Reclaiming History with Emily Carris

by Zoe Rayn; Editorial Director


An artist, educator, and founding member of the Art Department Collective, Emily Carris creates work aimed at healing historical wounds, while building a community of caring artists through the AD collective. “As a transracially adopted black queer woman raised in modern America my story is incomplete, riddled with gaping holes; a result of malicious neglect and the casualty of power, supremacy, domination, and shame. I seek to unearth and preserve the untold stories of my ancestors while morphing the everyday objects that hold the traces of their pain. I have created pieces that interweave my experience as their descendant, with their stories so often overlooked and untold.”


Z: How did you get into art? When did you know you wanted to make it your career?

E: I’ve always been into art for as long as I can remember. From a very young age, my dream was to be an artist and marine biologist. One of those stuck ;) 

As far as making art my career, I knew that in high school. I fell in love with photography and knew that I wanted to go around the world with it. Since then I’ve made it a mission to pursue the creative life.

Z: Was there/are there specific photographers that inspired you to pursue this career? If so, who were they? What about their work captivated/s you?

E: There are so many. Top of mind is Lorna Simpson, her work has always been a huge influence on me. There is elegant poetry to her work that is so inviting but the details pack such a punch. The same is true for Carrie Mae Weems, Ingrid Pallard, and Rene Cox. When I encountered their work early in my studies, it was the first time that I saw black women use the medium to visualize the inner depths of black womanhood through space and time. It gave me permission for which I am grateful for every day. 

Z: As your work deals with identity and coping as a queer, Black woman, growing up in a predominantly white community (and family at that); have you ever found yourself censoring your work? Has this ever made creating freely difficult? If so how? If not why do you think that is?

E: When I’ve finally gotten the drive to create something I don’t censor myself consciously. For a while, I kept myself rather quiet. After graduate school, while developing my work exploring the ports (where slave ships left from) was largely dismissed by my cis, white, male, professors, I questioned my voice, my point of view, whether I had the stomach for making art. Additionally, (at the risk of being grandiose) I knew that many people over time have died for some of the thoughts and ideas I have. My work can make people uneasy, particularly white people. 

So over time, I’ve had to undo a lot of white supremacy in order to not feel like I need to censor myself. I’m very sensitive to the discomfort the audience may feel. I feel it in creating the work. Sometimes I’m in tears in my studio. But I think we’re strong and we need to reconcile our history. Nowadays I get great joy in the conversations the work sparks

Z: Undoing white supremacy is a hell of a task, one I think a lot of us are trying to do - what advice (if any) do you have for fellow artists/creatives of color trying to create work free from self-censorship?

E: This is a big question...I’m not really sure. I struggle with that myself. This is what I’ve found so far

  • try to make sure that I’m making work that is as honest as possible. I know when I’m doing that when I feel the urge to run from an idea. 

  • Don’t let the fear close you off. Take a little glee in the uncomfortable silences in relationship to your work. 

  • Surround yourself with community and support. 

  • Be an open and contributing member of your community

  • Ideas need time to germinate so don’t worry if you’re not making work

  • Revolutionary Love, Togetherness (both internally and communally), and Joy lead to the thriving we all deserve which is the antidote in a white supremacist system that aims to have you dead. Make your art and be happy :)


Z: Your most recent and ongoing series "Reclaimed" is powerful to say the very least. When did you realize/decide to turn this sort of self-exploration into a full-fledged artistic installation?

E: It was around 2015. I hadn’t made visual artwork seriously in about 7 years when Corey started asking to see my work. I finally opened up and started showing him. Then one night the first “Reclaimed” installation poured out of me like a flood. I was up until 3 that night taking notes. I spent the next year making work. Prior to that, I was putting my energy into the Art Dept which turned me onto knitting, crochet, natural dyeing, and other fiber practices. 

In the Reclaimed series, I have combined this historical interest in black identity, craft, and photography into one.

Z: Are you still actively creating work for the Reclaimed series? How do you see it evolving as time moves forward?

E: I am still making work for that series though it’s now piece by piece. I’m currently working on a quilted piece with my husband, Corey, that reimagines the confederate flag. My goal for the work is to continue exploring and expanding out the installations to make them more immersive, engaging, and healing experiences. 

Z: This would not be an interview without my asking about the Art Dept. Collective haha Could you share the back story? Why a collective?

E: I think that the election really solidified the urgency to band together and create a safe community for marginalized artists in Philly. In truth, the collective is an exercise in self-care, and healing. I was burnt outrunning the Art Dept. Additionally, Kate, who helped run our exhibitions, had a growing illustration career and needed more time to devote to that. I knew I needed more help if this organization was going to stay afloat. 

Then organically Carmel, who is also an artist, had a pop up at the Art Dept for Colored Vintage. Having the vintage clothing in the space with all the artwork felt natural to base to build a sustainable nonprofit from that could support us creatively and allow us to contribute to other marginalized creatives while employing equitable governance. 

It turned out that there were folks within the AD community were interested in making this community happen. Since then we’ve become a collective eight.

Z: Hopes for the future of Art Dept? Any exciting projects, shows, series coming up?

E: The Art Dept will be opening for our fall season Sept 4th with a brand new layout in the store! We also now have Sunday hours from 11:00am-3:00pm. Colored Vintage will have a bunch of new  inventory throughout the fall and holiday seasons. 

On the programming side, fall brings the start to our after school arts program YAP! We’ll also have our regular slate of music programming both in the shop and around philly. October is open studio tours so we’ll have an installation of collective member works on display through the end of the month. We’ll also be open of POST on October 12th. 

Visit Art Dept at 1638 E. Berks St, Philadelphia and follow them on Instagram to stay up-to-date on events and shows!