With a keen eye and an open heart, North Carolina artist chronicles the world around her.
by Mary Ellen Riddle
E.M. Corsa believes in magic and wild things. Nature, says the Kill Devil Hills artist, has been her muse from the start.
She remembers as a child walking with her father through the western Massachusetts woods where she was raised. “Dad would find abandoned raccoons and baby animals, and we would take care of them – squirrels, rabbits, snakes, lizards; you name it, we had it,” Corsa says.
An image of her mother rocking a dying robin wrapped in a dish towel is seared in her soul. “We just grew up outdoors. That’s my studio.”
Corsa, 67, a watercolorist and mixed-media artist, encourages others to appreciate the environment and to protect all that slithers, flies, and hops within it. For more than 30 years, she’s filled stacks of sketchbooks with cloudscapes, patches of woods and swamp, and portraits of the myriad creatures that visit her crooked yellow house high on a hill. It’s a magical place where rare-bird sightings occur, and the yard is filled with pyracantha, trumpet vine, quince, rosemary, and a wild cherry tree.
Her sketches and daily reflections inspire new work that she sells at art fairs, on Etsy.com and at SeaDragon Gallery in Duck. The creative process is ever-present. Each time she leaves her house, Corsa carries her olive-colored knapsack filled with a sketchbook and art supplies. She’s not interested in creating scientific studies, but capturing something’s essence. “What I do is a loose first impression,” she says. “I’m not concerned if every little thing is perfect. My sketchbooks are the best things I’ve ever done. That book is filled with the air of every place I sketch.”
Often, inspiring sights are at her doorstep. Each season brings visitors to her home. The camelia blossoms show up in January. The chimney swifts arrive in August. A sharp-shinned hawk visits every year. Corsa sits at a picnic table under a trumpet-vine-covered pergola, capturing it all in her sketches. Along with the art she creates, such as drawing colored-pencil creatures on vintage poetry book pages and painting birds on antique maps, she reproduces the sketchbook pages to share. Her Window Series features torn decorative paper from which watercolor birds peek.
Just as change comes annually to the environment, Corsa has reinvented herself over and over to stay fresh. Self-taught, she began years ago creating impressionistic acrylic paintings. But then she found watercolor. For decades, she created wildly popular, whimsical watercolor collages of anthropomorphized animals with humorous titles. The art gave her a name, but Corsa lost her desire for the genre. Before ending the series, however, an international company called Creative Co-Op picked up the characters, and her illustrations were turned into wall art, figurines, pails, trays, and dishes.
Corsa’s creative portfolio is diverse. She’s exhibited watercolor cloudscapes and illustrated a coloring book as well as a poem she wrote for a children’s magazine. She’s also created nature-themed wine bottle labels. Recently, Corsa created a deck of hand-cut oracle cards – her take on tarot cards – from sketchbook illustrations. Dubbed Sketchbook Oracle, she chose 25 images that resonated deeply with her and wrote personal meanings for each. The owner of the deck is invited to pull a card daily for inspiration. For example, a loon sketch originated from Corsa finding an exhausted bird on the beach. She scooped it up and got it to a vet. The card asks: “Is there someone you could help today by lending a hand?”
Her latest venture involves working with Yupo, a synthetic paper with a plastic-based substrate on which the watercolor sits but isn’t absorbed. A recent Yupo painting of a bluebird appeared on the back cover of Watercolor Artist magazine. Corsa says it lends intricate patterns and saturated color to the art that she can’t achieve with regular watercolor paper. She uses it to bring pet portraits and bird paintings to life. “It has movement, and it pulls that personality out,” she says.
And just as she opens herself up to nature’s daily menagerie, Corsa tries to help others develop their own keen observations by teaching field sketching. “It’s not just about learning to draw, but it’s a way to get out in nature,” she says. Artists and nonartists alike are invited to attend. It’s healing and meditative, says Corsa, who approaches her work with a steady eye and a loving heart. But there is also a greater purpose.
“Get people to appreciate the world and you will not look at nature the same way again,” she says. “You just won’t!”