Growing up in Stacy, Minnesota, Emma’s concept of city life was inspired by the classics: “When I thought of the city and what it meant to be a grownup, I thought of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Auntie Mame.” She admits, maybe it was a silly concept—“there are these two women that put on this absurd air and they don’t really work and they just live a lifestyle”—but it’s one that stuck with her, eventually as an example of how not to measure success. She didn’t just want to live in the city—she wanted to create something.
By day, Emma worked full-time at Target. By night, she binged on her own projects, creating not just art and clothing, but also community.
“Sometimes people get to a city or town or a workplace and realize…it isn’t the space, the community, that they wanted. And rather than doing something about it they just fail within that environment or become flat,” Emma says. “For me, you have to take hold of that and build what you want to build.”
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Emma came to Minneapolis seeking a tight-knit, supportive creative community. It wasn’t bad, but it sure wasn’t perfect. She remembers visiting galleries with her boyfriend to try to find places where his art might fit, and one person telling them outright that Minneapolis didn’t need more painters. “That’s crazy!” Emma says. “Who tells somebody that? …For Minneapolis to be elitist—it didn’t feel right.”
Doing MPLSART on top of a full-time job at Target would be enough work for most people, but not Emma. In fact, doing too much is kind of her thing. “I have this tattoo,” she says, moving her fingers to her mouth and showing us the inside of her bottom lip, “It says ‘MORE.’” So she made room in her schedule for MPLSART and Target, for Voltage: Fashion Amplified, for curation at Fox Tax and HAUS Salon, and for making her own work while mentoring other ambitious creatives. And she lived this whirlwind for over a decade.
“Something big was going to have to happen,” Emma says. “It felt like…something has got to change. I felt trapped in a routine.” Target employees knew layoffs were coming, and the rumor was that Tuesday was the day. So on Monday night, Emma started cleaning up her LinkedIn profile. That’s when she saw a job opening in New York City that gave her pause.
“If I wasn’t let go [at Target] then I’d have to think through all the lifestyle changes that I would have to do in order to save up enough to make the move. I would probably have to stop making a couple of collections. But…if I was let go, then I could easily go to New York,” she says. “So the next morning when I got the notice, it was, to be honest, a relief.”
“I think it’s really important to put yourself outside your comfort zone at least once. If I’m [in New York] two years or ten years, I think it’s important for me to grow as an individual. I think too if I would come back, what I’d come with is so much more than if I just stayed here.”
See, Emma has a particular aversion to things being comfortable or easy. “‘Content’ is one of those words—like the word ‘rules.’ It makes my stomach churn. I have this idea that if you hit ‘content’ then you’re going to plateau.”
Emma’s never been one for the second act of the American Dream, where if you’re lucky enough to achieve a certain level of comfort, you get to coast. She believes that, for creatives, living in MSP makes that easier to do—and if she stuck around, she might fall victim to it. She admits that moving away is scary, but adds, “I could stay here and get a similar job, but that sounds terrifying as well.”
What makes MSP flat—aside from the topography? According to Emma, it’s the luxury of time. You’re not stuck in traffic all day. It costs less to live here, so some artists can work less at their day jobs but still make rent and pay for their materials. There’s a lot of good in that—“It’s a wonderful place to try out ideas. You can take so many more risks because financially it’s more feasible. You can find your voice.”—but Emma thinks if an artist is able to work half as hard, their work is only half as good.
More people buying art, so it can move outside the nonprofit space.
“People need to buy art. For some reason, it just doesn’t happen. I don’t know how many times I’ve talked to people—people in creative roles, at Target and especially at ad agencies—and they will be like, ‘The only art I have is what I created in college.’ That’s crap. That’s not okay. I think a lot of people take advantage of this space without paying for it.
“It would be exciting to find buyers of Minneapolis work, so that there are more artists who can say their work is sold here and sold at decent prices. For people at multiple levels of income to understand what artists are worth collecting around here.”
Less segregation. Less being caught up in our “heritage” brands.
“We’ve got a huge Hmong population here. We’ve got a huge Somali population here. I think sometimes when we talk about Minnesota, we get stuck in this idea of ‘heritage’ and ‘Swedish’ that we miss there’s a shitload of other people here. It’s naive to try to rebrand in that manner. It’s your family tree. It’s not the state’s family tree.”
“To be Minneapolis.”
Don’t get Emma wrong—she’s a big fan of MSP. “I love the community,” she says. “But I think the community can always get stronger.” Here are some of her favorite features that she mentioned over the course of the interview: SooVAC; Karmel Square; the Walker Art Center; Muddy Waters; Ebony Fashion Fair; her boyfriend Kristopher and his 15-year-old daughter; Public Functionary; humbleness balanced with ambition; being an incubator space.
Before Minneapolis, Emma lived and studied in Duluth. “There was a moment when someone was like, ‘Why would you go to Minneapolis? You’re such a big fish here.’ I realized I definitely had to go then.” When she said this, we thought back to when we’d used that exact phrase (prior to the interview and out of earshot) to describe Emma’s most recent move. She’s a big fish—and she leaves big shoes to fill.
Thankfully, during the course of our chat Emma surfaced a piece of advice for how someone can help fill the gap she leaves behind.
So we’ll leave you with this. “Be approachable,” she says. “Part of what I wanted was to create a better community, and you can’t do it if you’re an asshole.”