Shippensburg University senior Art and Design major Emily Erby sat on an oblong black bench in the Brindle Art Gallery two weeks before graduation, surrounded by her trophies.
They were not the conventional gold, silver, or bronze trinkets, but canvases covered in striking hues of blue, fleshy neutrals and splotches of inky charcoal. Over the course of the last two years Erby gave these earthy colors life by blending them into silhouettes and emotionally provocative faces that together explore the internal and external realms of self.
“Emily has always had a deep intellectual ability to truly see what artistic expression can do. She understands that the artwork can communicate with its viewers profoundly,” Steven Dolbin, professor of art and design, said. “So she pays attention to the visual world around her and absorbs information and feelings and in turn this comes out in her artwork.”
In addition to tuning in to the emotions of others, Erby also began to come to terms with her own internal struggles by releasing them in her art.
“Sometimes I don't event realize it until later, how I project my own emotions onto my artworks,” Erby said.
Erby went to a small, poor high school in Spring Run, Pennsylvania, and briefly lost her sense of direction when she got involved with drugs during her late teenage years. After graduating from high school, she said she took a year off from school to rehabilitate and refocus herself before pursuing a bachelor’s degree.
While this time in her life was a series of arduous ups and downs, self-expression through art remained a stabilizing constant, and in many ways an outlet for hope.
“Art still helps me,” Erby said. “It helped me during the low times in my life, but it also made me into a more serious person because I realized I could do something with art. It wasn't just a way for me to cope.”
When Erby began to look into art programs the following year, she was hoping to find a college with a strong art program that was located close to her hometown, yet far enough away that she could have the ability to thrive independently. SU quickly became a top candidate for her, but upon her initial application for the art and design department, she was thrown yet another curve ball.
“I spoke with Professor Dolbin and he almost didn't accept me into the program because he wasn't sure if my drawings were up to par with the level of ability that was needed to be successful in the department,” Erby said.
But these adverse circumstances did not discourage her. She was resilient and submitted another work for the portfolio admission test, and her potential must have shone through her second go-around, because she was accepted.
“I have never thought that she lacked any skills or talent, but she does have maturity and a great ability to listen and reflect. While some students come with talent, they often lack life experience and maturity. Emily had this innate quiet maturity from the start,” Dolbin said. “If all our students could become careful observers, insightful thinkers and hard workers they could grow into mature artists such as Emily before they graduate and be that much more ready to change the world with their art.”
While acceptance into SU’s Art and Design Department was a breakthrough moment for Erby, she was not content with her small triumph. Instead, she went after her craft with vigor and originality. It was no longer a matter of proving her worth to others, but it became a self-reflective journey of proving to herself just how much she could achieve with hard work and the guidance of her professors, she said.
“Every individual is different, and if we’re not individualistic, if we’re not our own person, then there is a problem. You’re then just repeating what someone else has done,” art and design professor Michael Campbell said. “So, I think that the artist’s challenge is to find your way of doing it and do it the best you can. And I think that’s what Emily has done and why she has been so successful. She has mapped out a plan for herself and identified her goals and then has gone after them.”
Since she began her education at SU, art has blossomed from a hobby into a way of life. Erby spends an average of 25 hours a week working with art, and even when she is not creating, her mind is constantly producing ideas, which is why she said she always tries to carry around a sketchpad.
“She, like all of our students that are successful, have two traits. The first one is they are open to criticism. Because if they are not willing to accept criticism, and to see the other side of the coin, there is a tendency to repeat what they are doing,” Campbell said. “The second component is you have to have a passion for what it is you are doing. You have to put in more hours than you might want to, and I think out of that perseverance comes better quality.”
Getting to where she is today was not an easy accomplishment for Erby, but self-discovery and success hardly ever is. It is the little trophies earned along the way, such as her artworks, that make the journey worth it.
After she graduates on Saturday, she plans to take a year to live life freely, make money, make art, and then when the timing is right, venture back to school again to pursue a graduate degree.
“I learned how to work hard and be patient with myself,” Erby said about her time at SU. This is a concept that she plans to apply to all aspects of her life, not just with art.