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Playing in Color: A Conversation with Emmy Star Brown


At The Emily, our ethos centers on fostering collaborations with renowned artists and creators to ignite inspiration and innovation. Our recent partnership with acclaimed artist, Emmy Star Brown, enlivened our spaces through playful colors and abstract forms. We are privileged to have collaborated with Emmy Star Brown on crafting pieces that encompass murals and various branding elements. Her design process commenced with a medley of shapes, colors and inspirational design aspects drawn from a blend of local neighborhood and coastal imagery. She paid homage to the hotel's namesake by channeling a nature-centric vision to steer her selection of colors. Brown envisioned her pieces to evoke curiosity while making a strong initial impression, ensuring that the artwork conveyed the space's individuality, harmoniously blending with its surroundings within the hotel.

In this engaging conversation with Emmy, we unravel the rich tapestry woven from childhood nostalgia, passion and unwavering determination that has shaped her remarkable journey to the present day.

Tell us a little about your journey to becoming the artist you are today.

I graduated from the Illinois Institute of Art – Chicago and had ambitions of working at a top advertising agency. I followed in my dad’s footsteps and pursued a career in package design and quickly learned that I was not cut out for an office job. I always sketched on my lunch breaks, typically lettering and abstract doodles.

A few months into the job, a friend introduced me to Atomic Sketch Event (ASE), which became my true creative outlet and non-work hobby. On the last Thursday of every month, a panel of artists were invited to create live art at a small local dive bar in Wicker Park and all work was affordably priced. It was a social and creative networking space and marked the beginning of my artmaking. I was experimental in mediums and connected with young and diverse creative people.

My artwork began with small Sharpie drawings on discarded pieces of cardboard and soon evolved into doodling with paint markers which would unknowingly change the trajectory of my work and creative future. I experimented with painting on found glass windows from the alleys and eventually made a name for myself with this body of work. I acknowledged that I wasn’t happy at my job and truly wanted to be designing for projects that felt more meaningful. After much internal debate, I decided to leave my agency job at age 22 with no plan. It was a huge risk.

I forfeited my stability, insurance, any opportunities of growth within the agency – and the creative position that I had worked incredibly hard throughout school for. I had been working paycheck to paycheck – another consideration that I was willing to gamble for growth. For three years I struggled hard. I worked endlessly and my tiny apartment quickly became overfilled with old windows, painting materials, sketchbooks and inspiration. I was quite literally living on top of my paintings. I worked oddball jobs to cover my rent while tirelessly painting, making contacts and utilizing every business skill I had picked up working at the agency. Nothing seemed to come easy and I remember hitting a wall many times. Even when I was steadily selling paintings, I was barely breaking even each month while slowly making a name for myself.

In 2011, it all changed. I signed a year-long contracted partnership with Sharpie which gave me a national platform to share my work that included a documentary-style television commercial that aired on MTV and a billboard in Times Square. It was an unexpected gift that gave me exposure, new work, confidence, contacts and so much growth. Following this, partnerships and projects continued to snowball. I could say much more about this experience, but I will say that upon reflecting, I feel proud of my younger self for taking a leap, hustling and being mindful of following what felt right.

When are you most creative?

For me, the best inspiration and creative moments come following a trip. Traveling, even a quick day trip, where I can pause from work to reflect, take in new inspiration, have interesting conversations and a new environment always seems to influence a new idea or direction. I also have a giant and growing stack of art history books gifted from my dad that are nice to curl up on the couch with and revisit for inspiration.

Who and what inspires you?

My current body of work is inspired by my childhood. I was non-verbal when I was young and needed other ways to express what I felt, needed and wondered about. With help from an art therapist, I learned to draw my world. Anchored in the theme of the inner child, my current work aims to highlight the joy, spontaneity and fearlessness synonymous with our younger selves. It is a visual journey back to self by reclaiming parts that are often lost as we grow older and allowing our purest forms of playfulness, creative confidence and imagination to come forward. This year, I have been taking on a new exploratory approach by looking at my work through a multi-dimensional lens, a nod to my creative hero, Alexander Calder.

If there was a soundtrack or song that captures the essence of your work, what would it be?

I think it would go back to my childhood. The Beatles, The Turtles, Bob Dylan and Canned Heat.

Favorite places for art & culture in Chicago?

The Arts Club MCA, mid-century modern furniture shops, Calder’s Flamingo, flea markets, Music Box, theatre, gallery openings and life drawing classes.

One piece of advice for creatives about to start their careers.

There’s no roadmap. Keep yourself as focused as you can on your work and your path. Follow what feels right for you. Networking and social media are helpful tools. Be selective with your time and limit what you do for exposure. When you say no to something it allows you to say yes to something else.

Describe your perfect day in Chicago.

A veggie frittata for breakfast on my back patio, caring for my plants, followed by a cha-cha latte from Dayglow. Working from the studio, taking an afternoon hike with my dog, Ralphie, through Prairie Wolf. Hitting a hot yoga class or sensory deprivation tank at Spacetime. Listening to a true crime podcast. Find an antique sale. Diving into design books in the basement of Jayson Home or a visit to the Arts Club. A snack at All Together Now, dinner with friends at Lula and a nightcap (with fernet) at Meadowlark.

About Emmy Star Brown

A Chicago native, Emmy has always been inspired by her hometown city's unique blend of style, story and character, which has served as a backdrop and canvas throughout much of her creative career.

Emmy kickstarted her career with a BFA in visual communications from the Illinois Institute of Art, later parlaying it into a creative position in advertising at one of Chicago's marquee agencies. There she earned her commercial stripes in branding and packaging before breaking away to pursue work as an independent artist. She's since spent the past decade adorning public spaces across Chicago and beyond while continuing to nurture her studio practice. And, with current work that includes everything from illustration, lettering and canvas work to branding, packaging and murals, she continues to evolve both her mediums and methods.

At the center of her eclectic and diverse portfolio are a whole host of creative partnerships with iconic brands such as Sharpie, Chicago Bulls, Lululemon, Yeti, Red Bull, Delta, T-Mobile, Jeni's Ice Cream, Vital Proteins, Foxtrot and Soho House. They tap Emmy for her signature style, which is both extroverted and introspective. She employs fresh colors, intentional layering and emotive line work to create one-of-a-kind elemental experiences that drive wonder, spark connection and encourage presence.

To date, her work has lived in a host of iconic public spaces from Times Square to Miami's Wynwood Art District and beyond. And, while her scope continues to expand, so does her artistic vision. Her current studio practice is focused on the concept of the Inner Child, highlighting the joy, spontaneity and fearlessness synonymous with our younger selves. This work serves as a visual journey back to self where our purest forms of playfulness, creative confidence and imagination come forward.


- Emily xx