My name is Emily Piper, and I am an artist, educator, and lover of all things living. My passions for natural history, biology, and creatures fuel my work and the ways I navigate my life.
Originally from the midwest, I grew up as an urchin of the outdoors and was reverent of the woods and of all the woods had to teach me. Perhaps because Illinois winters are so desolate and cold, my desperation for warmer weather made my child self hyper-aware of the changes the land and animals went through in order to make it to spring.
Now, as an adult, I find great comfort in the changing of seasons and the migration of different birds — all of these things telling me that I am blissfully a part of the great organism that is our planet. I try to harness the curiosity of these phenomena in my artwork with a dash of whimsy and surreality. My goal in life is to help others share the joy and strength that the outdoors can bring.
How has learning about the environment impacted your actions?
My mother is a retired biology professor, so a normal day in my childhood most likely included dissecting a squid that washed up on the beach during a vacation, researching information about an insect that I found on my sweatshirt, drawing illustrations of different animals, and asking lots and lots of questions. We’d rescue baby bunnies and salamanders, and I’d play in creeks and dirt all day. My parents welcomed these passions and encouraged me to learn from them.
From childhood onward, the more I have learned about the complexity and connectivity of all living things, the more I have realized how each decision we make has some sort of impact. Whether that’s consciously making more eco-friendly and sustainable decisions as a consumer or just spreading love to all living things. I know that I can make my impact a positive one and that positivity will grow past my existence by inspiring others to do the same. Each organism depends on other organisms in order to live — which is a very delicate system.
Us humans have evolved the mentality that we are “the smartest” and that we don’t need to depend on other living things in order to succeed as a species. In doing so, we created a ripple throughout the planet that is changing (and destroying) ecosystems at a rapid rate. From creating climate change to exterminating entire species, us humans need to reconsider our relationship with the Earth.
What can concerned athletes, scientists, artists, or creatives do in the face of global challenges?
Share your talents! Share your opinions! Continue to do so despite the sometimes grim-seeming future for our planet. Admittedly, there are times in which I ask myself, “why the heck am I trying to be more supportive of our planet when it seems impossibly hopeless?!” But in those moments, I try to remember that the messages, actions, and the love that I act on spread to other people and will inspire them to create changes in their own ways. Slow progress is still progress.
How important is mitigating climate change to your life?
Extremely important. It keeps me up at night! I heard a fact once about how all plastic toothbrushes we have ever used are still in existence; they’re just in the ground now. I am continually trying to find ways to be more eco-conscious about what I consume and what I bring into the world. I’ll never be perfect; it’s truly an impossible task for just one person — especially because things in our country won’t change until big corporations start to care about the environment enough to make decisions with the planet in mind — but I’ll keep trying to do the best I can with the resources I have.
Can you tell us a bit about your passions beyond “work”?
When I’m not painting or printmaking, I’m outside as much as possible! I love to go birding and hiking with my husband and dog, and I try to do everything in my power to find time to read sci-fi and fantasy books and nap outside, haha. I also love to cook from scratch, a passion that I inherited from my father.
Do you find that these passions blend, merge, or complement your work?
Most definitely. Because of the nature of my partner’s job, I have moved around the country away from family. A reason why I started to be enamored with birds in my artwork was because I loved knowing that a bird I saw in FL may eventually migrate its way up to WI, where my family lives. Birding and hiking make me feel connected and less distant from my friends and family.
Do you find these passions tied to given environments or landscapes?
While I appreciate that my favorite things to do, artmaking and birding, are versatile enough to do anywhere at any time, I find myself always drawn back to the midwest. As I mentioned before, I find such comfort in the changing of seasons — especially since I have always dealt with anxiety and depression. The passing of time reminds me that I am truly growing and progressing, even if I feel stuck in the moment.
How do you give back to your community or to the underserved?
Before moving to Virginia, I was a teacher in Chicago. I taught through museums and programs that placed artists in schools that lacked art programming. From that, I grew a dream to one day open up my own after-school art and environmental programming in underserved communities.
I’ll start planning this when my partner and I grow some roots somewhere — most likely in the midwest. Since being in Virginia, I opened up an online art shop where I sell my work. The sales from that have given me the opportunity to redistribute some of my earnings to various causes each month.
I wove donating into the fabric of my business in order to give back to environmental groups who fight to stop the destruction of our planet and lands, to support Black, Indigenous, and People of Color-centered organizations, to LGBTQIA+ communities, disabled individuals, birds, wildlife, children, mental health services and women of all kinds. The Conscious Kid, Honor The Earth, The Black Disability Coalition, The Loveland Foundation, and Crafting the Future are some of the groups I donated to in 2020.
