Get to know the artist behind some of Milwaukee's largest works of art.
There’s hidden beauty in the vacant lots and alleyways of the city. And we have local artist Emma Daisy Gertel to thank for at least some of it. Gertel has painted several flower-powered murals in neighborhoods throughout the city, including an 80-foot work along Wisconsin Avenue in Westown.
You got your first major mural commission in Black Cat Alley in 2018. How has your art career taken off since then?
It’s funny calling it an art career, because lately it’s been functioning so much like a small business. Freelancing as an artist really makes you act as the product and the service. I guess in that way I feel like I’ve just been juggling those things a lot more lately.
What’s the difference between painting an 80-foot mural and an 8-inch canvas?
The level of detail you’re working with on a small scale is very different. Painting a mural, you’ll work on something and then you’ll step back and you don’t even see it and kind of think: “Why did I spend so much time working on that?” Whereas on a small, 8-inch canvas you’re going to see every detail, every mark that’s made. And the other difference I would say is that painting a mural is really physically demanding … it requires a ton of physical labor.
You often explore ideas of personal identity through your art. How so?
I was adopted at a very young age and I grew up knowing that or being aware of that, but also being in a community that looked very different. I struggled with issues of acceptance, and I think as I grew older – especially after I had my own child – I started to become more curious about my roots and where I came from and how that contributed to who I’ve become. So I’ve been more explicitly exploring Korean rituals, symbols and ideas in my work.
This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s January issue.
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