Digging Deep: UK alumna and artist finds success following passion

UK alumna Emily Howard works from her studio located in the basement of her home in Erlanger, Kentucky. Photo by Sydney Nash | Staff

Sydney Nash

“When I was sixteen, I decided I was going to be an artist.” 

Emily Howard, a University of Kentucky alum and successful printmaker and illustrator says that her decision to become an artist seemed inevitable even from a young age. Now 33, Howard has over 42,000 followers on Instagram, has worked with a non-profit organization in Cincinnati on countless murals, and is currently being featured by USA Today in the top 20 Makers in the USA in the “Arts and Crafts” category. 

However, most people wouldn’t know Howard’s work from her given name. She works under the name The Diggingest Girl, a brand inspired by her favorite book as a child “The Digging-est Dog” by Al Perkins. The book tells the story of the dog Duke who learns to dig, becomes overzealous and ends up digging up and destroying a whole town. Howard herself admits on her website the book is somewhat dark but draws from the main theme of the book, which she sees to be enacting positive change upon the world around her. The word “diggingest” is also fitting for her work because, as she says, “It’s the nature of what I do – digging into a surface to make these relief prints.” 

Howard, however, did not start her college career as a printmaker. She originally pursued her bachelor of fine arts at the University of Kentucky as a painter. “For me growing up, you either draw or you paint.” Howard jokes that she just assumed she was a painter until she took a relief printing class during her last semester. She fell in love with the “tedium” of the process and says that it is “meditative in a way.” 

After graduating from UK in 2006, Howard attended the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning and received a master’s in fine arts as well as a master’s in teaching. After teaching art for four years at the middle school, high school and college level, Howard decide to commit to being an artist full time in 2016. 

Now, Howard spends her time working in her studio in the basement of her home in Erlanger, Kentucky, showing at different art fairs around the region and maintaining her extremely popular Instagram account. Her work takes time, and like most art, is extremely personal. She says, “[There] is a part of me in everything that I’ve made.” 

Her pieces are predominately wood block prints, and her work is extremely recognizable. She draws inspiration from folktales, Native-American myths and legends, as well as Victorian children’s books and illustrations. Despite the two-dimensional nature of her work, the prints are extremely lively, mystical yet human and extremely self-aware. 

Themes that Howard is drawn to in her work include animals, the natural world, bodies and nudes, which is one of the aspects of her line of work that particularly stands out. Howard commonly features nude women in her prints and even has a line of wooden relief prints titled “Saints for the Modern Woman” featuring nude women with banners that bear names such as “Our Lady of Righteous Anger” and “Our Lady of Self-Love.” Howard believes that her attraction to this theme is in response to the current body positivity movement, saying it is “something that everybody can relate to… [It’s] something very beautiful to witness and be a part of.” 

Howard is quick to respond when asked about her favorite work she’s produced. “The Awakening” is a print she made while in grad school and one of her best-selling works. The print depicts a woman centered in the composition with a long, flowing dress, her face turned away from the viewer. She is framed by trees on either side. Howard printed four editions of the print before she finally retired the block, which she gave to her father as a gift and now hangs in his house. He is the only person to own one of her blocks. The rest are either altered or destroyed. 

Howard is also conscious of her work’s commentary on the current world around her and social movements. She believes it is “an artist’s duty” to touch on issues that are important to them. Among the causes Howard is passionate about include the current wave of feminism, Black Lives Matter and the Dakota access pipeline controversy. Howard says she wants to find a way to work philanthropy into her business in order to make some kind of “small difference.” 

One way that Howard currently gives back is through ArtWorks, a non-profit organization in Cincinnati that employs and trains youth to create artwork. Each summer, ArtWorks employs young artists to create around ten murals. For the past couple years, Howard has worked as a project manager, mentoring 14-21 year olds. She has been involved in creating the Flying Pig Marathon and Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon murals. 

Reflecting back on her time at the University of Kentucky and her dream to become an artist, Howards says, “I didn’t meet anybody who told me I couldn’t do it.” Besides printmaking, Howard’s favorite course during her time at UK was a creative writing poetry class. “I’ve been a terrible poet for a very long time.” However, Howard says that the class caused her to expose her inner self to others. “It was scary but so rewarding.” 

Derrick Riley, Howard’s printmaking professor at UK, remembers her fondly from her time at UK and remains in touch with his former student and now, fellow artist. When asked what sets Howard apart from other artists, Riley says, “Guts, and lots of them. It takes a special person to abandon a steady paycheck and relatively predictable/stable career in order to pursue their dreams as an artist.” Riley finds Howard’s work “genuine,” “compelling” and “conscientious.” 

When asked what advice she would give student artists, Howard acknowledges the hardships of being a young artist. Yet, she still urges that if someone is creative, “nurture it and let it grow, don’t let financial instability squash it.” She also suggests that student artists must have a strong belief in themselves as artists, be a complete “workaholic,” and not to be afraid of taking a risk and having a little bit of “recklessness.” 

The best part of being an artist, Howard says, is the flexibility. “Getting to be your own boss is really liberating.” Now that she can spend all of her time focused on her work, she admits it feels a bit indulgent. However, Howard rejects the idea of working isolated within her studio. Her constant presence at art fairs and involvement with projects like ArtWorks reflects a yearning to share her talent and art with the world. “I don’t know that my passion would be as intense if I didn’t have anybody to share it with.” 

If you would like to learn more about Emily Howard and her work as The Diggingest Girl, visit her Instagram @thediggingestgirl.