"Anxiety," detail. by Emily Smith.

Emily Smith speaks with a glass half-full outlook. In our interview, she finishes many sentences with a laugh or joke, a silver lining or a positive way to look at a situation in retrospect. When she describes the awful incident in more detail, I tell her that I’m sorry to hear that.

No, it’s okay,” she replies quickly. “I processed it all through my artwork. It’s like a have a clean slate now… I didn’t even realize how much I was helping myself by making art about it.”

For roughly a year after she was assaulted, she didn’t make art about it. She was leaving the gym one night last spring in Bella Vista when a man ambushed her. He broke her jaw, broke a back molar beyond repair, fractured her sinus, and left her with a concussion. She doesn’t remember anything from the first five days after it happened. The jaw needed a bone graft. She couldn’t eat for two months.

“I get headaches sometimes still but it’s not so bad,” she says. “He could’ve walked up behind me with a gun and shot me in the head. He could’ve stabbed me. There’s a million things. I really got it easy.”

Smith, the executive director of the Magic Gardens, paints in her spare time. When she came around to working through her feelings with painting, her latest project took off. “Any moment that I had on the weekends, I was painting this series, it’s like it had to explode out of me,” she says.

When A Man Decides to Hurt You, the exhibition surrounding this series, opens this evening at Paradigm Gallery. During a break from her watercolors, she began quilting. When Smith saw the fabric against an older, incomplete painting of hers, she was sent down a different creative direction.

Credit: Courtesy of Paradigm Gallery

The hardest factor to come to terms with during the process was the aweing precarity of how quickly life can be damaged or lost. The million things Smith mentioned could have happened are really a million things.

“It kind of seeps into the emotional weight. The heaviest thing for me is kind of this existential crisis that anything can happen to you at any moment and that it’s sort of luck if you survive and come out in one piece… It really is just chaos. Like you can’t predict this sort of thing,” she explains. “It’s such a good defense mechanism to emotionally stay as composed as possible. But it bites you in the ass.”

I talked to Smith about her process, artistically and emotionally. This interview was condensed and edited for length and clarity.

How did you choose the prints?

For me, I really love color and pattern. I was looking for some sort of almost beautiful violence, and some of the prints are really speaking to me in that way where I felt like the delicacy of these watercolors, juxtaposed against these violent, really overdone patterns— it felt really right to me. I’m drawn to chaos. That’s kind of beautiful, colorful chaos.

I wanted it to be, they’re all floral, I really wanted a kind of feminine spin to the patterning. I framed all of them in these almost like vintage, Americana— traditional patterns of like the checkerboard or the stars… I think it had a lot to do with state of America right now and what we’re all feeling. With this election and the violence that is pretty much every day at this point. It felt kind of like I wanted to talk about these really terrible violent acts in a place that kind of pretends like it’s not happening. I think all of that’s coming to a head this summer. We’re all going through that as Americans.

Yeah. It definitely feels like one of those summers, I mean, even last summer as well, just seems like stories we’re going to tell our children and grandchildren.

I know. It feels miserable, and humiliating, I think. In America right now, it’s very hard. It has to be talked about, and I think that’s a lot of it. We need to talk about this, and we need to be uncomfortable, and we need to be processing this. It’s always been around, we just really need to talk about this. I think it’s happening; where people are becoming more and more aware.

So hopefully, things get more positive. But, for me, a lot of it is trying to break this cycle of anger. And a lot of people have said to me “I’m so angry that this happened to you, I will kill this guy,” and I’m like, that’s not the solution to this problem. The problem is to understand why someone wants to hurt someone else. We don’t know the story of this man. He could have been on drugs, he could have been abused, he could have mental health problems, we just don’t know. He could have nothing wrong with him. But to not try and understand someone, me playing into this hatred, I can’t do it, I just won’t. A lot of the work is saying that it’s not about anger, it’s like, what else is happening here, and how do we sort of say, “I don’t want to be a part of this process anymore, I don’t want to be a part of this system of violence.”

How do you feel like you remove yourself from a process of violence in that way, the way that you just described?

I think for me, it actually was really easy. It’s something that’s really been shocking to people and I’ve been saying it — I think I’m a little crazy, but it’s true — I really would love to go get a coffee with this guy, whoever he is. They never caught him, they have footage of him but it didn’t amount to anything.

I guess I’m very lucky to not have to turn to violence to express myself or interact with the world in that way. So, it’s privilege to just say “okay, we should just be really angry at this man.” We just don’t know what his story is. And I’m sure if I was killed, or had really long-lasting damage, I would probably be more angry at him. But I’m okay, and so, to be open to that thought and to say “maybe we should try and figure out what’s happening here,” has been actually really easy for me. I don’t know, I’ve never been mad at him. I really just want to talk to him, in a safe setting somewhere. I don’t know. 

If you were to have coffee with him, do you know what you’d ask him?

Yeah! I think I’d ask him, well, “why.” I’d really like to know “why.” And what he thought right after he did it, and what he did the days after. And then I’d really like to know what his family was like and what it was like for him growing up. I don’t know, I just can’t imagine that he’s a normal guy that’s just walking home from work one day. There’s gotta be a lot of darkness in someone’s life that they can do what he did. It doesn’t make it right, it interests me. Where he’s coming from in that way. Which isn’t really super addressed in the series; the series is sort of from my perspective, but it’s definitely the thought process and working that out for sure.

Why was it so important to express femininity?

It’s always been really important. I’m a woman. I think I’ve often defended watercolors. Watercolors are often put down as sort of a lesser medium. I’m very interested in using materials that are considered more feminine or more crafty or whatever people often think of them. So for me, being a woman who was very deliberately targeted by this man, this stranger, it was very important for me to empower some of those materials and say how badass we make materials that people normally belittle.

Did you ever— since this was a process of working through something completely horrific that had happened to you— did you ever think, I have to make this uglier?

I’m really interested in that. I’m really interested in the grotesque and making it beautiful. If you get to see the pieces in real there’s sort of a raw meat almost. I think what’s nice about painting portraits of yourself is how ugly you can you make yourself… My friend Kay is in one of the portraits and I am so self-conscious about portraying her beautifully.

I think the story is so hard, but I also think there’s a lot of good and positivity that came out of that time for me, and a lot of love and support. It changed me, I think, for the better— I was so grateful [because] it could’ve been so much worse. I think the story and trying to share it in a way that’s accessible— it kind of draws people in because it’s so beautiful and then it’s like wait a second, what am I looking at? This is really terrible. You know? I think that’s a lot of people’s stories.

Cassie Owens is a reporter/curator for BillyPenn.com. She was assistant editor at Next City and has contributed to Philadelphia City Paper, Metro, the Jewish Daily Forward, The Islamic Monthly and Spoke,...