Enfoque: Emily Costello

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Horizonte host Jose Cardenas sits down with Emily Costello, who left her human resources job to become a full-time artist. She is a self-taught painter, mixed media artist and print maker whose work is inspired by her own life events and her Mexican heritage.

JOSE CARDENAS: Coming up next on this special enfoque edition of Horizonte, she's an artist who draws inspiration for her artwork from her Mexican heritage. Emily Costello joins us next on Horizonte.

{VIDEO}: Horizonte is made possible by contributions from the friends of Arizona pbs, members of your pbs station. Thank you.

JOSE CARDENAS: Good evening and welcome to this special enfoque edition of Horizonte. I'm Jose cardenas. Tonight we focus on Emily Costello. Nine years ago she left her human resources job to become a full-time artist. Now she's a self-taught painter, print maker and mixed media artist whose work is inspired by as her Mexican heritage. Joining me now on Horizonte is Emily Costello, Emily, welcome to Horizonte.
EMILY COSTELLO: Thank you. Thank you Jose.
JOSE CARDENAS: I want to begin with what I call the decision. It’s not quite a Lebron James. You made a significant decision. Why did you decide to leave your job as a human resource officer?

EMILY COSTELLO: I was a human resource director at channel 12. I had been doing that job for give or take, 12 or 13 years. I did love my job, and I started to like my job. Towards the end of my career there I had begun painting again. I hadn't done that since my college days. And that soon became an ongoing passion. It started to become pretty consuming for me. And that's when I knew that's where my heart was, creating art, teaching art, and I decided to quit my job.

JOSE CARDENAS: What made you think that you could make a living off your artwork?

EMILY COSTELLO: Well, I wasn't sure, to tell you the truth. I don't think any time full-time artist who does it for a living does it to get rich. I knew I was at a point in my life where I needed to do what I needed to do to pursue my dreams and creating art was doing that. It wasn't sitting behind a desk 60 hours a week, laying people off, doing the whole HR gig. So, you know, with the encouragement of my friends, and a quick trip to rocky point at the beach, okay, when I get back on Monday, I'm going to do this, and I actually did it. It's been a good ride for the past nine years.

JOSE CARDENAS: Some of the things that you said in the past about your background would not have indicated that you would have dedicated yourself to a career as an artist. I think ou said growing up you weren't exposed to very much art. And then there was a quote from you in the New Times where you said you came to Phoenix. You said I came to Phoenix with a pack of smokes, Lays chips a modeling gig and a car. Why art?

EMILY COSTELLO: Well, the art didn't come into play until a couple of years after I moved to Phoenix. I did pursue the modeling job. I did full time for two years. And at that point in time I decided I needed to go back to school. You know, I'm not a 5’ 10”--the modeling gigs were not lucrative enough for me to make a living, so I decided to go back to school. At that time I wanted to do art. I took some art classes. I did that at Mesa community college, but I found myself going to asu and studying graphic design for a little while, and then in a weird twist of events, I got out of ASU I got a job at a radio station. I did that for quite a number of years.

JOSE CARDENAS: I know you talk very fondly of your family and your background growing up. What role did that play in your decision to become an artist? I know it influenced your art itself. Was that a factor in deciding to become an artist?

EMILY COSTELLO: It was a huge factor. I remember growing up. I grew up with my grandparents. I lived in their home. And my grandmother was always encouraging me to create, to do art. Even to this day I have all of my art pieces I did as a kid that she saved for me. And so, You know, my grandfather was artistic in his own right, too. He used to restore cars. He owned a body shop. I used to love to see him work on the cars, making them beautiful again. You know, with the wrecked cars. It was a pretty--it was a pretty normal up bringing in the sense that, you know, we lived in the Mexican community. We were all very supportive. But going to school in a small town, there were no art classes.

JOSE CARDENAS: And small town.

EMILY COSTELLO: Right a small mining town 60 miles South of Phoenix. And we didn't have the art classes. Just the normal take out your crayons and draw on a paper. In my mind, I didn't know anybody who was a full-time artist, and, you know, I didn't know that you could make a career out of it. It was something that you did because you could do it, but it didn't make a living off of it. It wasn't until I came down to Phoenix, again, a week after my high school graduation, started to be more exposed to the art community. I always loved art. And so I started going to art shows. Networking with artists. But it wasn't until I quit my full-time job that I decided to pull-- pursue it.

JOSE CARDENAS: You went cold Turkey. You just one day said I'm not coming in any more. I'm going to become an artist.


JOSE CARDENAS: Was there a plan?

