.
My daughter replied, "I like it because it's funny and a little sad."
Overman says that she considers this painting, composed in 2005, to be one of her finest. "That was the first fluffy sky I ever did and people always seemed to like the fluffy sky where it's just a great big sky with a little something in the corner. I think that's the best sky I've ever painted."
"Loss" is an example of Overman's now dominant color palette: greenish and/or sepia tones throughout an entire composition. Sometimes there is only one little dash of bright color — say, a red rose held by a little girl — in an entire painting.
It's a radical change from her earlier work as illustrator of the children's picture book Chumpkin, (written by Lisa Funari Willever and Lorraine Funari, Franklin Mason Press, 2001), the story of a sad pumpkin.
In general, Overman used a much more colorful palette back then and her characters had a distinctive visual personality, a far cry from her current style.
"Chumpkin was my second book," says Overman. "It's my favorite. My work has evolved quite a bit since, but I love the story and liked that the writer gave me freedom in creating the illustrations."
The highlight of the book's career thus far: Sitting atop the pile in a Christmas sleigh at the White House Christmas Tour.
It wouldn't be entirely wrong, considering Overman's child-friendly and fantastical imagery, to peg her as a children's illustrator. But upon second look, you might see that Overman's characters are not all based on the fantastical. Many of her paintings have an emotional element that seems to transcend the genre of children's illustration.
"Pig in the Woods" portrays a classic Overman character, a pink pig with a red button for a nose, holding a handkerchief as a tear rolls down his cheek. The pig is alone in the dark green woods with no one to comfort him.
A second painting, "Lift," features a ladybug crying while sitting on a branch — the tears are flowing down from her antennae — while a red beetle approaches with a handkerchief and butterflies flutter around.
The animals and little children Overman depicts — as well as her adult humanoid characters — convey complex emotions. But the emotional content wouldn't resonate without Overman's ability to depict what's going on in her head and heart on canvas with an extraordinarily confident line.
"People are always asking 'How did you get to this?'" says Overman, who was born in Sete Lagaos, Brazil and raised in Union City, Tenn. She spent hours of her childhood in "drawing time," an effective babysitting tool that took place of a sitter. "Instead of having a sitter they would cart me near where my dad worked and the lady that worked for him would be working at the table, just saying 'Draw a dog,' and that would keep me busy for hours."
Overman says that it wasn't until high school that she started toying with the idea of illustrating children's books, but was held back by her own inhibitions. "I didn't have a style for children's illustrating," Overman says. "This really didn't develop until after college, and it's greatly evolved over time."
College for Overman was undergrad work at Hanover College, where she received a Bachelor of Arts in in 1997. She completed a post-baccalaureate program at the Maryland Institute College of Art a year later, where most of her time was focused on painting. "I was around other artists," Overman says of school. "I liked a little bit about what this person did and a little bit about what this person did. So it all had to simmer like a soup."
She didn't like taking part in anything she felt was extraneous to her painting while in art school. Rather than take in her Baltimore surroundings on field trip excursions, she preferred to paint the images she saw in her head.
"I didn't really have any particular style at all until about 1999," she notes. "And I really think it was around 2005 that my work improved. And that's when I met Michael."
While Overman takes my daughter on a tour of her studio, introducing her to some new characters she's created over the past several months, I sit down with her husband Michael Krisch. Hanging above us is a painting that was inspired by their marriage, entitled "A Woodland Wedding."
In this fanciful evocation of Overman's 2009 wedding to Krisch, the mouthless, oval-faced bride and groom are set against a forest backdrop. The bald groom is resting his cheek against the bride's head while a chipmunk officiates the ceremony.
Despite the subdued tones of the composition, in black and white and shades of gray, it doesn't feel somber because the affection expressed between the two characters seems so strong.
I ask Krisch how they met. "I was living at Wheeler Arts at the time," he says. "She just walked into my studio one night for an art show." She showed him slides of her artwork and it happened that he had tools that would help her frame her pictures and cut boards that she would paint on to her specifications.
Krisch showed her these tools hoping that she'd come back to use them so he could see more of her. One of these tools was a miter saw.
"She says we fell in love over the miter saw," Michael says.
Overman and my daughter Naomi come back into the part of the studio where we are sitting and she shows my daughter one of the recent sculptural pieces she's completed recently. It's a golf-ball sized ladybug that sits smug in the palm of her hand.
Recently, says Overman, she's been extraordinarily busy putting together her March 4 show. "I asked Michael the other day," she says, 'I wonder in the last couple of weeks how many hours I've been working per week.' He said, 'Oh, seventy to eighty.'"
The end result may be Overman's best show yet. There will be paintings relating to the Wizard of Oz, Heidi, and to Alice in Wonderland - book and movie titles that colored her childhood. But she also has fond memories of certain brand names reminiscent of childhood like Mr. Bubble, and of course, Animal Crackers.
Of all the paintings that will appear in this show, the one that engages me the most is "A Journey with a Porpoise" (acrylic on wood), a painting inspired by Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. In this painting you see a mock turtle driving a Model T with a porpoise in shotgun while an enormous yellow sun sits on the horizon behind them.
"My favorite character in Alice in Wonderland is the Mock Turtle," Overman says. "I like his use of language at one point... He says, 'If a fish were to tell me he was going on a journey I would have to ask him, with what purpose?'"
Overman herself is embarking on several creative journeys after her Harrison show in March, and children are once again a central theme.
She's also planning a children's book with Indianapolis writer Maurice Broaddus about a little girl and her imaginary friend, Invisible Dan, both of whom have made appearances in Overman's paintings.
"Painting is kind of like traveling," she says. "You don't know exactly where you're going and then you have a goal and an idea of where you would like to be. But when you set out on a trip you don't know what restaurant you're going to find or if you're going to get a flat tire... If you know exactly where you're going before you get there, what's the point in going?"