​Emily Fussner: broken down and made new

I have a confession to make: I have a vested interest in Annesley Writers Forum's featured artist this month: Emily Fussner.

She's my cousin.

Together, Emily, my sister, Annie, and I make up the three girl cousins on my dad's side of the family. Emily and I bookend the grandchildren. I am the oldest. She is the youngest.

From the moment Emily entered the scene, she has been marked by fragility and resilience.

You see, Emily has brittle bone disease, also known as osteogenesis imperfecta or OI.

I remember when I was twelve and Em was two, our entire extended family spent a week at a cabin in the mountains of North Carolina. Emily was just about as adorable as you'd expect a wide-eyed, contented toddler to be. We could barely keep our hands off her with those big eyes, sweet cheeks, and little fingers and toes.

A couple days after the vacation, we found out Emily had suffered fractured ribs from all the cuddles. My heart buckled. Had I been the one to hug her a little too tightly?

To my absolute amazement, neither Emily nor my Aunt Beth have ever let OI cage Emily.

I have watched the world break my littlest cousin more than once. Like that time in college when she simply tried on a shoe at the store, slipped and broke her pelvis.

To her credit, I often forget that Emily has OI. When I think of her, I think of my cousin: the musician, the thinker, the giggler, the writer, the includer. She doesn't live her life dictated by her condition, and so neither do the rest of us treat her as if it does.

But sometimes, when I remember her brittle bones, I gulp. If I were Emily, I would never leave the house. I would be ruled by fear, always second guessing the risk of things, the sharp corners and concrete edges of the world.

But not Emily. She keeps stepping out the door. Lord have mercy, she keeps walking right out into the world and facing it with grace, optimism, and a deep current of reflection. The world is better for it.

Perhaps it's no wonder that Emily has become an artist–an eye set to seeing the world differently than others and transforming what is hidden and peripheral into beauty. She is earning her MFA in Visual Arts now from George Mason University.

I think you'll see, as you meet Emily below, why she has chosen papermaking (a process that requires one type of fiber to be broken down, beaten to a pulp, and then reshaped into something new, stronger, more resilient) as her medium of expression.

Let's just be honest. I'm still in awe of my cousin. Now, not only because of the way she has embraced OI and transformed its presence in her life but also because of the unique perspective she has on the world–the way she transforms that which we deem weak and cheap into something stunning. She's also super intelligent and articulate.

AWF: How do you describe what it is you do with art?

EF: I make handformed paper, prints, and sculptures that often respond to a specific place, whether in the visual content or the physical installation. I highlight overlooked patterns and liminal spaces, taking what is usually underfoot and peripheral and bringing it up to a plane that confronts and sometimes envelopes the viewer.

Currently the dominant process in my practice involves transforming absence into presence–casting cracks in parking lots and sidewalks with pigmented paper pulp. I trace the crack with wire, and fill and cover it with the pulp, pressing out as much water as possible. People and cars can then walk and drive over the surface (it actually helps) while the paper dries in the crack, and later I remove the design–a solid, lightweight paper object that brings some the dirt and material from the environment with it.

AWF: Your bio page at George Mason University says, "She finds that the material qualities and methods of papermaking resonate with themes in her own life experiences, especially the surprising resilience to withstand breaking down in order to be made new, and the strength developed through an interdependence of fragile fibers." This is such a beautiful quotation. Can you talk a little bit about what about the process of papermaking resonates with your life experiences?

EF: Papermaking requires breaking down a base fiber and literally beating it to a pulp. The pulp is then added to a vat of water, raised out, and pressed to form sheets. The breaking down, beating, pressing transforms the fiber into a new material; the structure and strength is formed by the interlacing of these fibers. I can't help but think in metaphorical terms about this process and how it relates to our lives. In my case, I have a brittle bone condition, Osteogenesis Imperfecta, and I've found that the multiple painful times of healing from fractures, adapting to the circumstances and having to keep my chin up, is a breaking down and making new that has developed resiliency in me and taught me to be strong through interdependence (i.e. with a healthy amount of help from others) rather than stubborn independence.

AWF: What do you hope people notice when they view your art?

EF: I hope my artwork inspires people to notice their surroundings in a new way–to appreciate patterns and designs found in unexpected parts of their daily places.

AWF: What do you hope people feel when they view your art?

EF: I hope the viewers feel a sense of wonder and care when encountering my art.

AWF: What are you working on next?

The plan for the summer is to make a lot! Many ideas are swimming in my head, but to name a few:

First on the docket is an artist book made of silkscreen prints from my hallway installation Passage. Sometime in June I'm planning to organize a one day paper-casting event in one of the parking lots at GMU. With the help of other students, I'll cast an entire section (about 175 feet long) of cracks at once. I've recently begun forming the cast paper cracks into vessel forms, so I'd like to keep exploring in that direction.

AWF: Where do you draw your inspiration?

EF: When I'm feeling stuck, I find I gain perspective and creative energy by exploring a city on foot. I love beautiful and interesting architecture, environments that make you aware of your scale–the relationship of your body to its surroundings. Natural cracking and branching patterns as well as manmade crevice patterns (e.g. gaps between cobblestones, mortar between bricks) somehow delight me. Also, I am fascinated by naturally cast light–the projected shapes that can so brilliantly or subtly invade a space, the flickering movement and how quickly the shapes evolve and move with the sun.

Of course, other artists also inspire me. Two especially influential visual artists include Italian paper artist Robert Mannino and sculptor Rachel Whiteread (who casts negative spaces in materials such as resin and concrete).

Read more about Emily and her artwork at

Visit Annesley Writers Forum to read the original article.

Photo by Juan Pablo