In softball, Emily Balsley would be known as a player who hits to all fields. Whether it’s mural design and execution, magazine and book illustration, pattern design for fabrics or products, sculptures for public parks, seasonal window decoration, or personal fine arts projects, it seems that Emily has yet to meet an artistic challenge to which she has not successfully risen.
Born and raised in Marathon, Wisconsin, the capital of American ginseng production, Emily was a small-town girl with aspirations to engage the world with her talents and ambition. Part of her competitive spirit was honed on the softball field, where she became an all-conference shortstop. She worked summer jobs in the farm fields planning and saving for her education in the visual arts. After graduating high school in a class of 80 students, she moved to University of Wisconsin–Marathon County (UWMC) before going to UW–Madison, where she attained a BFA in 2001.
Towards the end of her college career, where Emily’s focus was graphic design, she had an opportunity to work with visiting artist and world-renowned illustrator Peter Sís. This encounter and his encouragement sparked the idea that she could thrive as an illustrator. Like many with art degrees, she faced the existential question of how to best enter the field once known as commercial art—art which serves to solve the business, communications, and promotional challenges of institutions or persons.
Emily began with Pacific Cycle, the parent company of Schwinn, Mongoose, Kid Trax, and similar brands. She was quickly recognized for her design capabilities and promoted to work on bike designs, color schemes, decals, and retooling and rebranding the Schwinn identity for the 21st century. She describes this experience as an opportunity to test her design enthusiasm measured against warm childhood memories of biking and small-town nostalgia. It was there that she also met her future husband, Stephen.
Leaving Pacific in 2008 to have daughter Stella and ignite a new career as a freelance designer and illustrator, Emily learned sewing, knitting, screen printing, and toy making. She produced over 200 handmade stuffed animals she calls Fuzzies.
Emily’s desire to enter the illustration field, specifically the overwhelmingly challenging arena of children’s book and magazine work, led her to Minneapolis in 2011 for a three-day bootcamp for illustrators to learn the business side of the work. She began a blog to promote her work and subsequently joined the 2013 Make Art that Sells course, taught by Lilla Rogers, a principal of an illustrator rep agency.
Following that was a 10-week intensive course by Helen Dardik, an internationally known Canadian illustrator and surface designer. This experience helped Emily build a solid portfolio of work that she used to promote her new career. She was a finalist in a home décor challenge posted by Lilla Rogers that attracted a global talent pool. These opportunities gave her the encouragement and validation to promote herself full-time to the illustration industry.
In 2014, Emily became a freelancer for American Girl (formerly Pleasant Company) doing illustration work for their eponymous magazine and completed her first book, a cookbook for kids, followed by participation in the Surtex Exhibition, which brands itself as a “global sourcing destination for companies seeking unique art, designs, patterns, and prints for commercial use.” It was here she made her first surface pattern sale to Samsung. Subsequently, Emily has worked exclusively as a freelance artist and illustrator.
Emily’s identity and style as an artist have evolved to become instantly recognizable—whimsical and charming without stooping to cutesy and sentimental. It has a strong cross-generational appeal characterized by an insistent inclusivity that does not pander or patronize. Her work is playful, surprising, witty, and topical. It possesses a universal appeal that retains a distinctly Midwestern sensibility.
The range of Emily’s work is astonishing, and in Madison, it’s ubiquitous. She has interior and exterior murals at Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream; Flamingo Swirls, a mural done in collaboration with OhYa studios on an east Madison laundromat; window murals at Tradition Children’s Market in Middleton; multiple projects at The Bubbler inside the Madison Public Library Central Branch; a stairwell mural celebrating the broad diversity of available opportunities and experiences; an interior mural featuring food cuisines at the Food Fight Restaurant Group; and a plethora of dogs at play on the interior walls of Taproot Training and North Paw Daycare. This list is only a hint of her work.
Emily’s commitment to community, children, social awareness, and the value of daily kindness can be seen in her illustrations for book publishers and children’s game companies, such as Mudpuppy®, for whom she executed a number of puzzles, including touch-and-feel puzzles. Emily’s book topics include cooking opportunities for children; bilingual storybooks; a book called Spark on developing creative skills for American Girl publishing; and her most recent work, Every Cake Has a Story, a collaboration with Christina Tosi of Milk Bar fame about a girl who falls asleep with a recipe tucked under her pillow and wakes up to celebrate differences that change her world into something more colorful and exciting.
Emily’s style, characterized by bold coloration, economized drawing, and flattened shape making, is deceptive in its simplicity. Her pictorial development process is elaborate, multistaged, and painstaking. She works her ideas from sketchbook musings through color experiments; storyboards; constant revisions; and, in the case of her book illustrations, separating each element and reassembling them using digital technology into larger, more complex compositions. Despite this complexity, her work always remains fresh, spontaneous, and genuine to her spirit.
According to Dan Nordskog, creative director at Epic! books, “Emily’s growth as an artist is clearly due to her curiosity, passion, and work ethic. Because of her unique style and voice, Emily has been able to tackle subject matter that, in the hands of lesser artists, could be viewed as clichéd or trivial. Instead, Emily breathes new life and delight into the community, one thoughtfully applied brush stroke after another.”
Emily’s art represents an engagement, a celebration of joy, community, opportunity, optimism, and discovery for both children and the child that still resides within all of us.
Chris Gargan is a landscape artist and freelance writer working from his farm southwest of Verona. You can find his work at Abel Contemporary Gallery in Stoughton. He is seen here with his dog Tycho Brahe.