Emida Roller has always had a passion for creating. She was born in New York City but grew up in Nigeria and was fortunate to have a constant mentor to guide her with art, her father and Nigerian artist and professor, Solomon Irein Wangboje. Growing up and being surrounded by art while having access to the necessary tools, Emida always knew that her path would be art.
After completing her undergraduate studies in Nigeria, Emida moved to the US and obtained her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) and a Master of Arts (MA) from the University of Illinois. She has always had a love for sculpture, but Emida also found an interest in mural painting and in 2003 she created Wall Designs by Emida, LLC, her mural painting business.
Karrington Trice, RiseUP for Arts content creator interviewed Emida to learn more about her journey and what advice she has for aspiring artists.
When did you realize, “I am an artist. This is who I am.”?
“I didn’t necessarily call myself a professional artist until I got paid to do the work. Before that, I was just an artist. But now, I am at a point where people keep asking, ‘Do you do anything else?’, because most artists do art on the side and then we have other jobs so we can pay the bills; now I do art full time. That is my work and that’s how I get paid, and it’s really cool because I understand not a lot of artists can do that. My daughter is also an artist and she is learning she can eventually do art full time too. It is a lot of hard work, but it is doable.”
What was it like growing up and being able to have a constant mentor?
“My dad was a graphic artist and art professor, and he had a really kind and soft nature, but I was always hard on myself. I always wanted to please him with my work but wanted to do something different and didn’t want to feel like I had to compete. I figured because he wasn’t into sculpture, he wouldn’t be so critical, but he honestly didn’t have that in his nature at all. It was just me being hard on myself. I went into a more sculptural style of art because I preferred to build stuff; it was a part of my natural instincts and what I love. You can definitely see my dad’s influence in my first sculptural pieces. I have drifted back to painting but I think maybe I will do a little bit of both now.
When I was in high school, he introduced me to a female art mentor during the summer, a former student of his. I used to go to her workshop and hang out there all day. She did beautiful sculptural work. She also ended up becoming my art teacher later in high school. Instead of directly instructing me, my dad put someone in my life that would help me, another female artist. In my culture, being a male artist is a little different from being a female artist. He wanted me to see that it is possible to be successful as a female artist and I really appreciate him for that.
I also worked with my dad a lot. On Saturday mornings he would set up tables and art supplies for kids around the neighborhood to come and hang with him and learn, for free. I became his assistant and helped him out each week. It was really fun, and I think that is what sparked my interest in community engagement with art.”
Did you find there was any difference in art style when coming to the US?
“The first thing I noticed is the work ethic. Back in Nigeria, we were constantly producing work and when I came here, I noticed it was a bit more relaxed. I think it’s a cultural thing as well. The good thing is that here in the states I had access to more materials and equipment for my sculptural work. I realize I did so much with little materials in undergrad that when I had all these materials in grad school I was like ‘Do you really need all of this stuff to produce art?’ It was fun using the new technology and tools that I had not seen before, and it made it faster to produce my art. I was able to explore more with the tools I had, but I felt like I had to stand out. Being that I am Nigerian, I wanted to show my culture in my work.”
“What’s really cool about murals is that - whenever I go through a mural alley or a city that has a lot of murals, I think about museums and galleries. You intentionally go to look at art when you go to a gallery or museum. Murals bring the gallery outside to people who would not normally go look for art. You enjoy your walk or drive as you pass by murals, and you get to take them in. Murals are there for everyone to see and it’s brought to the community and beautifies the neighborhood. It also brings the community together as the people can decide what they want to see painted. In some cities, you don’t even have to go looking for murals as there’s such a variety everywhere from graffiti style to sculptures, just all of it.”
What advice would you give to other young artists, specifically black ones?
“I would say to enjoy that freedom of being young and exploring, and to go with your gut. A lot of the times when I went with my gut I did better than when I didn’t. Initially, you will have to do other things on the side to make money while pursuing your art, but your main goal is to focus and transition from doing these jobs to being an artist. When you put in the time, you get better and when opportunities come, you are ready to take them. Find things that you enjoy and go with them because when you enjoy something you put your whole heart into it. It shows in your work and people notice. Also, find people who are successful at what they do and ask them questions. Ultimately, go with your gut, find what you really love to do, and do it well. Find a way to make money doing it.”
If you could go back in time, is there anything that you would change about your journey?
“After grad school my dad suggested I move to New York City to get established as an artist. I did not because I was so terrified that I would fail. I settled for the easiest thing and got a job first to pay the bills and I left art for a while. I feel like I wasted a lot of time and instead, I should have just moved there and done it. What was the worst thing that could’ve happened? I either would have been very successful, or I would have failed and just had to change my direction to find the right place. I am where I want to be now, my journey was just delayed because I was a little terrified of failure. I’ve learned you must make the choice to just do it. It’s okay to fail too because that’s part of the growing process to be successful. Get the failure out of the way so you can move on to your success.”
What inspires you?
“I have a group of friends; a network of artists and we work together as a team. We bounce ideas off each other. Anytime I’m struggling with something I can just go to them and ask them for advice and their thoughts on my art and vice versa. I love their work and they inspire me.
I look at my dad’s work and he inspires me. I look at my daughter’s work and she is fantastic. She is a third-year student at her university. Sometimes I’ll bounce ideas off her because she has a fresh look too and she is in one of the best art schools in the country. I know I’m her mom, but she is a good artist. I am inspired by all the new artists I’ve met especially through RiseUP . Everyone has different styles and talents, and I am inspired by them. I get inspired everywhere I go through various forms of art. I have a son who loves to dance, a daughter who loves to sing, and a husband who loves to write. You can be inspired by so much.”
Who are some of your favorite artists?
“When I first started, I loved looking at all the classics like Leonardo da Vinci, Monet, Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh’s art was so cool because his strokes were so different and bold but also subtle and I liked that about him. Picasso went from the classical way of painting to then bringing the influence of African sculpture and masks into his paintings. He did that in such a fantastic way with cubism. I also love looking at local artists and seeing their work. Ultimately, I love my daughter’s work and I love my dad’s work because it is continuing through our generation. I’m seeing greatness both before and after me within my family. It is really exciting.”
What are your thoughts on everything being digital with technology and how will that affect art?
“I think it brings a different facet, a different angle to art. I don’t think it will take away what already exists, it just is something that has been added. I feel like there will always be that basic start, because what if the electricity goes out or you didn’t charge your iPad. Sometimes you need to grab a pen and paper. You also can’t make sculptural work on an iPad. There are certain things you just can’t do with technology. Technology offers another aspect of art, but it can’t replace some of the physical concepts of art.”