Emilia Symis

Who is Emilia Symis?
I’m a 21 year old artist and in the summer of 2019 I graduated with a degree in Fine Art from Norwich University of the Arts, in Norfolk, England (more in the latest article by Kristy Campbell). Since graduating, I have been fortunate enough to win the Bishop’s Art Prize and be shortlisted as a finalist for the John Ruskin Prize. I am continuing to exhibit my work as much as I can, in the hope of pursuing a career as a full-time freelance artist. I am currently working as the Gallery Assistant at The Corn Hall in Diss, Norfolk. I specialise in realistic paintings of food, that often have a bizarre twist to them.

What is the story behind your artwork?
Since studying Fine Art at A Level, I have been drawn to making the viewer feel uncomfortable yet intrigued when looking at my art. I try to achieve this with my food paintings by experimenting with elements like mould, foreign objects, strange food combinations and even strange scents. However the vivid colours and interesting textures also draw the viewer in, creating a confusing dilemma for the viewer. I like to add a sense of nostalgia to my work, so that the viewer can be taken back to their childhood, or perhaps be reminded of their own child. Sometimes there’s also a narrative within the imagery, so that the viewer can imagine the context behind the photo. I take inspiration from retro cookbooks, foodie film references and also the food from my own childhood. Secondly, photographers and chefs like Maisie Cousins, Jen Monroe, Bompass and Parr, and Claudia Ficca continue to influence my work.

How are the products made?
Because my paintings rely so heavily on the reference photo, I often spend a long time planning, taking and editing the photos for my paintings. I make all the food seen in the paintings and I present them in a way that hopefully tells a story and looks authentic. I then like to make the canvas depending on the dimensions of my favourite photo. I project the image onto the primed canvas and trace the outline so that the proportions are accurate, this is something I have only recently started to do as the photos have got more complicated. I then paint in sections or from background to foreground, referencing the photo on my phone as I go. The last stage is to varnish and apply the chosen scent, either through a wash of fragrance oil on top or with an accompanied plug in oil diffuser filled with the custom scent.

What has been the biggest challenge so far?
I have found that adding scents to my paintings isn’t as easy as I hoped it would be. Olfactory art is quite a new phenomena and it hasn’t been done that much, so I have had to carry out my own experiments to find the best and easiest way of achieving it. I have tried many different methods, including mixing ingredients into paint, but I have found that ‘varnishing’ them with fragrance oils and filling plug in diffusers with custom scents work well depending on the environment they will be displayed in. I decided I wanted to make my work multi-sensory because it makes the work a lot more immersive and interactive for the viewers. I aim to trick the viewer and make them wonder not only if the piece is a painting or a photo, but if the scent is real or if it’s just their imagination because of the food in the painting. 

What would you consider as a breakthrough point for you?
My favourite painting I have made was my degree show piece, called ‘The Aftermath’. Not only was I really proud of this piece, but it also got a great response from the university, the public and galleries that wanted to exhibit it. NUA fortunately bought the painting and has displayed it on campus, which gave me the chance to make new paintings in this style for the interested galleries. I felt this piece was the epitome of my style because it explored beauty, playfulness and nostalgia yet also had a subtle element of disgust and oddity. The painting was accompanied by a plug in diffuser that emitted the aroma of strawberries and vanilla. This complimented the cake, strawberry sweets and ice cream found within the painting. It successfully filled the area around ‘The Aftermath’ in the degree show, leaving the viewers confused and intrigued. 

Do you have any goals for the future?
I would love to be able to make a living from my art one day, to have my own studio at home and spend my days making and painting strange food sounds perfect to me. I would also love to exhibit in major galleries like Barbican, Serpentine and White Cube in London, and also internationally. I would love to collaborate with the artists that inspire me and create weird and wonderful food with them. But for now I am continuing to develop my style and my technique and learn more about olfactory art.

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