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Artist Emily Koch wants Twin Ports to come out and play

The recent University of Wisconsin-Superior graduate creates work embracing both joy and melancholy. Her upcoming Kruk Gallery show will include eye-popping portraits, a multimedia cake and a pillow fort.

Artist Emily Koch peeks out from her Blanket Fort in a warehouse in the Harbor Industrial Park
Artist Emily Koch peeks out from her blanket fort in a warehouse in the Harbor Industrial Park in Duluth on Oct. 11.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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DULUTH — Take a few steps south from the Duluth Harbor Industrial Park warehouse containing Emily Koch's art studio, and the Aerial Lift Bridge is visible past piles of dirt amassed for MnDOT's Twin Ports Interchange Project. The north side of the warehouse has an expansive view across a harbor slip to the city's hillside. On Koch's paintings inside the studio, though, there's not a landmark to be seen.

"Go to a lot of the galleries in town, and you'll see work that's inspired a lot by nature, and a lot by landscape and the things you see around you, which is amazing," said Koch, "but my work has been inspired more by relationships and people and emotions."

Artist Emily Koch is surrounded by some personal belongings and her paintings as she works in her studio space
Artist Emily Koch is surrounded by some personal belongings and her paintings as she works in her studio space.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

A 2020 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Superior, Koch (pronounced like the cola brand) has developed a distinctive style of portraiture. Amusement park colors and playful props convey a joyful exuberance, but the oil portraits are also suffused with melancholy.

Her recent subjects typically have expressions that are disaffected at best, vaguely distressed at worst. Makeup runs down one face, another is streaked with what might be blood. Even in Koch's painting for this year's Duluth Homegrown Music Festival Field Guide, there's an air of ineffable sadness to a flower-crowned figure embracing an indifferent fowl. (A chicken has long been the festival's visual symbol.)

"A lot of the Homegrown guides from years prior were these scenes of many, many people and crowds. This was the first Homegrown since the pandemic and I wanted to do something that felt a little more isolated, maybe to reflect the experiences that everyone had gone through," said Koch. "People were really very nice about that, and a lot of people told me that it made them feel good to see the woman hugging the chicken."

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A photo of a copy of the Duluth Homegrown Music Festival Field Guide for 2022, with a cover painting of a woman holding a chicken to her cheek.
The 2022 Duluth Homegrown Music Festival Field Guide featured artwork by Emily Koch.
Jay Gabler / File / Duluth News Tribune

Koch's recent pieces fall into a series called "Trauma Queens."

"A lot of the inspiration behind this series comes from my desire to reconnect with the inner child, but also what I like to call it is honoring the reality of life," said Koch, sitting in her studio last week. "I try to inject some nostalgia, some childishness, but then in the subject matter, something more sinister."

"They're all a little off, right?" asked Annie Dugan about Koch's portraits. To be clear, Dugan meant that as a compliment. "The kind of color that she's interested in is fascinating, because it is both alluring and then unsettling. You have these teals and pinks and reds that are really luscious and mouthwatering and candy-popping, and yet also sort of sickeningly sweet. You feel it in your teeth."

Dugan teaches art history at UWS, where she also manages the Kruk Gallery. From Nov. 4 through Dec. 14, that space will host Koch's first full-fledged gallery exhibition.

"There's going to be some paintings," said Koch. "We're going to be doing some installation pieces as well. We're really going to try and transform the gallery space."

"She's always been committed to this quality of skill in her painted work, and now in the direction she's going with installation pieces," said Dugan about Koch. "She's applying that to some interesting ideas about nostalgia and how we construct it."

Honorees are music educator Keith Swanson, arts advocate Anne Dugan, and, posthumously, curator Karissa White Isaacs.

Despite her work's ominous quality, Koch said she wants to cultivate a sense of play. As she described her aims, the word "magical" was a touchstone, indicating the tantalizing possibility of transformation.

"I don't think, as adults, we have enough opportunities to play," Koch said. "I want to create this fort that people can crawl inside. I find that any time you have to peel back the door and crawl into the space, it's just this magical feeling."

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As proof of concept, Koch built a blanket fort incorporating video projections in the harborside warehouse, a cooperative studio space that's also home to artists and makers including woodworker Clancy Ward, Troy Rogers (Robot Rickshaw), projection artist Daniel Benoit and illustrator Tom Moriarty.

A robot wielder, muralist, projection artist and more have moved into a former Lutheran church. This weekend they're holding a bazaar.

