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Emma Kathleen Hepburn Ferrer, artist and writer, was born in Switzerland as June's cool breeze moved across Lake Geneva in the Northern Swiss Alps. Her grandmother, Audrey Hepburn, had spent the last chapter of her life in a peaceful ivy-covered abode in the country, and after the cerulean blue shutters closed on Audrey Hepburn's life, they gently blew open to welcome Emma as she recalls her earliest days being spent surrounded by aromatic green linen couches in the Swiss home. Emma did not live in Switzerland for a long time, much of her childhood was spent around Los Angeles and Florence, Italy. Emma considers Italy her home as she fondly recalls the scent of mosquito coils that send spiraling memories of the sun shining off of family faces and brown brick arches between Tuscany's Renaissance buildings and artwork. While Emma does not necessarily claim a particular aesthetic or color palette in her artwork, her work certainly has a unique identity. Many pieces seem to be infused with the peaceful and cool-tones of Switzerland and the depth and shadows of Italy. Her classical training at the Florence Academy of Art has also certainly impacted her technique, however Emma describes her art now as expressionist with each piece reflecting the way she views the world. Her art feels intimate, with many of her more recent pieces evoking a quiet loneliness that is as beautiful as it is melancholic. Emma titled one series of her art as "Festivities," which is "a series about the innate melancholy felt in groups and beautiful settings." 

This "innate melancholy" is one that colors in some of Emma's portrait; she is like a quiet flame that flickers with angst yet carries a sense of peace. She illuminates, especially when it comes to social justice, particularly her experience in Greece and her work with refugees. She has the ability to light a room ablaze with her curiosity and creativity. She describes herself as shy and socially anxious, which seems to reflect an intensely thoughtful inner monologue that is expressed in her artwork, photography, and writing. Her passions and life experiences color in the rest of her PORTRAY-T. She tells us about her artwork, writing, experience working with refugees as a UNHCR ambassador, perspective shifts, and childhood memories. Read below for a full PORTRAY-T of Emma Kathleen Hepburn Ferrer! 

You went to the Florence Academy of Art, how would you describe your art style?
 

It has changed so much over the years. I would say that it started out quite academic and classical and it has become something a bit more expressionist, if you could call it that. 
 

Do you feel like you gravitate toward certain color palettes because when I was looking at your art, I noticed you using shadowy, cooler tones.

 

I wouldn’t say I gravitate towards a certain color palette, but that is something that I think about quite frequently and wonder whether I would need to try to be more consistent with a palette because I see a lot of artists doing that - sticking to one aesthetic in a way. But that’s not something that comes naturally to me and I feel like different scenes that I want to express and paint are better fit with different palettes and that’s what happens organically. That being said, I do definitely like to play a lot with different light sources and shadow as a result. That probably comes from my classical background and training but I don’t like to have a consistent light source in my work. As a result, sometimes things are quite illuminated with lots of shadows in the background or more naturally lit, but it varies. I definitely do play with shadow a lot.

I love your body figures and portraits a lot. Do you feel like you have a favorite type of art? 
 
Yeah that’s where I started. That’s what I did in school but I’m not really doing that anymore although I may return to it. Now it’s more scenes and settings but less focused on the study of the portrait or figure and more a study of the experience of doing some things. It’s a stylized way of looking at different experiences and settings and activities. It sounds quite strange but instead of studying the human, it’s a study of the human in certain situations. 

Just shifting a bit, you also write. I wanted you to talk a little bit about writing a book with your father.

That’s something that I hope we’re gonna pick back up again. It’s a project about my grandmother and also stems from a question that my father has always asked himself which is trying to understand the reason for my grandmother, Audrey Hepburn's, fame- to have lived on in such perpetuity and why younger generations still look up to her so much which is not the norm for a lot of old Hollywood stars. From there, it brought us into a study of her style, the clothes that she wore, what those clothes represented and how they were tied to different points of her life. I interviewed a series of fashion designers who either have been very inspired by her or who even knew her. It’s kind of on the back-burner right now because we’re trying to look for a new publisher for it, and it still needs a lot of work in my opinion. That’s also not my only experience with writing.

