Published  29/11/2016

Emma Elliott: ‘Being human is the most important thing. Just being human and not fighting’

Emma Elliott: ‘Being human is the most important thing. Just being human and not fighting’

The Passion For Freedom ambassador talks about her current project, which brings together the stigmata of the crucifixion and the Holocaust, seeking to create a dialogue of unity and reconciliation within a fractured society


The work of the 2016 Passion For Freedom ambassador, Emma Elliott (b1983), certainly fits the bill for her role: her current project, Reconciliation, to be launched in London on 2 December, highlights the suffering of humanity at the hands of fellow humans, while also speaking of the hope for finding a way forward; for unity and for reconciliation.

Classically trained in painting and figurative sculpture in London and Florence, Elliott turned to working with marble for this ambitious project, sculpting a larger-than-life arm, marked with the stigmata of Christ and the tattoo of Eliezer, a survivor of Auschwitz, whom she met and befriended on a kibbutz in Jerusalem.

Elliott spoke to Studio International about the project, its message and her hopes for its future. 

Anna McNay: Starting at the beginning, you trained classically in painting and figurative sculpting in the UK and Italy.

Emma Elliott: Yes. I went to a very good school in Florence called Charles Cecil, which was mainly for painting, and the sculpture studio was really an afterthought. Anyone who wanted to dabble in sculpture was able to do so. We did have students who were really, really good, who taught us, but it wasn’t the main focus of the school. When I came back to England, I won a scholarship for a course in sculpture at a school called LARA (the London Atelier of Representational Art), which is now based in Vauxhall, but which was originally in Clapham, south London. Actually, all the teachers there came from schools in Florence – not the school I went to, but another similar one.

AMc: Florence was your first artistic training at the age of 19. What made you decide to go there rather than studying in the UK?

EE: I just wanted to get out of England and travel and live abroad. It was a really good excuse to get out of the country. I hadn’t been to visit the school before I arrived, so it was a bit of a gamble. I thought the teaching would be all in Italian, because I was very much interested in learning the language, but, when I arrived, I saw that it was an American school. In the end, that was fine because it meant I really understood my teaching. And I went and got a job working in a restaurant – a couple of restaurants – and that’s how I learned the language. I spent some time living with Italians as well. I studied at the school for three years and then I spent another six months there helping out in the sculpture studio.

Then I moved out to the Tuscan countryside and spent another couple of years living there, so, overall, I spent about five years living in Italy. I managed to put on some exhibitions and get commissions. I had a number of portrait painting commissions, which led on to sculpture commissions as well. When I moved to the countryside, I started to write a cookbook and illustrate it with landscape paintings. I called it Stealing Italy. It was an idyllic life for a few years, but then I realised that if I wanted to be an exhibiting artist and earn some money or do more interesting work, I had to come back to England. So that’s when I moved back.

AMc: Your work is held in a number of prestigious private collections, including 10 Downing Street. Is that distinct from the Government Art Collection? How did this come about, and what do they have of yours?

EE: The Downing Street piece is actually in the private collection of the Camerons, so it has possibly now moved out of Downing Street! It is quite a serendipitous story, how that came about. It was the first time that I trusted my instincts and had a vision and followed that through to the end. I was having an exhibition in Pall Mall a few years ago and I had a painting of a landscape of a village in Cornwall called St Endellion. The day after my private view, I read in a newspaper that Samantha Cameron had just given birth to a baby daughter, Florence Rose Endellion, and that the family had holidayed in St Endellion, which they named her after. I had just come back from living in Florence and, in my head, I was thinking: “Rose is my favourite name.” I just knew this painting was meant for them. The prime minister isn’t really meant to accept gifts, so I started thinking about how the painting could raise some money for charity.

I met with one of my collectors and was telling him my idea, and he turned out to be a director of an epilepsy charity, for which David Cameron is also on the board. He also knew Samantha Cameron’s secretary, so he contacted her and explained that I was going to make a signed print of the painting and auction it off to charity and this was the charity I wanted to give the money to – would they like to be a part of it? They said yes, and so I ended up going to this big charity opening, talking on stage, and auctioning off the print for £1,600. Then the original went to Downing Street and I got invited there to meet Samantha Cameron. That was the first time that I was able to trust in visualising an idea and then following it all the way through to its fruition.

AMc: Your current major project, Reconciliation, is also a story full of serendipitous happenings. How did the project come about in the first place and when did you start working on it? 

