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things left behind: The Work of John Emery at the Dayton Visual Arts Center

May 22, 2015

Artist John Emery documents memories. Realistic watercolor renderings of landscapes and personal objects merge into actual artifacts, blurring the line between the authentic and imagined. Carefully composed and preserved on paper, these compositions are collections of a place, a story, and a relationship.

John Emery, "Vanishing Point," 2014, watercolor construction

John Emery, “Vanishing Point,” 2014, watercolor construction

In the exhibition things left behind at the Dayton Visual Arts Center, Emery’s inspiration in “old objects, stories, forgotten cultures, the New Zealand landscape, and the loss of innocence that surrounded WWI” come to life in over 30 new watercolor paintings and constructions. Often using trompe-l’œil (a French term, “to deceive the eye”), Emery’s works create an optical illusion of shallow, three-dimensional arrangements of artifacts.

“John’s works are rich with detail, layered with personal observation and history,” wrote Eileen Carr, the exhibition curator. “John’s magic is his ability to gently and exquisitely reconstitute these fragments–physical and conceptual–into works that are a bit like time capsules.  Each hints at a story, often with a bit of melancholy…these are works that derive from his deep and long sense of place, both here in Dayton and outside of Christchurch, New Zealand.”

John Emery, "Fungi Fossicking," 2014, watercolor construction

John Emery, “Fungi Fossicking,” 2014, watercolor construction

In the watercolor Vanishing Point, a painting of an open sketchbook reveals a panoramic blue sky above a distant landscape, with geographic coordinates noted in beautiful scroll below the image. A pair of glasses sits on top of the sketchbook, realistic enough to touch and push aside. Inhabiting the empty space above these objects is a silver stopwatch, yet another piece of this narrative. The composition gives a sense of the work of a surveyor or a traveler pausing in observation or rest.

“The objects, like memories, are often not what they seem,” wrote Emery. “The shifting perspective and use of three-dimensional formed paper provide the environment, but it is the viewer who must complete the story.” The careful selection and placement of items, the windows into other worlds—such as through landscapes or old sepia toned photographs—are clues to guide each viewer to a unique narrative. “I like to take the viewer back to his or her own memories and objects they hold dear,” he wrote.

Emery’s interest in memories and objects extends back to his childhood. “I spent hours exploring my grandparents’ long forgotten trunks,” he wrote. “Old notebooks, faded papers, postcards and bits of string attracted me. But it was always the undefined fragment of an object or the battered leather cover of a journal that fired my imagination.”

John Emery, "It's Not My Fault," 2014, watercolor construction

John Emery, “It’s Not My Fault,” 2014, watercolor construction

These influences, along with years of collecting souvenirs, continue to be present in this latest series of constructions. “He’s an inveterate collector, of odd bits of nature, deeply beautiful works of art, stories, and of course, the observed detail,” wrote Carr. “Both his house and studio reflect this: each are filled with carefully curated collections of objects and fragments common and valuable.”

Emery studied at the Dayton Art Institute, the University of Dayton and Manchester College of Art and Design in England before embarking on his career in design and fine art. After decades of work as a graphic designer, Emery now lives and creates art between Dayton, Ohio, and New Zealand. Emery’s work has been exhibited throughout internationally, most notably at Christchurch’s Center of Contemporary Art and at the Dayton Art Institute.

Concurrently on view at the Dayton Visual Arts Center is the work of painter Amy Sacksteder. Also a graduate of the University of Dayton, Sacksteder creates compilations of forms, color and shape influenced by nature and observation. With parallels in inspiration to Emery’s watercolor constructions, including both artists’ interest in souvenirs, landscape painting and illustration, Sacksteder’s work departs into a new realm of abstract collaged compositions. On her website, she wrote: “My paintings, drawings, and installations embody the inability to convey the significance of an event or the impact of a place. The work draws upon the traditions of landscape painting and natural science illustration, and incorporates the visual language of maps, diagrams, and artifacts, as a way of exploring our connection—many times via objects—to specific places and occurrences.”

Resulting in very different paintings, Emery and Sacksteder engage thought-provoking reflections on our observed world, personal experiences and how we remember them.

John Emery: “things left behind” and Amy Sacksteder: “The Interior” are on view from May 8 through June 20, 2015 at the Dayton Visual Arts Center at 118 North Jefferson Street, Dayton. Emery will present a gallery talk on Thursday, June 18 at 6:15 pm; Sacksteder will present a gallery talk on Thursday, May 21 at 6:15 pm. More information about the exhibitions can be found at To learn more about the artists, visit John Emery’s website at and Amy Sacksteder at

This article was originally published in the May 19, 2015 edition of the Dayton City Paper.

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