Stirrings from the Nashville Underground (expanded online version)

by Tony Youngblood

Emily Sue Laird photography by Hans Lambert, Studio 16

Emily Sue Laird photography by Hans Lambert, Studio 16

Emily Sue Laird has one foot planted firmly in the ground, and the other is kicking a hole in the sky. Her sculptures, textile art, and paintings juxtapose the organic with the artificial, the traditional with the cutting edge. Emily Sue and I talked about 3D printing, the geometry of nature, her favorite local artists, and much more. The profile is in the May print edition of Nashville Arts. Here is the full interview:

Can you tell me about some of your current and upcoming projects?

I have an Earth Day show called Reciprocity with Jake Wells at Turnip Green Creative Reuse [through May 16th]. Jake and I both make a lot of work from reuse materials and items found in nature, so although our work is different, we are both exploring the same conversation about conservation. Jake is an arts educator, and we are both quite active within Nashville’s reuse community. We’re looking forward to playing with TG’s gallery space. Although Jake and I have been making work together for a while, this will be our first collaborative installation show, and I’m excited to see how it turns out. There will be mobiles!

Another project I’m working on is a two-person show with current Watkins graphic design senior Ross Denton at Watkins Arcade Gallery in June. Ross and I both submitted proposals to WAG. We hadn’t met before, but Watkins faculty thought we’d be a great match, and I quite agree. We both love nature walks and drawing plants and letters, and really, what else do you need?? He is totally Rossome.

I’m also super stoked to be presenting a second edition of Replication, Nashville’s only juried 3D Printing show, at the Mini Maker Faire inside the Adventure Science Center this September. We did the first edition at Fort Houston last December, and it was a huge success, with lots of interactive technological elements including a shadow puppet theater and a 3D Scan-yo-self booth by Amber Wilkinson and Jayson Wall, respectively. Jayson was instrumental in helping me build the show and gather submissions. He recruited 3D printers from around the world, and he took the show to the next level in ways I hadn’t imagined. I hope we get to work on more projects together in the future, mostly because Jayson is incredibly fun and will randomly break out into freestyle raps at any given moment. Blows me away every time.

Your “Fallen” series replicates fall leaves through fabric, felt, and thread. Can you tell me a little more about this project, what inspired it and what it expresses?

I created the Fallen series in 2013 for my installation show Token at 40AU in the Arcade. I’ve continued to make the felt leaves because they are enjoyable to create and very versatile. They can be used as placemats, worn as earrings, hung for decoration, added to hats, and all kinds of other stuff. They’re unobtrusive, soft, peaceful pieces, which gives them a Zen quality similar to that of actual leaves, but they never fade, crumble, or deteriorate the way real leaves do. I plan to explore this series indefinitely because it lends itself to so many different applications and can be presented in singles or multiples. I’m not sure what Fallen expresses to others, but to me the leaves are nostalgic and comforting in their soft simplicity.

I loved your Token exhibition, which also showed at 444 Humphreys Gallery in Wedgewood/Houston. I get the impression that you were trying to offer affordable works of art to people on a budget, yet at the same time comment on art as a commodity. Is this close to the mark?

I always try to price my work reasonably, based on a simple equation that calculates supply cost plus labor cost. My larger, more complex work and custom jobs can get pricey, but most of the work in Token are things I’m able to make quickly and inexpensively. It’s my little art forest, my magical place where I can lose myself completely in the process and make things that are fun and make me happy. Hopefully that element comes across and makes other people happy, too. I’ve been told the work has a strong sense of humor.

I try not to think too much on what the work in Token is about. I’d probably tell most people it’s just a room in my mind that I want others to see and feel and live inside of for a while. If the work is commenting on art as a commodity, that’s cool. If not, that’s cool too. I just like making people smile and laugh and say, “WOW.” That is the best feeling.

Your work in the Replication 3D printing exhibition at Fort Houston last year was my favorite in the whole show. You combined 3D printed geometric structures with living plants. Like Fallen and Token, it juxtaposed the natural and organic with the handmade and artificial. Am I detecting a running theme? What attracts you to it?

Chyeah! You’re detecting a theme, alright. I have loved nature my whole life, and although most Americans seem to think of math as a strange foreign language, the rules of geometry come directly from the forms and structures of the natural world. Organic shapes have geometry, and geometry is completely organic. I guess I like to play with that idea so much that it has seeped into everything I make. That must be what happens when you read books on botany and sacred geometry for fun.

What excites you about new technologies like 3D printing and conductive materials?

EVERYTHING. I’ve been obsessed with 3D Printing since I first heard of it. 3D Printers could easily be the most important technological advancement of this century. Soon desktop 3D printers will be as cheap and as common as paper printers are now. I wouldn’t be surprised to see big box stores stocking desktop 3D printers within the next five years. If you’re not already in on the buzz, you should be. These machines will affect every single aspect of human life: food, shelter, clothing, tools, economics, weaponry, medical science, transportation, entertainment, literally everything. And I can’t wait to see what humanity comes up with. It’s gonna be quite a show.

Conductive materials like copper tape and stainless steel thread are much newer to me. I’m interested in exploring applications for wearable designs and ways to incorporate LEDs and other experimental lighting into costumes, props, and sculptures for stage shows. What’s most exciting to me are the endless possibilities of ways to use these materials, both in entertainment and education. I recently started teaching Paper Circuitry to teens in the Nashville Public Library’s impressively tech-savvy Teen Program. It’s such a joy to watch students connect to design and technology through simple circuitry and 3D Printing.

Who are some of your favorite artists in town?

Oh man, that’s a tough question in this town! I’ve recently started amassing a small army of art students to spoil rotten and recruit for my own nefarious artistic purposes. I totally internet stalked Vanderbilt senior Chelsea Velaga after seeing her work at Fort Houston last year, and now we are BFFs. She’s so rad!! Her work is like another room in my mind, but a more twisted one. She’s got a great portfolio on CargoCollective.

I’m also super-obsessed with Ashley Doggett, a current Watkins senior whom I Facebook-stalked (are we detecting a theme here??) after seeing some very sophisticated yet fun work Ashley had made at Watkins College of Art, Design, and Film. We finally met in person last week and instantly bonded over how much we both love Brady Haston, Watkins’ printmaking professor who shows work at Zeitgeist Gallery.

Ann-Catherine Carter, Tyler Blankenship, Seth Prestwood, Mike Kluge, Chrissy Crater, Kelly Kerrigan, Chris Zidek, and Michael Hampton are a few local artists who continually impress and amaze me. Mike Kluge’s got a real cool thing going on over at Queen Ave Art Collective, and I’m excited to see all the experimentation happening in that space. The Modular Art Pods show that you coordinated at Abrasive Media was easily one of the best art shows I’ve seen, ever. Speaking of AbrasiveMedia, there are so many new gallery and maker spaces opening in Nashville that it’s hard to keep up with! I say the more the merrier. With a cultural explosion upon us, now is an exceptionally exciting time to be an artist in Nashville. I’m so grateful to be able to work in a thriving community of individuals who are excited about design and willing to collaborate on all kinds of creative projects. Keep it up, guys! Y’all rock.

Tony Youngblood is the founder of the Circuit Benders’ Ball, a biennial celebration of free culture, art, music, and the creative spirit. He created the open-source, multi-artist, scalable “art tunnel” concept called M.A.P.s ( and runs the experimental improv music blog and podcast


Fallen, 2013, Felt and thread



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