Emily Davis’ ‘Ecology Through an Artist’s Lens’ on exhibit


The inspired artist Emily Davis has given us a plethora of captivating leaf art spanning the past four years in her exhibit “Ecology Through an Artist’s Lens,” at the Oak Bluffs library through the end of December.

Walking in, there are two enormous blue tarps on opposite walls that are typically used to hold the leaves you rake, an appropriate background, considering her art form. The saturated color reminds Davis of the sky. On both tarps are four substantial canvases, each carrying a collaged array of figurative images, which include herself, friends, or those from print media in all different poses.

The images come from the different components of Davis’ artistic process. She collects her leaves from all over, presses and dries them, and stores each with a note about when and where she collected the specimen. Involved professionally in the horticultural field in many different incarnations for more than 15 years, she adds identifying information.

Sometimes the leaf will inspire the image. If starting from an existing photograph, Davis’ next step is to cut out different parts of the figure from various colored and patterned leaves to create the hair, outfit, skin color for the body, each countenance, and accoutrements. She composes the pieces on a light board. The resulting subtlety of color, luminosity, and visible texture is wholly unique. Davis photographs her composition, which she then color-prints. The resulting crisp images pop from the white background, which draws your eye in to look even more closely at the juncture of art and nature’s subtleties.

Each collaged canvas has a different theme. Starting on the left, the first subject is figures that she has arranged in a fascinating array of poses that animate the grouping. Davis layers the original inspiration, leaf version, and final print to create a cohesive overall composition. The colors, too, energize the ensemble, with accents such as a bold red blouse, cap, exercise pants, and a vibrant yellow portrait. You can also make out a series of Davis in impressive yoga poses, a couple holding hands, and Emma Maitland — a dancer, actress, and well-known boxer from the 1920s, in a fighting stance; her vacation home is part of the Vineyard’s African American Heritage Trail.

To the right, Davis dives into symbolism and meaning. Stacked above the collage is a large textile with a mythically colored rooster and gazelle, each of which she has recreated in leaf form below, making us marvel at the continual intricacy of her work. We see the creatures, as well as the figure of her friend whose mother passed away, printed on paper in a lively, inventive composition. “Sometimes, to communicate my care for someone or a topic, I will slow myself down and make leaf art, because it’s not a quick form,” says Davis about the origin of this piece.

There is also another figurative grouping about gender and identity on the opposite wall, that includes three repetitive images of Davis in a powerful stance — fist raised, opposite arm on hip, wearing a unitard in the colors of the LGBTQ flag. Included, too, is one of her role models, Alok Vaid-Menon, a gender-nonconforming writer and performance artist who offers inspiring artistic insight. Hot on the heels of the movie, there are Barbie- and Ken-inspired silhouettes that overlap as well, creating a shallow sense of depth, reminiscent of children’s doll cutouts that evoke a sense of play. The mélange makes you think about how we can show up in the world — authentically, playing a part, or as a mere silhouette.

Davis includes a large display of lovely greeting cards, ranging from a bright green silhouette of the Vineyard to animals, including an adorable Scottie and a howling wolf. She also lists instructions for the five steps of her artmaking process, to inspire your creativity.

Included on the final canvas is a piece depicting Rebecca Gilbert, co-owner of Native Earth Teaching Farm, whose whole life is dedicated to working with nature, accompanied by her famous miniature goats. Davis’ silhouette of Rebecca is reminiscent of a fashion magazine image, where a code key indicates not the garment’s designer, but here lists the name of the leaf. There are also nine marvelous quilt squares: “Quilting and leaf art have a lot of parallels. I really do like to take the time to read about other art forms as I develop my own art practice.”

Throughout the show, there is so much more to notice. As you take your time, nooks and crannies of fascination emerge. Ultimately, Davis’s leaf art, in all its variations of color, pattern, and texture, reminds you of the ephemeral nature of her medium, making the exhibit a unique moment in each piece’s evolution.

Emily Davis’ “Ecology Through an Artist’s Lens” is on view through the end of December at the Oak Bluffs Public Library. Support includes a grant from the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council to develop the show, and a free public workshop. Additional funding comes from the Library Friends of Oak Bluffs. For more information about Emily Davis, see deerhillstudio.com.



  1. Emily, the boxer must be Emma Chambers Maitland, right? Thank you for painting her. She is an inspiration for all of us. Her home at 113 Dukes County Ave used to have an African American Heritage Trail plaque upon it. After the decision to take the plaque off of the soldier in front of Trinity Episcopal Church was made, Brian Packish, who bought 113 Dukes County from Frankie Chambers, took Emma Chambers Maitland’s plaque off of her house, in some response which is hard to understand. Emma’s plaque is now on the Michael Blanchard Gallery. At least it is somewhere. Thank you again. I am looking forward to seeing your exhibit this week.

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