"My artistic style now- it’s more scenes and settings but less focused on the study of the portrait or figure and more a study of the experience of doing some things. It’s a stylized way of looking at different experiences and settings and activities. It sounds quite strange but instead of studying the human, it’s a study of the human in certain situations."

EMMA HEPBURN FERRER
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What type of writing do you normally do? 

I’m in school at the moment so I do a lot of academic writing, but I’ve also written about refugees and I’ve published on refugees. I also write poetry but it’s been some time. I haven’t been writing poetry recently. Now that I’m in school, I’m looking at having some pieces published in the academic realm which is really exciting. One piece in particular is being recommended for publication by one of my professors. 

Wow congratulations! Going back to what you said about writing about your grandmother’s style, I think that style is an extension of ourselves. How would you describe your own style and how is it an extension of yourself?

I get asked this question all the time and it’s quite difficult to answer because I don’t really think that consciously about my style. I let a lot of people down when I say this, but I don’t. I don’t really have style icons or different kinds of styles that I try to base my own style off of. I don’t know- I just sort of wear whatever I feel like wearing in the moment. Whatever’s comfortable. I can’t stand the feeling of walking out of the house not comfortable. I don’t really think about it that much. I think I dress well and I have a mix of unfortunately, fast fashion, and I have some older vintage pieces in my closet. I’m trying to become more conscious of sustainability but I’ve never spent a lot of money on clothes. It’s about finding a balance for me.

Then you don’t really have style icons, but who are some of your inspirations in other realms?

There are some painters that I’ve definitely been influenced by. Andrew Wyeth is someone I look up to a lot. I'm also influenced by other kinds of painters, for example, some symbolist painters have been a source of inspiration for me. 

I wanted to go to something you said in an interview. You said you liked advice to follow your purpose not your passion. How would you define the difference between your purpose and your passion? 

That was influenced by a Harvard study that was done a year or two ago where researchers were trying to understand what motivates humans to the highest degree and they found that people who feel like they’re following a purpose in life are happier than the people following a passion. I think that a passion and a purpose are highly linked and closely tied. I definitely have things that I’m passionate about, but I feel like painting has always been that thing that has been there ever since I was really really young and I’ve always done it in school and extracurricularly. There have been a lot of moving parts in my life since I got out of school and painting has always been the one thing that’s been there. When I have done other things in the past that I was drawn to or wanted to explore, they feel like passions, but painting feels like the thing that I know in my heart of hearts I should be doing. It’s the key to unlocking whatever it is that I want from my life. So, it’s not that you’re supposed to do this purpose that you’re not passionate about, but it’s more thinking about what are you, as an individual, best tailored to be doing and what is the medium or field that gives you the strongest voice. That’s why I feel like painting is my purpose even though it’s cheesy to say. I’m speaking about it in very abstract terms, but I feel like there are instances when people feel like their purpose is one thing because they’re really passionate about it but maybe it’s not and that’s okay. Ultimately, your purpose is the thing that will bring you the most joy in the long run. For so many people, it’s a question of finding out how to live their life in a way that they feel like they’re carrying out their purpose which can also be their passion.

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"I’m speaking about it in very abstract terms, but I feel like there are instances when people feel like their purpose is one thing because they’re really passionate about it but maybe it’s not and that’s okay. Ultimately, your purpose is the thing that will bring you the most joy in the long run."
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"Painting feels like the thing that I know in my heart of hearts I should be doing. It’s the key to unlocking whatever it is that I want from my life."

At any point in your life, did you think “I don’t really know what I want to be doing?” 

Sure. Only in the past few months have things started to really come together for me as an artist. I started selling a lot of work and having the price of my work go up a lot and being asked to talk about my art rather than just being asked to talk about my grandmother or whatever things people project onto me. But up until recently, it’s been really difficult. I’ve always known that this is what I want to do, but there’s so many parts involved to figure out how to sustain yourself financially doing what you want to do. It’s definitely a work in progress because I’ve always known what I wanted to do but there was always the question of how to make it my life. Up until the pandemic hit, I was working in New York and painting a little bit in my spare time. I was working and having a lot of professional experience that I find really invaluable today and that informed me deeply as a person. It’s just about finding a way to make it work doing what you love. Now it’s starting to make sense. It just takes time. 