EMILY COSTELLO: There was a plan, but it was accelerated by about five years. Other than that, there was no plan. But I had already been doing it part time. A little bit as a hobby, a little bit showing at shows, vending at events, meeting other artists that, you know, who did work that I admired. Talking to them about how they did it. And I found there really is a community that is supportive, encouraging, and when I would talk to people, do you regret what you do for a living? You're a full time artist, and everybody said no. This is the life they chose, and they would choose no other life. There was a lot of people who were encouraging to me. And I was--I was inspired by. You know, and my grandfather always taught us, if you don't take a chance, you'll never know. So I did, and I'm grad I did.

JOSE CARDENAS: Why the focus on Mexican Imagery?

EMILY COSTELLO: Because my grandparents are Mexican. My grandfather lived here all his life, and never became a citizen until his mid 40s. I grew up in a small mining town, again, and there were a lot of Latinos in the town. And that's just how we grew up, with the food, with the culture, all of it. Because that's where their parents originated from as well.

JOSE CARDENAS: Your father was Czechoslovakian.


JOSE CARDENAS: Any art influence from him?

EMILY COSTELLO: Not too much. I'm instinctively drawn to European icons, especially religious icons. I just think they’re beautiful. I love the way they're made. But not too much. I think it's mainly my Mexican heritage that inspires me.

JOSE CARDENAS: Any concern about being PIGEON holed in some way?

EMILY COSTELLO: No, at this point in time I'm going to paint what inspires me, what I like to do, and what I feel is going on around me. You know, if I am PIGEON holed, so be it. I mean, I think you have to follow your heart and create what feels strong to them and what is best for them.

JOSE CARDENAS: You have mentioned that you had connections with Phoenix artists even before you made the decision to leave your human resources job, but once you got into it full time, how were you received by the Phoenix artist community?Was there any sense of competition or jealousy?

EMILY COSTELLO: No, not that I can think of. People were pretty supportive. People would share what worked for them, what didn't. Not really, people have been supportive, even to this day, now.
You often said that you learned from your mistakes.


JOSE CARDENAS: What is the biggest thing that you have learned?

EMILY COSTELLO: How long is this interview? [ CHUCKLING ] Career-wise, I felt that there haven't been many mistakes. One thing just led to another. I think what is meant to be will always be. Personally, you know, maybe just--when you are an artist, in order to give your all to your art, sometimes you become a little introverted. You don't get to spend as much time with friends or family because you're working on that next piece for the next show or for the next project or the next commission. And so I think for me some of the mistakes that I've made that I'm still trying to learn from is time management. Time management for me might be one of the biggest things.

JOSE CARDENAS: Let's talk about the creative process. You identified in 2014 as 100 creative. You also indicated on a number of occasions a major sort of your inspiration is your Mexican tradition, the day of the dead, honoring loved ones who have passed on. Why that particular art?

EMILY COSTELLO: Because I think--I think it's uniform. I think no matter your culture, no matter your origin, your sex, your standing in life, I think we all have that feeling that, you know, what happens after death. And many of us feel that there is something after death. And to honor it the way our ancestors did, it's just a beautiful thing. And I feel a really strong connection to that because we've all had loved ones who have passed away. And I think many times we often feel that they are still with us. And on this particular day you get to be with them and rejoice with them, and not celebrate the sadness that they're gone, but celebrate the life that you had with them or the life that they had.

JOSE CARDENAS: Is it your sense that the non-mexican community has become more knowledgable and acceptable that it is something morbid?

EMILY COSTELLO: Absolutely. Maybe even up to five years ago there was confusion with what are these skulls. The confusion was that the dates was so close to Halloween that they see a skull and they automatically associated it with that tradition. But I think the general public has been more knowledgeable. Thanks to artists, that have really embraced it, and they've seen the work. And even thanks to like the movie "Coco." It's a universal thing that we all feel and share. I truly believe that it is very widely accepted and celebrated among all cultures now.

JOSE CARDENAS: So you're a very talented artist. You express yourself in three didn't mediums, painting, print media and mixed medium. And, in fact, we're in your shop. There’s a lot of examples but can you describe your technique and what you're thinking of, what you're looking for as you make art in these three distinct ways?

EMILY COSTELLO: Well, you mentioned print making, mixed media, you know, my processes for each one of those art makings things is different. Painting obviously, you know, --I start thinking about what inspires me, is it that I like, what have I seen, what stories did my grandmother growing up that I want to convey on the canvas, the paint. Even in the political times that we live in, actually. Print making it’s something a little bit more spontaneous. I may do a rough sketch and then go with it. The collage work or the mixed media work is just finding an object somewhere, sometimes even outside in the parking lot that says something to me for whatever reason. And then I build around that. So it's different for each thing.

JOSE CARDENAS: And I noticed that the mixed media pieces that you’ve done, that is your most whimsical, very intriguing. You have driving miss Frida. Which is part of a car and an image of Firda Kahlo being driven called "Driving misDaisy."

