Artist Samantha Louise Emery: Getting International Women’s Day off to a fine (st)art

Happy International Women’s Day – 24 hours of celebrating women and their amazing achievements (although you can get that all year round on 50Sense!) And I can’t think of a better story to bring you today than by introducing artist Samantha Louise Emery and her beautiful IKONA Mirrored Interior portraits.

Samantha has a prestigious heritage. Her maternal great-grandfather, Arthur Wontner, played Sherlock Holmes in several films in the 1930s while her grandfather, Arthur’s son Sir Hugh Wontner, was Lord Mayor of London in 1973. In fact, 50-year-old Samantha can remember being in his home, London’s incredible Mansion House, during that time.

“My earliest memories are of walking down the hallway,” she says. “Looking in through an open doorway, I remember seeing my grandfather’s eyes quickly glimpse over to me and smile, with a wink, while still holding a conversation about some official business with one of his employees.”

Her parents were no less noteworthy. Mum Jennifer Wontner was a model and her dad is the Canadian Olympic gold medallist Vic Emery. So it’s little wonder that Samantha moved into a creative life herself, modelling and being photographed by the likes of Patrick Lichfield and – girl crush alert  – the amazing Annie Leibovitz.

Nevertheless, because the real world is not a Hollywood film, life was not going smoothly. Setting off to explore South America after her A-levels, Samantha discovered she was pregnant – and she was no longer with her boyfriend.

Now it seems incredible, but I remember that time in the 1980s and single mothers, especially single teenage mothers, did not have it easy, no matter how illustrious their heritage.

  IKONA 4 – Germaine Greer
IKONA 4 – Germaine Greer

Struggling to bring up her child and feeling the shame that all single mothers were made to feel at that time, Samantha turned to art for solace, enrolling on a foundation course at Amersham College in Buckinghamshire. In time, that led to her being offered a place at the prestigious Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design.

After interning with fashion designer Paul Costelloe to make ends meet, Samantha moved to Toronto upon graduation – she’d spent many years of her childhood in Canada – and began working as an artist.

She also had another child, became a step-mum to another two, travelled, divorced and then moved to Turkey with her younger daughter. It wasn’t easy.

“I received a great deal of criticism, as a mother and as a woman,” she says. “I’d never felt so low and as much of a failure as a person for what I had created.” 

Throughout it all, however, she kept working. Painting allowed her a way to express her emotions and pour out what she was feeling, especially when she moved back to Toronto to deal with family matters.

Eventually, the therapeutic nature of art helped her find her purpose. “I began to see my life in terms of participating in other people’s journeys,” she says. “This was not only liberating for me, but through it I discovered a new wealth of experiences that enriched my life.”

And then, one evening over a birthday dinner, Samantha realised what she really wanted to do – celebrate the power of women, in part because of the deep gratitude she felt for all those she’d met who had added to her life experiences and also because of the strength she saw in her growing daughters.

From this was born IKONA Mirrored Interiors, a series of ten interpretative portraits capturing the spirit of women who Samantha has either known or been inspired by.  

  IKONA 10 – Lucy
IKONA 10 – Lucy

The women chosen are widely diverse figures, including feminist Germaine Greer, jewellery designer Krystyne Griffin, Samantha’s godmother, Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai and singer and activist Angélique Kidjo (check out her version of Talking Heads’ Once In A Lifetime – fantastic). There is even a “matter-of-fact, maternal Anatolian vegetable seller” who Samantha met on her travels.

 “Some of these women I have known quite well and have participated in my evolution as a woman and an artist,” she says. “Others have inspired me from afar. And yet all of them share something in common ­– they exercise their bold vulnerability with courage and dignity.”

Samantha appears in each portrait, to represent how the women have touched her life. She also created a self-portrait as No.10, “Lucy” – her father’s nickname for her as the alter ego to Samantha.

The paintings are bright, bold and complex pieces with many layers – “Is that how you see women?” I ask. “Absolutely,” Samantha replies emphatically ­– and I love their energy and spirit.

I particularly adore how it is only when you get up close that you can distinguish their features. After all, isn’t it only when we get close to people that we see the real them?

As well as celebrating women, the portraits also help them. A portion of all the income from IKONA is being donated to the charity Working Chance, the only recruitment consultancy for women leaving the criminal justice and care systems, and the Malala Fund, which works to give all girls the chance to an education. 

In a message that couldn’t be more pertinent to today, Samantha adds: “We’ve been graced with living in a time when many women have asserted their feminine selves and have inspired others through their actions. Yet there is still much more awareness to be brought to the world about feminine solidarity, education and the positive effects it can have for girls and women today and future generations.”

Here, Samantha tells us more about IKONA, how she creates her portraits and the message she hopes it gives women on International Women’s Day.

What is IKONA?

It is a woman who is comfortable in her skin; who knows her self worth. Someone who inspires women to be true to themselves for the betterment of mankind and future generations. 

How did you choose your subjects?

It began with my godmother and continued on from her. I instinctively chose women who struck a chord in my evolution as a woman, at that time, entering her 50s. 

  IKONA 6 – Krystyne Griffin
IKONA 6 – Krystyne Griffin

I love the portrait of your godmother…

Krystyne has been a major influence on my sense of personal style and creative outlook from an early age. She’s observed my highs and lows and remained consistently supportive in a very matter-of-fact way. She’s been a huge influence on my ability to feel safe with being vulnerable.

The portrait portrays her respect and compassionate love she has given to my evolution as a woman. Blue is prominent as it is my favourite colour, as well as hers. 

Can you describe the artistic process?

My process is very instinctive after having done my research on each subject. Once I selected the image of my subject, I entered a meditative process that led me to understand them from afar in a spiritual and personal way. 

Finally, what message do you want women to take from IKONA?

Fearlessly wear your colours and love the unique woman that you are. (I think I’m taking that as my motto for life – 50Sense)

If you live in London and would like to see IKONA Mirrored Interiors, you’re in luck. The portraits are currently being shown – and sold – at Mediaworks in White City Place until 15 March. In addition, to mark International Women’s Day, Samantha will be there today from 12-2pm to discuss her work and the women who inspired it.

Hope to see you there!

Don’t forget to check out my other artists – the wonderful soap star turned painter Jayne Tunnicliffe and the magnificent THx’s celebration of the strength we get from our “weaknesses”, Tender Heroine.

Which women would you celebrate in paint? Let me know in the comments below. 

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