When Emily Ritter realized she wanted to pursue a career in the arts, she landed an internship at Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosendale, New York, and soon after, she moved to the Valley of the Sun to begin an MFA program at Arizona State University in 2015.
Today, Emily is an artist and arts educator, driven by her passions for creating, teaching, and exploring the natural world. She uses printmaking, mixed-media sculpture, digital design, and watercolor to explore human irresponsibility and its consequences on the environment we live in, while also serving as an arts educator for the Maricopa County Community College District. Emily has exhibited work internationally and across the Valley of the Sun, and her exhibition Polyflora—which imagines a future wherein plastics and organic matter have fused to create hybrid species that have overtaken all current lifeforms—has been shown in galleries throughout the United States, including at Harry Wood Gallery at Arizona State University and Modified Arts in Phoenix.
Here’s Emily Ritter, in her own words, on her inspirations, the experiences that led her to becoming a practicing artist and arts educator, and much more.
“THE RESILIENCE OF THE NATURAL WORLD ASTOUNDS ME, AND THAT ASTONISHMENT DEFINITELY INFORMS MY WORK.”
Emily Ritter. Photo credit: Ryan Para.
PHXART: TELL US ABOUT WHO YOU ARE. WHERE ARE YOU FROM? WHAT WAS YOUR CONNECTION TO ART?
Emily Ritter: Originally, I am from Wichita, Kansas, but I relocated to the Phoenix-Metro area in 2015 to pursue my MFA at Arizona State University.
I’ve always been compelled to create and came from a creative family. My father was an engineer, and my mother is a geologist, a jewelry artist, and someone who dabbles in fiber art. My uncle and aunt on my mother’s side are both practicing artists and professors. In middle school and high school, I participated in Scholastic Art competitions and even won a couple. Art classes were my favorite places to be. In fact, a student recently said to me that art classrooms have always been a safe place for them, and I definitely identified with that.
Emily Ritter, Ecosystem #3, 2018. Soft plastic bags, wire, and HDPE regrind. Photo credit: Ryan Para.
PHXART: WHEN DID YOU KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A PRACTICING ARTIST?
ER: I didn’t choose art as a career path until my first year of college. I went to Wichita State University (WSU) for my BFA in studio art with an emphasis in printmaking. I liked to get involved, and while I was at WSU, a few of my peers and I helped to re-instate the printmaking club and called it “Tornado Alley Press.” I ended up becoming the club’s president and organized an event where we printed large relief prints with a steamroller. It was a pretty wonderful experience.
After graduating, I had a studio at a local Wichita art store and continued making artwork while working odd gigs, including cocktail waitressing at a coffee shop/bar and selling hats at a hat store. Then, in 2014, I was accepted into the Studio Internship program at Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosendale, New York. Being a part of that organization changed my world and solidified my career goals and studio practice. I was able to live and work with other women artists. It was fantastic.
A year after my internship ended, I was accepted to ASU for my MFA in studio art with an emphasis in printmaking. ASU opened up a lot of doors to the Phoenix art community and gave me the ability to form a lot of wonderful connections, one of which was working for Xico, a local art-focused non-profit. My first role with them was as the workshop assistant for the printmaking workshops. Then I became the Studio and Gallery Coordinator and was humbled when I had the opportunity to curate the Roosevelt Row shipping containers.
Emily Ritter, Ecosystem #2, 2018. Soft plastic bags, wire, resin, and HDPE regrind. Photo credit: Ryan Para.
PHXART: WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST INSPIRATION AND WHAT ARE THE TOPICS YOU MOST EXPLORE NOW?
ER: I’ve always been inspired by the natural world and continue to be. I am constantly absorbing the natural beauty and information around me, whether large or small. I’m the kind of person who is constantly taking pictures of plants, birds, or bugs on the sidewalk. I love watching weeds grow in the cracks of concrete and at the edges of buildings. The resilience of the natural world always astounds me, and that astonishment definitely informs my work. Recently, I was lucky enough to see a group of pronghorn antelope grazing in Northern Arizona, and I immediately burst into tears. In that same trip, I was able to check seeing California condors off my bucket list. As an artist, I think that it’s important to make work about our obsessions, our passions—that which moves us.
While the natural world definitely moves me, being moved by the natural world also sparks feelings of responsibility. I spend a lot of time thinking about how humans impact the environment, and these thoughts influence my work.
My work explores the ways in which humans affect the environment. Some of my past projects have focused on endangered species, the impact of plastic waste, documenting local species, and abstracting the negative impacts of human activity on the environment.
I strive to learn about the intricacies of the natural world every day. I love nature. Nature is being negatively affected by humans. That lights my fire. One passion fuels the other.
Emily Ritter, Floated, 2021. Digital. Image courtesy of the artist.