EMILY COSTELLO: Yes, I did a whole series on saints. It’s about saints misbehaving. And there is actual saint for everything. If you do your research you can find a saint for anything you can think of. So I found a set of dentures, and I was working on the series, I thought, there has to be a saint for teeth, and sure enough, there is. I built a shrine using teeth in all that. I probably did--I probably have done 35 of those pieces. So I think the whimsy comes in the discovery of the object, and then what I interpret it as and then convey to as a real story.

JOSE CARDENAS: What have you learned about the business of being an artist. You and I have talked about in the past about pricing and information and advice you share with other artists?

EMILY COSTELLO: Right, right, oftentimes--pricing is a difficult thing. So what I've done and what I did from the very beginning, I did my research, you know, I looked at different advice on the internet. Everyone has their own formula for how to do it, but basically what I found commonly was you know, set yourself an hourly rate. And as best as you can track how many hours you work on a piece. Combine that with your actual supplies and materials, and add that to the cost. And then maybe add some other factors in there for instances, so if you're selling at a gallery, the gallery will take half. You have to factor that in as well. And then you want to keep your pricing consistent. You don't want to be selling directly for a lot less than the gallery. Because not only will you anger your clients when they see a different price for the piece. But you may not make a gallery owner happy as well when they feel you're under cutting the artwork that they're showing. Once you get to that point, and maybe you can get some more credentials and you can incrementally raise your price. So often, I see other artists over pricing their work because they see somebody with a similar process but that person has accolades and has won award. So yes, but you have to know your marketplace, too.

JOSE CARDENAS: You've been in your current location in about a year?

EMILY COSTELLO: About a year in September.

JOSE CARDENAS: Is this your first shop, so to speak?

EMILY COSTELLO: Yes, it is our first shop.

JOSE CARDENAS: What have you learned from that?

EMILY COSTELLO: I think first and foremost, pick someone, if you're going to be a partner with someone in the business--because there are three of us--that you like each other and you have fun. And that you have a similar philosophy, yet you may have a different approach to how you want to, you know, sell your art, whether it's through workshops. Find people to work with that compliment you and that you compliment. I think we've found that perfect mix. And so, you know, even though we've been here since last September it feels like we just got here because we’re having a lot of fun.

JOSE CARDENAS: You are starting to receive a lot of recognition for your artwork. You were selected to do the designs for three different lottery tickets. So thousands of Arizonans are seeing your images. Tell us about that process and the three images itself.

EMILY COSTELLO: That was a call to artists. They started a contest and asked for submissions. I didn't see the call but I had friends--again, it goes back to that network. You do a lot of day of the dead, your stuff is fun maybe you should do this. I saw the call, and I was intrigued. All the lottery wanted was pictures of your work. They didn't want like a resumé, a bio. They were really just involved with the imagery. And so I submitted and got a phone call saying that I--they had picked my artwork to represent them.

JOSE CARDENAS: You gave them three day of the dead images?

EMILY COSTELLO: I actually gave them four.

JOSE CARDENAS: They chose three.

EMILY COSTELLO: They chose one. And then I collaborated--they asked me if I had ideas for the other two. I think some of my stuff was kind of crazy, and they wanted something that was a little bit more Arizona. They had me come up with new ideas, and they liked them. So we went with those.

JOSE CARDENAS: So one of them is the traditional of the elegant woman, the skeleton figure. Then you had an image of a Mexican woman dressed up for day of the dead with the make up. Tell us about the third one.

EMILY COSTELLO: The third one is the mariachi. Going back to the music of our culture, the mariachi listening to, you know, Santa, Fernandez. Those types of things. I love mariachis music so I chose to do that.

JOSE CARDENAS: Your work has been shown in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Mexico, as well as Phoenix. What is it like?

EMILY COSTELLO: It’s busy. It is a lot of hard work. It goes back to my time management. You know, it's one thing to have a hobby and do art as your hobby. It's another thing to make a business out of it, because you kin do of have to plan for things. You have to find out who is having a show when. You don't want to turn down too many opportunities. I just try to work ahead of time. And it's been great. Because, In July, in Phoenix, things tend to slow down here. It's good to have this other outlet to be able to show and have your work exposed in. It's been really good.

JOSE CARDENAS: You know, You talked about time management, yet you found time to volunteer at the Arizona school for the arts, and to teach budding young artists at, what is it? Kids Vision?

EMILY COSTELLO: Yes, with vision kids. That's a series of workshops where kids who live in Chandler, or wherever, can come in and take free art classes. I've been doing that for the past five or six years. I’ve also recently--well, maybe for the past year I've been working with free art Arizona as well.

