Lani Emanuel paints memories of childhood boredom from a mother’s perspective

By Christina Campodonico

Emanuel’s shoe paintings

Emanuel’s shoe paintings

For artist Lani Emanuel, ennui is inspiration.

Emanuel’s paintings, now on display at the Lora Schlesinger Gallery in Bergamot Station, capture those moments when boredom turns to flights of fancy.

In the show, called “She’s Becoming,” an argyle-socked girl tries on her mother’s heels for an impromptu jaunt on tippy toes. A sweater-clad teenager spins herself around in circles just for the heck of it. A young woman throws on a pink prom dress and big leather boots. For what? She’s not sure or doesn’t seem to care.

These images remind Emanuel of a time in her life when being a girl meant that she had to find creative ways to occupy herself.

“I have three younger brothers, and being the oldest and being the girl wasn’t easy. I spent a lot of time figuring out how to entertain myself,” Emanuel says of her upbringing in the 1970s.

One summer Emanuel’s parents sent her away to her grandparents’ house in the Mojave Desert — to keep her away from a boy, she says. So to pass the time, she picked up needle arts, learned how to make obscure stitches and drank a lot of iced tea.

“The combination of drinking too much iced tea and a very hot sun and being bored out of my mind was the worst combination — wired and bored,” says Emanuel. “It definitely sparked creative interests.”

Emanuel channeled those interests into pursuing fashion design, which she did professionally for 15 years before starting a family and transitioning to painting. Now her artwork both combines her fascination with the extraordinariness of dullness and taps into her perspective as a mother.

For this solo-exhibition, Emanuel meditated on her feelings about her daughter going away to college and becoming an empty nester.

“I had a lot of time to think about her childhood and adolescence and make comparisons to my own,” she says.

Reminders of her daughter and girlhood in general appear throughout Emanuel’s series of paintings, depicting young women and girls in various states of repose and transition. From standing tall, basking in the light of a windowpane, to slouching in a chair, shoulders hunched and hands stowed beneath awkward legs that cling vulnerably together, these young women show both the unease and promise of growing up.

Like her shoe paintings, which depict close ups of young girls’ frilly socked feet shoed in high heels, they show, “one foot still in girlhood and one foot headed towards womanhood,” Emanuel says.

One portrait of the artist’s daughter is particularly striking. Wearing a black and white striped dress, she slumps into a big red armchair and stares wearily ahead. She’s too young to seem so tired, but there’s a profound beauty in her exhaustion. Emanuel remembers capturing the moment spontaneously with her camera.

“[My daughter] had just returned from college back east. She was jet-lagged, she was grumpy, she was hungry, but she managed to get all dressed up to go out to lunch,” Emanuel says. “I was able to capture that sense of boredom and ennui and relate it to periods of my adolescence, during that summer when I was just bored out of mind.”

In this way, Emanuel’s paintings seem to come full circle — her past and legacy colliding in one frame.

“She’s Becoming” is on view through March 12 at the Lora Schlesinger Gallery in Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Unit B5, Santa Monica. Call (310) 828-1133 or visit