Emily Jan

Naturally mythological
Animals, myth and travel inspire this artist's exploration of very real human issues

Emily Jan l Photo: ARHPhoto Emily Jan l Photo: ARHPhoto

When Emily Jan was growing up, she spent a lot of time in the great outdoors and in natural history museums.

That explains a lot.

A visitor to the studio of the Concordia master's student, which she shares with seven other artists, can feel a bit like a visit to the zoo.  A menagerie hangs from frames suspended from the ceiling or stands on shelf tops: there's a tiger, a wolf, a seal, a rhino, and an African creature called a dikdik that looks like a miniature antelope.

Closer inspection reveals that the flesh and bones and teeth of these beasts are actually made of wool and other materials.

"It's a question of capturing of the spirit of the thing, to have it feel kind of alive even though it's in the form of something that's ostensibly dead - there's a kind of tension," says Jan, an MFA student specializing in Fibres. "It's a different way of experiencing something that could kill you."

In this part of her practice, Jan cites as an influence Carl Akeley, who revolutionized taxidermy in the late 19th-early 20th century. The California native was also influenced by her immediate family, who are all biologists (she jokes that she's the black sheep of the family). Her summer holidays were spent following her parents to science conferences all over the world. She's travelled to 29 countries and lived in four, including South Africa and Mexico.

These journeys have honed more than a keener sense and love of the planet's fauna - they've nurtured a deep interest in the mythology and stories of various peoples. The most recent expression of this is at the FOFA Gallery (until April 4, 2013), in an exhibition that reflects Jan's fascination with the point at which these types of stories and reality meet and blur, "... where real animals enter the realm of the mythic, and legends bleed into the quotidian world." 

Falling through the mirror, a joint exhibition with fellow MFA student and painter Tammy Salzl, specifically explores the story of the monster - those that have been forced to live on the fringes of society.

In the gallery's blackbox hangs Jan's wolf, a life-scaled creature whose fangs are bared as it pounces. Blue and green bird feathers sprout from the fur on its haunches, as if helping give the beast flight. One gallery visitor said it reminded her of the wolf from the fantasy film The Neverending Story that had given her nightmares when she was a child, and that the work actually unnerved her. Not to disturb that viewer further, but Jan's work suggests that the animal/mythological stands in for the very real issues of the human condition.

Past, present and future

Jan's journey has involved more than physical travel, of course. She earned a BA at the prestigious Brown University and then a BFA from the California College of the Arts.  She has been an illustrator, journalist and graphic designer. She trained as a scenographer, designing sets, costumes and puppets. It was this work that revealed to her she enjoyed working with fabrics more than the drawing she had been doing.

Emily Jan, selkie (2013). Photo by Guy L'Heureux, FOFA Gallery. Click to enlarge. Emily Jan, selkie (2013). Photo by Guy L'Heureux, FOFA Gallery. Click to enlarge.

She was attracted to Concordia's MFA program in part because of its internationally renowned Fibres faculty. On top of working on her own projects this final, thesis year, she's worked for two professors as a research assistant, coordinated a popular lecture series with leading contemporary artists, and began teaching an undergraduate class. She seems to be enjoying every packed minute.

"I've found a really good group of people here, at Concordia and in Montreal, and I hope we're all still carousing and having fun for a while to come."

Story by Liz Crompton. Posted March 26, 2013.

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