What are you in school for now?

I’m doing a degree in history and I’m probably gonna try and make my focus be classics because I’m very interested in Ancient Greece. I’ve always been a very studious person so that has definitely been relevant in my art practice but I also really just like reading and writing. 

 

Something I think of when you say history is curation. You’ve curated exhibits before and I feel like history and curation go hand in hand. Is this something that you were thinking about or no?

No. At the time when I was curating I was still working in the art world, but I also had one foot in fashion unfortunately. At the time, I was looking at what kind of overlaps there were between art and fashion on a deeper level than I feel is usually talked about. Looking at the artistic process that designers have in making their work and how designers actually think about executing a garment from start to finish is what I focused on. I really learned that all these different artists work in different ways. Some will do drapes on the mannequin and some will do little cloth dolls and some will do very beautiful illustrations and others will just do fabric studies. That was really interesting and some people actually work on canvas as a way to figure out prints and motifs. So, I curated an exhibition about the creative process of designing garments in fashion which I felt was an interesting overlap between art and fashion. But I just don’t really care about fashion, unfortunately, as I’ve said earlier in this conversation. It felt like it organically grew out of both feet in these worlds. But that is not what I think about when I think about history, thank God haha!

I want to transition into your experience working for the united nations high commissioner for refugees (unhcr). You’ve worked as an ambassador and on your social media you’re very vocal about social justice and calls for change. I saw that you ran a campaign with Gabi Demartino. Can you talk a little bit about that campaign?

Sure, so, Gabi and I are friends. It felt like, in the beginning of the pandemic, that there were so many things that needed to be done and it was difficult to figure out the best channel for that kind of work. Originally, we were going to do a big mask thing. We were going to set up a big campaign to raise money for healthcare workers and for civil servants to provide masks at a cheap cost and this was at the very beginning of the pandemic when people were like, “are we even supposed to be wearing masks? How do we even get access to masks?” So, that’s something that a lot of people started doing very quickly - having the same idea that we did. Then, obviously, summer happened in the US, which means a specific thing to people who were in the US in 2020. Of course, police accountability was something on our minds and we found this really amazing organization called the NPAP, The National Police Accountability Project, that appealed to us because they work with legal specialists who are fluent in criminal law and law that is pertinent to police officers which is a specific kind of law. We felt like the money we donated was going to a place that would result in legislative changes. It wasn’t a huge deal. We just made a GoFundme and raised $10,000. Every penny counted. Of course, Gabi has a lot of followers and I have the followers that I do but it was a way to feel like we were still moving in a time that felt very stagnant. I was also going through some health issues during that time, throughout the whole pandemic, when I was diagnosed with a chronic illness. I wasn’t going out and protesting so I was really just trying to be as safe as possible when there was no vaccine at the time. It just felt like this was a way to keep moving and keep active and to keep everyone’s mind focused on what was so important which was learning about and becoming educated about this issue that we all knew was there, but not really in this way that has become so important to the American identity.

Being in America at that time, a lot of people including myself, were looking for ways to help and educate but many didn’t know where to start so I feel like campaigns like that are really great because donating and knowing where it’s going is one of the best things you could do. so, What have been your most gratifying moments as an ambassador? 

