‘Make Art Not War’ ​​: Local artist raises money for Ukrainians

Like so many of  us, local artist Emma de Polnay felt utterly helpless as she watched the conflict in Ukraine unfold. ‘I found myself completely overcome by the horror of what I was seeing’ she tells me, ‘but I knew that me worrying wouldn’t feed a starving Ukrainian person ’. Instead, Emma decided to ‘channel this horror into love by using the tools I have’ and to try and raise money by starting the #BrightonHeartsUkraine campaign and selling her original heart-shaped artworks.

The ‘heart-works’ are based on the now iconic Ukrainian flag colours – painted in a deep indigo but in place of the yellow, Emma has used iridescent gold instead. She tells me ‘the gold represents the energy that I’m feeling, and the tireless energy, love and enthusiasm I can see going into the global effort to help these innocent people’.

The luminous gold ink and gilding wax are also a personal tribute for Emma; after all, they are the constant in her mixed-media art, which ranges in subject from abstracts to otherworldly figures. She finishes all of her originals and giclee prints with iridescent golds and metallic inks, waxes and mediums, saying ‘it’s like the electrical current that brings the piece to life’.

Emma de Polnay heart art for Ukraine

This, of course, comes after laying down the initial wax resist, and a wash of either ‘very pale Chinese ink’ or ‘cold tea’. The rogue material came to be part of the process when, by happy accident, she dipped her paintbrush in the wrong mug and discovered ‘it makes this beautiful colour that I kind of see as the base metal’. As the ink interacts with the wax resist, they battle for space on the page, ‘they do beautiful and unexpected things while fighting with each other’.

It’s not just Emma’s mediums that move, it’s everything about her work. Her dynamic figures are the combination of her love of romantic mythology, folklore and contemporary dance: ‘my angels, nymphs and Victorian heroines become my dancers, they tell their stories dynamically, like putting actors on a stage’. Her technique is also imbued with movement. As a student of artist Bella Pieroni, ‘we did these wonderful, unconventional life classes’. Based on the teachings of mystical artist Cecil Collins whose ‘technique was all about overriding the ego and trying to sharpen the intuition by working very fast’, the workshops involved ‘working in darkness, or with eyes closed, working unbelievably fast, clapping, and then doing a two second sketch to capture a pure movement on instinct’.

Creating art

It’s the undeniable energy of her work that makes it so appropriate to reach across the globe. Emma’s artistic power may also come from being concentrated over four artistic generations. ‘My family is littered with creatives’ she laughs. Not only related to Water Babies author Charles Kingsley and grandchild to Australian children’s book illustrator, Sheila Hawkins, Emma grew up in a home bejeweled with the drawings and murals of her painter and illustrator mother, Anna de Polnay.

Art has been Emma’s mother tongue for her entire life, so it’s no surprise that it’s the means she’s turned to in this time of crisis. The #BrightonHeartsUkraine collection includes individuals, couples of and families of hearts, ‘so that there’s something for everyone’, and all money they raise will go to the Disasters Emergency Committee.

Ultimately, Emma hopes to ‘inspire Brighton Businesses to commission larger versions’ so that they can show their support visually and help raise more funds. Brightonian independent business Bell & Fox in Kemptown have already got the ball rolling and currently have works on sale in store.

Emma de Polnay angel art

Earlier this month, Emma joined forces with a local team for a ‘Bake and Produce sale for Ukraine’, which both sold out and raised over £1,800. ‘It’s a testament to my friend’s finely honed event production skills and incredible baking, as well as the power of coming together in a community and people playing to their strengths’.

Emma also sold out of her handmade #BrightonHeartsUkraine badges at the sale, for those who wanted to wear their heart on their sleeve. Orders are still coming in which meant that as we spoke, Emma was gearing up for ‘a busy weekend.’

Before our conversation ends, Emma pulls up a quote from the novel ‘The Island of Missing Trees’ by Elif Shafak; ‘there are moments in life where everyone has to become a warrior. If you are a poet you fight with your words, if you are an artist you fight with your paintings… I guess that really resonated for me’, she explains, ‘because, although warrior is a strong word, I’m using the tools I have to say, this is awful and I want to do what I can to help.’

The response to conflict in Ukraine, both in Brighton and world-wide has been, as Emma says, ‘extraordinary. It has captured everyone’s hearts at a time when they may think they just couldn’t dig any deeper after the pandemic’.

If you’d like to raise money for Ukraine and own a unique #BrightonHeartsUkraine piece, find Emma’s website here.

If you’d like to order one of Emma’s heart broaches, please message her directly on Instagram.

If you’d like to donate to the Disasters Emergency Committee, click here.

Words by Kate Bowie

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