Af­ter colour­ing the cap­i­tal, Gor­don has US in frame

The National - News - Arts & Life - - Front Page - Jes­sica Hill

Af­ter al­most 27 years in Abu Dhabi, renowned Amer­i­can artist Emily Gor­don is leav­ing the city. But she won’t do so with­out leav­ing a lit­tle piece of her­self be­hind, in the form of her paint­ings, many of which adorn the lob­bies, board­rooms and liv­ing rooms in the cap­i­tal.

Her art­works pay trib­ute to some of the emi­rate’s iconic build­ings, which are de­picted in bright colours, us­ing quirky lo­gos, old jew­ellery and scraps of pat­terned ma­te­ri­als.

These build­ings that make up the mod­ern-day sky­line – in­clud­ing the Hy­att Cap­i­tal Gate, Emi­rates Palace and Al­dar’s head­quar­ters – did not ex­ist when Gor­don ar­rived in Abu Dhabi in 1990 with her hus­band Pa­trick, a train­ing cap­tain for Pres­i­den­tial Flight.

“Abu Dhabi was a lit­tle vil­lage: ev­ery­thing was just a cou­ple of streets off the Cor­niche,” she says.

Gor­don pre­vi­ously worked as an agron­o­mist (soil sci­en­tist) in the United States.

“I didn’t want to pur­sue that line of work here, as it would have meant shar­ing a cabin out in the sticks with a group of men,” she says, laugh­ing.

“There weren’t re­ally many job op­por­tu­ni­ties here for women back then, apart from nurs­ing and teach­ing. Even most of the sec­re­tar­ial work was done by men.”

There were no ex­pat artists in the UAE at that time, says Gor­don – just a few “Bri­tish jour­ney­men” artists, such as wa­ter­colourist Trevor Waugh, who ex­hib­ited at the coun­try’s only gallery, Ma­jlis Gallery in Dubai.

“Emi­rati artists ex­isted, but the arts weren’t a great pri­or­ity then,” she adds.

With time to in­vest in a new hobby, Gor­don de­vel­oped a unique art style that re­flected, in an ab­stract way, the ar­chi­tec­ture of the new city emerg­ing around her. It was her good for­tune that the empty walls of all these new build­ings needed art with which to dec­o­rate them.

She slowly de­vel­oped her pi­o­neer­ing style by lay­er­ing paint, resin and dis­carded ob­jects to cre­ate dis­tinctly Ara­bian-style art­work rich in depth and colour. Each piece takes two- tothree months to build up the lay­ers – and it’s a dirty job.

“I have to work re­ally fast with a blow torch, a mask and full gear on – these used to be nice pants,” says Gor­don, point­ing to the paint-spat­tered leg­gings she is wear­ing, with a smart pur­ple shirt. “It’s like a souf­flé, ei­ther it sets and it’s yummy or it’s mushy and col­lapses. ” Gor­don found a par­tic­u­lar niche in de­pict­ing tra­di­tional Ara­bian door­ways, adorned with jew­ellery sal­vaged from cu­rios­ity shops dur­ing her trav­els.

Her de­ci­sion to fo­cus on door­ways was a shrewd one.

“Strict Is­lamists take ex­cep­tion to any­thing that God’s cre­ated, which could be a land­scape pic­ture – that’s why a lot of Ara­bic art is cal­lig­ra­phy, po­etry and mo­saics,” she ex­plains.

“With the doors, I man­aged to re­flect the local cul­ture in an in­of­fen­sive way.”

Gor­don’s art sells for be­tween Dh2,000 and Dh14,000, but she points out that a large per­cent­age of that goes to­wards costs. She says she jokes with her hus­band about that fact that it is usu­ally the paint­ings she “abso- lutely hates” that sell quick­est.

Like the city she has painted, Gor­don’s art has evolved. “My work was more naive, looser and more open, and now I’ve gone to busier and more in­tense,” she ex­plains. Some of her re­cent pieces, which take pride of place in her Abu Dhabi villa, have a charm and hu­mour to them and of­ten strike a chord with guests. A cu­ri­ous col­umn of colour­ful pup­pet heads are, she ex­plains, the faces of tail­gaters.

“I was driv­ing back and forth to Dubai for com­mis­sions, and you know how they get so close to you that you feel they’re in your back seat – they look de­monic back there,” she says. “It’s more to amuse me.” Gor­don adds a fur­ther Abu Dhabi f lavour to her pictures by scour­ing news­pa­pers for eye- catch­ing head­lines, which she cuts out and glues onto the win­dows of her build­ings.

“I’m ob­sessed with the weirder stuff,” she says. Her home will be back in the US from now on. But she will not be stay­ing away from the UAE for long – this au­tumn, she has signed up for an­other No White Walls ex­hi­bi­tion, which she takes part in an­nu­ally at the Fair­mont Ho­tel along­side other vet­eran ex­pa­tri­ate artists.

Gor­don adds that she plans to put away her blow­torch to do some­thing else that in­spires peo­ple.

“I need to teach kids com­ing into the US, to get them up to scratch on English,” she says.

She ad­mits she will greatly miss Abu Dhabi, and the wel­com­ing as­pect of the cul­ture she has tried to de­pict in her pictures.

“The fact that in Abu Dhabi you’ve got a Greek Ortho­dox church next to a Ro­man Catholic church and a mosque, it’s so un­der­stated – but so wel­com­ing and open,” she says.

“That’s what a lot of peo­ple don’t un­der­stand about this part of the world. In my pictures, I em­pha­sise that wel­com­ing as­pect. We’re all here and we’re all leav­ing our fin­ger­prints. How big they are, his­tory will tell.”

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Christo­pher Pike / The Na­tional

Artist Emily Gor­don, who has been liv­ing in Abu Dhabi for 27 years, now plans to move back to the United States.

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