"We all like to help each other out," said Koch. "It's great having someone who is a musician that knows how to set up sound stuff, and someone who's a woodworker and knows how to cut wood and fix things, and somebody who is amazing with technology."

Near the blanket fort, Koch has a table that will become the base for another piece in the UWS show. "It's going to be a cake with projections coming from underneath," she said. "We're going to transform it into a scene of a birthday party table that's kind of been used, and and then there will be this magical, sort of psychedelic, dreamlike cake in the center."

"Part of my intention in building out The Embassy, which is our collective, is just to create an experimental space for stuff that you wouldn't normally see," said Benoit, standing outside the warehouse as dump trucks rumbled past. "The projection stuff that Emily's incorporating was stuff that we prototyped here. Emily is one of the first instances of that escaping out into the wild."

Birthday cakes and party hats are common motifs in Koch's recent work. "A birthday party," she said, "is something that everybody has experienced, everybody has memories of from childhood." At the same time, "everybody has at least one bad birthday memory." Koch's party pieces, she explained, are meant to trigger nostalgia, with the understanding that it won't all be happy nostalgia.

Artist Emily Koch is surrounded by her paintings as she works in her studio space
Emily Koch is surrounded by her paintings as she works in her studio. Two pieces drawn from a birthday cake session with Henriette Soderlind, wearing checkered print, are seen at lower left.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

"We thought a somber birthday party was a good concept to play with," said Duluth actor Henriette Soderlind, who posed for photos that became the basis of Koch paintings. For the photo session, Soderlind held a small cake, which Koch deliberately overloaded with candles.

"It was just this huge ball of flames on top," remembered Soderlind, "and then we decided to just smash one side of it, and she poured a bunch of red glitter and paint on it, which made it really cool. It added another level."

"These are all people that I have relationships with. These are people I know," said Koch about her subjects. "To create something together with the person in the image makes it really personal and intimate."

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In style and substance, Koch's work is a window into what she called a "very tight-knit" community, one that defies banjos-and-buffalo-plaid Northlander stereotypes.

"Something that really inspires me is the underground alternative scene here in Duluth," she said. "Just a group of weirdos, misfits, outcasts."

Koch was raised in Orr, where her parents owned a bar and lodge. "Growing up in that small, sort of conservative area definitely did make me feel a bit black-sheepish," she said. "Going to college, I really was able to discover who I was."

Artist Emily Koch works in her studio space
Emily Koch works in her studio space in a warehouse.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Studying art education at UWS, Koch took an oil painting class with Susan Maguire. "It really did change my life. I think oil painting is a medium that people either fall in love with or they just hate it," said Koch. "What I like about it is that there's this push-and-pull element. It dries so slowly that you can move things and change the shape."

Koch paints on wood. "I like having something solid. I've got a really strong grip, and I push really hard," she explained. "Canvas, I didn't like how spongy it felt."

Being rendered in paint was "a dream come true," said Soderlind, who's also a filmmaker and is working on a documentary about Koch. "I know a few other people that she's painted, and they're from a wide spectrum of the art communities in town ... the subjects of her paintings are highlighting the amount of talent that we have in Duluth."

For Koch, in a world where digital imagery is ubiquitous, painting is a richly human form of image making. "There's something about looking at a piece that was made by hand," she said. "Looking closely and seeing the pencil underneath the layers of paint and the tiny mistakes can be really magical."

By revisiting youth through a fresh lens, viewers of Koch's work may be able to experience a sort of soft reset. "A lot of it has to do with healing your inner child," said Soderlind.

"The things I used to feel the most ashamed of, like femininity and queerness and mental health, those things that I almost felt like I couldn't ever talk about, are the things that keep reappearing in my work," Koch explained. "It's been very therapeutic for me to express those things visually rather than verbally."

For Koch, inspiring a sense of play also means inspiring confidence, openness and vulnerability. "When they see my artwork," she said, "I want people to feel emboldened to express themselves — their true, 100% authentic, selves."

Emily Koch sits in a space she shares with other artists inside of a warehouse in the Harbor Industrial Park
Emily Koch sits in a space she shares with other artists in the Harbor Industrial Park.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

For more examples of Emily Koch's work, and updates on her activity, see instagram.com/cherrymcpoppins. There will be an opening reception for her Kruk Gallery exhibit Nov. 4 from 5-7 p.m. See facebook.com/uwsvisualartsdepartment for more information.

Related Topics: DULUTHARTSUPERIOR
Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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