PHXART: WHAT ARE THE MEDIA YOU PREFER TO WORK IN, AND WHY?
ER: I am kind of all over the place with what media I work in, and it is ultimately decided by the concepts that I’m trying to explore in my work or whichever media suits the concept and delivery best. I studied printmaking for both my BFA and MFA but have also been drawn to installation work and sculpture. Currently, due to my busy schedule, I am working digitally in preparation to make prints.
Each medium has its own inherent qualities that attract me to them. With prints, I enjoy the process and how each process is unique. I also enjoy the process of working with plastics in addition to the transformative quality of it. Digital art allows me to work quickly with ease. Watercolor allows me to play with layers and softness.
I’ve always wanted to be the kind of artist who works exclusively in one medium, but I have not been able to do that. There is simply too much out there for me to explore and to experiment with! I am big on artworks that have process—and that’s probably the printmaker in me.
Emily Ritter, Ecosystem #5 (detail), 2018. Soft plastic bags, wire, and HDPE regrind. Photo credit: Ryan Para.
PHXART: WHEN DID YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN ARTS EDUCATION?
ER: In addition to making art, teaching art is another one of my passions. While in graduate school, I had the opportunity to teach foundation art courses—including 2D Design, Color Theory, Drawing I, 3D Design, and Intro to Computer Art—and also made connections that enabled me to teach various workshops and classes at Mesa Arts Center, Phoenix Center for the Arts, and anywhere else that would have me. After graduating with my MFA, I have continued to teach foundation art courses for the Maricopa Community College District.
PHXART: WHO ARE YOUR GREATEST ARTISTIC INFLUENCES?
ER: Since I was an undergraduate student, I have loved Kiki Smith and Joel Sartore. They have been major influences and inspirations in my own artwork for many years. Some other artists who have and continue to inspire me are Aurora Robson, George Boorujy, and Karen Kunc, just to name a few. My artistic influences also include my peers in the Phoenix area. I’m constantly looking at the work of my peers, and I continue to be inspired and proud of the community of which I’m a part.
Emily Ritter, Ecosystem #6 (detail), 2018. Soft plastic bags, wire, and HDPE regrind. Photo credit: Ryan Para.
PHXART: WHAT’S SOMETHING YOU’RE CURRENTLY WORKING ON OR HAVE RECENTLY EXHIBITED?
ER: I continue to exhibit Polyflora in galleries around the country and hope to expand the project soon. Polyflora is an exploration of a fictional future wherein plastics have fused with organic matter to create hybrid species that have replaced the life we know today. I utilized an abundance of accessible materials that have been deemed garbage and transformed them into objects of value. Various plant species from these future landscapes are created by fusing, wrapping, gluing, and cutting soft plastics, with focus on the movement, shape, malleability, and substance of this material that has become so ubiquitous in the environment. The very sense of the word “plastic” is evident in the process of transformation—the ability for a material to be molded and transformed to fit specific needs. By creating beautiful, highly detailed forms that mimic plants from this discarded material, I bring attention to the impact of consumption and waste and its toxicity to our environment. The detail and complexity of the forms are meant to draw the viewer into the work. Upon closer inspection, the audience will be left with a subtle surprise—the realization that it is all entirely made out of plastic. The completed artwork reflects on apocalyptic positivity, or the concept that life will find a way to survive in a world full of plastics and human irresponsibility.
I am also currently working on a body of work in which I am using forms and shapes found in nature to create abstract creatures or “fur things,” as I like to call them. It is my response to wildlife getting caught and trapped in humanmade materials. This project is still in the exploration phase, but I’m excited to see where it takes me.
PHXART: WHAT CAN OUR COMMUNITY EXPECT TO SEE NEXT FROM YOU?
ER: Currently, there is nothing major on the horizon. I am still creating, but I am not showing much work in the Valley right now, as I have been taking some time to focus on my teaching. With that said, I completed an edition of screenprints for the Mesa Arts Center print calendar and have been working with the City of Tempe’s Arts-in-the-Parks Program on a coloring book that includes eight local artists and features eight Tempe parks (published Fall 2021).
Emily Ritter, Yellow, 2021. Digital. Image courtesy of the artist.
PHXART: WE’RE CURIOUS HOW CREATIVES ARE NAVIGATING THE TIME OF CORONAVIRUS. EMILY RITTER SHARES WHAT’S GIVING HER LIFE DURING THE PANDEMIC.
ER: Gardening has been a huge thing for me. I started right before the pandemic but was able to learn a lot during quarantine. I really let my garden get out of control; at one point, I had about 40 potted plants on my very tiny balcony. Other than gardening, I have appreciated having the time to work in my studio rather than being stuck in traffic!