I look forward to one day curating a place to build a community of artists and outdoors people. I’d love to inspire as many individuals as possible to be outside.
What are your materials, and how do you think about them?
In my work, I mostly use watercolors and gouache paints, and I also do a lot of linocut printing. I love how watercolors move unpredictably at times, sometimes fluxing and fading, sort of how things grow in nature. I try to embrace that idea while painting. I find linocut printing very meditative with its redundant carving gestures. During the quarantine times of 2020, I turned to printmaking for that reason — as a respite from having to think.
I view these tools as just an extension of my eyes, ears, and nose. Every time I’m outside, I look for inspiration, which is why I try to always have binoculars on me. In my purse, in my pocket, I’m constantly pulling them out to follow a bird call or check out the path ahead. My goal is to translate the wonder I felt in that moment in the woods or at the beach through my artwork in hopes that you, too can view my work and join me back at that moment outside.
Is there a specific moment in life or a series of events that instilled in you a passion for your craft or passions?
In general? Just being a semi-feral woodland child, haha! Between my knowledge-seeking Mom and a supportive Dad who exudes calmness, I was encouraged to explore and be myself. I learned how to listen in order to learn and to be still in order for the woods to open itself to me.
A key ingredient to building a sustainable future?
I think that flexibility is the most important ingredient that we can have within ourselves. If we are flexible enough to think, “Y’know what? I was wrong about plastic” or “I was misinformed about fossil fuels,” or “I was wrong about the way I did things before,” and we just admit that change is good, we may have a shot at making a dent in climate change. Humility and flexibility are two things we sorely need in order to make real change.
Who inspires you today?
Right off the bat, three people come to mind:
The OG animal whisperer, Jane Goodall, is an amazing humanitarian and advocate for our planet. The things she has accomplished for animal rights, human rights, and for science, in general, inspire me to trust my gut and to keep going. People did not believe her reports on chimpanzee behavior at first, saying that it was impossible for those animals to have such human-like bonds and intelligence and that it was a mistake for her to grow a close relationship with the apes. She insisted upon her research and fought to have her findings heard, despite being one of the few women in her field. I had the pleasure of seeing her speak a few years ago, and her passion and moxie brought tears to my eyes.
Pattie Gonia, a queer environmental activist, is another individual who is doing epic things for the outdoor community. From creating an LGBTQIA+ environmental job board, to organizing scholarships and opportunities for youth, to speaking out against discrimination in the outdoors industry, Pattie is on a mission to make people fall in love with our planet and is doing it in the most inclusive ways possible.
Corina Newsome is one of the co-founders of Black Birders Week, a week-long series that celebrates Black nature enthusiasts and birders. It was founded in 2020, soon after the extreme racism that Christian Cooper faced whilst birding in Central Park. Corina’s motivation to combat hate by creating a loving and supportive community is something to be greatly admired. I’m inspired by her work and hope to foster a similar feeling of community and love in my own spaces.
Most sublime moment in nature?
When I have been quiet and still long enough in the woods that all of the birds, insects and other creatures resume their business. When they decide that I’m not going to bother them and they show me who they really are when humans are not around. What a gift that feeling is.
What do you do when you get out and away from the office/lab?
I head up to my family’s cabin in WI. It’s on an island in Green Bay, on the land of the Menominee Nation. While it’s very far away from where I currently reside in Virginia, I try to spend as much time here as possible. There are no roads or stores, no hustle-bustle — just solar power, trees, and the woods. I find myself most at peace here, and I look forward to moving closer to the area one day soon.
How can the outdoor industry change?
By actually investing in the communities that they benefit from! By investing in the Black community every month of the year — not just during Black History Month. By reaching out to LGBTQIA+ individuals for collaborations and job opportunities even though Pride Month is over. By brands and organizations featuring and funding the efforts of Indigenous Peoples who have known and respected our planet for thousands of years before colonizers came along and ignored their wisdom. By being very clear that everyone belongs in the outdoors — not just the white, the muscular, the feminine, or abled.
Show every type of person that uses outdoors products, and make products more accessible to everyone. The more people who fall in love with being outside, the more people there will be fighting to protect our planet!
What keeps you going?
Watching the planet go through its seasonal changes. Observing the perseverance of different species and finding that same feeling inside myself. Reminding myself that we are all, in fact, just animals trying to live life!