EE: I started working on Reconciliation in 2012. A lot of my work comes about from moments of big change in my life and, at the end of 2011, I was having a difficult time in my personal relationships. I had just met a new friend, Neil, who went on to become my husband. I’d only just met him and he and I were getting along very well and he said: “I’m leaving. I’ve got to visit my parents in Israel.” I wanted, again, to get out of the country, so, even though I’d only known him for a few weeks, I asked if I could go too. So I jumped on the plane and flew to Israel with this almost-stranger. He took me around Jerusalem, which I had always wanted to visit because my great-grandfather is buried on Mount Zion.

Neil took me to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, and then we went on to find my great-grandfather’s grave. With my Christian background, and not knowing very many Jewish people, I hadn’t had many opportunities to really think about the Holocaust. Being in Israel and walking around the museum was incredibly emotional, and I think it’s also very relevant now: the whole world is in turmoil and you just ask how a human being could let this happen. I just knew that I had to do something in response; I knew that I had to make a piece of art.

My background was never that religious, more just traditional, going to church at Christmas and Easter and learning Bible stories as a child. So I was thinking about how crazy it is that the Holocaust was committed by Christians and yet their own saviour was Jewish. Had Jesus been alive at the time of the Holocaust, he would have suffered at the hands of his own followers, and I just found that irony so outrageous that I felt there had to be a way, from a Christian point of view, of discussing it and creating a dialogue around it. I work with a lot of symbolism and I knew I had to boil it down to the most basic symbols: the crucifixion and the numbers that people were tattoed with during the Holocaust. But then, as I was beginning to making prototypes, I realised that I absolutely couldn’t just put a random number on the work, because it could end up being someone’s actual number. Apart from it being quite a clever concept, it wouldn’t really mean anything to just be plucking things out of the air.

I laid the idea aside, but, at the same time, I had this conviction that I would one day meet a Holocaust survivor. I tried to go about it in London by contacting the group that looks after Holocaust survivors in England, and they wanted me to send over my thesis. I think they just assumed I was doing a PhD and they wanted to know what it was, and exactly what my ideas were. I realised that my idea was still so new that I didn’t really have anything to present, apart from my experience in Jerusalem, and I didn’t think that that was going to lead to their introducing me to somebody – quite rightly, I mean, because this crazy artist wanting to meet a Holocaust survivor for her art project might not have resonated. So, I left it and just thought: if it’s going to be, it’s going to be.

The following year, I went back out to Israel and thought: “If I’m going to meet a Holocaust survivor anywhere, it’s going to be here.” Although, there aren’t so many, even in Israel, and it’s not like you bump into them that often. We were visiting friends of Neil’s on a kibbutz, a Christian lady from Sweden and her husband, a Jewish man. Just as we were about to leave, I remembered my mission and asked her. She said: “Well, actually, there happens to be somebody living on this kibbutz.” I asked if she thought he would be interested in meeting with me. She gave him a call, and that’s how I got to meet Eliezer.

He was from Germany, speaks fluent English, and, out of all the concentration camps that there were, he went to Auschwitz, which was, I think, the only one that actually tattoed numbers on prisoners. So it was an amazing coincidence. I told him about my project and he told me a bit about himself. He’s extremely educated. I think he got through his time in Auschwitz by believing what he could achieve with his mind when he got out. After being liberated, he went on to get two PhDs, one in special education and one in engineering. He studied all sorts of things: the human brain, maths, the life and times of Jesus Christ and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

He ended up telling me more about Christianity than I knew myself. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I think that, coming out of Auschwitz, he wanted to understand the Christian mind. He is a fascinating man and, in fact, he said to me, right at the beginning, not to overcomplicate my project. Really, it is about remembrance, about being good to other people and not letting suffering happen. Anyhow, he agreed to lend his number to my project. I don’t think he ever thought the project was going to get as big as it has. He’s seen the video and he liked it and he loves the arm.

AMc: The arm is the centrepoint of the project. It’s larger than life and sculpted in marble. Where did the idea of the arm come from?

EE: I wanted to show the stigmata – the two stigmata – Jesus’s from the cross and the number tattooed from the Holocaust. I also wanted it to look like a broken-off relic that, in some way, is disintegrating. I modelled it on the arm of a young man who works at my foundry. Then I thinned it down a little bit. I didn’t want to use the typical thin arm of Jesus Christ. I felt that Jesus was a strong man, he was a strong carpenter, and equally many of the people who went in to Auschwitz died as strong people. I made a number of small models, which I then cast in plaster, and then took out to Italy to a marble studio in Pietrasanta.

AMc: You specifically used Carrara marble as well, which is the marble that Michelangelo used.

