In Conversation with Emily Xie cover photo


In Conversation with Emily Xie

by Jeff Davis

Emily Xie is a generative artist, engineer, and educator based in New York City. She works primarily with algorithms and data to explore the interplay between the organic and the systematic, and the space between abstraction and representation. I had the opportunity to speak with Emily in advance of her upcoming Art Blocks project Memories of Qilin.
Jeff Davis: Hi Emily! It’s great to be able to chat with you in this context. How did you first get into making art?
Emily Xie: I’ve been making art for as long as I can remember! Throughout grade school, I enrolled in art classes, and worked with a variety of traditional media. During my high school years, I had developed an interest in digital graphic art, which was a natural progression for me given my other childhood obsession with computers. By the time I got to college, I decided to fully commit to my passion for art, choosing to major in History of Art and Architecture and taking a number of studio art courses. I think what my young self loved the most about the art-making process was how absorptive the experience felt. It was deeply meditative. I’d get so focused that I’d lose track of time; everything around me would fade away, and I’d be left with only myself, my ideas, and the piece that I was creating.
Emily Xie, Early work (25 hands in ink, pencil, white-out, tea, and coffee on index cards)..png
Emily Xie, Early work (25 hands in ink, pencil, white-out, tea, and coffee on index cards).
JD: When did you start exploring generative art?
EX: I discovered generative art sometime around the mid-2010s after stumbling upon Dan Shiffman’s Coding Train tutorials on YouTube. I immediately fell in love with the genre, as it pretty elegantly combined my interests in computation and aesthetics. I decided to pursue this newfound obsession in full, leaving my software engineering job at the time to attend a programmer’s retreat. This was where I taught myself the foundational techniques of generative art and started producing an early body of work. In the fall of 2016, I was lucky to participate in an artist’s residency program at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, where I spent my days making generative art and showcasing it to the public. During that time, I started exploring sensor technology, installation art, and 3D fabrication. I also ended up doing some open-source work for my favorite generative art library, p5.js. I’ve continued with creative coding ever since, working on a variety of projects, and dabbling in different technologies. I’d say that generative art is where I’ve ultimately found my home as a creative. For me personally, nothing compares to code as a medium. I love the infinite possibilities, the complexities arising from simple rule sets, and the emergent phenomena that algorithms produce. And I also love that generative art often takes on a life of its own—sometimes even surprising its own creators.
Emily Xie, Dunes, 2016..png
Emily Xie, Dunes, 2016.
JD: I think it’s great that you were able to dive into generative art so fully from early on in your career. How do you see NFTs as playing into your trajectory as an artist?
EX: I began hearing about NFTs from folks in my circle sometime around late 2020, but I didn’t take any of it seriously until my friend and talented fellow artist, David Lu (aka Conundrumer), reached out last summer and encouraged me to explore the space. I’m deeply grateful for David’s insistence—in fact, he pretty much chased me down to make sure that I submitted my Art Blocks artist application before it closed. Some months afterward, I released my first NFT series, Morphology, through another platform, EthBlockArt. It was such a whirlwind experience, but it proved to me the value of blockchain technology. For the first time in my life, the digital art that I created—mostly for free up until that point—had an elegant mechanism of ascribing ownership such that it could be sold. This really opened my eyes to the staying power of NFTs, so I’ve since stuck around the space and continued to explore.
Emily Xie_Morphology-2021_border.png
Emily Xie, Morphology, 2021.
JD: We’re grateful for David as well! Both as an artist in our community and as someone who steered you towards Art Blocks. That seems like a good segue to talk about your project. What was the inspiration behind Memories of Qilin?
EX: Memories of Qilin takes inspiration from many sources. On an aesthetic level, it primarily draws from traditional East Asian art. I was particularly inspired by the patterns and forms that you might find in Ukiyo-e woodblock. At the same time, I wanted to channel the sense of movement and dynamism that characterizes traditional Chinese brushwork. Many aspects of the series are culturally rooted as well. For example, the “Hong Bao” palette pays homage to the red envelopes of cash that are gifted during Lunar New Year and other significant gatherings as a way to impart luck and happiness. Outside of East Asian influences, I’ve been inspired by many other incredible artists across time and genres. For example: Zach Lieberman and his exploration of generative organic shapes; Tyler Hobbs and his measured usage of natural palettes; and early 20th century abstract artists like Jean Dubuffet, Wassily Kandinsky, Gustav Klimt, and Joan Miró in their play with form and color.
JD: Yes, I think the marriage of concept and aesthetics is what has people really excited about your project. What would you like collectors to take away from the series?
EX: Conceptually, the series explores the notion of folklore. It is meant to evoke shapes, forms, and imagery that are subject to interpretation, much like the stories we tell. So, when looking through the outputs, let your imagination run free—whether you find in these pieces dragons, ocean waves, birds, or flames. With the focus on these aspects, Memories of Qilin intentionally de-emphasizes features and traits. Overall, I really hope for folks to connect with individual pieces on a personal level through their own stories, and at the same time, feel like they are buying into a collective narrative.
Emily Xie, Memories of Qilin, 2022..jpeg
Emily Xie, Memories of Qilin, 2022.
JD: I know that you’ve been working on Memories of Qilin for some time now, do you see it as a different approach for your practice?
EX: I’d say that recently, my creative coding practice has started adopting the norms of the “long-form” format. Historically, I had mostly produced one-off experiments with hard-coded parameters. So, it’s certainly been interesting and challenging having to think more about designing for an entire algorithmic system. Since each output needs to be compelling enough on its own, the format forces you to think more holistically.
JD: Anything else people should know to better understand your art?
EX: For a more tailored preview of the series, I’d check out the project website, which lets you easily view all of the test mints in a larger format one at a time. This offers a more intimate viewing experience of the series—one that surfaces the various details of each piece while highlighting the project’s storytelling aspect.
JD: The preview website is great. And what’s the best way for people to follow your work moving forward?
EX: I mostly use Twitter. Follow me at @emilyxxie You can also check out my personal website if you want to learn more about my past work.

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