JOSE CARDENAS: What is it that you're trying to instill in these young kids about the life of an artist? Are you pushing them in that direction? Or just as something else that they can use to balance out a more of a day job.

EMILY COSTELLO: Just to try to have them have a creative outlet. There are no mistakes in art. To build confidence. I think it's more about building self-esteem,working with the kids, particularly through free arts of Arizona. Most of these kids are either from shelter, they've had some trauma in their life. It's sort of therapy to work with them. And to have them create something that they can be proud of, and again, build their self-esteem.

JOSE CARDENAS: I want to talk now about maybe some big-picture questions. In that "New Times" article, you had this to say. The Phoenix creative scene could use more risk taking to get to the next cultural level. What did you mean by that?

EMILY COSTELLO: Well, you hear about city-funded things that go to on other art places. For instance, in New Mexico, they have so much support from their city, from their state. They have magazines that are free to the whole public that come out and highlight artists, art shows, art happenings, and we're not there yet on that front; although, for the past couple of years I've really really seen this town grow in arts and culture-wise. I think it's changing, and it's changing rapidly. Especially with the people who are making the murals. You know, We're seeing more public art things being granted. I think it's changing, and it's also for the better.

JOSE CARDENAS: You made a reference earlier in our discussion about the political climate. So let me ask you. What is the state of Latino art in this political climate where we have people suggesting that cultural diversity is a bad thing, and it is driving us apart.

EMILY COSTELLO: You know, artists have a voice. They use their art to express that voice, and it's really, really happening right now. You know, there is so much going on right now, Jose, that I think there are a lot of artists who are representing a lot of people through art, through the murals. All you have to do is drive through this town, especially where I live in South Phoenix, you'll see some beautiful mural work being done of immigrant children holding butterflies and these beautiful things. Although sometimes our art may not nobody your face, and we're not holding big signs up in a protest, art can be a subtle way of really providing a very strong voice, and that's happening a lot right now.

JOSE CARDENAS: Is there a political message in your art?

EMILY COSTELLO: There is, but at first glance you may not see it. Not in all my art, but I do have some pieces that I'm pretty proud of. I may bring them up and explain the significance and symbolism of those pieces and what it means. There is. I may not have words written on it or in-your-face type of I imagery, but there is some statement making going on there.

JOSE CARDENAS: Are you making the statement with the various images that you have of the famous Mexican artists, frida kahlo, regarded as a feminist early in the mid 20 century. do you remember the Phoenix frida. Tell us about that, and back to my question, are you trying to make a statement?

EMILY COSTELLO: Yes, I think we're trying to make a statement. There are nine of us who belong to that collective. The phoenix Frida has been around for over ten years. I was asked to join around probably, its been about 12 years ago, so they've been around 13 years, excuse me. And there is nine of us. We all have different kinds of art themes, professions, mediums that we work in, and we try to tell people and use frida as a positive role model that despite the challenges in you may have in your life you can over come them, and you can be proud of who you are and what you do, just like frida was.

JOSE CARDENAS: I should disclose that I'm one of your collectors, and I'm one of your biggest fans, but one of the pieces of art you have done for me is images of frida kahlo. We know that’s pretty iconic. Two of them, you did the frame. It's very elaborate or Nate wood. How often do you do that?

EMILY COSTELLO: Not very often.

JOSE CARDENAS: So I'm privileged in that regard. So that’s going up.

EMILY COSTELLO: Thank you for being such a supporter of the arts. You really do support our community, and we all appreciate it very much.

JOSE CARDENAS: So speaking of the community, we talked a little bit about the state of Latino art here. We've seen over the years, though, the demise of several groups in the past who supposed it. Mars was one of them. There are some new ones coming online. What is your sense of the viability of the organizations?

EMILY COSTELLO: That's a tough one. There is a Latino cultural center here in town right now. It’s-- I don't think they're funded well enough to provide what Arizona and what Phoenix needs. If you go to any other major town, any other major city in the country, you know, those cultural centers have that state support or city support. I'm not so sure that happens here.

JOSE CARDENAS: You've had a very successful career. It looks like you made the right decision. Any regrets at all?

EMILY COSTELLO: Um, no regrets at all. No regrets whatsoever. The reason I said "Um" is because I can't think of one.

JOSE CARDENAS: On that note. We’ll end our interview. Thanks for joining us.


JOSE CARDENAS: That's our show for tonight. Thank you for joining us for this special enfoque edition of Horizonte. I'm Jose cardenas. For Arizona pbs and Horizonte, have a good evening.

{VIDEO}: Horizonte is made possible by contributions from the friends of Arizona pbs, members of your pbs station. Thank you.

Artist Emily Costello

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