EE: Yes, it’s the exactly the same marble that was used for David. When the light hits it, it’s almost translucent. While people think of marble as being a very hard material, Carrara marble is actually not so hard. It’s basically pure calcium, so you can sand it down and it’s like the finest dust. After a day in the studio, you’re covered from head to toe, and even your hair turns grey. Luckily, the dust from the marble is not bad for your lungs. Your body just absorbs it. It’s not like clay dust.

AMc: How much of the carving did you do yourself? Were you helped by the artisans in Pietrasanta?

EE: They did quite a lot of the initial part and some of the work around the fingers. I was there at the beginning and I worked in the studio every day for about three weeks. I’d done some limestone carving before, but this was my first major project in marble. I want to go back out there next year. My plan is to do some more marble work because it’s a brilliant material. I love the physical aspect of sculpture.

AMc: For the Reconciliation exhibition, you’re going to be showing the arm on a bed of stones.

EE: Yes, I’m collecting stones from the beach. To me, the stones are really symbolic because they represent the lives lost in the Holocaust. Of course, I can’t have enough stones to cover how many lives were lost. If you go to a Jewish graveyard, you’ll see that there are many pebbles on all the gravestones. I’ve always been intrigued by this wonderful way of paying respect to the dead, by leaving a pebble. It harks back to the times before there were gravestones and pilgrims would visit the graves of loved ones or people they knew and leave a stone to say that they’d been there. Over a period, the stones would pile up, and that’s how people knew that there was somebody buried there. It’s just a tradition to show that someone’s thinking of them. 

I’ve taken pictures of the arm on a number of different backgrounds, which represent different things, but the stones, for me, are the most symbolic for memory, for remembrance. 

AMc: Will these other prints be on display as well?

EE:  Yes, but just three of them. There are seven in total, which, someone pointed out the other day, is like the seven deadly sins. This project just keeps growing and I think what’s been so lovely about the fact that it’s taken so long is that I’ve grown with the project and I’ve learned – I’m getting taught things. People make comments and it adds to the project. Even just this idea of seven deadly sins is quite interesting. It just happened to be seven backgrounds that I chose. But I’m just going to show three here in London, because the show is then going to go to New York, where I’ll probably release another one. I’m hoping that the show will then travel further, so, for every show, I can release a new print.

AMc: What three will you be showing here in London?

EE: I’m going to be showing Old Blood Is Not Wet, which is laid out on soft, red feathers, and represents blood spilled in the past, and the ability of memory to blur and soften the hard edges of brutal experiences. As memory creates a temporal distance, trauma can eventually fade away, to be forgotten. I will also be showing Blackout, on a simple black background, which looks at memory and keeping history alive in our minds. In a blackout, there is no shadow, and yet it is the shadow cast from the past that stretches into our present consciousness, that keeps that memory alive. For me, this is sort of the beginning, you know, like it’s in space. The third one will be on a bed of stones.

For New York, I will release one on a charcoal background, which, of course, symbolises the charcoal of the dead, the crematoriums. It will be a large print. For presenting the arm, I don’t think I can ship a tonne of stones to New York, my budget doesn’t stretch that far! If the gallery allows me, I quite like the idea of laying the arm on charcoal there, but it would be very sooty and dirty. If not, then I will use one of the other backgrounds, maybe the moss or the feathers. The moss, of course, would have to be kept wet, as the exhibition will be on for a month in New York. In London, it’s only on for the Friday night opening plus the weekend. It’s the initial launch of the project.

The London launch also coincides with the launch of my online private view with Sedition, an online platform that sells digital art. It has recently taken me on board as one of its curated artists and it will be launching with a digital melt of the arm on all its backgrounds. I always had this order in my head of each of the backgrounds and how they flow and Sedition has made a digital version of it that melts each background into the next, using that flow. We’re going to be selling it at the show for charity, for the Holocaust Educational Trust. I wanted something that involves keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, keeping it in schools and with children.

AMc: How different do you think the reactions will be to it here in London and in New York?

EE: When I was in New York this summer, I found that people really reacted well and I felt that New Yorkers would have a lot to say about it. I’m hoping that Londoners will also have a lot to say and have a good reaction. New York has a very large Jewish community. I will be interested to see what reaction we get.

Another interesting element in this whole process is that I won last year’s Passion for Freedom award and so I am its ambassador for this year. I had originally been planning to show Reconciliation around the time of the Passion for Freedom show, but I hadn’t got myself together to find a venue. Then, when I entered, got in, and ended up winning, I decided to delay Reconciliation and try to do the show within my ambassadorial year.

AMc: What was the work that won Passion for Freedom?

EE: It was a piece called Spin-Head. I was very inspired by a sculpture of Mussolini in the round by Renato Bertelli. I wanted to spin that on its head and have a sculpture of the first victim of dictatorships – and the first victims are usually women who end up not being able to talk. So I made a sculpture of a female head in the round, looking like it’s spinning, and it’s got a zip all the way around the mouth.