The boots on the ground work that I’ve done has been with UNHCR which is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees where I traveled to Greece in 2016 after a year or two of preparation work and research on the refugee crisis which was at its high in 2015. I went to Greece and became very interested in the quality of life in refugee camps. I did some in the flesh research and had some pieces published after that which was really cool. Then it transitioned into work with UNICEF. UNICEF approached me when I was living in New York for some years already. Of course, it felt like something that was so close to my heart and my family. Like I’ve said before in interviews, I’ve had a difficult time feeling a connection to my grandmother since I never met her and because she’s this larger than life figure who is the most beautiful woman in the world and the most stylish and the most elegant - all these superlatives. It’s hard to for me - obviously I have an immense amount of privilege and I would never complain about the life that I have, but it’s been unique trying to figure out how my identity relates to that and how I fit into that whole story. Doing humanitarian work in general has been a way to feel a pure, intergenerational connection with my grandmother- like I’m carrying on something that she started and something that she would have absolutely wanted to continue. So, UNICEF approached me and I have the honor of traveling around the country and I get to speak at the major UNICEF donor events just talking about what UNICEF has done over the years and how things have changed since my grandmother’s time and what her legacy means to me and what her story means to the world. I talk about things in her life that not a lot of people know like how she was a refugee herself in the Second World War and she has an incredible story when she was a young child. So, it’s all been gratifying. Of course, being in the field has been a feeling unlike any other with the perspective shift that comes with that. Nowadays people say that every celebrity is attached to a cause which can sometimes feel inauthentic. But ironically enough, these people had so much joy and blind faith in the most optimistic way after having lost everything and having lost family members, children, and careers. The very surreal thing about being in these refugee camps is that it was 98% Afghans and 2% Syrian refugees and a huge proportion of these people had university degrees and were doctors, lawyers-very educated. I learned so much about these people’s lives and it changed the way that I see humans completely and they were so joyous and so welcoming to me. We were in this western country and the subtext is that we were supposed to be welcoming them but they were welcoming me into their homes which are these tents where their belongings were literally just a Bunsen burner and a box of peaches and a pair of shoes on the floor. And they were trying to make me feel welcome and it was like, “hold on here.” It was such a perspective shift in so many different ways. 

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Now, moving to the last three signature questions, first, if you could bottle three scents, what would they be and what do they remind you of?

That’s such a fascinating question. It’s gonna be weird ones. I love the smell of the mosquito coils you burn to keep mosquitoes away. Every time I smell it, I melt because it reminds me of my childhood and being in Italy and everything being so beautiful around me and just being around family. So that’s one for sure. The smell of my grandmother’s couches in Switzerland keeps coming up even though I don’t even remember that smell. But I know if I smelled it right now I would be like “that’s my grandmother’s green linen couches in Switzerland” because I was born in that house that my grandmother lived in in the last chapter of her life.  I would also say the smell of my dog - maybe I would bottle my dog’s smell. That’s such a weird thing to say. Or maybe the smell of my little brothers when they were growing up. That delicious baby smell! 

 

So cute! Do you have a favorite piece of advice that someone told you or favorite words from someone?

One thing keeps coming to mind is when I first moved to New York, I immediately wanted to become involved with UNICEF. This is the backstory; I went to have a meeting with Caryl Stern who was the president and CEO of UNICEF who has now moved to the Walton Family Foundation. I’m very sad to see her go because she is a powerhouse of a woman and a very inspiring person. I was like “what can I do? I want to get involved. ” I was so manic about it and she was like, “pause, you have to wait to come across the cause that you feel so strongly about that not becoming involved no longer seems like an option.” The cause is a personal one and can be anything from global warming to sustainable fabrics but you have to feel so strongly about it. I kept insisting but then I went home and thought about it and got what she meant. That piece of advice really changed my direction of how I thought about humanitarian work because I let some time go by and a few months later when I was living in Europe in 2015, every time I would turn on the news, it was about the refugee crisis and you would see these children being washed up on the shores of Greece and Turkey. I saw these striking, harrowing images and I was like “that’s it.” I knew exactly what she was talking about. There’s no not getting involved here. This feels like my calling right now. Then when I went and did that work it was coming from a place of wanting to actually understand the inner workings of this issue. Why is this happening? What is the West’s role in this crisis and what is the East’s role? That’s such a binary way of thinking about it but how are these nations communicating with one another? Where does the history lie in what’s going on? Then when I went and did the work in the field, it felt like a more intimate, personal thing than if I had immediately hopped onto the bandwagon of whatever was in my family or whatever was available to me.

Last one. How do you view yourself in a few words? 

Shy. I can be really shy and have a lot of social angst. I’m gonna say dogs because I’m obsessed with dogs. And curious. Curious/painting. 

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emma hepburn ferrer

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