AMc: And what did your role of being ambassador for the year involve?

EE: It involved keeping the idea of freedom of expression and freedom of speech alive and I think that’s exactly what Reconciliation does. So hopefully I have fulfilled my role.

AMc: It certainly sounds as if you have. What is your overall aim for the project, apart from remembrance? You’ve mentioned the sparking of dialogue.

EE: Yes, I really would like to create dialogue, especially in the times we’re living in today, with such a fractured society, where we’re all pitted against each other. I just want to create a dialogue of unity and reconciliation really. 

AMc: You cited Hegel as an inspiration for the project, in particular his quote: “Beauty contains ugliness, just as truth conceals lie, and for reconciliation to take place, beauty and ugliness must be reconciled into a concrete unity, that is a higher form of Beauty, which is also Truth.” At what point in the project did you come across this quotation and how did it feed into its development?

EE: Hegel talks about reconciliation but also says that, in order to have reconciliation, you really have to accept there is beauty and ugliness, there’s good and evil, and that we can’t strive for absolute perfection because it doesn’t exist. You just have to learn to live with each other.

AMc: Are you expecting Reconciliation to be specifically seen through the religious lens of Christianity and Judaism, or do you think it might be read more widely than that?

EE: I hope that it won’t just be seen through this lens. I’m not particularly religious. I believe in spirituality. I believe that there’s something bigger than all of us and that it’s important to be a good person and to try to get on with everybody. While it’s using religious symbols, it’s not to be seen in a purely religious way. I hope that people of all faiths will find something in the work. It talks about wider issues around the world as well, and the need for us all to live together and accept each other.

AMc: There are two films that accompany this project, both of which will be screened throughout the exhibition.

EE: Yes, the shorter one is a concept film, shot and edited by Nicolas Laborie, with music by Martin A Smith. It opens with the Hegel quote and it’s like a documentary-style short film, which explains the journey and how the project came about and what it means to me. The other film is a 30-minute interview with Eliezer, edited by Gido Karow. I’ve recently had interest from a violinist and composer, an Israeli American who lives in New York, called Ittai Shapira, who is now collaborating with me and putting his music to the documentary. He is extremely talented and has played all over the world, in Carnegie Hall, and he’s recently done a collaboration with Salman Rushdie. His music really adds another level of tone and depth to the film and it gives Eliezer’s interview even more drama.

It is an interesting interview because Eliezer didn’t want to talk about his experiences in Auschwitz. He talked briefly about what his job was, but he didn’t want to explain further or relive the trauma of it all. He said that’s something we can find in the history books. What we can’t find in the history books is his story of how he ended up being sent to Auschwitz and how he was liberated and what he did after his liberation. This is his unique story. He does not see himself as a victim, and I think that’s one of the major points I want this project to get across: somebody who has gone through what he has gone through can then go on and have a full life and have respect for all people of all religions and not consider himself a victim and not live by his victimhood and go on and achieve. He’s taught me to live in the moment. I think that’s a very important point for the show.

He’s had us to stay in his house. I think what’s so charming is that they live in the same house, on this kibbutz, which is a communal farm really. He lives in the same house; it hasn’t been decorated in 60 years. It’s exactly how it was when he moved in there. He’s not interested in material things at all. He’s just interested in being healthy and having a good life and being learned. Last year, when I was going to see him, he was sick. His hearing is bad now, and his sight as well. He is 94. I feel blessed by him, really. Somebody who has gone through everything he has gone through and is still so full of love – when he gives you a hug and wishes you well, you feel touched. For me, his friendship means a huge amount. 

AMc: Just to backtrack a bit, you mentioned your great-grandfather was buried on Mount Zion. Do you have a family link to Israel?

EE: My great-grandfather, Myles Elliott, was sent out there and appointed solicitor-general to the Mandatory Government in Palestine in 1930. There was a lot of Arab uprising around that time, and a series of controversial government prosecutions. He was run over by somebody outside the King David Hotel and it was officially ruled as an assassination. He was buried in the Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion. So, it’s in a very religious place for a Christian to be buried, inside the walls.  Yes, that was quite impressive to go and see his grave, and my great-grandmother Nina was also buried there.

AMc: That, in itself, adds another element to Reconciliation.

EE: Exactly. That’s why the discussion on unity is so important. It’s not about religion, it’s about us being human. In fact, that’s something Eliezer has said: that being human is the most important thing. Just being human and not fighting.

• Emma Elliott: Reconciliation, Noho Studios, London, 2-4 December 2016.

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